If you ever see an UltraVan traveling down the highway, smile. Chances are, the van is already smiling at you.
The motor coaches, manufactured in Hutchinson from 1966 to 1970, look a little like squished, happy marshmallows on wheels. They have been described as retro-modern and space age and have become collectors’ items on the internet.
This week, fans and vans are gathering in South Hutchinson for the 51st annual national UltraVan Rally.
“The primary attraction is its appearance,” said Sam Hill of Oklahoma City, who bought one in 2012. “We saw it on the internet.”
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His wife said it was cute.
So they bought one – sight unseen – for $4,000.
“Basically, we paid $4,000 for the shell and a good paint job,” he said. “We couldn’t get it to run long enough to get it on the tow truck. The plumbing was held together with duct tape and garden hoses.”
But once it was running, his family can now go anywhere they want.
“The thing about an UltraVan is when it breaks down – and it will – you know where you are spending the night. Inside the van,” Hill said.
UltraVan fans are attracted to the simplistic airplane-like design and the Corvair engines.
“I was always interested in building an airplane,” said Owen Strawn, a Wichitan who works at Textron Aviation designing flight controls. “I got to the point when I realized, I was never going to build a plane and began looking for GMC motor homes on line. Somebody mentioned these and I was hooked.
“They are all riveted aluminum, so they are just like an airplane. And (on his own UltraVan) I am going to end up having to do some riveting.”
They are half-century old vehicles and mini-homes on top.
“Think about all the things that can go wrong with your old car and house – and it can happen with an UltraVan, sometimes at the same time,” Strawn said.
But their small size makes them ideal for going places that larger, heavier motor homes can’t go.
“It’s about the size of a 1970s Lincoln Continental,” Hill said. “I had the 45-foot motor home but it was too hard to get around.”
The UltraVan legacy
In the 1940s and 1950s, Dave Peterson was an Wichita aircraft designer who worked for Beech and Boeing, said Strawn, who is curator of the national UltraVan Motor Coach Club.
Peterson was a final assembly supervisor for the B-29 program. He also started an air charter business and got a job flying for Sinclair Oil. He ended up designing a plane that he sold to an Oakland, Calif. aviation manufacturing plant. He moved to Oakland in the late 1950s to support finishing the plane project.
And that’s when he was faced with a dilemma – the kind we’d all like to have. He had lots of money and lots of time on his hands.
He designed the UltraVan, one of the first Class A motor homes.
It came equipped with a 110 horse power or a 140 horse power Corvair engine. The first few models were called the “Go-Homes” and could be purchased for under $7,000. They weigh less than most modern SUVs, can get between 15 to 18 miles to the gallon and putt down the highway between 55 to 60 mph.
“It has a furnace, air conditioning, stove and refrigerator and it still weighs less than a minivan,” Strawn said.
In 1964, a Kansas City publisher, John Tilotson, noticed these motor homes and got the rights to build them at the World War II Naval Air Base near Hutchinson. Production began by 1966. Each month, eight new vans were created at a base price of $8,995.
The vans are eight feet wide and 22 feet long.
Finding a ‘find’
All told, 376 UltraVans were made. About 80 are still operational.
“But there are well over 200 still in existence,” Strawn said.
They just need a little fixing up. Indeed, most are in junk condition. And almost all of them no longer sport the garish green and orange plaid decor from the 1960s. But they come with enough space to hold a king-size mattress in back and can comfortably seat four people.
“You can get projects all day long for $1,500 or $2,500 depending on their condition,” Strawn said.
But you have to know where to look.
“You have to be ready to look everywhere,” Strawn said. “Mine was in Florida. The gentleman I bought it from pulled it out of a backyard in Florida. I drove it from Florida to Missouri and then towed it from Missouri to Kansas because the engine broke.”
So why own one?
“The reason we didn’t dump it or burn it to the ground is because it is such a simple machine,” Hill of Oklahoma City said. “There is a certain attraction to the simplicity. The owners of a UltraVan may be a little bit crazy but there is always an optimism.
“We love the challenge of the road.”
To see the vans
The UltraVans gathered in Hutchinson can be seen at the Lighthouse Landing RV Park, 9 Heartland Drive, through at least Friday.