In The Obituary For A Boxy Van, A Word On What's To Come

Quietly and without fanfare, Ford has stopped producing the Econoline cargo van. The death of the versatile van offers a hint for the future of the car business.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

After more than 50 years, the Ford Motor Company has stopped producing the E-Series van. The last one rolled off the assembly line in June. The E-Series - sometimes called the Econoline - is so ubiquitous, you might not even notice it. It's the ambulance, the airport shuttle, the church van. At this very moment, an indie rock band is driving to dig in an E-Series van. And as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, the end of the line for this van says a lot about the future of the car industry.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: In order to tell the story of the full-sized van, I wanted to come to a place where it's put to work a lot. So I've come to Hollywood Boulevard, where there are a lot of Ford Econoline vans roaming the streets. And I'm here to talk to Patrick Hickey. He has a novel use for the van.

PATRICK HICKEY: I am the owner of Rocking Hollywood Tours, the premier sightseeing tour operator on Hollywood Boulevard.

GLINTON: Hickey, like most of the tour companies in Hollywood, has his vans converted.

HICKEY: They literally cut the tops off - the roofs off and then remove the windows, them making it a convertible.

GLINTON: Now he has six vans, but he started off with one that had a top.

HICKEY: And no one wanted to go on that because it obstructs your ability to see all the sites. And so people were actually sticking their head outside the window to get a better view, so we said, let's cut the top off.

GLINTON: Of so this makes it easier to see Russell Brand's mailbox?

HICKEY: Absolutely, and his bushes, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HICKEY: How's everybody doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Good.

HICKEY: Oh, much better. Some of the tours like to rock and roll. Well, I like to party, so I hope you're ready to party.

GLINTON: so I decided to go on a ride in the van. I'm here with Mark Takahashi, and he's with Edmunds.com. What makes this van special?

MARK TAKAHASHI: The history of it. It's an icon. It spanned everything from hardcore commercial drivers to these awful, you know, make-out vans in the '70s with plush carpeting and buttoned leather everywhere.

GLINTON: Takahashi says, part of what makes the van a bit creepy is what makes it good for commercial work. It's enclosed. You can lock your stuff in. And unlike other vehicles that get radical redesigns every couple of years, it's been almost exactly the same since the '80s.

TAKAHASHI: They're sturdy. They're reliable. They just keep running and running, and once they're done with them, they get repurposed.

GLINTON: If it's so great, why is Ford not making them anymore?

TAKAHASHI: Part of it is to consolidate their worldwide operations, so that their building one van for the U.S. and for Europe.

GLINTON: Take one car - build it all over the globe. So in the U.S., while the E-Series is essentially going away, and GM builds its own - though, less popular - van, Ford is going to bring the Transit, which has been in Europe for decades. The person in charge of the transition is the head of global marketing for Ford - Jim Farley.

JIM FARLEY: My cousin was Chris Farley. And I'm the more formal side of the family.

GLINTON: Yes, that Chris Farley of Saturday Night Live fame. One of Chris Farley's most famous bits on SNL was as Matt Foley, the terrible motivational speaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHRIS FARLEY: (As Matt Foley) You're going to be doing a lot of doobie-rolling when you're living in a van down by the river.

J. FARLEY: (Laughing) Yes, down by the river. Yes. I can't think of the Transit without thinking of my cousin, to be honest, because I always visualize -what would that van be? Would it be a Ford E-Series van with a little plexiglass love window in the back and a nice velour couch? Or - what would that van look like? (Laughing).

GLINTON: Farley says, as beloved as the van down by the river is, the European version has more options to trick it out and better fuel economy, which is important to commercial drivers.

J. FARLEY: And fuel economy, for them, is actually a very critical purchase reason because it's a business expense, and they watch it.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, back on the van in Hollywood, Mark Takahashi with Edmunds says, we've used the van - that shape - in so many ways, it's like we almost couldn't think of any more uses.

TAKAHASHI: You know, it's served so many purposes over the decades, this might be the final purpose for them.

GLINTON: Well, that sounds like an and.

(LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: I'm Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Hollywood.

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