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UltraVan Adventures: One Man’s Roadtrip Adventure To Rescue One Whacky Machine


UltraVan Adventures: One Man’s Roadtrip Adventure To Rescue One Whacky Machine

Jesse Lamond is a nut job. We know because we have talked to him on the phone and he’s into all the stuff we dig. Of course it’s not his fault, we’ve also talked to his parents and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We totally approve of his nutjobedness by the way, so he’s cool in our book. This is the story of Jesse saving not only a piece of automotive history, and the adventure that ensues, but also saving a piece of family history. His parents owned this UltraVan, he was conceived in this UltraVan, and then it was sold soon after he was born. It’s been decades since it was a part of his family, but on a random weird and ironic phone call the two were reunited and a roadtrip was planned.

This is Part One of that adventure.


UltraVan Adventure Volume 1: Of Pistons and Profanity

(Photos and Text by Jesse Lamond)

ultravan1

This is a Corvair powered UltraVan.

Around 400 of these aluminum and fiberglass egg shaped RV’s were built in the 60’s and early 70’s. Each is numbered, like Airstream trailers, and this one is #307. Fairly sure the number means #7 of the 300 series. 30 years or so ago my parents owned this RV. Dad did much work to it and made many improvements.

(Apparently I exist because of this monster and a trip to Canada…)

After I was born the RV was sold and mostly vanished. The new owners had it painted and rebuilt the engine after a valve seat fell out and the 140 horsepower Corvair flat six digested it and died a presumably awful clattery death. Years later they offered to sell it back to my parents but they declined as they didn’t have the money at the time. Once more it vanished.

A few months ago a random phone call from the historian at the UltraVan club caused the RV to once more surface. They were looking for info on it’s history for the club roster and my parents were the oldest recorded owners. Dad helpfully filled them in on it’s history and I inquired if the thing was still around. Turns out it was, and it had been for sale for most of the last decade as it sat mostly hidden in a fenced storage lot.

So much glee on my part to hear this!

The next trip I took to CA was shortly after and for an unreleated thing that happened to put me a town over from where it was parked so I got to see the big egg as it sat wedged between a dead Ryder moving truck and a rusted out lowrider crew cab Chevy truck.

To shorten up a month or so of negotiations I’ll just say that I bought it over the phone, booked another flight down there, wrestled with wedging a tool kit in under the checked baggage weight limit and headed off to fire up, then drive the RV 1500+ miles away to it’s new home with it’s former owners. (So BangShift approved! Chad)

And so the giant egg’s ill advised road trip adventure began. Hooray! I think.

ultravan2

Looks like one of them Airstreams girlfriends.

Actually, the original design was pulled from Spartan and Airstream trailers. The man in charge wanted something like an Airstream that was lighter and self propelled so he didn’t have to drag a monster trailer around. Old Airstreams are not as light as one would think. This Vehicle is 22ft long and weighs only around 3500 lbs. In other words despite it’s marshmallow in the microwave looks it’s around the same weight as the car the drivetrain came out of.

As a result it handles crosswind like a pie on a skateboard. (We’re not sure what that means, but it sounds yummy and is making us hungry. Chad)

ultravan3

It’s hard to whittle down a tool kit for a journey like this. I had to fit it into checked baggage with other supplies and clothes and stuff. Sacrifices were made to bring a Harbor Freight bore scope camera and a bitchin’ first aid/apocalypse survival kit.

Yes some of the tools are pink. Nobody steals pink tools. Don’t judge me Earl.

ultravan4

So here sits the RV. It’s been parked back here off a side road in an industrial area of Longbeach for nearly a decade. This was as close as you could get to it from the street due to a razor wire topped fence. One heck of a nest for that egg.

ultravan5

The bed in an UltraVan, at least the 300 series anyway, takes up the rear third of the RV. It’s larger than a California King size bed and has the added bonus of warming itself up for you while you drive. The mattress doubles as a sound deadener and you can barely hear the engine back there on the road. Originally they had plywood flooring but my father, years ago, spent a billion or so hours making aluminum hinged covers for everything. The center section has the engine, the one towards the back is storage, and the one closest to the bottom of the picture lifts up to get at some of the heater guts and engine electrical parts. The side boxes don’t open to the inside but provide propane tank, jack, and 120V electrical storage areas on the outside of the coach.

ultravan6

Corvairs used an air cooled flat six engine. Think VW engine with two more jugs nailed to it. The 140 horsepower engine has large valves (same as the big block chevy V8 of the era), two carburetors (with blanked ports for two more in case you really enjoy playing with carburetor linkage) and for the era used advanced and specialized build materials on par with Rolls Royce.

