The 1970s gas crunches propelled a move to front-drive cars, much as some people think the new Ford F-150 will drive big-volume production vehicles toward aluminum. While front drive never caught on with the commercial crowd the way it did with cars, it was used in some high-profile vehicles, and it could be making a comeback to rival aluminum cars.
Bigger-than-car front-drivers have come primarily from Europe and Japan, where fuel costs and space are at a premium. But the recreational vehicle industry, always seeking the next big thing and not known for lightweighting, had its own ideas using it 50 years ago. By the early '70s, Revcon was building a motorhome using an Oldsmobile 455-cubic-inch V-8 and a TH425 transaxle arrangement from the Olds Toronado/Cadillac Eldorado and aluminum monocoque construction.
In 1979, Revcon switched to a big-block 454 and transfer case to route power forward, and gas prices shot up again. The Cortez SD was similarly powered but made of heavy steel; the Travoy bragged of its 90-105-hp advantage over the Dodge 413 or GM 350 small-block rear-drive chassis; and the front-drive Tiara succeeded the Corvair-powered rear-drive Ultra van.
In 1970, GM embarked on what's generally regarded as the first RV built by an automotive manufacturer. It introduced the GMC motorhome for model year 1973, later immortalized as the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle in 1981's "Stripes." The motorhome used the 455 FWD layout for most years.
Later models got the 403 V-8, and GMC sold them with finished interiors and as shells to other RV builders. Capacities were typical of today's sub-25-foot Class C: 50 gallons gasoline, 30 fresh, 30 holding, GVW of 10,500 (23-footer) and 12,500 for the 26. Despite the 7.5-liter engine, it got better mileage than most competitors because of a claimed 0.31 Cd and small frontal area. Thanks to front drive and tandem singles on bogies in back, the floor was just 14 inches off the ground. By motorhome standards, that center of gravity is in the cellar.
As recently as 2005, Winnebago was building a FWD, at the time on the 201-hp VR6-engine VW Eurovan chassis. One to 3 feet shorter than the old GMC, it was cleverly packaged and yielded a 1000-pound payload. Now we have front-drive commercial vans from Ford and Nissan (aka Chevy) joining Ram's CV, and Winnebago is first out with 22-foot B and 24-foot C motorhomes on the ProMaster 159-inch chassis. Compact units of 9350 GVW, they have roughly 1200 pounds of payload and 2100 towing with full fresh water and liquid petroleum. Winnebago was more interested in the benefits afforded by the front-drive packaging than the more economical V-6 gas engine (it'll offer the diesel when it arrives), no doghouse, and easier mating of cab and coach than with a rear-drive chassis. Weight distribution wasn't an issue -- I've tested RWD Class Cs that were hundreds of pounds over a GAWR empty, but GVW lower than 10,000 adds a different set of federal safety standards, none of which is cheap to engineer.
Some say traction suffers in a loaded front-drive van, especially climbing.
Critics will say front drive can't take the abuse. A FWD VW Rabbit pickup could carry what some rear drives did, and I beat the snot out of my own VW with 15 percent more than rated power for 260,000 miles and no driveline work beyond CV boot replacements. I can find no evidence current front-drive vans are any less reliable than rear-drivers.
Others say traction suffers in a loaded front-drive van, especially when climbing. Ram says ProMaster weight distribution is about 50/50 at full load, but even weight shift on a hill isn't going to take all 2 tons off the front axle. Besides, they have plenty of steep, snowy hills where the first 4.5 million Ducatos were sold, and honestly I'd rather have a problem climbing the hill than the back coming around on the way down.
And traction doesn't seem an issue to van buyers, with few lamenting the lack of all-wheel drive in most, and the GM full-size Express/Savana pair have an AWD take rate of about 5 percent. A Quigley, Sportsmobile, or other 4WD conversion might get the job done, but, apart from municipality-paid rescue/ambulance apparatus, they're priced well out of commercial applications.
What do you think? Is the FWD van here to stay? Will rear drive continue to dominate? Which one would you buy?