The answer came in 1959 when General Motors introduced the 80 horsepower, 140-cubic-inch, rear-engine-powered Corvair, an automobile that would later achieve a measure of fame as the subject of Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed.
Employing his aircraft-design knowledge, Peterson used monocoque construction techniques of the aircraft industry to construct a body that needed neither frame nor chassis. The front and rear sections were made of fiberglass while the center section was made of an aluminum skin stretched over aluminum ribs. The low-slung monocoque design afforded a pleasing profile and plenty of interior space in a modestly proportioned 22-by-8-by-8-foot body. The design also helped the Corvair-powered vehicle attain a respectable 15 to 17 miles per gallon.
Monocoque construction techniques were used in trailers as early as the mid-1930s when sailplane pioneer Hawley Bowlus built his Bowlus-Teller trailers, but they had never been used before in production motor coaches.
After renting a warehouse space in the fall of 1960, Peterson hired students from a local technical school to help build his creation. Four months later, the first unit, christened the Go-Home, poked its nose out the door. In all, Peterson and his students produced about 15 of the Go-Homes, which sold for around $7,000.
In 1963, the Presolite Corporation, a manufacturer of light fixtures, ordered some of the units (now dubbed the Travalon) to be used as mobile showrooms. By 1964, Peterson’s creation had attracted the attention of John Tillotson, a publisher in Kansas. Tillotson negotiated a license from Peterson and opened up shop in an unused aircraft hanger at an old Naval base in Hutchinson, Kansas. He renamed the unit the Ultra Van.
The area around Hutchinson was home to many people who were trained in aircraft construction in World War II and was also close to Wichita, home of Cessna Aircraft Corporation. Thus, Ultra, Inc., was able to hire as its first employees craftsmen and managers who were already familiar with monocoque fabrication techniques. By the end of 1966, eight Ultra Vans a month, with a price tag of $8,995, were gliding off the assembly line.
Ultra Vans never had large sales (fewer than 400 in various configurations were built). A price that hovered around $10,000 in 1968, competition from other manufacturers, and rumors, which eventually proved true, that Corvair would cease production spelled the end for the Ultra Van, and the plant was closed in June 1970. In 1972 and 1973, founder Dave Peterson, attempting to revive the company, built five slightly longer units powered by an Oldsmobile Rocket V8 engine, but the 1973 energy crisis and subsequent gas shortages were too much for the tiny company to weather, and Peterson had to close up shop for good.
Thanks to the rustproof aluminum and fiberglass construction, many Ultra Vans are still on the road. In fact, the Ultra Van Motor Coach Club can account for close to 250 of the 373 or so Ultra Vans believed to have been manufactured. This is a surprisingly high number, considering the last production model came off the assembly line in 1970. Ultra Van owners hold rallies, at which they proudly display their Ultra Van number, just like Airstream owners. The original prototype #101 was found in 1991 and was restored by club members. It is now on display in a museum in Tennessee.
The pictured happy 1968 Ultra Van #389 was acquired by Barbara and Paul Piche of Berkley, Michigan, in 1996. They are longtime members of the Tin Can Tourists and the Ultra Van clubs and their van often serves as a commuter vehicle, transporting rally attendees from location to location. When traveling down the road, their friendly whale-like van always elicits smiles. It was photographed in Camp Dearborn, Michigan.
Douglas Keister’s new book, Mobile Mansions: Taking “Home Sweet Home” on the Road, was published by Gibbs Smith Publishers in May. Doug is also the author of Ready to Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer and Silver Palaces: America’s Streamline Trailers. Personalized autographed copies are available from Doug. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org