1997 Ford Econoline
Enter a test drive (and haul) of the 1997 Ford Econoline.
Four guys, instruments and a killer audio system on loan from
Long and McQuade and no way of getting it to the Wheels cruise
last Sunday. What better opportunity to test the capabilities of
a full-size van.
Enter a test drive (and haul) of the 1997 Ford Econoline.
A note from Chris Banks, the public relations guy for Ford
trucks, was attached to the keys.
The note read in part, “I know this van won’t be the most
glamorous rig at the Cruise” no, Chris, that would be my 1977
AMC Hornet hatchback “but I’ll bet it will be the
Environmentally clean? A full-size van? Has Mr. Banks been
spending too much time sniffing a tailpipe?
No, this van probably had the cleanest-running internal
combustion engine at the cruise — because it’s powered by
It’s part of Ford’s multipronged attempt to explore
Vehicles powered in whole or in part by methanol, ethanol,
propane and electricity are all in Ford’s plan. Some are in
production now, others are still in development.
But natural gas seems to have the most immediate appeal.
Natural gas vehicles come as bifuel or dedicated. On bifuel
models, the flick of a switch changes the supply from natural
gas to regular unleaded. Such a bifuel system is currently
available on F-Series pickups, Econo and Club Wagon passenger
The weight and complexity of duplicate fuel storage and
delivery systems plus the fact that the system cannot be
optimized for the performance advantages of natural gas are
compensated for by not having to worry about being stranded by
the inability to find a filling station that handles natural
(Besides, you can’t just hitch-hike to the nearest filling
station and grab a couple of kilos of natural gas in a red
My Econoline tester with 5.4L V8 was a dedicated natural gas
vehicle part of a Ford test fleet. The dedicated route allows
the engine to be engineered to take advantage of natural gas’s
higher octane rating a higher compression ratio results in
greater performance and economy.
Full-size? This thing could apply for a seat at the United
Nations. When rain threatened at the Cruise, we thought about
moving the entire event inside this truck. Lead guitar player
Rockin’ Robin figured it had its own weather systems.
That said, I wished during the hot, muggy Saturday that
whoever spec’ed this van had traded the cruise control for air
The beauty of the natural gas Econoline is that in normal
driving, it is absolutely indistinguishable from a
gasoline-powered vehicle. Get in, turn on, drive away.
The only time it gets weird is when the fuel gauge starts to
Unlike propane, natural gas is a self-serve deal. It took me
about ten minutes to figure out the so-simple-a-
instructions. But it seemed to take forever to actually fill the
tank — it’s sloooow.
I stopped caring about that when I saw the $15.99 tab. That’s
29.13 kilograms of fuel at 54.9 cents per kg. They also
advertise it at 36.1 cents per litre, but since natural gas is
compressed, it’s sold by weight, not volume.
Sixteen dollars to fill an Econoline? I could get used to
that. What would filling a gasoline Econoline take? I’m not
sure, but I can get $70-worth of diesel into my Suburban.
Now, I only got 256 km out of that $16 tankful with a full
load on board. My second fill, running mostly unladen, yielded
160 km on a half-tank. That’s got to be a fraction of what it
would cost with gasoline.
(I must add the standard caveat for any alternative fuel cost
comparison: fuel prices are always at the whim of governments;
taxes make up over half the cost of just about any fuel, and can
rise faster than the Minster of Natural Resources can get up
from a seat in the Legislature.)
Despite the aforementioned cruise control — plus power
windows, mirrors and remote locks — my Econoline tester was
barebones, literally. Much of the cargo bay is lined with steel
skeleton and the inside of the body sheetmetal.
Up front are two cheap-looking but quite comfortable bucket
seats. The spare tire is bolted right behind the driver’s seat.
The front doors get full trims, with side and rear doors getting
rudimentary coverings. Plus a fine sound system. Even on
commercial vehicles, Ford does great radios.
It drives surprisingly well. The steering is light, if a touch
vague. The ride is a little jumpy when unladen (the springs have
to accommodate heavy loads) with the band equipment aboard it
was all right. Tightly-built, rattle-free, and quieter than
you’d expect too, considering there’s no sound deadening in
about 50 per cent of the vehicle.
Parking is an adventure, no doubt. How delivery drivers
manipulate these beasts around town especially since they all
drive at the speed of light is beyond me. The turning circle
is, however, nice and tight.
Concerned about visibility? To the front, the view is
tremendous. You feel like you’re driving an office building from
the fourth floor. This van had full windows, side and rear. With
proper mirror alignment, the rearward view is not a huge
problem. Besides, when you change lanes in this thing, who’s
going to argue?
For the moment, natural gas is the private preserve of
dedicated tree-huggers who need independent transportation but
who want to save the earth as best they can.
Fleet owners who can calculate how far their vehicles travel,
and can schedule refuelling as needed can come to the obvious
Given the cost savings, pollution reduction, user-friendliness
and high degree of Canadian content, in both engineering and
supply of both the hardware and fuel, any government fleet not
running on natural gas has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Freelance
journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving
experiences with an Econoline provided by Ford of Canada. You
can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.