The Ultra Story
The Ultra Story with time line, as written by FMC magazine May, 1969
Many people are dreamers and often dreams become reality. Ultra Van became a reality because of dreams and ambitions of men. An early dream came several years ago to an Oakland, California man named Peterson, who had for many years been an aircraft pilot. Dave Peterson, at dream time, had spare time and a love of skiing. He dreamed of a vehicle in which a family could live and travel without the need for advance travel plans, hotel or motel reservations that were close to the recreational area, and locating foods that compared to those at home. He dreamed of the Ultra Van, and, being an aircraft man, his concept was to build a lightweight coach that was easy to handle and economical in operation. When he completed the first Ultra Van, the Petersons climbed aboard for the first run in California.
Exposure if the Ultra Van brought the curious and soon it was evident that many people desired this type of travel and living. The Motor Home Industry was on it’s way, and the market craved the aerodynamic type of coach. For a short period of time, Dave Peterson tried to help his friends realize their dreams of fun and travel by building them Ultra Vans more or less on a “one-at-a-time” basis.
Far away in Kansas City, Missouri, about this time, was a man named Jack Tillotson I who had spent many years dreaming, conceiving, and initiating new ideas in the publishing business and had led a company through a period of continuous growth and expansion. For thirty-five years, he, Mrs. Tillotson, and their son Jack II, had worked together to build three magazines, Workbasket, Workbench, and Flower and Garden, now read by thousands of people from coast to coast.
Mr. Tillotson had a dream, too, for his own retirement and travel. His son, Jack Tillotson II, had come up through the plant and had taken over the reins of the publishing business so that the senior Tillotsons could start their travel and relaxation. Mr. Tillotson I purchased a motor home, and while using it he learned of the Ultra Van. After consultations with the inventor and some Ultra Van owners, he purchased the company in 1965. The distance between Oakland, California and Kansas City, Missouri, was too great for successfully managing the Oakland operation. The need for a new location and a larger facility was soon recognized by the experienced management team of the Tillotsons. Hutchinson, Kansas, offered many possibilities for this type of motor home, as it was situated in the center of the aircraft industry. Here the type of employee could be found who had the knowledge and training necessary for aircraft design and construction. Hutchinson had just acquired some land and buildings from the government and was developing an Industrial Tract. An agreement was reached and plans formulated to move into the facilities at Hutchinson, Kansas, in August 1965. By December of 1965, the move of equipment was complete and a nucleus of employees had been hired. Production actually started in January 1966.
Mr. Tillotson I, being well experienced in preparation of literature, came back to the parent company, Modern Handcraft, to prepare the literature and advertising material for distribution to interested prospects. Almost immediately inquiries and sales commenced, and Ultra, Inc., was on the way. In April 1966, it became necessary to add a Sales Manager to the management team, and in May 1966, L.P. (Larry) Knipe joined the Ultra staff as National Sales Manager. Larry had many years of experience in professional sales management, public relations and marketing from previous employment with Kelinator and Brunswick Corp., School Division. During this period, the Sales Office remained in Kansas City with offices in the plant of Modern Handcraft, the parent organization. Sales continued to climb and so did the staff of the production facility, as the search continued for the right people to train to satisfy the future growth plans of the company.
In May 1967, the entire Sales staff moved to downtown Hutchinson and opened a new sales location and complete service shop for all recreational vehicles. A complete indoctrination system was set up to acquaint the new owner with his Ultra Van. The indoctrination also required the selection of a man who knew the coach and was capable of transferring his information to the new owner in understandable language. Mr. Bob Corkins, who had become known to all new coach owners as “Corky”, was chaosen for the orientation of new owners. Corky has come to Ultra with several years experience in the mobile home field and had served in final preparation of these units for delivery to dealers. In May 1967, Corky became part of the Sales and Service office. More girls were added at the downtown location in order to reply to all inquiries on a “same day” basis. More and more people stopped for service or to visit. By January, Corky’s sales and indoctrination load had become so great that management went into the manufacturing plant to pick a personality with proven ability who could assist in directing the efforts of the Service staff. It was then that Mr. John Holmes became associated with the Sales and Service Office.
During the growth of the Sales Office, Mr. Jack Tillotson I still remained as operational head of both offices, furnishing wide business experience to Research and Development a s well as advertising. In May 1967, “Mr. T.” as he is known to many, located a congenial and experienced engineer named Chas. Burgess, whom he hired to study and improve the manufacturing systems. He put in new and improved equipment that not only increased production, but gave the new owners a better built coach. Chuck is now in charge of the entire Research and Development Division. Rounding out the management team of Ultra, Inc., is the Special Products Manager position is Jerry Knight, who, during his early employment with the company, planned and installed much of Ultra’s Ultra receiving inspection system. In charge of personnel is Lewis Ediger, and the Production Manager is Bernie Hartnell.
