The Happiest Corvair - Norm Helmkay's Ultra Van
Even people who are well acquainted with Corvairs sometimes aren't aware of the existence of Corvair-powered Ultra Vans.
Here's a shot of what may be the happiest Corvair-powered vehicles in the whole U.S.A. It's owned by Canadian Norm Helmkay. The picture shows Norm's Ultra in November, '98, at the Central Florida Corvair Affair in Daytona, Florida.
There are a couple of links to Ultra Van resources in the Links section of this site, under the headings Owners and Enthusiasts, where you'll find Ken Wildman's Ultra Van site, and under Other & Special Interest, where you can link to Norm Helmkay's Ultra Van Tech Tips.
You may also learn more about the Ultra Van from the following article, authored by Norm for a Canadian publication and posted here with his permission.
Ultra Van... Alive
Motor camping is by no means a recent innovation. There are articles from 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. It's 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 Sparton 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 ideas
was to put the motor in the rear under the bed, design it low to the ground with
a flat floor, have 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
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 an 80 horsepower, 140 cubic inch engine. Soon he was asked if he could build more. Peterson built at least 15 early Ultra Vans which were advertised for under $7,000. The original prototype (#101) is being restored in southern California.
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, eight were built.
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, Peterson negotiated a license with
Tillotson, who then formed Ultra
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 is 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 Corvair engine (110 and 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, regular 14" automobile tires. These can be changed easily by anyone with a simple car jack and tire wrench. Ready for the road, with fuel, water, food and two people aboard, the Ultra 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 50 to 55 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 they are integral parts of the whole
Fresh water is delivered by a demand pressure pump. Waste water from the sinks and shower go 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.
Later models 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, a 13,000-BTU thermostat controlled propane furnace does the job.
Ultras 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, a few California Ultra Van owners, under leadership of Ernie Newhouse (then an FMCA member), owner of Newhouse Automotive Industries, and Pacific Lubricants organized the Ultra Van Motor Coach Club (UVMCC) for mutual fellowship and assistance. For a while, Ultra gave a year of FMCA membership to new owners and actively supported the UVMCC. Recognizing the talent in the UVMCC, they asked club technical people to rewrite the original 16 page factory owner handout. This effort became a 50 page owner's 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 is an essential item in every Ultra Van coach.
Right from the start, the UVMCC was family oriented and encouraged activities at rallys 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. At a UVMCC Spring Rally near Dayton, Ohio, one couple, 84 years young drove their Ultra and at least three other couples were in their late-70's.
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. 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 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 1,000 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 could cruise easily at 70 mph, climb hills in drive and give a respectable 12 to 15 miles per gallon at 55. The downside was the price had climbed to over $11,000 without options.
Ultra made 47 V-8 Corvette coaches called the 500 series, beginning with #510, first shown at the 1969 FMCA National Convention 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.
Peterson organized 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 often stated, "Had there been a 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 arm chair. All five 600 Series survive.
Finally, the 1973 energy crisis in North America ended all attempts to revive the marque, although a 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 300 of the 380 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 quarterly 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
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 motorhome or pass by a current monster basement model (often towing a "dingy car" which Ultra Vanners don't need, since an Ultra will go just about anywhere and fit in a regular parking spot), it is cause for a thank-you to the genius who thought out our wonderful little Ultra Van Motor Coach. Thanks again, Dave.
About the 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.
For more information about the Ultra Van or
to contribute to the Ultra Archives, contact:
Select from the navigation bar!