They’re also known for leaking fluids like an Exxon tanker with an STD and flinging fanbelts into low orbit.

For added fun you’ll note that the fuel pump is wedged between the alternator, fan belts, and the distributor. Sure, just put that thing anywhere guys. I mean it’s not like any of those could possibly ya know, ignite. As a side note, the Corvair fuel pump failure mode when the rubber diaphragm goes out is to pump the entire engine full of gasoline. Also the big central fan blade is made of magnesium.

Did I mention all this is under the bed?

To be fair they don’t throw fan belts if you adjust them right, which you should with any vehicle, and the fuel lines are all steel in the engine bay. Modern Viton gasket materials pretty much cease any oil leakage as well.

As for Corvairs being known for flipping over for no reason at all, that’s mostly bull. It’s possible but the suspension this uses is from the revised 64 and newer vehicles that greatly mitigated that possibility with improved parts.

Also, ya know what, that stupid book about it picked on VW bugs just as much if not more and people don’t fuss about that…stupid Herbie Huggers…*grumble*

ultravan7

Phil is the reason the RV is not still in Longbeach. Phil is a heck of a guy that let me stay at his place a few days while we scrambled about to get parts and things for the RV. Here we see Phil in his natural habitat, buried to his elbows in Corvair carburetor parts.

The 140 has two identical carburetors. They used to work fine but after sitting for years they had become gucked up and clogged. Phil was awesome enough to show me how to rebuild them (this came in handy later…) and provided two new carburetor kits to do so.

Corvair people are a great group and are remarkably helpful. Thanks again Phil!

ultravan8

The front seats are on swivel bases and have a table you can put in between them. Every corner has some sort of light fixture, the insides are white and off white formica so it’s remarkably well lit and open feeling.

Again, it needs a lot of cleaning and those seats are from a subaru or something. They will be tossed in the swapmeet pile once home. Currently they sit on plywood screwed to a lazy susan spice rack swivel. I’m…not completely sure that is DOT crash rated…I think your seat mounts should be more sturdy than $3.75 can provide.

The passenger seat base was mounted to particle board. Let that sink in a moment.

At any rate they’re better than what they came with, which was two seats that your butt and the seatbelts held down. They weren’t actually mounted to anything. You could haul them outside to sit in the shade if you wanted. I have those seats but I don’t think they will be going back in due to having a nice set of Flexsteel RV seats with arm rests and comfy butt padding and such.

ultravan9

Hooray, the carbs seem to be working, the oil was changed, the valves were adjusted (done while running, good times), the electrical was (mostly) sorted so (almost) everything (kinda) works again, the wipers were changed, tires aired up, and everything is once more (not at all) peachy and ready for a great (frightening) trip!

ultravan10

The breeze blowing every bit of storage dust directly into my eyeballs, the pleasing sounds of OH GOD WHAT WAS THAT NOISE! *fret fret fret*, the smell of nature and a whole lot of hot elderly vinyl interior fabric and leaking engine oil. Man, what more could ya ask for on a hair brained road trip? What could possibly make this trip better? Glad you asked…

ultravan11a

So…remember how I was asking what would make this trip better? Turns out that going down a mountain pass with a stuck wide open throttle was that thing. No I didn’t poop myself.

Well, maybe a little.

Driving down the Pachecho pass between i5 and San Jose I noticed a funny thing. The GPS was telling me I was doing 70. That’s odd because I was going downhill and had been maintaining a sub speed limit pace the entire trip. It was also a bit curious because OH SWEET BABY JESUS THE BRAKES AREN’T STOPPING THIS GIANT WHITE TORPEDO!

That’s the first time I’ve ever needed to shut the key off to kill the engine while driving. I tried neutral restarts as I coasted along, both times the engine went full tilt and was shut off again. Well THAT ain’t good. I coasted into a side road for some big cow ranch and began a furious search for the cause.

The linkages looked fine, nothing at the pedal or under the coach. How odd. Upon pulling the air cleaners off I noticed something awry. Ya know those little tiny brass screws carb kits normally come with that hold the butterfly in place in the throat of the carb. Well there should have been two. I had one.

Now, in my defense those stupid screws have been tight on every single carb I’ve ever checked. Normally if you try to get them out they break off or strip. They’re not really a thing you tinker with for any reason and in the chaos of getting this up and going they had been neglected. That’s my fault, but I can totally see why it happened so I don’t feel bad. They’re simply not a thing that ever seems to fail.

Well…these did.

