Whales on Wheels

I saw something yesterday that I had never seen in-person before. I am talking about a group of Corvair Ultra Vans, and these “whales on wheels” constitute a truly unique chapter of American automotive history.

There is an Ultra Van Club, and some of its members are holding a rally in Kearney, Nebraska, this week. On Wednesday, they parked downtown and very generously opened up their vehicles to the general public while patiently answering everyone’s questions. The club has a website that you can check out for more information about these fascinating vintage motorhomes.

Created by an aircraft designer in the 1960s, they are a true “monocoque” structure. I had to look that word up, but it means that the skin itself is structural and supports the load. In other words, it has no frame or chassis. The center section is built like an airplane with sheets of aluminum riveted over aluminum ribs.

The curved front and back are fiberglass. According to Ultra Van owners, all of these lightweight materials enable the Ultra Van to get better than 15 mpg while cruising down the road.

The Ultra Vans are 22 feet long, 8 feet wide, and able to turn 50 degrees to the right or left which makes them more nimble than most motorhomes. Less than 400 were produced, but there are still more than 100 of them navigating the highways of America so keep your eyes open for one. They are powered by the 6-cylinder Corvair air-cooled engine, so if you happen to be behind one while going up any type of incline, you should have ample time to study it.

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