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Customized '70s van fans keep on truckin'

At 'vanner' events, custom vans -- the mobile rumpus rooms of the 1970s -- still appeal to dedicated enthusiasts.

By Money Staff Apr 29, 2014 3:09PM

This post comes from Jon Kamp at partner site The Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal on MSN MoneyThe 1970s may be long gone, but for a group of freewheeling fans, the spirit lives on in boxy glory. Sometimes with flamingos emblazoned on the side.

Custom vans—the Grand Funk-blasting, mobile rumpus rooms of yesteryear—have held on to some dedicated enthusiasts.

Even with grandchildren in tow or full-time jobs beckoning on Monday, the "vanners" are trying their mightiest to keep on trucking.

Age has dampened a few things.

"Pretty much, we don't want to see these people naked anymore," said Joe Madonia, a 55-year-old who runs the Museum of Vanning & Hall of Fame at his Hudson, Fla., home. He is working on moving the museum to a free-standing building.

He has at least 50,000 pieces of vanning memorabilia, plus two vintage vans, both 1970s Fords. One has several murals, including a sword-wielding knight, while the other has a "gangster flamingo" with spats, a hat and flying bullets. "My wife is very into flamingos," he said.

Van culture took off in the early '70s, when the "shaggin' wagon" served as a versatile, cheap ride for young people seeking groovy times on the road. These weren't flower-powered magic buses but mostly big, Detroit-made vehicles personalized for comfort and partying.

Hot Rod Magazine helped shape the fad into a yearly gathering known as the National Truck-In in 1973, when then-editor Terry Cook penned some high-minded ideals for the inaugural event: "For those of you who are participating, please be cool. No arguments, no drugs, no thievery and no cutting brodies in the dirt." Cutting brodies, in '70s parlance, was another way to say spinning doughnuts.

Within a few years there were many thousands of vans at competing national events, estimated Mr. Madonia, a National Truck-In board member and longtime attendee. Vans were also cutting brodies all over pop culture, ranging from Sammy Johns ' "Chevy Van," a soft-rocking ode to casual romance on the road, to Scooby-Doo's van, the Mystery Machine.

"It was a sociological phenomenon," said Mr. Cook, now 72 and an event promoter in New Jersey.

The craze steadily faded over ensuing decades. People grew up and had children. Rising gas prices also curbed interest in gas-guzzling behemoths, enthusiasts said. Full-size passenger vans today, mainly an afterthought for auto makers, are more likely to ferry hotel guests to the airport.

"Sometimes I don't know whether we're a survivor or I'm General Custer," said Steve Kesler, president of Explorer Van Co., a family-owned company in Warsaw, Ind., that converts vans for passengers and recreation. He said he has converted roughly 2,250 vans every year for the past decade, but used to do four times as many. Many competitors have faded away, he said.

A custom Volkswagen camper van © Mim Friday/Alamy
Yet die-hard vanners are still living the shag-carpeted dream, even in reduced numbers. They are planning their 42nd annual National Truck-In this summer, in Greenwich, N.Y. There were 640 vans at last year's gathering in Ohio, long a vanning hot spot, up from recent years when the group struggled to draw 500, Mr. Madonia estimated.

Big gatherings often feature highly polished rides vying for trophies, talent shows and cover bands, plus daytime games for the children. Adult beverages still flow freely, although the partying, which attendees said used to feature a fair share of nudity, has eased with age.

"You had to tone it down because people bring their families," said Rollie Eldred, a 62-year-old vanner in northern Ohio.

The retired maintenance technician customized a burgundy 1969 Chevy with a gullwing side door and a strange brew of parts, including a Pontiac Bonneville grill; Cadillac headlights; the roof from an Oldsmobile station wagon; and the touring trunk from a 1929 Packard.

Mr. Eldred also hosts social gatherings at the "EconoBar," a bar in his garage that he fashioned from the front end of a 1961 Ford Econoline. The bar has a sound system and fog machine.

Decades on, vanners say their tight bonds, formed when CB radios counted as social networks, have kept them together.