I removed the driver side carburetor and snugged up the remaining screw. It’s head snapped off and was lost on the carpet leaving the butterfly with one broken screw and one missing. I’d barely touched it so it was about to break off anyway. All things considered it’s good I caught that actually. I managed to vice grip the remaining part out and then replace the two screws with one from each choke butterfly. They were the same brass screws and even if it fell out the choke butterfly can’t get sucked into the engine.

Remember that Harbor Freight bore scope I brought? Well, THANK EVERY DIETY EVERYWHAR I did. I scoped out the inside of the intake runners looking for that screw to no avail. Well, if it’s gone into the engine it’s probably found a place to get mashed flat on the head or it’s in the muffler somewhere. Guess that’s all I can do. I put it back together and everything fired right up and ran fine. For about two seconds.

It was at this time the engine decided to tell me a clever joke.

KNOCK KNOCK
“Whose there?”
Screw
“Screw who?”
Screw You
 
ultravan11
 

Thank god this turn off was here. It was almost dark and there was not another turn off for another mile or two down the road. This put me well off the highway out of harms way and was rather pretty. It was some big gated entrance for a ranch of some kind. I did see a lot of bored looking toros milling about staring at the big egg with hungry beady little cow eyes. A half dozen trucks went in and out before one actually stopped to ask if I needed help.

Not surprising really, I was all greasy and filthy and totally looked like I had a meth lab going in there or something. Why do I never break down when I’m dressed nice? Seriously, how does that happen?

ultravan12

Whelp…guess I’m staying the night in the middle of noplace. Much furious discussion on the phone happened. Dad had this happen on a V8 at one time and it mashed the screw flat and ran fine after that. They’re a fairly soft brass so while it’s not good, particularly if it gets in the way of the valve, you *could* run it in there if you had to and the engine *probably* won’t detonate. Probably.

I didn’t like those odds so slept on it (covered in oil and gas, obviously) and in the morning pulled the plugs looking for that sneaky little bastard down the piston holes.

Hole 2 contained the screw. This picture shows it slammed against the quench shelf (lower flat portion of the head, there for compression reasons). It looked to be burried into the aluminum head but luckily far away from the valves or cylinder walls where it could actually hurt something. I did the happiest little dance ever.

Seriously, I was so giddy a basket full of gay kittens woulda been like “damn son, tone it down”.

ultravan13

I set to work looking through boxes of junk in the RV for something to fish it out and MacGyvered a hooked tool from a rusty coathanger. Thank god for these opposable thumbs. Bein’ a monkey is awesome.

After prying the screw loose (every Corvair owner has at least one) I chased it down with an electrical taped sticky tipped coathanger and fished the little bugger out. Again more dancing. The kittens were like “the boy ain’t right…”

ultravan14

ultravan15

This was the landscape I awoke to.

I’m starting to think the UltraVan is encouraging Forced Sightseeing (TM).

It’s like it’s saying “Hey man, you need to stop and smell the roses so I’ma just catastrophically fail something. Good luck sucker.”

Day two of the giant tic-tac shaped hayride began just opposite of the previous days adventure. Now with everything put back together and pulled out onto the highway the coach decided it no longer wanted to do freeway speed.

I went from doing 70 to doing 35. Oh this is just wonderful.

After pulling over in a far more sketchy turn out and making more phone calls I figured the transmission was low on fluid. These have a two speed automatic transmission called a PowerGlide.

I think that means that real power went gliding on by and ignored this little two speed slush box like a popular kid ignores the kid with braces and head gear.

When PowerGlides are low on fluid they simply won’t move. Problem is that currently the fluid was full. A bit overfull even due to knowing it was going to leak on the trip. Balls. Maybe the events last night somehow cooked it or jammed it in first.

It shifted fine, and drove normal…but there was simply no power. The engine seemed to run fine and the RPM was normal…what gives?

I pulled into a local fire station parking lot to ask for transmission fluid. They didn’t have any. I offered to buy some, still no dice. *sigh*

They did however tell me about Casa De Fruta, some big fruit stand antique strewn gas station roadside attraction place a mile up the road so I checked the parking brake to see if it was dragging, it wasn’t, and away I went. Slowly.

While I was there I took a bit to look around and took some pictures of a bunch of old farm equipment on display. Sorta made me sad, a lot of it was very cool stuff. This phone company truck with a neat covered service bed for instance. I’d *love* to have that in running condition and just drive it mostly like that. What great Patina.

ultravan16

After a few more phone calls I narrowed the issue down to the carburetor again and lifting the air cleaner I found one of the linkages had popped off (Or I forgot to clip it all the way on, lets go with that first one) and the engine was only running on a single carburetor.

