So there we were, cruising East on I-80 in Ohio when we passed this airplane-shaped vehicle with a strange saying stenciled across the back: “If Rocking When Parked, You are Witnessing a Miracle.”
As I passed and it showed up behind me in my side mirrors, I could see it was actually a motorhome. “Hello” was jauntily written across the front in yellow, framed between two bug-eyed headlights.
“What the heck was that,” I said, as Jennifer got a better view.
“A 1968 Ultra Van,” she said.
We Googled it. The first thing I noticed is that it is powered by a 110 HP Corvair engine. The Corvair. Remember that one? The Corvair was actually both Jennifer's and my first car. Ultra Vans were manufactured in Hutchinson, Kanasa, between 1966-69 and only 330 were made.
We passed and later stopped for fuel. But a couple of hours later, now in Pennyslvania, we spotted it again, this time in a rest area. We pulled in right next to it.
Paul Pichet, the owner, was out front, cleaning bugs off the windshield. His wife, Margot, was inside, fixing lunch. They are used to visitors. As we talked several other rest stop travelers came over to take a photo.
“There are only 112 of these left on the road,” said Pichet, who has owned his for the past 20 years. “I spent several years restoring it and we've taken it all over the country.” It has everything a modern motorhome has: Fresh water, storage tanks, fridge, microwave, onboard bathroom, shower, storage. Besides the rear bed, the front seats can be made into a ed two There's even a small kitchen dinette area.
The Pichets are from Berkley, Michigan, and were on their way to Maryland for a short vacation.
There's a reason it looked like an airplane to me when I first saw it. According to a history of the Ultra Van I found on the Internet, it was intentionally built like an aircraft, with monocoque construction and no frame or chassis. The front and rear are mostly molded fiberglass and the center section is all aluminum, made with “C” shaped ribs to which the aluminum skin is riveted. Cast aluminum “A” frames are mounted in aluminum front wheel-wells which double as seat platforms. Unique front-end geometry allows the wheels to turn 50 degrees right or left, providing a shorter turning circle than most pickup trucks.
That Corvair PowerGlide automatic Transaxle is tucked under an a rear bed measuring that today would be called a king-sized bed. Forward of the bed is a toilet/shower on one side and a clothes closet on the other. Overhead, all around the rear are lightweight cabinets neatly fitted to the curved hull. At the front, a full galley with sink, refrigerator, three-burner stove and oven. Again, overhead cabinets are sculpted to the ceiling curve much like cabin bins in modern airliners.
It's 22 feet long, eight feet wide and weighs about 5,000 pounds. Pichet says he gets about 10 miles a gallon.
Pichet did an amazing job restoring his van. He showed me his bill of sale. He bought it, in disrepair, for about $800.
It now looks better than it did when new. New, in 1968, it sold for a little over $8,000.
“I'd never sell this now,” he said. “It's home.”