Yesterday, it came to my attention that, incredibly, there are people out there who do not know what a van is. More incredibly, one of those people seems to be our own very talented reporter Ryan Felton, who tweeted “is a ford flex a van” No, Ryan, it’s not. Dummy. This alarming exchange made me realize that our poor, deluded Ryan may not be alone. So, with that in mind, let’s define exactly what is and is not a van.
What makes a van
While I’m absolutely certain that a Ford Flex is absolutely not a van, I do appreciate that the definition of what is and is not a van can be, perhaps, a little muddy, sometimes. As I started investigating, I realized that vanhood is a bit more complex than many people realize, starting with the fact that there are two primary subdivisions of vans, vans that are vans by design, and vans that are vans by job.
I toyed with the idea of naming these two types of vans after the two main branches of Cubism, Analytic and Synthetic, but I realized I should just quit pretending my Bachelor’s Degree in Art History has jack shit to do with anything I do for a living.
Now, both of these categories actually fall under the main category of Van, which is defined primarily by the sort of job the vehicle is intended to do. Vans are primarily workhorse vehicles, used to carry objects or people. While they can be used for recreation and not work, that falls under the “people carrying” role; a camper van, for example, is still a van who’s cargo is people and equipment to help them live and be comfortable.
Let’s go over the difference in the two main van types, which we can illustrate with these two vans produced by Citroën:
On the left we have a van By Design, a Citroën H van. On the right, a 2CV Fourgonnette. Both are vans, but they have very different designs.
By Design Vans
A By Design van is the purer sort of van, designed from the outset to accomplish a van’s goals. The key criteria of a By Design van are:
• A main, box-like body designed to maximize interior volume
• A hood-to-overall-body ratio (hood is measured from the base of the A-pillar to the front end) significantly less than most other vehicle types. That is, a van should have a relatively short hood for its body length
• A taller body than most other vehicles
• An integrated cab with only one row of seats (even if more seating is available in the rear section)
• (Usually) Side doors designed to facilitate loading and unloading of bulky objects or larger numbers of people. Can be sliding doors or swing-out doors.
You can see the proportional difference between a true van and, say, a Flex by comparing the Flex with a By Design van, a Ford Econoline, and also a smaller Ford Transit van:
You can see the differences in height and hood-to-overall-body ratio. You can’t see it, but the interior layout of a Flex is clearly designed to be a passenger car. A Flex is a station wagon on somewhat big wheels, really no different than something like an International Travelall:
It’s definitely not a van.
There are some exceptions for things like the Brubaker Box, which is a van but has a markedly reduced height for stylistic reasons.
I think these still count as vans, just with tweaked proportions. Vans like this aren’t really “working” vans as such and are pretty uncommon, but fun.
By Job Vans
By Job vans are different in that they did not start their design life as vans; they may have been hatchbacks or pickup trucks or other sorts of cars. To become vans, these things must happen:
• The interior of the vehicle must be cleared of all seats save for the frontmost row
• The purpose of the vehicle is to ferry cargo
• (optional) rear and side windows may be removed
An example of a van like this is the Fiat Panda van, a van made from a Fiat Panda hatchback:
Now, this definition does open up the possibility of a Ford Flex van, if Ford yanked all the seats and upholstery and interior out of a Flex (save for the front row) and blocked off the windows. But I don’t think Ford is likely to do that.
By Job vans aren’t really as good at the sort of jobs that vans do, but they’re relatively cheap for a carmaker to convert from one of their little hatchbacks and are often good enough for delivery vehicles.
Interestingly, Volkswagen had a brochure in the 1950s for their Type 2 Transporter vans that compares By Design vans to By Job vans:
As you can see, a van designed to be a van from the outset has some considerable cargo and exterior-branding advantages over something converted to be a van.
There’s some vehicles that are close to being vans, but don’t quite fit the category, either for reasons of design or vehicular purpose. Let’s go over these.
“Tall Boys” is a phrase normally used to classify a type of Japanese Kei car, but I think it can be applied to a greater variety of cars. A Tall boy is similar to a van in that it has a tall, boxy body designed to maximize interior volume and a short, stumpy hood, but differs from a van in that the interior layout is designed to be like a four to five-seater hatchback or wagon, and is more designed to be a general use personal or family car rather than a cargo hauler.
There’s many Kei car examples of this, and beyond Kei cars I’d also include cars like the Nissan Cube, Scion xB, Kia Soul, the original Mercedes A-class, and the more recent Fiat Multipla, and maybe even the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model X.
I’d like to note that some Kei-class cars that are sold as Tall Boys I think actually have enough van-criteria to be considered actual By Design vans, albeit small ones, like the Toyota Pixis Megam which has a side sliding door and completely van-like proportions.
Some vehicles have proportions quite close to a By Design van, but their overall purpose and interior layout do not conform to a van’s usual roles or capabilities. I think the best example of a car like this—there’s really not all that many—is the Renault Avantime.
The Avantime has proportions that seem very van-like, but the car is designed to be an executive car, a novel take on a premium personal coupé, and is not actually a van, despite superficial similarities in silhouette.
Similar to the Avantime I think I’d include the revolutionary Stout Scarab:
While the Scarab has a general van-like layout, it’s a passenger car with the goal was to provide a lot of flexible interior volume for passengers, and as such really isn’t thematically or conceptually a van.
I think this category can also include experimental one-volume cars like Buckminister Fuller’s Dymaxion:
While the Dymaxion’s pickle-like body has some van-like qualities, the goals and layout of the car are decidedly non-vanlike. I suspect we’ll see more cars like these as autonomous cars develop further, where van-like one-box bodies are chosen for the amount and flexibility of their interiors, like a Stout Scarab.
I hope this helps. Vans are extremely important vehicles, and as long as we’re moving things in mobile boxes, there will be vehicles that will be vans of one sort or another.
And none of those are Ford Flexes, Ryan.