Honestly I’m impressed. Three cylinders working, dragging three cylinders not working and it still managed to get to 35 mph. The linkage was hooked up and hooray (again) it worked.

By now the basket of kittens had gone off to open an upscale kitten and puppy fur styling boutique so they weren’t there to judge my increasingly frequent dancing. Back on the road I went and within an hour I had arrived in San Jose area where the RV is currently parked for a few days till I make the longer northbound leg of the trip home.

Stay Tuned For Part 2 of Jesse’s Adventure in getting his UltraVan back home! We’ll have it up next week.

If you want to see some of Jesse’s “SQUIRREL!” moments where he is sidetracked from his ultimate goal, just like we would be, CLICK THIS LINK AND GO DIRECTLY TO HIS BLOG PAGE.

 


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31 thoughts on “UltraVan Adventures: One Man’s Roadtrip Adventure To Rescue One Whacky Machine

  1. cyclone03

    “Basket of gay kittens” I had coffee coming out of my nose.
    My 24yo daughter is just shaking her head…”How old are you?” she says……….

    Guess its good that matress is gone,bet you others are here too because of that love machine. If it was infused with “Forced Sightseeing” from the start I bet the owners had quite a bit of alone time.LOL

  2. fahjah of jesse

    THIS is why I have no color left in my hair….well, that and the shock treatments…..please look at the extended “scenes”, just don’t be eatin’ or drinkin’ when you do …just sayin…thanks Chad for including the link! There are some errors in Jesses info about the ultras and such (not to mention his goofy judgement to drive it home!)….but he has never owned a corvair before this……never ridden in one unless he was swimming and the only info about vairs most probably was learned from my sleepless nights talking to myself in the bathroom……oh, did I mention I bought one now too and was going to drive that one home from Pendelton after sittin fer 25 years in a field??…….Chad is right about those apple trees, DAMN……………corvair-craig-z

  3. >>>>head

    wish I could be Jesse’s wingman – I’ll also use EPIC as I can’t think of a better adverb!

  4. Herb

    This guy being a little “whacky” probably comes from being conceived in Canada. It’s a common issue up here ;-}.

  5. TNTIM

    Great story. I have always loved road-trip stories. Have made several road trips and never got through one without a problem. True car guys/gals will always have a great story.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. jaygryph

      Thanks for reading, it was a heck of a trip. Being back home with it wedged in the barn now is a great relief.

      The trip often seems like an awful idea till you actually get home and have time to decompress and then it comes together as a great memory.

      Even if that thing had scattered itself it would have made at least for a heck of a recovery story.

  6. Tons-O-Fun

    Awesome to see this story on BangShift!
    What an amazing Journey, and the writing is so insanely goofy yet compelling, you can’t stop reading! Thanks for sharing your journey! I look forward to taking part in its revival!

  7. Remy-Z

    Sounds like the trip I took to buy the Mirada. I was laughing the whole read, been there and done that. Can’t wait for Part 2.

    1. jaygryph

      Thanks for reading! I’d always wanted to fly in somewhere and drive some random thing back home. It’s far more stressful than one can imagine but also pretty rewarding when you get it home completely exhausted from the whole ordeal. Thankfully I didn’t need the AAA RV coverage and tows I renewed right before flying down to Longbeach. those only would have covered 300 or so miles worth of tows if I really got creative with creating new ways to tell the dispatcher it broke down.

  8. Whelk

    Excellent story. He needs a riding mechanic, so they can service the engine without stopping. Since they have access you know.

    1. jaygryph

      Funny you should say that. Back when my parents owned it they did that. Mom would drive and dad would wander to the bedroom and toss cushions around flip open the engine bay to adjust the carbs and linkages while it was running around the highways in and about bakersfield.

      It’s sorta like owning a road going zeppelin

    1. jaygryph

      Thanks for reading. It was quite an adventure. Glad to be able to share it with folks via BangShift!

  9. Mister X

    UltraVans are so cool, it’s nice to see another getting back on the road again.

    One came through town recently, I was talking to a friend on Main Street when it drove by, she describes it thusly, “Your eyes got real big, and you stopped talking, then you said, “I think that’s a rare Corvair powered motor home and I have to go find it.”, and then I ran out the door.

    I found it a few minutes later parked near my house and I hung around long enough taking lots of photos until the owner came back and we had a nice chat about it.

