Here’s a fun thought exercise: What is the American air-cooled Porsche 911? Logic dictates the Chevrolet Corvair by virtue of its layout, or the Chevrolet Corvette due to its close competition with the German icon. However, sometimes you need to dig a little bit deeper than the surface. It’s hard to imitate oil-cooled built-backwards coupes with a reputation for spitting underskilled drivers backwards through hedges, but if there is a rough American equivalent, it isn’t a car at all. Instead, it’s a van — the Chevrolet Express.
[Editor’s Note: We editors warned Thomas that this take was too hot. But he insisted, and we have to let him learn to swim on his own. Be gentle in the comments. -DT [Editor’s Note Editor’s Note: Gentle in the comments? You don’t learn to not touch the stove by NOT burning yourself – MH]]
You might think I’m insane. First of all, that’s a requirement for working here, but hear me out: The Chevrolet Express and air-cooled Porsche 911 have more similarities than you might realize. Let’s start with the most obvious: Longevity. The Jeep Wrangler, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang — all those icons have undergone significant body changes through their histories. The Chevrolet Express? Well, it got a new front clip and eventually ditched sealed-beam headlights on the base models, but that’s about it. This means that the Express may be the longest-produced American vehicle with unchanged bodywork, running from 1996 through to the present day with just a facelift. Likewise, the Porsche 911 gained impact bumpers and wider fenders, but it was still essentially the same car from 1964 to 1989.
Then there’s the commonality of focus. Just like how shaping the 911 was an exercise in perfecting a sports car platform, the Chevrolet Express has been ruthlessly-optimized for the realities of North American van use. In my experience, rustproofing on these vans is much better than on first-generation and second-generation Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, which helps them last a bit longer in the hostile salt of the rust belt. Powertrains used are shared with common pickup trucks so parts are cheap and easy to obtain. Towing capability has been continuously optimized because you just know someone will try towing something entirely stupid with a cargo van. In contrast to many highly rules-focused societies, the guiding principle of America seems to be “don’t get caught.” Spec one of these suckers with the latest V8, and you can legally tow 10,000 pounds and illegally tow whatever you can get to move. Try doing that with a Sprinter or a Transit.
In a similar vein, the Porsche 911 took the sports car ethos and ran with it, evolving its handling, roadholding, braking, and straight-line performance for continuous improvement against the world’s best. The final 3.2 Carrera models could still hold their own in a straight line against the C4 Chevrolet Corvette, every 911 was a joy to throw through the curves, and the addition of galvanization in 1975 made it possible to enjoy sports car motoring more often. Over a 20-plus-year production span, the 911 built a reputation as the ultimate everyday sports car, just as how the Express built a reputation as the ultimate American van.
Another common thread? Both underwent a fairly substantial structural update early in life. In 1969, Porsche stretched the wheelbase of the 911 to improve handling. In 2003, GM seriously beefed up the Express’ frame with influence from the GMT800 full-size pickup truck program for improved capability. Both of these updates stuck with their respective vehicles for the life of the production run, and there’s another similarity between the 911 and the Express – both kept evolving their powertrains. From two liters of fury to the magnificent 3.2-liter Carrera, the 911 continually updated its engine lineup, and that included the gearbox. The Getrag G50 five-speed manual was an immense step up from the 915 five-speed manual, and the 915 was evolved from the 901 dog-leg five-speed.
The Express, meanwhile, has been offered with everything from a 2.8-liter diesel four-cylinder to a 4.3-liter V6 to a thumping L8T 6.6-liter gasoline-powered V8 churning out 401 horsepower and 464 lb.-ft. of torque. Depending on engine choice, it’s also been available with two four-speed automatics, a six-speed automatic, an eight-speed automatic, and it even was available with all-wheel-drive for a few years. Now that’s what I call diversity.
So what about cultural impact? Well, show any North American the silhouette of a Chevrolet Express and they’ll instantly know what it is. From helping apartment-dwellers move from Williamsburg to Bushwick, to shuttling skiers, to being faithful tour vans for fledgling bands, the Express is iconic (maybe not quite as iconic as the Ford Econoline, but still) because it’s done it all. It’s America’s mule, a star-spangled archetype of what a van is. Hell, if you asked most Americans of a certain age to draw a van, they’d end up drawing a Chevrolet Express.
Finally, there’s stubbornness. Just like how the Porsche 928 intended to succeed the 911, the Express should’ve long since been snuffed out by a variety of tall-roofed European-style vans. From the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter to the Ford Transit, some extra roof height goes a long way for working inside a van and carrying excessively bulky items. However, the Express still sells by the truckload because it’s the familiar gold standard. Chevrolet shifted 8,595 of them in the first quarter of this year, which when combined with 4,796 units of its GMC Savana twin, works out to 13,391 sales in America from January through March. Chevrolet seems set on sticking with the Express for as long as it has legs, a seemingly unshakable commitment to a thoroughly outmoded idea.
The Chevrolet Express is the last great American automotive anachronism, much as the Porsche 911 seemed charmingly outdated long before it was replaced by the 964. It never seems out-of-place or out-of-era, it’s simply a constant, like breathing air or drinking water. While the Express may be headed for the end in a few years, expect its presence on our roads to linger for decades.
(Photo credits: Chevrolet)
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