Home » The Humble Chevrolet Express Van Is The Closest America Has To Its Own Air-Cooled Porsche 911, Just Hear Me Out

The Humble Chevrolet Express Van Is The Closest America Has To Its Own Air-Cooled Porsche 911, Just Hear Me Out

Chevrolet Express Topshot
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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]]

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Chevrolet Express 1

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.

Chevrolet Express 3

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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.

Chevrolet Express 2

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.

Gm L8t Engine

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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.

Chevrolet Express 5

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.

Chevrolet Express Interior

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.

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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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John Riley
John Riley
11 months ago

Here is another thought exercise. I guess the market for small vans was, well, small. (Nissan NBV200, Ford Transit Connect, Ram Promaster City)

But I have one and I like it. The market was small, but not nonexistent. Since the chicken tax on these vans is not protecting anything, what would happen if it went away on small vans? If you made it easier for companies to bring in their European models, would they reconsider?

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
11 months ago

“…seemingly unshakable commitment to a thoroughly outmoded idea.”
What is outmoded about moving lots of people or things from a to b in a large box? It seems that will never be outmoded. If you mean the van itself, well, it may just be that the form has been settled and it is simply very good at doing what it’s supposed to do. It is reasonably priced, reliable, handsome in its way, includes choices of duty, drive train, wheelbase, and endless aftermarket support and customization. What’s not to love? I hope they make them forever.

PS. I drive a 2018 Silverado 2500HD 6.0 4WD reg cab with a cap for my business vehicle. If they offered the van with 4WD and a bit more towing, I’d be driving one of those instead.

Sklooner
Sklooner
11 months ago

It needs a better name, Tradesman and Econoline say van to me, Express, nope some sort of fast food place

VanGuy
VanGuy
11 months ago

Considering my profile name, I have no opinion on the 911, but I like the take. It’s a metaphor, not an analogy (if I’m not also confusing my terminology).

I grew up in a Ford house and my only brush with an Express was a chassis as a U-Haul I used last year. It was a 2012 model and it had a surprising amount of gusto.

They seem to be a lot less common for conversion vans though. And, I concede I don’t look for them often because I’d actually prefer they don’t have the driver-side middle row door, which was never an option on the E-series.

Drew Wilkinson
Drew Wilkinson
11 months ago
Reply to  VanGuy

As an Express 8-door van owner I have to say I love having the driver side passenger door. It makes the van much more practical for my use and being able to sling stuff quickly in the back without having to walk around is wonderful!

VanGuy
VanGuy
11 months ago
Reply to  Drew Wilkinson

Oh, no doubt, and certainly for a contractor or shuttle setup, it makes sense.
For me personally, I was a DJ and sound technician for a band for a while using a ’97 conversion Econoline, and a constant bother was carefully opening the split side door so nothing would fall out. I would hate dealing with, well, double that.

Not to mention, we would only ever need to unload from the curb side and back anyway. Having that wall be solid meant we could pile up against it without having to think about “door order” or something.

Last edited 11 months ago by VanGuy
Flyingstitch
Flyingstitch
11 months ago
Reply to  VanGuy

Maybe it’s just the limited seat travel in U-Haul form, but I find the driving position extremely uncomfortable. And I’m not super-tall; I’m 5′ 11″. I find it hard to position my foot naturally on the accelerator.

VanGuy
VanGuy
11 months ago
Reply to  Flyingstitch

Couldn’t tell you, because it was literally a distance of miles from where my relative was moving to their destination. I imagine it would be better in a typical passenger configuration.

- O S G O -
- O S G O -
11 months ago

The thing is – you’d never see a “FREE CANDY” mural on the side of a 911.

What’s up with that?

Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
11 months ago

Is towing an excess amount of weight really illegal? I almost never see anybody towing within their vehicle’s tow rating… the people with the high tow ratings are usually urban cowboys driving their completely unladen F-350’s and Silverado 3500’s. It’s the Mazda/Ford Ranger trucks, S-10’s, base Econolines/Express vans, and ancient F-150’s doing all the towing around here, all in excess of whatever tow capacity they were rated for. Hell, I’ve never towed anything that wasn’t a few thousand pounds over the capacity.

Tom Dooley
Tom Dooley
11 months ago

This is an interesting take–

and even more insightful once one looks at the history GM had in “vans” prior to the 1996 version.

BTW, as a few of the people who “get it” have pointed out? The platform is very versatile– and it makes a great everyday car. And a superb tow rig.

