A Question of Scale.

Let me describe a vehicle for you by giving you a few statistics:  

Weight:         2,400 lbs.

Wheelbase:   90 inches

Length:        168 inches

Seats:                      Two

Doors:                    Two

Motor:        2.8 liter six

What IS it?


What did this make you think of?  Some sort of Porsche, perhaps?  Some obscure British roadster or coupe?  What I was actually describing was a 1961 Ford Econoline pickup, the one with the engine inside between the seats and based on the Falcon Chassis.   When introduced they were the least expensive new pickup you could buy.  They only sold well for a couple of years, with most of them selling to fleet operations, (as did the Econoline van, which was based on the same chassis) and few going to private owners.  They made them up to 1967 when they only sold about a 1,000 of them.   What killed them off were the new little Japanese pickups that Datsun and Toyota  were selling along with the fact that you couple actually buy a full sized pickup for only about $85 more, so the only real savings were in operating costs.   When gas was around 25 cents a gallon, only large fleet operator accountants were likely to notice any savings.

It’s been a while since I was actually behind the wheel of one of these (actually, I’ve only driven  the van versions),  and there are few dynamic similarities between an Econoline and anything sporty.   You can tell the thing doesn’t weigh very much: the inline six easily moves the light weight van around town.  It’s due to what I might call the “displacement to weight ratio”.   The engine isn’t in a very high state of tune, and doesn’t make much power, but it’s big enough to move the light van with dispatch.  It’s why an old flathead V8 can seem fast powering a 32 Ford hot rod.   In fact, it’s all too easy to spin the rear wheels when it’s wet and drum brakes work OK, but you quickly realize it won’t stop like a modern car;  I can only imagine what a panic stop might be like.   Here’s an hilarious video from General Motors comparing a Corvair based Chevy pickup with an Econoline:   Stoppies!

The last time I drove one of them was in the 1980’s when a buddy of mine essentially inherited one (The Station Bus version) from a relative and found it sufficiently bizarre enough that he was sure I’d find it “interesting” to drive:  he encouraged me to take it “out for a spin” and he was right.   A three speed with column shift attached to an almost vertical steering column with a nearly horizontal wheel is bizarre enough, but you’re also seated directly over the front wheels.  It’s not too much different than driving an old VW van except for the sensation of being about a foot from the motor and a much more jarring and bouncy ride, not unlike an old Willys Jeep.   You can thank the primitive straight axel front suspension for the uncontrolled ride motions and vague steering.

But it was surprisingly easy to drive around town and in parking lots; the very short wheelbase made it quite maneuverable despite the painfully slow manual steering.    The thing that also made it easy to get around in  (and actually sort of made it fun to drive), was  it was surprisingly tiny.  After all, it was envisioned as a competitor to the VW Microbus.   By comparison, a modern Toyota Corolla sedan is a full foot longer than the Econoline, has a wheelbase that is also longer by a foot, and weighs 300 lbs. more.  (at least if it was empty, adding a couple rows of seats would add  to that weight, the one I drove had the seats removed)  The Econoline is literally dwarfed by a Honda Minivan, with an Odyssey being three feet longer and outweighing the Econoline by almost a ton.   The smallest modern Econoline is 4 feet longer than the original and is more than double the weight.   It would seem that Ford invented the microvan.

My whole point is that mass does have a quite discernible effect on how much fun anything is to drive.  What entertainment value an Econoline might possess was largely due to it’s go-cart like wheelbase and low mass.   Generating any speed would have it leaning like a sailboat and the steering only gives one the slightest indication of where you’re headed, but in normal driving the crazy thing is quite nimble.  It feels small.

If you’ve ever driven a Honda 600, which is not a sports car in any sense of the word, you quickly grasp that the thing is a major hoot to drive, despite not being able to go faster than about 70 MPH.   30 MPH feels about like 60 and even a two lane road looks like is a freeway.  An Austin Healey Sprite or an MG Midget provides a similar go-cart like experience.    I’ve ridden in one of the original Mini-Coopers at over 100 mph and it was like being inside a slot car.
I’ve also ridden in modern performance cars that impart so little sense of speed that going fast isn’t all that much fun.  A little like going 600 mph in an airliner.  It’s a matter of scale.

It’s one of the reasons I seem to gravitate towards smaller and lighter vehicles.    A two ton sports car doesn’t interest me a whole lot, no matter how fast it will lap the Nurburgring.

Here are a couple of links  that further expand on this theme; one is from James Elliot’s blog on Classic and Sports Cars.com and the other is a fun thread on Pistonheads

Classic and Sports.com