Few automotive models make it to the five-decade mark. Changing consumer tastes, economic conditions, and competitive pressures often dictate much shorter lifespans for vehicle lines. Among the handful of models that have survived to see a golden anniversary is the Ford Econoline. But after its long run as one of the staples of the full-size van market, this American icon is finally making way for a more modern, efficient, and practical successor.
It would be all too easy to write yet another cynical piece painting the Econoline as a dated relic born of a sheltered oligarchy of the Detroit Three hostile to foreign competition. While there is a grain of truth to that observation, it's easy to forget that the Econoline was once an innovator, and for decades served business fleets, tradesmen, organizations, and families with practicality and simplicity. Here's a look back at the Econoline from its origins in the early 1960s to today, as it prepares to make way for Ford's new Transit global van.
First Generation: 1961-1967
Many retrospective pieces on the Econoline falsely assume the Econoline was always built on a body-on-frame truck chassis. While later models shared a great deal of hardware with Ford's F-Series trucks, the first-generation Econoline vans were actually based on the Ford Falcon passenger car, which ironically enough, served as the basis of the first-generation Mustang! The first-generation Econolines were considerably smaller than today's models, stretching a tidy 173 inches bumper to bumper, about the size of an average compact sedan today.
All first-generation Econoline vans were offered with six-cylinder engines. The earliest models had a 144-cubic-inch (2.4-liter) inline-six shared with the Falcon mated to a three-speed manual transmission. Later models were available with 170- or 240-cubic-inch six-cylinder engines, and the choice of a three-speed manual with later models offering a three-speed automatic transmission. The passenger version was still marketed as a Falcon van, and could accommodate up to eight passengers. In addition to cargo and passenger versions, the Econoline was also offered in a pickup configuration.
Second Generation: 1969-1974
Due to a UAW strike, the planned introduction of the second-generation vans was pushed forward to the 1969 model year, when the vans finally went on sale in late spring 1968. The second-generation models signified the shift of the Econoline away from its car-based roots to something that shared more components with Ford trucks. Compared with the flat-nose design of the first-generation vans whose engine sat between and behind the front seats, the second-generation Econoline placed the engine at the front of the vehicle, resulting in a prominent "doghouse" protruding from under the front dashboard. Most repair and maintenance work on the engine was actually performed inside the vehicle with the engine cover removed.
The second-generation vans also marked the first factory availability of a V-8 engine, with the 302-cubic-inch Windsor V-8 being an option. The 240-cubic-inch inline six, the largest available engine on the first-generation vans, was now the smallest engine option available, with a 300-cubic-inch inline six being the intermediate engine option between the 240 and the Windsor V-8. The second-generation van was also offered in two wheelbase lengths depending on the buyer's needs. Transmission options were again a three-speed manual or automatic.
Third Generation: 1975-1991
The debut of the third-generation Econoline in 1975 marks the appearance of the familiar "ong-nose" vans most of us have come to associate with the Econoline name. The lengthened hood resulted in a much less prominent doghouse engine cover relative to the second-generation models, giving the driver and front passenger more room and better walk-through accessibility to the rear seat. The third-generation Econolines also featured a full-length frame similar to the F-Series trucks, allowing for cutaway or cab/chassis configurations, including ambulances, box vans, and other variations for commercial and fleet applications.
The number of engine options also grew considerably, with the 351 Windsor V-8 and 460-cubic-inch big-block V-8 being offered as options in addition to the 302, as well as the availability of an International Harvester (later Navistar)-sourced diesel V-8 engine in 6.9-liter and later 7.3-liter displacements in the heavier-duty E-250 and E-350 models.
Fourth Generation: 1992-2013
The 1992 model year brought an extensive refresh to the Econoline family. Although the model shared many key dimensions with its predecessor, the sheetmetal was all-new. And unlike its predecessors, which offered two different wheelbase lengths, the fourth-generation vans were all offered with a 138-inch wheelbase, with extended-length versions tacking on a longer tail section to accommodate added capacity for cargo or passengers, with extended-length models available with seating for up to 15 passengers, with up to four rows of seating behind the front seat. Motor Trend was impressed enough with the 1992 refresh to name the consumer-oriented Club Wagon passenger van its 1992 Truck of the Year.
Engines carried over from the previous generation through the first five years of the model run, but major changes came in 1997, with Ford's new modular family of Triton overhead-cam V-8s replacing their pushrod predecessors. The 4.6 Triton replaced the tried-and-true 302, and the 5.4 Triton took the place of the 351 Windsor. The long-serving 300-cubic-inch inline six was also replaced by the 4.2-liter Essex V-6, which served as the base engine in the Ford F-150 truck as well. The 460 big-block V-8 was replaced with Ford's 6.8-liter V-10. Only the 7.3-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel V-8 remained. That was replaced in 2004 with the 6.0-liter Power Stroke, a slightly detuned version of the engine in the Super Duty line of trucks.
The Econoline, now known as the E-Series since 2002, got its current bold visage in 2008, with a grille and headlight treatment that mirrored the styling updates on the Ford Super Duty line of trucks. Suspension and chassis improvements increased the maximum gross vehicle weight rating from 14,050 to 14,500 pounds. The E-Series dropped its diesel option for the 2011 model year, leaving the 6.8-liter Triton V-10 as the top engine option. A 50th Anniversary edition of the E-Series was offered in for the 2011 model year.
By 2011, it was clear that the end of the Econoline era was drawing near. The Dodge and later Merdeces-Benz Sprinter vans were now nearly eight years in the marketplace, and the vans' fuel-efficient diesel engines and stand-up room and cargo capacity won a lot of fans, despite their high purchase prices. For the 2012 model year, Nissan also introduced its line of NV full-size vans, which combined aspects of the truck-based domestic full-size vans with the configurability and tall-roof options of the Sprinter. Even with its numerous updates through the years, and the addition of Ford's Sync system in 2009, the E-Series was showing its age and limitations relative to newer competitors.
But for those loyalists who still swear by the E-Series proven versatility and configuration, Ford promises it will be sold concurrently with the new full-size Transit through 2014. But the new Transit's vastly more efficient packaging and powertrains promise to appeal to a whole new generation of customers, and offer a viable alternative to Mercedes-Benz's Euro-chic (and Euro-expensive) packaging.