A Van-tastic Story (Or Briefly About the Birth and Development of Commercial Vans)

Coyote - Van story - Coyote Logistics

Vans play a crucial role in our daily lives, delivering packages, furniture, and groceries to stores, transporting children to school, and even serving as mobile vendors for ice cream or kebabs. They’re vital for emergency services, carrying the sick to hospitals and enabling police patrols. Tradespeople like plumbers, electricians, and carpenters rely on them to reach clients. And for those born in the 1960s, it’s quite amusing to think how many might have been conceived in vans, likely adorned with flowers and peace symbols at the time. It’s hard to imagine the modern urban landscape without them. This is the story of vans, and it’s truly van-tastic.

What is a van?

A van is essentially a light commercial vehicle designed primarily for moving goods, but it’s versatile enough to transport people, sometimes even in luxury (think VW Multivan). Typical for vans is roomy, enclosed cargo space behind the driver’s area. These vehicles are built with maximum storage efficiency in mind, but without sacrificing the compact size needed for city driving. Their design varies from single-body styles, like the Fiat Ducato, to older models with a distinct engine compartment, such as US-made GMC Vandura or the Nissan NV.

With a total weight limit of 3.5 tons, vans can carry loads up to 1,000 or 1,500 kg, and there are even models with cargo capacity to 2,000 kg, though these come with larger dimensions.

Vans can be customized to fit specific needs, including shelving, cargo securing systems, or specialized equipment. This makes them a versatile choice for ambulances, police cars, construction vehicles, campers, and food trucks.

The term ‘van’also applies to family vehicles known as minivans or MPVs, which emerged in the market in 1984 with the Chrysler Voyager and Renault Espace. These models, with room for seven or more passengers in two or more rows of reconfigurable seats, are not the focus of this piece, as what we are telling here is the story of vehicles designed specifically for commercial purposes.

The name ‘van’likely originated in the 19th century as a short form of ‘caravan’, referring to a horse-drawn cart covered with a tarp for transporting goods.

The history of vans

Both trucks and vans have a common ancestor, the Daimler Motor-Lastwagen of 1896, the world’s first delivery vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

The roots of modern vans can be traced to the 1930s in the United States with the introduction of delivery sedans. These vehicles were passenger cars modified with a cargo space in place of the rear part, combining the drive system, front body, and cabin from the base car, and creating a new, utility-focused body style.

In Europe, this type of vehicle is known as a panel van, which became widely popular in the 1950s. Iconic family cars of that era, like the Citroen 2CV, Renault 4, and Mini, all had commercial versions in this style. Panel vans were a hit among small business owners, offering a vehicle taxed lower than station wagons, with the performance close to passenger cars, and smaller size crucial for easier parking in the city centers. The price for these advantages was a reduced load capacity compared to larger commercial vehicles, including the “proper”vans that emerged around the same time.

Panel vans remain popular in Europe’s automotive market. Nearly every manufacturer offers such a model. A good example is the Citroen Berlingo/Peugeot Partner, which has been on the market since 1996 and is now available also in an electric version with a load capacity of up to 785 kg.

A significant milestone in van development was the launch of the Volkswagen Transporter in 1949. Originally intended as a parts delivery platform only for internal use within the VW Wolfsburg factory, it was built on the Beetle chassis. Transporter evolved through seven generations to become an iconic model, much like the Beetle itself. In the 1960s, the VW van became a symbol of the Summer of Love and hippie movement. This single-body design inspired similar models in the US, such as the Chevrolet Van, Ford Econoline, and Dodge A100, where the driver sits above the front axle. In Japan, the era saw the birth of microvans, conforming to Kei car specifications (max. 3 meters long with 360 cc engine), which continue to be popular.

The 1960s also saw the debut of the Ford Transit, another defining van model, first introduced in 1965. Initially sold by Ford’s German branch, it was the British-developed version that became a hit in the UK, Germany, and beyond. The Transit, now in its fourth generation, has become a global hit. It is now available even in the US market, and is produced in several countries (like Turkey and Uruguay for example).

