This Amazing Old Delivery Van Was A VW Bus 10 Years Early And Proves The Corvair Was Not America’s First Rear-Engined Air-Cooled Vehicle

Whitehorse Top

It’s strange how certain automotive ideas seem to be oddly eternal. The rear-engined box-on-wheels style of commercial vehicle, best known in its form as the VW Microbus, seems to be one of these ideas. I feel like every time I’ve found out about some other variation on this type of vehicle (and I’m not even counting this design concept in use as passenger buses) there’s some other variant lurking around, waiting to be re-discovered. This time, the VW Bus ancestor goes by the heroic-sounding name White Horse. It’s made by White, the sewing machine company that diversified to cars and trucks, so I’m not sure if the actual name is White White Horse or if the model name is just Horse and it’s just usually called by both maker and model names? It’s not clear. But it is very cool, so let me tell you about it.

Whitehorse1

Man, design-wise, it even kind of looks like the VW Type 2, with that prominent front V-shape there between the headlights.

Now, the White Horse, which seems to have been built between 1939 and 1941, certainly isn’t the first rear-engined box-like delivery van – I’ve written about one before that dates from 1926, the Stutz Pak-Age-Car. And while the Pak-Age-Car was a rear-engined box on wheels like the VW Microbus was, the (easily removable!) drivetrain of that van was still a pretty conventional liquid-cooled inline engine of the era.

What makes the White Horse especially exciting is that it used an air-cooled flat-four engine, exactly like the VW Type 2 would use a bit over a decade later. This engine came from Franklin, an early American pioneer of air-cooled engines, and the fact that this horizontally-opposed air-cooled engine was used in a motor vehicle kinda kills the persistent common wisdom that the Chevrolet Corvair was America’s only horizontally-opposed rear-engined air-cooled car ever built.

Corvair Wh

What’s interesting is that this fact – being America’s only rear-engined, air-cooled vehicle – is crowed about prominently in White’s ads of the era:

Wh Ad1I think this is interesting because it reveals something I think we’ve generally forgotten: that, at one time, rear-engines and air-cooling were seen as The Future. This ad pre-dates Corvairs by a long shot and even Volkswagen Beetles (design finished in 1938, but Americans wouldn’t really even be aware they existed until, say, 1945 or so) which, along with early Porsches, were by far the most common examples the American audience targeted by this ad would have – eventually – of air-cooled rear-engine cars. So this is still well into the era where rear engines and air-cooling were the stuff of speculation. And yet that’s what this humble milk van used.

It was also a unibody vehicle (the ad describes it as being “electrically sewn”, appropriate for a sewing machine company) which was also pretty cutting edge, first pioneered by the Lancia Lambda in 1922 but only barely entering more widespread use in the late 1930s, and a bit more widespread use in the 1940s primarily via cars built by Nash. For a delivery van, this was some pretty out-there stuff.

The drivetrain layout is a bit different from the VW Bus and Corvair-style layout in that the engine is ahead of the rear axle, and drives a differential on a live axle via a short driveshaft. On the VW and Chevy, the engine is behind the rear axle and drives the wheels via a transaxle and a pair of swing axles, or, later, double-CV rear axles.

The White Horse Layout is a little confusing for me, at least based on the pictures I’ve seen. Specifically, where is the transmission? I assume it has to be behind the engine – which has a nice shrouded fan and separate heads for each cylinder, revealing its aircraft engine origins – but there hardly looks like there’s any room for a transmission between the engine and that differential.

Drivetrain

Okay, now that I look at it a bit more, I guess I can see where the transmission goes there, but it’s still very compact. Granted, this thing only did about 45 mph for a top speed, so it’s not like the transmission had to be full of gears – I suspect it was a three speed manual – so I guess it can be a tidy little box of gears sandwiched in back there.

Also interesting is the use of coil springs in what was a very leaf-spring-heavy era. It also seems that the whole drivetrain was designed to be easily removed and replaced, like the Pak-Age-Car before it, with the engine seeming to have a mount at its front end and the pair of coil springs supporting the back.