    The first thing I asked about was what kind of engine does it have, because the Corvair mill was gone, and he replied that it had been converted to a 455 Olds Toronado drive-line where the former Corvair engine/trans-axle was. He gave me a quick inside tour and then they were off to their destination.

    If I see another UntraVan in Fort Bragg, CA again, I’ll be shocked, wait… I already was!

    BTW, hardtop Corvair’s weigh in about 2270 to 2555 pounds (’60-’69), so an UltraVan is about 1000 + pounds heavier.

    Also, he should pay close attention to the operation to the carb linkage with the throttle and return spring removed, it shouldn’t bind at all, and it shouldn’t have too much “slop”, so adjust as necessary to ensure even power delivery to both cylinder banks.

    Also, obtaining a Uni-Syn Carburetor Synchronizer will help with balancing the carbs quite a bit, you may have to use a short piece of old radiator hose to clear the air horn for it to work properly.

    1. Mister X

      Oh, just noticed the carbs have the el-cheepo O-ring “fix” for a worn out throttle/butterfly shaft.

      I used to drill them out and install fabricated Teflon bushings, that took care of the problem forever.

      1. Mister X

        OK, last one for now.

        After viewing the engine compartment shots, I see you definitely need to install a flexible perimeter seal around the engine compartment.

        Air cooled engines require intake air as cool as possible and any, yes, any, air leaks will seriously degrade cooling performance.

        The 140 HP Corvair heads are prone to “dropping” valve seats if overheated (I installed deeper seats in one of mine), so considering the cost of that repair, it’s totally worth the hassle to install a perimeter seal.

        1. jaygryph

          The engine will come out this winter and get the seals put back around it. They were gone when I got it and some of the lower shrouds are also missing.

          I checked it for heat issues and the temp gaugues never showed any problems. After pulling the Grape Vine I stopped and checked everything under there. Engine was cool enough to touch everything in the engine bay that wasn’t moving so it’s for sure getting enough heat .

          Interestingly enough #104 that my dad picked up hasn’t even got the side air inlets. The engine just hangs out there with about a foot of space around it sucking air up from under the body.

          The carbs will eventually get the better butterfly bushing setups but it worked for getting it home okay enough.

          Dad’s had 40 years of corvair experience so it’s in good hands.

          Thanks for the suggestions and reading !

          1. jaygryph

            derp, getting enough air to keep from getting heat I mean. Huh, kinda a bother that you can’t edit a comment.

          2. Owen

            They added the air inlets ducts and seals between #228 and #231. Many of the earlies have been converted, but Jeff Williams still drives #227 with out them and never has any overheating problems.

    1. jaygryph

      It went quite well. I am not sure what dad is going to do with #104 yet as to shrouds. That engine was supposedly a totally rebuilt one and if it runs well once we get it fired up I imagine it’ll be staying in there. If it stays cool, no reason to change it. If not we’ll have to look into other options. Both ours have rebuilt engines as far as we know but if those die or I come across another Ultra that has a trashed drivetrain I’m going to look into modern repowering options. I have a few ideas that are somewhat off the wall and would really improve things if it ever comes to that.

  10. Fire in the Hole

    This was a hoot ta read. Man so freaking Kool. Such great writing and skilled story telling. Made me want to go outside and rip the bench seat out of my truck and sit under a shade tree. Grab the cat and a cold one and watch the neighbor kids kick each other. I live for trips like these……You can have that Can Coon place and Badahamas place. Give me American road side trip any day of the week. Killer man. Glad to see someone having some fun.!

    1. jaygryph

      Glad ya dug it. It was a hell of a trip. I have an old glass truck box sitting on the ground being used as a shed and sometimes I go out there and stargaze to chill out. If I could figure out how to get a bench seat up atop it that’d be perfect.

      I love to drive. I go to Burning Man now and then and in all honesty the road trip portion of that week and a half in the desert is the most fun for me. Just so much crazy things to see out there. I’m going to try to stop at the logging equipment museum this time. Figure after 5 years I should actually pull in.

      1. Fire in the Hole

        I always wanted to go to burning man. Man that’d be a good road trip. I’d have to do all the cheesey roadside attractions. I love that stuff. I’d like to just load up the clarkanator and go. If I could only get the time off for a few weeks of freedom. I wouldn’t shower for a week. Seriously…..ok maybe twice. I’m ready for the next installment please…..

  11. Dan

    Jessie you are a genius. That is the most entertaining thing I have read in months. Good to see the old ultra van back in the fam. I remember that thing vividly.

    1. fahjah of jesse

      see dan-o? glad I warned ya about not having horkable stuff in yer mouth? har de har har…cousin craig-z

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