The term “sprinter van”often used to describe these vehicles comes from the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, on the market since 1995 and now in its third generation. This shows how a specific model name can become a generic term for a category of vehicles, highlighting the Sprinter’s role as some kind of a benchmark in van design.

What is a step van?

Being a UPS-owned company, we can’t discuss the van history without mentioning one particularly iconic model. While UPS now operates a diverse range of van models (all painted in their signature Pullman Brown), there’s one model that holds a unique place in UPS’ history – the Grumman Olson P 800. Introduced to the American branch of the company in 1966, its vintage design and specific body type, known as a step van, made it a true cult classic among commercial vehicle enthusiasts.

Step vans are a typical American style of van, characterized by a boxy shape and a sliding driver’s door for quick and easy entry and exit –a feature especially important for couriers, who often leave the doors open when making deliveries. This type of van has been a favorite among parcel delivery companies in the U.S. and Canada. While the P 800 has since retired from commercial use, its legacy lives on in the design of modern step vans, many of which are now electrically powered. One notable manufacturer of step vans was Divco, widely known for versions designed specifically for milk deliveries.

Van craze, or a van as a symbol of cool (or kitsch, if you prefer)

The 1970s in the United States were an era marked by disco music, bell-bottoms, platform shoes, and roller skating rinks, alongside a ephemeral yet intriguing part of American car culture: the van craze. As muscle cars faded away due to skyrocketing gas prices following the 1973 oil crisis, young Americans were looking for new vehicles that offered not only transportation but also a statement of style. Enter the custom vans of the mid-70s with flashy paint jobs, chrome rims, plush couches, and expensive stereo systems. This trend has become so popular that major manufacturers such as Ford and Dodge have decided to offer their vans with custom trim packages to cash in on the fad.

However, the van craze was a phenomenon of the moment, quickly evolving from a symbol of cool to one of kitsch. The reputation of these vans has suffered, in part because of their association with a particular type of cruising culture connected with a macho lifestyle. Advertisements at the time, depicting tanned, mustachioed men in unbuttoned shirts surrounded by groups of young women in swimsuits (no one was concerned about the overt sexism of such a message back then), only reinforced the stereotype of the custom van as a vehicle that only served as a magnet for attracting women.

This van craze wasn’t exclusive to the United States;it also emerged in Australia, where Ford and Holden panel vans were customized in much the same vein.

Van of the (near) future

Today, most vans run on diesel engines, but the future of these commercial vehicles, along with all freight transport, is steadily moving towards alternative energy sources. Already, many of the leading van models are available with electric motors, and there’s ongoing development for versions powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Electric vans are proving especially suitable for urban environments (think parcel companies), thanks to their ability to navigate clean air zones. Growing availability of charging stations ensures they stay powered throughout their deliveries. Electric and hydrogen delivery vehicles are not just a glimpse into the future;they are very much a part of the present. We are on the verge of them becoming even more common and eventually phasing out their diesel counterparts. And what’s next on the horizon? Given the ongoing progress in autonomous vehicle technology, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where delivery vehicles operate without a driver, thus being a part of the next chapter in the evolution of commercial transportation.

Coyote’s Express Van Freight service

Why did we decide to discuss vans at all (apart from the fact that it’s just an interesting topic)? A 3PL company is more associated with trucks than vans, right? Well, no, because our service portfolio also includes a van-based freight transport solution –Express Van Freight.

Express Van Freight provides expedited shipping solutions across Europe for urgent, time-sensitive deliveries. It’s designed for freight that need fast, reliable transport to meet strict deadlines, offering freight shipping companies a dependable option for managing critical logistics challenges. Our van solution emphasizes speed and efficiency, ensuring that goods are delivered promptly to their destinations.