Ads2

The White Horse is one of many horse-named vehicles, but I think it’s also one of the few– maybe the only? – to have its horse logo be simply the horse’s head, as though the horse was posing for his passport photo.

Whitehorselogos

Also interesting is that even during the short run of this van, they couldn’t seem to be able to decide just what picture of that white horse should be the logo; was the one with the horse looking coquettishly down a bit too suggestive? Was the one with the horse facing boldly to the right too intimidating? Bridled, or naked and free? So many options.

Cliff

For a commercial vehicle, the White Horse seemed to enjoy a pretty exuberant mass-media advertising campaign, with many ads in major publications like The Saturday Evening Post, and ads that talked about exciting things like driving one of these bread vans off a cliff, as you can see above.

I really like these guys in the ad, seemingly absolutely thrilled to watch this thing tumble down:

Cvlifftumble

Remember, this was still pre-huge-budget-action-movie-era, so you can’t blame these guys from really getting all they could out of a good van cliff-dive.

I suspect the White Horse had a short production run because of the start of WWII, which would have halted most domestic commercial civilian van production. The White Horse is mostly forgotten now, and there’s maybe a dozen or so examples left – sometimes they still pop up for sale – but I don’t think generally they get the credit they deserve for being what seems to be America’s first mass-produced air-cooled, rear-engined, horizontally-opposed vehicle, despite what those Corvair mavens tell you.

 

 

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35 Responses

    1. The ad says that one has a 6-cylinder Lycoming engine! If it’s correct it would be interesting to know when the company upped the engine size. Not that there’s likely to be a lot of literature out there …

  1. I’m pretty sure DT and JT are holding out as long as they can on bringing in the people who start by helping then screw the whole thing up by bean counting. Like we can do the link sharing, it’ll cost X so we need to start cutting a bit. Don’t worry it will never be noticed it’s just cutting fat. Free content asking for expensive adds. I’d suggest DT and JT start a kickfunder site and advertise here. Maybe even a non voting stock option. But I guess their patron Saint B. knows what he is doing.

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  2. Actually White Horse made an air cooled, stand up driving, delivery milk truck starting in 1940. Not sure if rear or not. It competed with DIVCO. DIVCO would make a good story as well.

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  4. Always appreciative of Corvair content, even if you are stealing their thunder. Of course the Corvair Corvan was a panel van of the same ilk.
    The White Horse is a nifty design. I’m surprised the Franklin fanciers haven’t adopted these things.

  5. Actually the 1923 Chevrolet Series M Copper-Cooled technically predates them as well. it was one year only failure, but GM took 30 years to make a comeback in the air cooled market.

  6. So, this means Tucker wasn’t the first road vehicle to use a Franklin engine, after Franklin stopped building their own cars earlier in the ’30s. Probably shows somebody at the company still wanted a presence in the automotive sector and this was a way of getting their foot back in the door. Hey, it wasn’t luxury cars anymore, but it was something.

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  8. The Franklin engine is probably the same unit as a Tucker Torpedo and I think it’s also closely related to the Bell 47 helicopter engine. Franklin started out making cars then pivoted to light aircraft and is now Polish

    1. Probably closely related to it, yes. The Tucker used Franklin’s O355 flat 6-cylinder, which Tucker converted from air to water cooling, but that was a derivative of Franklin’s 2-Series flat 4-cylinders which came out in the late ’30s/early ’40s, about when the White was in production.

      Not positive, but PZL Franklin’s current H4 & H6 air cooled aircraft engines might also be descendants of the same architecture, could have been a clean sheet redesign at some time, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised.

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  10. Man, someone at that factory in the first picture is getting fired. The quality assurance inspector is not happy. “No side mirror…no windshield wipers…ffs, where the hell is the steering wheel?!”

  11. There was a conventional, engine-forward White Horse made after the war, but it wasn’t successful.

    Couldn’t find an image online, but did discover there was a LWB version of the original White Horse. Every image I’ve seen until now was SWB.

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