ULTRA VAN: Motorhome of the Future, Built in the Past
by Norm Helmkay
Motor camping is by no means a recent innovation; there are articles in the early years of this century covering motor camping. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs regularly camped together in motorized vehicles from the early teens until the twenties.
The latest old vehicle collectibles are early motorhomes. Some, like early Ultra Vans, may even qualify for historic vehicle tags. Its interesting to look back on these unique vehicles, to see how they began and what has happened to them since.
Back in the fifties, what did one do when you had both trailer and boat to tow? That's the dilemma Dave Peterson faced every time he wanted to go on vacation with both his Spartan trailer and boat at the same time. Peterson an aircraft designer, at Beech and Boeing, dreamed of motorizing the trailer, so he could tow his boat. The idea was to put the motor in the rear under the bed, design it low to the ground with a flat floor, have an unobstructed forward view with seating for four and insulate it well for winter use. A true, Class "A" rig, just 22 feet long, over 8 feet wide with more than 6 feet of headroom. In this rig you can really rise from the seat and walk into the living area in a standing position, one of the true tests of a Class 'A' motorhome.
When General Motors announced the Corvair in 1959, the power-package was just what Peterson needed for his dream. Living in California, in the fall of 1960 (a year after the Corvair was introduced), he rented a large garage and four months later, the "Go-Home" as the first Ultras were named, rolled out with its 80 horsepower, 140 cubic inch engine. Soon he was asked if he could build more. Using a unique technical school apprentice program, Peterson and his students built around 15 early Ultra Vans which were advertised for under $7,000.
The original prototype (#101) was recovered in 1990 and is now being restored in southern California by a number of Ultra Van enthusiasts under the direction of Jim Craig, Vice President of the Ultra Van Motor Coach Club (UVMCC). The Prescolite Corporation saw the Ultra as an ideal lightweight mobile showroom weighing only 3,420 pounds dry. They were licensed in 1963 and offered eleven configurations. Called the Travalon, it is believed they built eight of which at least three survive..
During 1964, John Tillotson, a Kansas publisher noticed the Ultra Van and made enquiries about getting the rights to build this unique vehicle. In 1965, Tillotson negotiated a license with Peterson and then formed Ultra Incorporated, at the World War II Naval Air Base near Hutchinson, Kansas, home of many skilled workers, who built thousands of military aircraft during the war in the Wichita area. Peterson was retained as a consultant.
Several unfinished units were moved from California to Kansas as pilot models. A production line was setup in the huge hanger and by the end of 1966, Ultras were rolling out at an average of 8 per month, at a base price of $8,995. The first factory showing was at the 1966 Family Motor Coach Association National Convention in Glenwood, Minnesota.
John E. Tillotson or Mr. "T" as he was known, ran Ultra Inc., from his Modern Handicraft offices in Kansas City. Between April 1966 and May 1967 he add a number of people to the staff. First, Larry Knipe as Sales Manager, then Bob "Corky" Corkins for Customer Orientation, John Holmes for Service, Charles Burgess for Research and Development, Jerry Knight on Special Products, Lewis Ediger for Personnel and Bernie Hartnell as Production Manager. To better service Ultra owners, a new headquarters, sales and service center was opened at 101 West 5th, in downtown Hutchinson.
Unlike other motorhomes, the Ultra Van was 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.
The 110 hp Corvair engine (optional 140 hp in later models) and PowerGlide automatic transaxle were tucked under an enormous rear bed measuring over seven and a half feet square. 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.
The whole Ultra Van is light enough to run on four inexpensive, easy to find, 14" automobile tires. Unlike the huge bus tires used on many motorhomes, these can be changed easily on the road by anyone with a simple car jack and tire wrench. Ready for the road, with fuel, water, food and two people aboard, the Ultra Van usually weighs under 5,000 pounds, contributing greatly to the fuel economy of 15 to 18 miles per gallon achieved by most Ultra owners traveling 55 to 65 miles per hour.
