Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Bill Vancos hasn’t seen the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore or the Pacific Coast Highway through the windshield of his funky 1966 Ford “Turtle Top” van.
But you get the feeling from talking to him that it’s only a matter of time.
Vancos, a resident of Rhinelander, Wis., is certainly equipped to see the country and do some old school 1960s-style camping. His Turtle Top rig has aged amazingly well and looks as ready to go today as it probably did back in ’66.
Actually, Vancos hasn’t been camping at all in his cool converted van, but he has certainly been thinking about it. “Everybody asks that!” he laughs. “We have not done that yet, but it’s funny, before I bought this, my wife, Joy, had mentioned to me that we hadn’t been camping in a long time …When I bought it I told everybody it was because Joy wanted to go camping. I told everybody this was ‘Joy’s RV.’”
Vancos is definitely the right kind of guy to own such an offbeat machine. He’s a bit of a free spirit who was hooked on old vans even before he got his camper. He also owns a very original 1963 Ford Econoline van, which eventually led to the camper. “A guy came up to me at a car show and said, ‘Would you be interested in a cousin to your van?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m always interested in toys,’ and I wound up trading another old car I had for this one.
“If you can believe it, I traded a 1981 Chevy Chevette with 13,000 miles on it! … But I had the one Econoline and I really enjoyed that, so I thought having another one would be fun, but this is a whole different perspective, with the camper thing.”
That “camper thing” was a full conversion project performed by Turtle Top of Goshen, Ind., for a Wisconsin man named Ray Link back in 1966 when Link purchased a new Ford Econoline Deluxe Club Wagon “Supervan.” At the time, Turtle Top was pioneering the practice of converting vans into campers by adding pop-up tops and a host of other interior goodies that could change a “Plain Jane” van into a low-budget, mini RV.
Van owners could get a straight “Turtle Top Only” conversion for $440, a “Travel Gear” package that added bunks, sink, table, window screens, wardrobe bag and box toilet for $560, or go all out for a “Completely Equipped Vehicle” package with Coleman stove, ice box and a few other goodies.
Vancos’ Ford has basically the middle-tier Travel Gear package with sink and sink cabinet, wardrobe bag, toilet, bench “lounge seat” that converted into a double bed and overhead hammock-type hanging bunk in the pop-up top. “One thing he didn’t get was like an ice box, cooler type of thing. He did not get that. There was also a frame that would hold a Coleman stove. He didn’t get that, either,” Vancos said.
The folding bed and hanging bunk arrangement allowed sleeping room for three adults, and the original owner apparently didn’t wait long to test out the accommodations after his van was delivered.
“He worked for a company and he was fortunate enough to get about a six-month sabbatical, so as soon as this van was [done] they took it out to California and Yosemite and a bunch of those kind of places and enjoyed the heck out of it,” Vancos said. Link originally lived in Madison, Wis., but later moved to Rhinelander. Vancos wasn’t aware of the van at the time, even though it was in his town. He didn’t find out about it until it had been sold to the owner of a classic car restoration business, who in turn, sold it to Vancos.
After he bought it in 2005, Vancos was able to visit with Link and learn all about his van’s past. “I cleaned it all up and took it over to show Ray, because I knew it was his baby and he wanted it to be well cared for,” he said. “He took very, very good care of it and it was important to him. He used it in the winter, too, which I was surprised at. I had to replace this one side panel (on the driver’s side), because it was rusted. He said he didn’t use it a lot, but they would use it as their second vehicle in the winter if they had to.”
Vancos believes the Ford has been given a second coat of Marlin Blue paint at some point in the past. Aside from the paint and the body panel, the van is in remarkably good original condition. All of the original Turtle Top equipment is still in place and fully functional. The upholstery on the folding bed is in fantastic shape, and even the canvas around the pop-up top seems to have defied Father Time.
Ford introduced its new Econoline series for 1961, which was one year before Turtle Top went into the van conversion business. The Econolines featured flat-nosed, cab-over designs and were part of Ford’s Falcon line through 1967. They were considered light-duty work vehicles with their six-cylinder engines located between the front seats. Early models came standard with a 144-cid six, which eventually gave way to a 170-cid six or an optional 240-cid version. A three-speed manual was standard, but later models also had an available automatic.
The base Econoline series offered pickup, van and panel van body styles. All rode on 90-inch wheelbases and were considered half-tons. The passenger van lineup included the base Falcon Club Wagon, Custom Club Wagon and Deluxe Club Wagon. In 1965, Ford added the bigger Supervan, which was 18 inches longer thanks to a body extension in back.
Vancos’ van started out life as a top-of-the-line Deluxe Club Wagon Supervan, which meant in addition to its longer body, it had chrome bumpers, side trim, bright wheel covers, pleated vinyl seats, padded sun visors, deluxe steering wheel and a spare tire cover. It also has the 240-cid engine, which Vancos says makes a big difference in how the van drives. “It’s very fun to drive. There is a tremendous difference between the ’63 and the ’66,” he noted. “Ford made a lot of improvements in handling in those three years. The ’63 is so loose, and this one drives so nice. It’s extremely comfortable. You could take long trips in this one and not get tired at all.
“The 240 is basically a truck engine with high compression. They run great, but these little things are gas guzzlers! It gets about 12 miles to the gallon…. It’s a loaf of bread going down the road, I understand that. It just seems like 12 [mpg] — it should have been a little more than that with that little six-cylinder. But it runs great.”
Vancos recently had the engine rebuilt, even though the speedometer shows only 64,000 plus miles. He figures the Ford needs to continue to run as good as it looks and be equally ready for both car shows and road trips. Vancos insists that he doesn’t get overly protective of it in either case.
“At car shows, I like when the children want to come in, and I especially have fun with the port-a-potty. I’ll ask them if they know what that is,” he laughs. “I tell them then can come in and climb around if they promise not to touch other people’s cars, because a lot of other people have a lot of money tied up in their cars and they’re very protective of them.
“To me, it’s only of value if people are in it, so I’ll let kids climb in it and go up to the bunk and stuff. I just have a lot of fun interacting like that.”
Vancos likes to collect props to go with his van for displays at shows — vintage coolers, badminton sets, and the like. His biggest prop for the camper involves requires a trailer hitch, however. “I have a little 1957 [Crestliner] Runabout [boat], so for a parade or something I’ll put the boat behind it and make it look like the ultimate camping package!” he joked.
Ford built 1,188 of its Deluxe Club Wagon Supervans for 1966, and it’s certainly possible Vancos has the only one with a Turtle Top conversion. He hasn’t seen another van like his — or any other Turtle Top Ford Econoline vans for that matter. He’s eagerly looking, though.
“They are so rare, I’ve been trying to just find someone who had one to see what experiences they had with them,” he says. “Hopefully, there is somebody out there that had one. I’d love to get together and just share pictures and talk a little bit. So far I haven’t found anybody.”
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