And, in 3500/4500 form? Check out the braking system– although they won’t come in “carbon fiber” they WILL come with immense calipers all around. And huge vented rotors. I’ve put 200K miles on my G3500, mostly towing, and it’s still on the original brakes, rotors and pads.

The other thing worth noting is that the G-series van ALWAYS get the mature, stable, reliable parts. The mid-naugties G3500 still got the venerable LQ4 engine, even as the Silverados started to puke with the “newer, but worser” VVT, DoD motors.
The steering system kept the old, reliable damped-idler-arm setup.
The HVAC kept the old, reliable vacuum system from the 1960s– even as the trucks started to get crappy screens and dodgy electronics.

At the end of the day? The “most reliable GM car ever built”? Was probably a fleet-maintained, used, 10-year old Express van. Because it had the components that had been battle-proven in all the other product lines BEFORE it got baked into the G-series.

Long live Exressavana.

Erik Pascal
Erik Pascal
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom Dooley

The LQ4 was used for just 2 years longer in the Express than Silverado. The Silverado had it from 2000 – 2006. The Express till 2008.

As a whole the Express/Savana has changed engines and transmissions quite regularly. For example In 2021 they added a brand new 6.6 V8. The 4 speed was upgraded to a 6 speed in 2010. An 8 speed was added to the 4.3 V6 in 2020. The 4.3 V6 has been upgraded 3 times the L35, LU3 and finally LV3. The 6.0 also had 3 renditions, the LQ9, L96 and LC8.

The idea that’s it’s been perfecting itself for decades with the same stuff just isn’t accurate.

Steven Moor
Steven Moor
11 months ago

If you’re ever unfortunate enough to move home during the winter in Canada, just don’t bother renting one of these from U-Haul. Anything other than a completely flat surface will mean your rear wheeled, unladen truck, will get completely stuck, and will most likely be extremely hazardous to get unstuck (uncontrollable drifting and slipping.)

In fact, who am I kidding, it will probably get stuck on a completely flat surface as well given the right snow.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
11 months ago

Uh

I’ve never even heard of the Express

TheStepChild
TheStepChild
11 months ago

Work van during the day, race van at night.

https://youtu.be/quQKdNi9WLc

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
11 months ago

you don’t NEED to constantly redesign something if you get it right the first time

the parsh is, and forever will be………good

Last edited 11 months ago by Stef Schrader
Tifosi35242
Tifosi35242
11 months ago

Whatever you’re smoking has to be fantastic. Please share.

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
11 months ago

In contrast to many highly rules-focused societies, the guiding principle of America seems to be “don’t get caught.”

For some reason this line brings a proud tear to my eye.

Tom Dooley
Tom Dooley
11 months ago
Reply to  TriangleRAD

As the Wilburys said “In Jersey everything is legal, as long as you don’t get caught”.

Or, basically, the opposite of how the Germans view the world.

Lotsofchops
Lotsofchops
11 months ago

I’ve never worked in auto manufacturing, but my gripe with the Express is that they’re still too damn expensive for, as you point out, essentially the same vehicle it has been for many many decades. I recently did some van shopping for motorcycle transport and settled on a Mercedes Metris. I know it’s not near the capability of the Express but if I’m spending over twenty large on a hobby vehicle, it better be somewhat enjoyable to be in.

Loudog
Loudog
11 months ago
Reply to  Lotsofchops

The Express is the Toyota 4Runner of vans.

Tom Dooley
Tom Dooley
11 months ago
Reply to  Loudog

Especially, since in “cutaway” form it’s the same as the Gen 1 4Runner with the removable cab structure.

Mike
Mike
11 months ago

Nope, nope, nopity nope nope. The 911 shouldn’t exist. It’s a rear (not mid) engine design with poor weight distribution that started out as an air cooled oddball closer to a Beetle than any typical performance car. But 50 years of German persistence, innovation and insistence to exploit any incremental improvement led to the brilliant 4-season perfection we have today that is as capable in city traffic as it is on the track.

The van is 60 years of “meh.” GM got it good enough (and it is pretty good) on the first try and that was good enough for them to this day.

Tom Dooley
Tom Dooley
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike

Counter-point. The GM is 60 years of integrating the most reliable, proven components from shipping tens of millions cars/trucks/SUVs– into the rock-solid utility vehicle that gives exactly zero fux for the latest trends in design and interiors.

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