This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus

The box-on-wheels idea is older than you may guess, even with the engine in back

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Screenshot: Diamond T

I’ve tried to dig into the history of minivans for a while. Previously I thought we could peg the start of minivans somewhere around 1940, a good decade before Volkswagen’s Type 2 Transporter. Now I’m realizing that the minivan’s origins go back even further, to as early as around 1926. Meet the Pak-Age-Car.

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You know the Pak-Age-Car has to be one of the earliest automobiles of its kind when you find out that the machine was designed to be a direct replacement for horse-powered delivery vehicles, which this thing, first designed by two Chicagoans (I’ve only seen their last names so far, Oldfield and Rollston) definitely was.

Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Photo: Ely, Triplett Race History (Other)

The design of the original version of the Pak-Age-Car was very much like a horse-pulled delivery van, minus about a thousand pounds of horsemeat: a simple, door-less, flat-fronted box on wheels.

Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Screenshot: Stutz

Interestingly, in these early versions, the driver was always standing, with throttle and brake controls via hand-operated levers.

Even with the image of a horse pulling the box fresh in their minds, Oldfield and Rollston designed their delivery van to be rear-engined, using a Hercules-sourced seven horsepower flat-twin.

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I think this choice is especially interesting because it’s arguably a counterintuitive (but very clever) solution to packaging a small van, and it’s the same solution that Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon arrived at in his famous sketch of what would become the VW Transporter/Microbus:

Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Screenshot: VW Archives
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The Pak-Age-Car actually took the rear-engine design even a bit further, adding a pretty significant advantage: the whole drivetrain was mounted together on an independent little cradle assembly. It could be rolled out as a unit for replacement or service:

Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Screenshot: Stutz
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That’s pretty damn clever, and if you had a fleet of these delivery vans, the ability to swap out an engine in 15 minutes would be a huge advantage. Even if there was just a minor mechanical problem, it would make more sense to have a spare drivetrain ready to go in the shop and remove the one with the issue to fix at your leisure without taking a valuable delivery van out of service.

You may have noticed in that old brochure image, they call the drivetrain “the mechanical horse.” That’s also intriguing because these particular pictures are from the 1930s. (Pak-Age-Car was bought by Stutz in 1927.) It’s easy to forget that even in the 1930s, when cars had clearly taken over, horse-based transport was still pretty fresh in many people’s memories.

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Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Photo: American Truck Historical Society

In 1936, the Pak-Age-Car got a full styling refresh, complete with an actual front bumper instead of just relying on the front tires and a bit of a V-shape to the front end. It also replaced the flat-twin with a 750cc American Austin engine, and then later a 2.2-liter inline-four Lycoming engine.

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Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Screenshot: ATHS

One puzzle to me is how the rear-mounted radiator pulled its cooling air; I don’t really see any intakes, save for a small round set of louvers in front of the rear wheelarch. Was that enough?

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Longer-wheelbase versions and more conventional ones that offered the decadent luxury of sitting while driving were developed, too, making the Pak-Age-Car even more like what we think of as a normal small van.

Stutz, once famous for their sports cars like the Bearcat, gave up passenger car production in 1935 and focused on building Pak-Age-Cars. It made sense; Stutz had been having financial trouble since the 1920s.

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Image for article titled This Funny Little Van Was The VW Microbus Decades Before The Microbus Was The Microbus
Screenshot: Motor Magazine, Dec. 1938

That picture up there from 1939 gives a good look at the neat little drivetrain package, complete with rear transverse leaf spring suspension and what looks like a transaxle that’s not just a swing axle. It appears that there’s U-joints at the wheel ends of the axles, making this close to what Volkswagen would call their “independent rear suspension” transaxle design that used CV joints. VW wouldn’t get that into production until 1968.

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This design is a lot safer than a swing axle setup, and for 1939 this seems incredibly advanced.

By this time, Stutz had already gone bankrupt (1937), despite healthy demand for the Pak-Age-Car. Auburn (as in Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg) took over, but then sold the Pak-Age-Car service and distribution to the Diamond T truck company. Production continued, ending when wartime production needs took over in 1941.

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Production figures for the Pak-Age-Car number about 3,500 built, of which only about ten are known to still exist. Many of these were used for refrigerated deliveries, which was accomplished by packing the vans with ice. You can even see a grated floor on some pictures, so the driver wouldn’t have to soak their feet in cold water.

This, of course, also rusted the vans from the inside out, which is part of why so few examples survived. That, and I don’t think many people considered workhorse utility vans to be worth preserving, either.

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I really like these things, and I think their similarity to the far more famous VW Bus that came much later is really remarkable. Was Ben Pon or VW aware of these when the Type 2 was being designed? I don’t think we’ll ever really know.

It’s also fun to wonder some what ifs, like what if Stutz had the foresight to make a passenger version of the Pak-Age-Car, outfitting it with seats or maybe even a camper version, ushering in the era of minivans decades early? Would that have been enough to save them?

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Probably not, but it’s fun to think about.

Very, very occasionally, one of these things pops up for sale, and I always find myself taken by their humble, boxy charm. They’re not even really all that expensive, either! With VW Type 2 prices so wildly out of control, if you’re looking for the really original box-on-wheels experience, I say it might be time to consider a very rare horse-replacing little van. I mean, if you can find one.

DISCUSSION

By
OUScooby

The design reminds me of the Helms Bakery delivery vans, especially the standing driving position.