Of all the iconic Mopar machinery we have to choose from, the 1964 through 1970 A100 and A108 vans hold a special place in my heart. No, Dodge didn’t invent the cab forward compact van, most historians point to the original 1949 to 1967 VW Microbus as the first compact van offering to make a splash in the US market. Then in 1961 Chevy delivered the Corvair-based Corvan, an Americanized (i.e. bigger, softer and more powerful) homage to the German rig, complete with an air cooled aluminum pancake-six engine mounted under the rear cargo floor. Neat stuff, but not as practical or rugged as the new Ford Econoline van, also introduced in 1961.
Like the Microbus and Corvan, the Econoline was a forward control design but that’s where most similarity ends. Under the unitized shell, the Econoline featured truck-like leaf springs and live axles at both ends plus a rugged cast iron 144 or 170-cube six mounted in a dog house positioned between the front seats. The forward mounted engine lowered the load floor and made it a viable work vehicle while the tougher suspension added a significant amount of load capacity.
All the time, Dodge was left sitting out of the game. Its ancient Town Wagon and Town Panel models were tough but little more than conventional pickup trucks with extended and enclosed rear body work. Lacking the amazing maneuverability and tight turning radius of the forward control competition, they were obsolete and Dodge was behind the game until 1964 when the A100 arrived on the scene to carve out some market share.
It is well known that Dodge obtained several Econoline vans and performed reverse-engineering “autopsies” to see what made them tick. By one account, a Falcon van was literally cut in half lengthwise so its inner structure could be analyzed – strengths and weaknesses alike. The comparative analysis and late entry gave the A100 a significant advantage as Dodge addressed the Econoline’s inadequacies – namely light frame members, small brakes and a weak rear axle – to make the new-for-’64 A100 a superior van.
During my numerous junk yard adventures I’ve had plenty of opportunities to inspect first-generation Econoline and A100 vans as they sat side by side. Though they share unitized construction, the Dodge frame channels have larger cross-sections and thicker leaf spring mounts. The Dodge cargo floor is stamped with more corrugations to make it stiffer and less prone to damage from heavy loads. And where Ford made you pay extra to move up from the base 144 six to the 170-incher, Dodge’s 170 Slant Six was standard with the big 225 and later – 273 and 318 small block V8’s as inexpensive options.
Ford’s initial automatic transmission option was a delicate two-speed compared to the Torqueflite’s three forward speeds. And speaking of that Torqueflite, it wasn’t the 904 unit used in passenger car Slant Six applications. Instead, Dodge specified the beefy 727, complete with a heavy cast iron adapter ring to match it to the back of the Slant Six. Going further, Ford made you pay extra for the tough 9-inch rear axle (a puny Falcon-based 7 ½ Salisbury axle was standard) but Dodge stuck an 8 ¾ under every A100 as standard equipment. Overall, the A100 represented a better value than the first generation Econoline.