I took a private jet to get this vintage van … then had to hitchhike back to it
For me, vans are like music. How? Simple: I was born too late to be on the scene for the arrival of my favorite stuff. Not that vans aren’t hot right now. “Kids these days” are getting into minimalism and tiny homes. You could blame the recent housing boom, and the surging prices therein. You could, in some way, credit the fact that due to the pandemic a vast majority of people are now working 100 percent remote, free to explore and travel as they please. Whichever combination created a culprit, the past couple of years have seen a renaissance in Van Culture. Millennials everywhere are picking up high roof examples of modern vans, adorning them with solar panels, tapestries, wifi hotspots, Pinterest-inspired cabinets, storage, and sleeping applications. The possibilities are seemingly limitless.
Breathing new life into any facet of car culture via advances in technology and social media clout is always exciting, but looking at the new generation Vanners you’d suspect something was lost along the way, and it’s true: No more riveted upholstery, no more shag carpet, no more wild murals of dragons or wizards, no more disco balls, no more Bitchin, no more Heavy. Just the same as when Grunge Rock came into the fray; There wasn’t anything wrong with the new wave, for most, but something beautiful and rich had taken place not long before it. The new generation wouldn’t know. Just like the original cover of Skynyrd’s Street Survivors album: I wasn’t old enough to remember it, but I am lucky enough to have people in my life to tell me what was there before.
A notice to readers: Comments on new Hagerty articles have been disabled due to technical issues since July 29th. Don’t worry, the comments are coming back soon, and when they do, we’ll have a contest or giveaway to reward our readers for their patience. Never stop driving! — Jack Baruth
I met Matt of Rolling Heavy Magazine back at Greaserama 2016, in Kansas City, MO. I bought some merch off of him, and he gave me the latest issue of his magazine. It was cooler than any Hefner owned publication I’d ever stolen from my dad. (Side note: there was a near-mint ’87 Coupe De Ville that my old man kept in his shop. That’s where he hid his stash after he remarried. He won’t realize until he reads this, but I’ve known about that treasure trove since I was a kid. Thanks Dad.)
Anyways, Matt was cool like the other side of the pillow, happy to talk about these machines and the surrounding culture in their former glory. That thing that was there before, it was there all along, but I knew very little about it. In my own experiences there wasn’t much outside select memories with my dad, my older sister, and a multicolored GMC Vandura. Almost immediately after purchasing the van Dad swapped the motor for a crate 350, and installed an extra, mismatched bench seat. He threw us kids in the van along with his girlfriend at the time, and we hit the road for Naples, Florida with less than 20 miles on the new heart. Quite a shake down run considering we were coming from a small-town northwest of Atlanta in a time when cell phones were rare, and my dad wouldn’t be caught dead with one. I guess life warrants a gamble every now and then, and when you’re a single parent of 2, working graveyard shift nonetheless, you aren’t often spared the luxury of time to make sure everything is dialed in.
The trip worked out though, so did the next, and the next one after that. I imagine that thing had a lot of great life left in it when he passed it on to the then ex-girlfriend as a tradeoff to get her out of the house. Everything has a price, and the price of one freedom meant the sacrifice of another. My favorite part of those trips wasn’t the destinations, but sitting up front with him tracing our route with the Rand McNally as we hummed along. Finessing the analog stereo knobs through the gospel and static, searching for the nearest rock station with the best reception while the motor labored melodically beneath the doghouse between us. All the while hoping I wouldn’t lose track of the mile markers, and botch the single job of Pre-GPS navigation which I had been assigned. All of this playing in the back of my mind as I thumbed the pages of Matt’s magazine. I was inspired. I thought of my son, and how he would benefit from the same experience in this new age of technology. This is where Jake’s “on again-off again” search for a van would begin. I had to have one of my own, but being the black sheep of a mostly GM-powered family I knew that my ride had to be MoPar or no car.