Never static, and with a continual backlog of orders attesting to the popularity of the Ultra Van, the company has just negotiated for an additional 30 acres to be used for expanded production, sales and development facilities. Somewhat like the old adage is Ultra Inc. – they buy more land to build more vans – so they can buy more land – that’s Ultra, Inc.!
1961 – Dave Peterson, barnstorming aircraft pilot, designs the first Ultra Van in Oakland, CA
1965 – John E. “Mr. T” Tillotson I, publisher, of Kansas City, Kansas, purchases the Ultra Van company. He also owns “Modern Handcraft Publications” which was the holding company of Ultra Van.
1965 – Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at any speed: The designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile” book is published targeting the safety issues in automobile manufacturing and specifically, GM’s Corvair engine (which the Ultra Van used).
Aug 1965 – Move of the Ultra manufacturing operations to Hutchinson, Kansas begins. Manufacturing facilities are secured at the Hutchinson Air Base Tract (HABIT), situated on the old Hutchinson Naval Air Station (HNAS).
Dec 1965 – Equipment all moved in and employees hired.
Jan 1966 – Production begins in Hutchinson.
Jan 1966 – Dave Peterson maintains portion of stock and given title of President of Ultra, Inc.
May 1966 – National Sales Manager Larry Knipe hired and remained in the Kansas City office along with Modern Handcraft.
May 1967 – Entire sales staff moves to Hutchinson. Complete service shop is created for all recreational vehicles.
May 1967 – Sales and Service hired Bob “Corky” Corkins and engineer Charles “Chuck” Burgess to lead the Research and Development division.
1967 – Sales and Service hires John D. Holmes. Special Products Manager Jerry Knight is hired. Personnel Manager Lewis Ediger is hired. Eventually becomes Vice-President in charge of production. Production manager is Bernie Hartnell. About 100 employees work at the Ultra manufacturing plant.
1969 – Corvair engine production was ended. An attempt was made to replace it with a Chevrolet 307 V8 engine.
1969 – Original Ultra design production is slowed and new Tiara design was implemented using an Oldsmobile Toronado FWD platform (455CI, 375hp).
1970 – Selling price for the Tiara: $14,650
1970 – Approximately 160 workers now working on two separate assembly lines for the Ultra and Tiara. Approximately 450 Ultras manufactured with more than 350 built in Hutchinson.
1970 – Ultra, Inc. ceases production with 58 employed at the time.
1970 – Belco Inc. is formed. Owned by President Lewis Ediger, Vice President Robert Lind, and Treasurer Kenneth Bircher. Corporate name stems from Bircher, Ediger and Lind – first initials of their last names. Hutchinson attorney, John Shaffer, is resident agent for Belco. 15 employees at this time.
1970 – Patents for the Ultra still belong to Peterson. Tillotsons had manufacturing rights, but reverted to Peterson. Negotiations to obtain rights begin between Belco and Peterson.
Dec 1970 – Belco begins offering space to rent for all campers and recreational vehicles at their manufacturing facility.
Feb 23, 1971 – Blizzard causes the first Tiara built by Belco to be stored in the paint shop until it could be shipped out. An explosion happens at the plant with an ensuing fire. Paint shop and the $17,000 Tiara coach are destroyed.
April 1971 – Plans to build 2 Tiaras per month at a cost of $17,500, with hopes of producing one per week by July 1972. 17 employed at this time, 11 Tiaras sold.
May 11, 1971 – 25 Tiaras now sold. Plans to increase production to 3 Tiaras per month.
Aug 18, 1971 – Kansas Light and Power board of directors given a pleasure coach tour of Hutchinson in a brand new Tiara.
Dec 10, 1972 – Collins Industries, Inc., of Kansas City, Mo., purchases certain assets of Belco, Inc. Collins to manufacturer 16 passenger school buses, ambulances, and hydraulic lifts for the physically handicapped. The Tiara production line has been discontinued. Lewis Ediger is now general manager of the Hutchinson operation. 42 now employed at Collins, including Belco employees, with plans to increase the number of employees to 70 or 80. Belco had outfitted a shell of its Tiara model as a cardio unit on wheels prior to being purchased by Collins.
1991 – An Ultra Van was used in the movie “My Girl”, which was filmed in Florida and starred Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Macauly Culkin and Anna Chlumsky. Ultras were also used in 1999’s “Five Aces” and in 2017 SyFy channels’ “Trailer Park Shark”.