The fuel and water tank design was another stroke of genius. Made of aluminum, the tanks run from one side of the coach to the other, under the floor in such a way to be integral parts of the whole structure and greatly contribute to the incredible strength of the hull.
Fresh water is delivered by a demand pressure pump. Waste water goes into the "gray water" tank. Toilet flushing water from the "gray" tank goes into the "black water" tank. Water at eight pounds per gallon is very heavy, but with this system, only half the usual amount of water need be carried. Another unique idea was special grinding pumps that allowed the contents of the holding tanks to be pumped out through a regular garden hose right into a toilet at home, eliminating the need for access to an RV dump station. Later Ultra Vans, have thick foam insulation covering the bottom of the tanks as well as inside of the hull walls, so heat radiating from the cabin keeps the tanks from freezing. On the road, heat from the air-cooled Corvair engine is more than adequate to keep the inside very cosy. When parked, an optional 13,000-BTU thermostat controlled propane furnace does the job.
Ultra Vans were mostly sold through the factory, with a unique sales idea offering owners a $250 rebate should a sale result from showing their coach to a prospective buyer. Almost all units were made to customer order from over 80 available options. Later, there were a few Ultra distributors.
In 1966, three California Ultra Van owners and their wives, under the leadership of Ernie Newhouse owner of Newhouse Automotive Industries and Pacific Lubricants, organized the UVMCC for mutual fellowship and assistance. Right from the start, the UVMCC was family oriented and encouraged activities at rallies for both men and women. Owner loyalty is another strong suit of the Ultra Vanner. The Ultra 50th Wedding Anniversary Honor Roll has over 20 couples, some of whom like Louis and Maybel Griggs (#334) are original Ultra Van owners.
The initial Ultra Van Owners Manual was a simple 16-page handout, which was sadly lacking in vital maintenance information. Recognizing the talent in the UVMCC, Ultra Inc. asked club technical people to rewrite the original 16-page factory owner handout. This effort became a 50 page owner manual. In 1978, after several years of dedicated work, UVMCC members Len and Edy Ryerson published the Ultra Van "Bible," a two inch thick, 21 Section, 558 page manual, covering every conceivable aspect of the Ultra Van. This manual, now officially known as "The Ryerson" is an essential item in every Ultra Van coach.
By 1968 the cost of making this unique vehicle had spiraled. The price reached nearly $10,000, much too high when other motorhomes were selling for less. Orders dwindled with rumors GM would end Corvair production. Corvair-powered Ultra Vans were finally phased-out in July 1969, with 305 being made in Hutchinson. In all, around 330 Ultras were Corvair-powered.
Ultra engineers tested several alternative power units. An Oldsmobile Toronado front-wheel drive package was installed in both the front and rear end of the Ultra Van. This led to a front-wheel drive motorhome called the Tiara. Ultra Inc., and the follow-on company BELCO made 42 Tiaras.
Two experimental coaches called Ford and Dodge Ultra Rovers were tried using a regular truck chassis, but were rejected as being too heavy. These units were offered for sale in 1970, but neither has surfaced since.
Eventually, the "Corvette" Ultra Van emerged with a reverse facing Chevy small-block 307 water-cooled engine in the rear coupled to a two-speed aluminum case PowerGlide. The transmission outputs to a marine "V" drive, which in turn drives the Corvette rear-axle, complete with rear-disc brakes, providing independent rear suspension similar to the original Corvair-powered Ultra.
Corvair-powered Ultra Vans have a power-to-weight ratio from 35 to 45 pounds per horsepower, comparing favorably to current motorhome ratios of up to 50 pounds or more. When the V-8 Corvette Ultra was introduced, even though the new design added 1,500 pounds, the increased horsepower of the V-8 dropped the power-to-weight ratio to 30 pounds per horsepower, providing sparkling (almost sport-car) performance. It can cruise easily at 70 mph, climb hills in 'Drive' and give a respectable 12 to 15 miles per gallon at 60 mph. The downside, was the price had climbed to over $11,000 without options.
