The Rise and fall and rise again of the Shag Wagons

Once upon a time, during the era of big hair, roadies and rock and roll, vans reigned supreme. As a symbol of that supremacy, look no further than the chrome side pipes, psychedelic murals and smooth velvet interiors. It was a time before the van had been tamed — a time before the explosion of the anti-van now known as the minivan. In the 1970s, the custom full-size vans built by Chevy, Ford and Dodge/Plymouth became the ultimate vehicles for self-expression. They represented an opportunity to escape at a moment’s notice in a tricked-out portable pad, and if you loved where you ended up, you could stay there without worrying about a hotel. If you didn’t like the location, you kept on rollin’ until you did.

A nostalgic trip back in time brings us to the subculture buried behind the van movement; without these epic mobile living rooms, rock and roll as we know it wouldn’t have been the same — perhaps it wouldn’t even exist! Would Led Zeppelin or Journey fans have remained so loyal if they hadn’t had the freedom of a rolling private party vehicle with curtained windows? Would the 1980s punk rock movement and the transition to 1990s grunge have happened if every band had been forced to rent a U-Haul to lug their gear?

Vans are incredibly versatile for work or play, and they were the first vehicles that allowed people to take all their extra-curricular activities — innocent or illicit — on the road. Back in their heyday, custom shops could be found on nearly every corner to make your wildest “vantasies” come true. Hence the massive list of possible modifications, including a booming sound system, mood lighting, suave shag carpet, cozy captain’s chairs and waterbeds — yes, waterbeds. Vanners didn’t mess around. Another common addition, bubble windows, came in several shapes, including teardrops, lightning strikes, diamonds, hearts and the classic circular porthole. Other accessories included front air dams and rear spoilers, louvers, custom horns, CB radios and, to finish it all off, slick wheels like aluminum slotted mags, classic Cragars, killer Keystones or, for the lowrider look, Astro Supremes.

Andreas Stevens has gone beyond even that and says his white Dodge van’s wooden-spoke wheels are his favorite feature. “They are super rare, only made for a couple years in the late ’70s, and I dig the way they look.” He also points out his custom grille, referring to it as a “glory grille,” which he paired with a 1977 Olds Delta 88 headlight conversion. “Van culture in 2016 to me is about the preservation of the original van movement from the ’70s. It’s about finding a van that you dig and making it your own.”

Often, there’s no better way to make a van your own than with some great paint, and no paint job can be too trippy. At their wildest, vans were rolling canvases for elaborate murals, complete with flame-spitting dragons, graceful goddesses, wild wolves, whimsical wizards and open-range western scenes. Pretty much anything goes when it comes to both art and accessories.

The custom van represented — and still represents today — adventure, leisure and freedom. And let’s not forget the splendor of spacious leg room. Vanners maintained their style and long hair while vigorously working to support their lifestyle, which included many miles of traveling, not to mention the cost of maintaining their vans. If worse came to worst, the vans made a prime mobile place to live. If this van’s a rockin’…

David Tudor is the proud owner of a brilliant blue Ford Econoline named Space Truckin’, and one peek inside reveals the source of his van’s rockin’ — a color organ. This was a rare option from a van conversion company in the ’70s, which Tudor rescued from a junkyard and spruced up himself. It’s also hard to miss the built-in bar. Tudor argues that the best thing about vanning is that every van’s unique touches reflect its owner’s tastes and interests. “The culture is very diverse,” he says, “and in the last five years there has been a large resurgence of people reliving the fun of cruising, camping and working on their vans.”

From the heavy-duty twin-axle Dodge to the teeny-tiny Subaru microvan, vanning does not discriminate by size or country of origin, though the most commonly spotted works of art exist on American V-8s such as the Dodge B-Series, Ford Econoline, and the Chevy G-Series Van and its cousin, the GMC Vandura. Rarer models such as England’s Bedford van, various Volkswagen buses, and even the Ford Falcon and Falcon Econoline vans are also part of the mix.

The claim can be made that the birth of vanning coincided with the introduction of the first panel truck in the 1940s, and custom vans from that era are still seen at truck-ins and other van events. The Volkswagen Microbus, introduced in 1949, may have been the first complete camper on wheels, and the paint jobs with peace signs and flowers of the 1960s paved the way for what was to come in the 1970s — the ultimate van-craze era.

Dodge recognized the trend and jumped on it with the release of a factory custom known as the Street Van, which was based on the popular Tradesman model. The Street Van, offered from 1976 through 1980, was advertised as an “Adult Toy,” alongside other full-size Dodge offerings like the Ramcharger SUV and Lil’ Red Express pickup. It featured factory options such as chrome, chrome and more chrome, wide five-slot mag wheels, custom interiors and wild graphics packages, plus the psychedelic “Street Van” logo on the passenger and driver side doors. Even better, Street Van buyers got a “Customizing Idea Kit,” which included suggestions for paint schemes and interior choices, as well as a listing of aftermarket suppliers that could outfit your boss rig with spoilers, fender flares, sunroofs, vents and, of course, portholes of nearly every shape under the sun. By 1977, membership in the “Dodge Van Clan Club” was also included.

Above all else, no custom van was complete without a proper moniker. Names range from innuendos such as Afternoon Delight and Judy’s Playhouse to those that coexist with the airbrushed exterior themes, like Pirate’s Paradise and The Warlock. When naming your own custom van, be careful what you choose to plaster all over the panels; nowadays, a van labeled The Smokin’ Bandit may not make it a mile down the road without being stopped by local law enforcement.

Sometime in the late 1960s, the memorable truck-ins started, and magazines such as Car and Truck and Hot Rod began taking notice. Then, in August 1973 at Tiger Run, Colorado, Rocky Mountain Vans hosted the National Truck-In, the first event of its kind to bring vanners together from all points. The 44th annual event took place this past July. Founded in 1973, the National Street Van Association’s presence is still strong in the U.S., Europe and the UK, and some states have even organized their own van councils.

Publications like Rolling Heavy magazine celebrate today’s van culture and invite readers to discover and embrace it for themselves. Hot Rod and website Speedhunters, too, have begun covering today’s van revival. And in the realm of getting the vannin’ word out, special mention goes to Joe Madonia. After 30 years of amassing van memorabilia, he decided to spread the love and took his collection to St. Petersburg, Florida, to open the Museum of Vanning in 2012.

In the late 1980s, with the advent of the Dodge Caravan and its ilk, vans seemed to get a bad rap as bland family haulers. The great vans of the 1970s, meanwhile got parked, and by the late 1990s, custom van culture was largely hidden behind its own velour curtains. But behind those draperies, the culture simmered and survived.

Today, thanks to Internet forums and social media outlets, where enthusiasts can share their handcrafted vans, the cult following has experienced a resurgence, which now includes many newly converted diehards who regret they didn’t get to experience the 1970s firsthand.

Vanning is about the individual’s view of what is cool, and when you customize a van, it changes you, too. You’ll go a little slower, sit a little higher and roll a little heavier, without a care in the world. And you will never be alone — the van subculture is alive and vibrant. For a long time after the initial craze, custom vans were looked at as embarrassing pieces of the past rather than classics. But the thought, imagination, creativity and diversity of these vehicles has helped them emerge as collectibles in their own right.

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