The First Four Ultra Vans

The First Ultra Van

Dave Peterson started construction of the first UltraVan on September 1, 1960, in a rented garage in Alameda California. Four months later on January 2, 1961, he drove it to the Department of Motor Vehicles office and received a license for his “1960 housecar”. 

The coach was designed around the remains of a wrecked 1960 Corvair sedan that Peterson had acquired, using both the front and rear suspension as well as the 80-horsepower engine, Powerglide automatic transmission, and many other bits and pieces. Without the interior furnishings it weighed less than 1,800 lbs. empty – “Five times the cube of the VW Van and 400 lbs. lighter”, or “one-half the weight of a Greenbrier and over twice the space”. Even after the finished interior was installed it still weighed under 3,000 lbs. 

Peterson (David G.) and his son (David L.) operated the coach until at least 1973, then for one and a half dozen years the coach passed out of all knowledge into history and legend. Eventually rumors of a mysterious lost UltraVan came to Jim Craig via his friend Mory Snyder, and together they tracked down the prototype rotting away in a grape field near Oroville, California. Recovery was accomplished by April 1990, and a Club restoration project was organized with many donations of time, labor, parts, and even cash. 

By 2001 interest had waned (only one couple showed up to the final Restoration Rally). In 2003 the coach found a new home at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville Tennessee (profits from the sale were returned to the Club). Lane displayed the coach until early 2014, when it was purchased by Craig & Lea Lamond and driven to Portland Oregon. The Lamonds plan to return it to its original configuration.

The Second Ultra Van

Although Dave Peterson built the original UltraVan for his own personal use, he received so much attention and interest whenever he took it out that very soon, he started working towards production. By late August 1961 he was showing renderings of a proposed “Conestoga Motorized Home” to potential investors in “The Ultra Van Manufacturing Company”. The new concept was much modified, perhaps addressing lessons learned in the construction and early use of the prototype.

He set up shop in a wooden warehouse at 366 8th Avenue in Oakland (which he would continue to use thru 1973), hired some local high school & tech school students, and started building “the Demo Van” (which would later be known as #200). There are no known recorded dates for the construction or completion of this coach, but we do know that the “Go-Home” flyer (which featured a photo of the completed #200) was published in the 1963 Chevrolet Silver Book (late 1962 or very early 1963), and that the coach itself was displayed to the public at the 1963 San Francisco National Sports and Boat Show (at the Cow Palace, February 1-10). However, it was last registered as a 1963 model.

At this time Peterson reported the coach as weighing 1,815 lbs. empty and 2,710 lbs. complete with all furnishings.

It is not known when Peterson sold #200, though there are pictures of it outside the Oakland shop as late as 1964. Three owners in Maryland are listed in the Club archives (Harold N Zastrow, Oren E Hines, and Henry & Pauline Wills), then in 1975 Mel Dinesen of Bakersfield California retrieved the coach from Florida. Mel extensively restored the coach and along with his wife Millie showed it at many rallies until 1997.

#200 was acquired by a prominent performance artist in 1998. Rirkrit Tiravanija intended to drive it across the USA with five Thai art students as an art project sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum: “Untitled 1998 (on the road with Jiew, Jeaw, Jieb, Sri, and Moo)” http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/1998/7.html (a book/CD-ROM/Exhibition Catalog that was published in conjunction with the project is available).

Unfortunately the coach was wrecked early in the project, but after its completion Tiravanija retrieved the coach from Arizona and displayed part of it in his exhibition “Untitled 1999 (reading from right to left)” at the Wexner Center For The Arts in Columbus Ohio (Jan-Apr 1999). It is not known what became of the remains of the coach after the show.

The Third Ultra Van

UltraVan #103 was the first one that was built for sale to a customer. The customer was Dr. Standish Watson of Walnut Creek, CA. No contemporary records showing the date of manufacture or sale have been located, but it is believed to have been delivered in the summer of 1962 (the coach is currently registered as a 1934 model). 

Photos in the UVMCC Archive show #103 at Death Valley & Donner Pass in 1967 (owner(?) J.R. Wells), and at the January 1971 Lion Country Safari rally (the largest UV rally ever with 66 coaches in attendance) (owners Charles & Florence Harris). 

#103 was one of the very first UltraVans to be converted to V8 power. At the January 1973 Tecopa Hot Springs rally, owners Aubrey & Wanda Jackson showed off the conversion, featuring a reverse-turning Chevy 283 V8 engine mated to the original Corvair transmission & drivetrain (#361 and #374 were later converted to the same configuration).

Don & Marilyn Beatty were the longest lasting owners of record, from 1975-1998; eventually selling to Eddie Davidson for $100. Eddie sold to the current owner Nick Riepe after only a few months. Nick lived in the coach for about three years, during which time the coach was used in the filming of the 1999 movie “Five Aces” starring Charlie Sheen. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0203503/

Nick and his wife Shonna currently hope to restore the coach.

The Fourth Ultra Van

Ultra Van #104 was specially built for use as a mobile showroom for the Prescolite lighting fixture company. Prescolite took over UltraVan production immediately afterwards, but according to Dave Peterson’s notes this coach was built before their management. 

#104 originally had 13″ wheels and a 1962 80 hp Corvair engine, with “the lowest gear ratio available” (3.89:1?) – which resulted in excellent performance. It was registered as a 1963 model with “4” as the entire serial number. This is the only known coach with riveted aluminum interior wall panels. 

#104 was extensively modified by owner Murray Fisher, who removed an engine driven split air conditioner, installed large windows in the entry door, the bathroom, and above the trunk, and replaced the large kitchen window with a smaller one. Murray also installed a custom-fitted fiberglass fuel tank (under the driver seat), a (late model) Corvair Corsa dashboard, high-back Mustang bucket seats, spray foam insulation, a flat front floor, and a hollow subfloor with integral wiring and heating ducts. Later, Phil Street replaced the original motor with a new one. 

The list of owners noted in Peterson’s and the Club’s records include: 

Homer Gray, Mill Valley CA (Prescolite)

James Pearson, Modesto CA (Prescolite)

Larry Bennett, Santa Rosa CA (1st owner?) 

Albert Brown, Red Bluff CA

Murray & Bettye Fisher, Walla Walla WA 1973-1985. Bought from dentist?

William & Henrietta Reed, Post Falls ID 1987

Phil & Yvonne Street, Pendleton OR 1988-2013

Craig & Lea Lamond, Portland OR 2013-2016

The current owners are Tim & Loyce Ericson of Gaston OR. They have plans for a major restoration and modernization of the coach.

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