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by David Zatz; thanks to Don Bunn’s Plymouth Bulletin article
The first postwar Dodge vans and compact trucks were Forward Control designs, wider and higher than the Chevrolet and Ford vans, the same weight as the Chevy and lighter than the Ford. They could seat 9 passengers or provide 213 cubic feet of cargo space.
The Forward Control style, with no hood, remains nearly unique among mainstream vans. What’s more, it was used as the basis not only for a van and closely related compact truck, but also for the L-series medium-duty trucks. This first generation of Dodge vans lasted until 1970; all were sold as Dodges or, outside the US, as Fargos.
Power came from the popular new slant six engines; the 225 slant six was bigger than the Ford and Chevy engines, and both were superior in design to the competitors’ straight-sixes. The heavy A-series 318 was also available, and standard in the Custom Sports Special. The Standard Catalog of American Light-Duty Trucks claims that the 426 Wedge was also optional in the vans.
The engine was situated between the driver and passenger, towards the rear, under a sound insulated cover; this made access easy and convenient, and helped the weight balance, but no doubt increased cabin noise and heat, and complicated cooling somewhat (racers let the rear of their big V8 engines stick out, visibly, in the truck bed). The choice of a three speed manual or three speed automatic remained for many years.
Despite being the last out of the gate, by three full years, Dodge dominated the industry for two decades. One reason was the interior appointments; the Dodge A100 used bucket seats, with a Custom Sports Special using Dart GT seats, the Polara center console, full carpet, better insulation, and the 318 V8 engine. Another unusual option was the Camper Wagon, adapted by the future Travco (then Travel Equipment Corporation) with a popup roof and the usual interior appointments needed for a (very small) six-passenger-capacity camper.
For 1965, the LA-series 273 was made optional for all wagon and van models, with the 318 dropping out. Two years later, in 1967, a longer-wheelbase (108 inches) van, the A-108, was added, with 43 cubic feet more cargo space than the original 90 inch wheelbase model; and the LA 318 replaced the 273 as the optional engine, with both 170 and 225 cubic inch slant sixes still available. Any engine could be coupled to a three-speed manual or automatic transmission; turn signals, a left side mirror, seat belts, and heater were all standard. The gross vehicle weight (the capacity including its own weight) rose by 200 pounds, ranging from 4,000 to 5,400 pounds.
In 1968, Dodge brought out a popular and long-lasting feature, Job-Mated interiors for tradespeople; in this first year, no fewer than 18 different factory-installed interior packages were available for people with different needs. This was also the first popular van to have power steering (with the automatic transmission).
In 1969, two new “factory installed” packages were available, both installed by Travco: the Executive Suite and the Host Wagon. The latter converted the cabin into a reasonable facsimile of a living room.
The new 198 cubic inch slant six replaced the overmatched 170 in 1970, the A-vans’ last year, while the 318 gained a fully synchronized manual transmission. Both would be retained for the first generation of the B-vans.
By 1969, Dodge offered many options for upfitters, and Sportsman-based conversions were the most popular form of Dodge’s many motor homes due to their low cost; various independent manufacturers converted Dodge vans to campers which would feed and sleep up to five people, but double as a second car. The Sportsman A100 included a range, icebox or refrigerator, sink, water tank, canvas bunks, and dinette table and seats that converted to a double bed. Standard engine was the 198 slant six, with an optional 225 slant six or 318.
In 1970, the A-series compact vans were in their final year, but still got the new three-speed, fully synchronized manual transmission and the 198 slant six (which replaced the 170). Otherwise the truck continued, complete with Job-Mated Tradesman interiors, Travco’s Host Wagon and Executive Suite conversions, and optional 225 and 318 engines.
The unique styling of the A-vans may have helped to boost their popularity and to keep them exciting long after they went out of production, but they also had some unique publicity. Bill “Maverick” Golden put a 426 Hemi into a heavily modified A100 pickup and did wheelstands throughout the country from the 1960s onwards into the 21st Century. Likewise, the A100-based Deoria concept was one of the original 1968 Hot Wheels cars. The A100s remain in popular culture, most recently showing up in the movie Cars.
Despite all this, the A-vans were never a huge seller; Chrysler only made 107,779 of the vans in the United States, and their sales per year only beat 20,000 vans once, in 1968. By comparison, in the same year, Chrysler made in the U.S. some 115,510 Polaras and Monacos, 203,862 Coronets (not including Super Bee, Charger, or R/T), and 171,772 Darts.
Also see Dodge B-Vans and Dodge - Commer SpaceVan and Dodge A100/A108 pickups
Chrysler 1904-2018 •
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