"That's what I think it is—the love of vanning, the love of each other," said Pete Guthrie, while cruising around his hometown of Fall River, Mass., in his nautical-themed van.

The 52-year-old has been lovingly caring for "The Golden Voyager," a 1972 Ford, for more than three decades. The interior looks like a 19th-century ship, subdivided between a cabin with ornate woodwork and a tiny sleeping berth in the rear.

There are also memorials for vanners who have died, and buttons and stickers abound with classic '70s messages, including the familiar adage: "If this van's a-rockin,' don't bother knockin.'"

Mr. Guthrie—who wears an American flag bandanna, has an equipment-repair business and likes to wish people a "vantastic day"—honked to onlookers while gunning the van's growling V-8 engine and wrestling the wheel, which lacks power steering. The gold-painted exterior includes a clipper ship etched on a side window and the van's name emblazoned across the front.

His club, the New England Van Council, will gather in Rhode Island this weekend for its 30th anniversary "Blessing of the Vans," in which each vehicle is blessed for a smooth-running season, Mr. Guthrie said.

Some newcomers are trying to recapture the '70s magic. Jim Bacchi, a composer who lives near Los Angeles, launched the vanner group "California Street Vans" last year. His Dodge "Big Bamboo" hails from the Reagan era, but it is a '70s throwback, with an 8-track stereo, CB and a colorful wraparound tiki design against a light blue background.

The Mystery Machine-evoking color draws a lot of commentary.

"I almost got a sticker made to say 'Scooby-Doo isn't in here,' " said Mr. Bacchi, 51, who is a fan of popular midcentury tiki music. He is also working on a '70s Dodge.

To the north in San Francisco, Beth Allen, a 47-year-old graphic designer and musician, collaborates with friend Leon Chase on her website, which celebrates vanning culture. She uses her '95 Chevy, swathed in a "cave of shag" in back, to transport everything from band equipment to dirt bikes and dogs. She also uses it for commuting and camping.

It is "a party on wheels," Ms. Allen said. "There's just something about a vehicle you can do so much in."

More from The Wall Street Journal

Apr 29, 2014 6:08PM
When the vans a rockin don't come a knockin.  Ahhhhh the good ol 70's!
Apr 29, 2014 4:42PM
I want an old Dodge van like in the movie "Old School". Black with 5-spoke Cragers on it.
Apr 29, 2014 5:32PM
69' Chevy van... light blue, white grille and bumpers, 108" wheelbase, 292 ci 6 cylinder, 3 on the tree, fan but no AC, thick pad and shag carpet, blue stained maple paneling, high back buckets, curtains, bean bag chair, porthole window, quadrophonic 8 track and mag wheels. When it got some miles on it you could open the engine cover and add some oil...WHILE DRIVING!  I do miss it.
Apr 30, 2014 8:57AM

Used to despise those things.  Now I think they are kinda cool.  Beats the crap out of the over rated recalled milk toast Boring-mobiles, coming out of Japan Inc though.

Apr 29, 2014 4:21PM

When we were 16 or 17, my cousin had an old chevy van.

And then one day we got the brilliant idea of making it a convertible.  I'll never forget the way the sides waved as we rolled down the beach....

Apr 29, 2014 4:14PM
We made some baby Aliens in the back of a 1977 Chevy Van....
Apr 30, 2014 1:24PM
Had an old hearse once-took it camping, darn near started a riot in the campground! it was full of retiree's with rv's camping as a group.. Guess they thought the grim reaper was trolling for customers. My dad made me sell it (I was young)said I was giving the neighbors nightmares!!!!!!!!!
Apr 30, 2014 7:29AM

Just as tacky in the 21st Century as they were in the 1970's.  Vanning never left - shag was just replaced with power stowing seats, flat screen TVs, lighted drink holders, and WiFi  hot spots.

Sex and nudity is a part of all and any human activity and is incidental to vanning.

Apr 30, 2014 12:02PM
It also appeals to being "35 years old, eating a steady diet of government cheese, thrice divorced, and living in a van down by the river!"
Apr 29, 2014 6:35PM
Apr 30, 2014 7:34AM
These things weren't cool when they were suppose to be cool
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