After exchanging contact information with Matt came a plethora of emails and craigslist links followed by lamenting a variety of heartaches and obstacles in the form of time, distance, price, and condition. I ended up bouncing around the country for a couple years, habitually relocating for my cliché traveling salesman gig. I was never able to lay eyes or hands on an example I could feel confident about purchasing. Four years passed. Then one day, it happened.
Through a search in a Facebook group, I locked eyes with a burgundy ’79 shorty van. It was perfect. 318 small block, side pipes, a clean slate for however I wanted to build my bachelor pad in the back. The only concern was the Van was in Arkansas, and I was in GA, third in line to make an offer. I had the cash, and no interest in negotiating the price. I didn’t want to risk letting this one get away, but in the end, I missed out to a gentleman who got to Arkansas first. I am not certain if there is a name for the frenzy which ensued after losing out on a deal which seemed to be the perfect fit, but there should be.
I found myself so wrapped up in the concept of owning this thing that I had mentally sold it to myself at full price, maybe more if the guy would’ve accepted the higher bid. I’d imagined the adventures it would deliver me through, the memories it would create for my son, and filled up online carts with parts I intended to buy the day it found it’s home in my driveway… When I sit here and explain to you that I was upset, believe me, I’ve lost less sleep over good lovers leaving. I spent weeks back in square one; a pit of desperation that I could only compare to Hunter S. Thompson’s description of an ether dose: “You can actually watch yourself behaving in the terrible way, but you can’t control it.” Perusing the auto classified sites, scrolling aimlessly through Facebook marketplace, and becoming the nuisance to any Dodge Van related group I could slip into. I was borderline obsessing. Scratch that, this was a full-blown problem by this point, compounded by the scarcity of what I wanted, and where it was seemingly never intersected by a fair price. Looking for one of these vans (or really any niche car at this point) is sure to fetch mostly examples grossly overpriced, abused, neglected, corroding unto themselves, cannibalized by other projects of an unloving owner, or any tasteless combination of the array.
When I finally found the next candidate (an off-market deal from a stolid dude named Rob who frankly wasn’t convinced about selling) I refused to waste any time. I asked for all the pictures I could think of, I asked all the questions my limited knowledge would tell me to ask, I vetted the purchase as best I could. I quickly decided it was worth the having, now I just needed to plan the getting.
This is probably the best time to bring up my day job as it directly influenced the outcome of this deal. I sell charter flights for a private jet management company, and while that may sound illustrious it is mostly monotonous number crunching for 8-10-14 hours a day. One of the main redeeming perks, however, is that in the seldom event of a plane flying empty I can hitch a ride. Truthfully, it doesn’t suck, and in this near perfect alignment of the sun and the moon and whatever planets were necessary to connect me to my van there was an empty leg to North Carolina, not 40 minutes from where the van was parked.
I finalized the plan with Rob, and about a week later I was on a jet to go buy a vehicle, sight unseen, and ultimately drive it 5 hours home to Georgia with fingers crossed, and a belief that miracles can happen. I guess life warrants a gamble every now and then, and this would be the pinnacle of my ambitions.
Once the wheels touched down I took a rideshare to meet Rob at his place. Like me he is a purveyor of fine nostalgic metal, and was happy to show me around his collection. I couldn’t take my eyes off of my new prospect. I was relieved to see that she showed up just as well, if not better than she did in the pictures, and I felt that there was no reasonable obstacle that would stop me from getting it home. Even though in my haste and recklessness, I neglected to tote so much as a socket set when boarding the plane. I was 100% vulnerable with arms wide open for whatever this van would throw at me over the next several hours. I couldn’t think of a better way to get acquainted. 238 miles with a perfect stranger of a machine.
We would learn a lot about each other, and I looked at the prospect of a breakdown as an opportunity to correct a weakness that I would rather not expose later, say on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere with my kiddo. We spent about an hour looking the van over, talking cars, and strategizing my voyage home. Then Rob did one of the most professional paperwork jobs I’ve ever encountered in a vehicle purchase, and he sent me on my way. There’s not a lot that compares to the feeling after you’ve shaken hands, and handed over your hard-earned cash. Especially after the time invested in the chase. The anxiety or apprehension of a decision is intensified when you drive that vehicle out of the lot (or driveway) heading home. All the more outrageous considering the distance to my driveway in this case, but onward we drove because despite what lay ahead; I still had to be back in the office the next morning.
