Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT) and trucks don’t really seem to mix. At least, they haven’t so far, as I can only think of two CVT-equipped trucks built in any quantities at all, and both of them share the same basic drivetrain. I want to introduce you to one of these especially, because it’s particularly weird and interesting. It’s called the Handy Wagon, and it was one of the only automobiles to be built in Arkansas.
CVT transmissions don’t use multiple gears for a limited set of ratios; instead they rely on either belts or spinning friction discs or planetary gearsets to allow for a supple, silky range of gear ratios.
Usually, though, they’re only really suitable for smaller-displacement engines, and have generally been shunned by mainstream truck makers, though it seems Ford was doing some experimenting with more robust CVT designs for trucks back in 2001.
DAF, the Dutch company that first brought mainstream CVT designs to market, did build a pickup version of their passenger cars, starting around 1961.
Right around this same time, halfway across the world, the chairman of the board of the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company (also known as Arkla), a natural gas utility company, was talking to some of his engineers about a problem that needed solving: The company needed a fleet of light service and repair vehicles that got excellent fuel economy, and no such truck on the American market really fit their needs.
The board chairman was Wilton “Witt” Stephens, and the person he first asked to design such a vehicle was, strangely, his lawyer, Raymond Thornton.
The demands for the vehicle were that it had to be cheap, economical to run, carry a 900 pound payload, weigh less than 3,000 pounds, and could be built by the company itself.
Thornton was familiar with the work of the Dutch DAF company, and its small, efficient cars with their novel CVT transmissions. Thornton enlisted the help of a pipeline construction foreman, Ed Handy, to help with the design and engineering of the vehicle, and as you likely figured out, Handy’s name is the one that was chosen for the resulting truck, likely because of the implicit useful association with the word “handy,” though I don’t have actual proof for that.
The resulting design was extremely simple and clever. The DAF drivetrain was used, with its air-cooled, flat-twin 746cc engine, which made a decent-for-a-little-car-of-the-era 30 horsepower.
The truck had independent suspension all around — something very novel for an American truck in the early ’60s —and a steel frame with a fiberglass body over it. The bed of the truck looks to have been a wooden stakebed design on all the pictures I’ve seen.
This picture above of Ed Handy (and his poodle?) on what looks to be a sort of development mule of the truck seems to be a sort of cab-over-engine design, which seems to have been how the first 25 vehicles were built.
It’s said that after those first 25 the trucks were “modified to allow better access to the engine,” which is why most of the images of these I’ve seen have a more conventional front engine-under-a-hood design.
Parts from DAF in Holland were shipped to the Razorback Boat Company, where the Handy Wagons were manufactured. They first went into service in 1964, with a unit cost of $1,450—in today’s dollars that would be about $12,000 per truck today, which would be dirt cheap.
All in all, 97 Handy Wagons were built, and they were a huge success — they did prove cheap and efficient to use, and were also easy to repair. Even though the components and design would have been extremely strange to most Arkansas mechanics of the 1960s, the owner’s manual makes it clear this is no big deal:
“The Handywagon is of very simple construction. It was designed and built in a home workshop by a pipeline construction foreman and a lawyer, so any automobile mechanic should be able to figure it out.”
After the success that the gas company had with the Handy Wagon for their own use, there was talk about expanding production to 1,000 or even more, but only if unit costs for the truck could be brought down to $1,000 per vehicle.
Unfortunately, the best Handy and Thornton could manage was $1,240 per truck, so the plan was scrapped, though Chairman Stephens was said to regret this decision when the fuel crises of the 1970s came around.
In the 1970s the Handy Wagons were phased out, and all but three scrapped. One is in the Grant County Museum in Arkansas, one is in the Van Doorne Automobielfabrieken Museum (the DAF Museum) in Holland, and the Arkla Gas Company has the remaining one.
The Handy Wagon was a really clever little design, and remains the only CVT-equipped American pickup truck. Along with the Chevy Corvair-based pickups, it’s only one of two air-cooled American pickup trucks (well, post 1920 or so, at least), and it may be the only series-produced pickup built by a natural gas company, too.
It’s also a good reminder that once, America understood the value and utility of a good, small pickup truck. Modern truckmakers should take some time and really ponder the Handy Wagon, if you ask me.