One central irony: Faced with serious competition abroad, American companies started offering better vans to their customers outside the United States in the '60s and '70s, with great strides made every decade since. But here at home, competition was stayed, as was progress. Van design, like a woolly mammoth in a late 1960s ice floe, was frozen in time as the companies collectively appear to have agreed, with the willing assent of the federal government at its bipartisan best, to call a truce amongst them selves, skip a development cycle or three, and collectively supply their countrymen with less than the best vans known to man.
It was as if we Americans were suddenly third-world citizens, offered an inferior product at a greater profit to the sellers, who were in this ironic instance, our countrymen. Like consumers in less developed lands, the choices in the U.S. market were substandard and limited, because, basically, they could get away with it, just like in less privileged lands.
1976-Ford-Econoline-Van-Beautiful-combination-adRemember the vanning craze of the 1970s? Long before families were being directed to profligate, cheap-to-build SUVs by Detroit, they were being invited, in an experimental sort of way, to get into thirsty, cheap-to-build vans as family transport and personal party palaces, the flames of desire stoked by automakers who knew easy money when they saw it. Only later when it emerged that SUV desire was much easier to flame than van lust, did the van start returning more fully to its utilitarian roots, which thankfully for the industry (or not) required it to work and invest even less.
One way Detroit helped itself maintain the status quo in van-dom for so long was to lobby for exemptions from federal passenger car safety and emissions standards for vans, much like early SUVs enjoyed. This allowed superannuated van designs to soldier quite a bit further down the road than they ought to have. And while they were doing so, Ford, GM and Chrysler were making the funny money that comes only rarely in corporate life when you have a product that runs forever, with its capital costs fully amortized, development and production lines fully paid for and a customer base that keeps turning out to buy it.
The appeal is obvious, but to sell an ancient product with a straight face, you need to know you won't have any competition. The customer has to need you, and having virtually no other choice than you, history tells us, helps. It really does.
There may not be enough proof to meet the legal standard for proving the elements of felony collusion — although there might -- but how else do you explain the smart and talented engineers of some of America's biggest industrial corporations managing to go dozens of years without redesigning their vans, in the ways you would have wanted to, for reasons of safety, efficiency, environmental impact and utility?
Where the average American van continues to this day to rely upon the fossilized body-on-frame structure the industry was born building, true to its roots in the wagon and horse-drawn carriage trade, the average European or Japanese offering by the 1980s was lighter, and more space and fuel-efficient. Owing to the use of tall, unit-body construction and smaller, primarily diesel, engines, it was of equal or superior practicality.
My own van conversion experience occurred when we bought a Freightliner Sprinter in 2002. As a manager of touring rock bands, I was intimately familiar with Detroit's offerings and had come to rely exclusively on Econolines, which were about as good as it got, but thirsty, never more so than in the 10-12-mile-per-gallon gasoline-powered V-10 Econolines that came out in the late '90s. Enter the Sprinter a few years later along with its standard five-cylinder diesel that got us 27 mpg while towing — in a duallie Sprinter no less. Compared to the Ford, the Sprinter was quicker, had a bigger payload, could tow as much, rode better, had a dramatically smaller turning circle and you could stand up in its load area. What was not to like? This is what we vannists were missing in America.
Unfortunately, the Sprinter, which replaced the bargain basement Dodge van in the DaimlerChrysler era, was and is on the expensive side; still worth it to many, but allowing Ford and GM to contentedly carry on peddling their traditional fare, embarrassed though they ought to have been, selling many hundreds of thousands of vans each year owing to price, habit and misguided brand loyalty.
Not surprisingly, the American industry worked hard to create the conditions for sumptuous decades of technical stasis in the van realm, lobbying for tariffs that served as barriers to foreign competition. Safety and emission exemptions and import duties completed the sweep of the fortuitous pre-condition table as reliably unfavorable exchange rates also worked against imported machinery. Japan's growing automotive powerhouses, making huge bank selling cars in America, and fearing retaliation in the form of sales quotas, didn't dare work the van or full-sized pickup angle.
Oddly enough, when the Japanese firms recently did begin building trucks here, they chose to compete by selling heavyweight body-on-frame trucks, going head-to-head with the most recherché American designs rather than doing something new and clever. Particularly egregious: the Nissan NV van. Introduced in 2011, it was a not-so-bold step back into the 1960s, with the frame of Nissan's old school Titan pickup residing underneath its portly van body, its ancestry belied by a long and cumbersome prow, and fuel economy charitably described as dismal.