The first hundred miles were relatively inconsequential, I’d stopped after the first hour just to look back over everything. I added some gas, and let it cool for a while to make sure the gauges were all corresponding. After getting some time on the interstate I realized my cruising speed would be a modest 60-65, I didn’t want to overdo it. In a short while I found myself finessing the analog radio knob. I was looking for a rock station. It was a beautiful day. I crossed into South Carolina, found a new station, and when I reached the GA state line, I felt like the drive was going suspiciously well. I was 2 hours from home when I heard the POP, and lost all power. I persuaded the free-coasting fortress to the right lane and rolled up a convenient exit ramp well enough out of danger. Luck be a lady. After opening the hood I realized the pop I heard had been the battery. Previous experience with these Mopars, and their external voltage regulators, let me know on the spot that I would be needing a ride to a parts store.
I’m no stranger to hitchhiking. I’m not a stranger to a break down either, in fact, I was relieved that I would get to fix something. It keeps my expectations at a manageable level. I walked across the overpass to a truck stop where I found a ride surprisingly fast. Unlike the last time I’d found myself stranded on the side of the road, this time I had a cell phone, and called ahead to the local parts store. I picked up a battery, a voltage regulator, and an adjustable wrench. With another generous ride back to the interstate, this time from an employee of the Auto Parts store, I set out on my roadside repair.
Those who know will tell you that the voltage regulator is not rocket surgery, but my generic crescent wrench supplemented the difficulty level necessary for the satisfaction I needed to have getting back on the road. I couldn’t believe so much time had passed. The sun was setting now, and though I had just fixed a common issue with minimal effort, the parts stores would be closing soon which meant that any other breakdowns would either result in a hefty tow bill, or me getting to sleep in the van for the first time. Speaking of the tow bill, I didn’t mention yet that I maybe had $250 total cash for this endeavor, and the recent pitstop had eaten up about half of that. Things were getting exciting as the sun continued to set. Despite mounting anxiety, and almost compulsively watching for mile markers the Van charged on.
The sun was down now, meaning the parts stores would be no help at this point. I was back to fumbling through radio stations. Hoping for a familiar identifier to be called out like a beacon of hope and reassurance that I was within affordable range of a prospective tow bill, if needed. 5 hours is a long time in any vehicle. 5 hours in this vehicle with questionable reliability was beginning to look more and more like a terrible idea. The closer I got to Atlanta, the more anxious I became. The fear of stop and go conditions after a full day of boogie brought me to a whole new level of anticipation. The mile markers slowed to a painful creep as I joined the traffic at the perimeter. Sure, I could pay to get the thing towed from here, but truth be told, I just wanted to be home at this point. There was cold beer in the fridge, and I didn’t want to wait for a tow truck navigating a traffic jam to get me there.
We pressed on; it was almost 9:30 pm as I merged north on I-75. Away from the traffic now, this was the final stretch. Everything seemed strong as ever so I put the hammer down. Once out of traffic my nerves melted away. I turned the radio down. Then I turned it off altogether, and right there I had a moment. The streetlights whizzed by, the rays of orange illuminating the cabin sporadically. The wind whipped around inside the cabin. The engine was still patiently and diligently working away while the asphalt sang beneath the big cooper cobras. The entire orchestra putting Atlanta lights further and further behind me. “Pleased to meet you” I thought, and then I smiled as I patted the doghouse. When I finally got off the interstate I didn’t go home. I stopped at the bar across the street from my neighborhood. I parked the van under a light in the parking lot, and stared at it over a beer. Basking in the accomplishment. Celebrating a new friend. Breathing easier now with the weight off my mind. Even if it wouldn’t turn back over. I could walk from here.