Ultra made 47 of the V-8 Corvette coaches called the 500 series, beginning with #510, first shown at a national motorhome rally in 1969 at Traverse City, Michigan, along with the new Tiara. In a market where mass produced motorhomes could be bought for under $10,000, the end was inevitable and in June 1970 production ceased.
Following the closing of Ultra Inc., Peterson organized "Ultra Coach" as a new west-coast company, first to repower a few early Corvair coaches with the Toronado front-wheel drive package in the rear of the Ultra Van. He once stated "had there been an Oldsmobile Toronado in 1960, the Corvair Ultra Van, as we know it, would likely never have been built." In 1972 and 1973, Peterson's new Ultra company built five longer 23 foot Ultra Coaches known as the 600 Series, weighing about 6,500 pounds dry. An Oldsmobile V-8 Rocket engine was offset to the left side, partly through the floor, allowing a full walk through bedroom at the rear. The engine cover was a cleverly designed armchair. All five 600 Series survive.
Finally, the 1973 energy crisis in North America ended all attempts to revive the marque, although a Peterson prototype of a smaller version (700 Series) is owned by Jim Craig of Joshua Tree, California.
The UVMCC has continued through the years and its members (some with two, three or more Ultra Vans) collectively accounted for nearly 250 of the 373 or so Ultras built, an unusually high number of survivors, considering the age of these vehicles.
In 1989, the Ultra archives were established to preserve the history of this unique vehicle. All kinds of Ultra literature, letters and memorabilia have been saved. An Ultra Van Owner Master Registry List of owners has been compiled. As of the end of 1998, 1,218 names and addresses are on record for the 373 Ultras made.
At the club rallies, tech sessions plus "show-and-tell" walk-arounds keep both new and old members up-to-speed on maintenance and any modifications. The club bulletin includes "Whale Tips" on "how-to-do-its." Since 1966, owners have contributed over 800 technical tips. Referring to an Ultra Van as a "whale" is a "club" joke, which began when truckers were heard talking on the CB radio about the funny little "white whales on wheels."
Almost every Ultra Van has an owner-customized interior, and a few have installed V-6 or V-8 engines, in place of the Corvair motor. However, because of the basic soundness of the hull structure, little has been changed in this area over the 30 odd years since production ended.
Ultra Vans are also recognized as a unique Corvair marque by the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) with the Group Ultra Chapter, which has a quarterly publication called "Whales on Wheels." Corvette enthusiasts have yet to realize how rare the remaining 40 or so V-8 powered Ultra Vans are. Car shows and cruise nights always bring much crowd interest and many questions, so recognition by the "Corvette Crowd" is just a matter of time.
In 1991, the movie "My Girl" was filmed in Florida starring Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Macauly Culkin and Anna Chlumsky. An Ultra Van was chosen from many early motorhomes, as the home on wheels of the leading female character, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Universal Studios shipped the Ultra to California in 1993 and it subsequently was sold.
Every time we see a lumbering old RV or pass-by a current monster basement model (often towing a "dinghy car" which Ultra Vanners don't need, as an Ultra will go just about anywhere and fit in a regular parking spot), it is cause for a thank-you to the genius responsible for our wonderful little Ultra Van Motor Coach. "Thanks again, Dave."
For more information about the Ultra Van or to contribute to the Ultra Archives, contact:
Ultra Van Club Archives
73 Sargent Street,
Haines City, FL 33844
Author, Norm Helmkay, is a Past President (1971) of the Historical Auto
Society of Canada, Archivist of the UVMCC, has been a Director of the
Willys-Knight Registry since 1976 and a member of the Antique Automobile
Club of America since 1968. Norm is also a member of the Society of
Automotive Historians, Corvair Society of America, a staff writer for the
Canadian Old Autos newspaper and has freelance articles published regularly
in antique auto magazines.
The Helmkays drive their hobby, having three Ultra Vans, #408, #486
(Corvairs) and #547 (V-8 Corvette). Since retiring from IBM in 1987, they
are approaching 200,000 miles around America behind the big windows of
their Ultra Vans.