How my humble Econoline empowered a life

John L. Stein

In the late, great 1970s, Detroit vans were absolutely “it.” Surf wagons. Yamahaulers. Shag wagons. Call them what you will—and use them as you would—these big boxes on wheels offered everything we young people wanted in the day.

Being partial to Ford, I craved a second-gen Econoline that could haul bikes, boards, and babes, so I put my back into earning one. I pumped gas, worked as a wrench and a parts man at three dealerships, and flipped cars and bikes until I had the 2000 clams needed for a used long-wheelbase 1971 SuperVan. I’d really wanted a 1955–57 Thunderbird, but they were outta sight at $5K. And since I rode dirt bikes a lot, the van made great sense. And so, boy, was I happy.

The Wimbledon White E-100 had slotted chrome-reverse rims, hood pins, primer spots, groovy walnut paneling, and threadbare carpeting atop its 10-foot floor, but I didn’t mind; the 302’s compression was spot-on and the Cruise-O-Matic three-speed shifted great.

1971 Ford Econoline beach
John L. Stein

There’s a scene in the movie On Any Sunday where Mert Lawwill drives between races with his left foot atop his Econoline’s dash, a reprieve from the skimpy floor area pinched by the wheel arch and engine cover. For me, slogging along L.A.’s 405 freeway proved a breeze this way, bulking up for motocross with a hand-grip strengthener that hung on the turn-signal lever when not in use, and listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on the tape deck. You can relate, right?

Happily, the SuperVan proved super. In three years, hardly any negatives intruded—just a bum ignition coil, one window broken by vandals, and a cracked gas-tank vent hose that gave everyone inside a headache. Overall, though, that workaday Econoline enabled so many fun times that I now sorely want one again. Such emotions clearly drive the classic car hobby. Because when your best life and times conjoin with even a common, low-value vehicle, why, that’s real love.

1971 Ford Econoline and
Your author’s Econoline in the foreground and his ’61 Chrysler Newport beyond. John L. Stein

The romance lasted until full-time employment called; the E-100 then exited for what I’d paid for it, to some guy I met up with in a parking lot. Today, a comparable one might bring $10,000 to $15,000—hardly a win had I kept mine for decades. So, while the Econoline failed at profit-making, that wasn’t the mission. Instead, it was all about living. And for that, the SuperVan was the right plan.




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    I’ve never owned a van – well not technically true, I did inherit one when my father died. It was equipped for loading and transporting him in his wheelchair, and although I drove it for awhile, it eventually was donated to a local charity that took mobility-challenged folks on excursions. Anyway, I’ve often wondered if I should have gone the van route instead of some of my pick-ups and campers and trailers, etc. I read stories like this one, and I see what guys like Kyle Smith do with their vans, and I think “hmmm, what all did I miss out on?”
    But, I suppose one can’t do EVERYTHING in one life. Maybe in the next one, I’ll be a boogy vanner!

    I had a VW van (1971?) for awhile to get around while I rebuilt my Datsun 1200 coupe (sure miss that one!). I have to admit I was happy to sell it. It ran fine but with that little 4-cylinder boxer it always took awhile to get to wherever you were going. I recall many Ford and Chevy vans in my high school parking lot, often busy venues during lunchtime back then. 🙂

    One can only imagine what the “busy lunchtime van activities” consisted of – but I wonder if any of the options included the actual eating of food?

    If you get a chance, check out a piece available on Amazon called Van Life that covers the “Vanning” community today. Interesting indeed.

    In the early 80s when I was a preteen, my stepdad bought a 1980 Econoline 100 Shorty. Beige with white wagon wheels full shag carpet on the inside straight six with three speed and overdrive on the floor and AC. I learned how to drive stick shift in that van and we road trip that thing everywhere And was always dependable except every year it needed a clutch which was some kind of a Ford defect. Years later when I was in high school, he sold it and bought a 76 E1 50 château two tone, gray and silver paint mag wheels, 351 Windsor automatic and dual exhaust with glass packs , that one wasn’t as dependable but was still fun then later on in the late 90s I bought my aunts 1980 Chevy G 20 sport van with well over 300,000 miles. I had the engine rebuilt dual exhaust new tires put on it and drove that for about a year , and yes they are very fun. Great road trip vehicles I wish my wife now would embrace the road trip life don’t get me wrong. I love my crew cab diesel pick up, but I’ve always liked a full-size van or suburban.

    The wagon did the same for me, it was my do everything car. This is the same thing, just a bigger box. I’ve had some silly fun with vans and top speed runs. (Not very high and very floaty).

    I wanted a mid Dodge shorty when I was a teenager growing up in the 1970s. Got my first one in 1982, a 1977 B-200 brown with orange shag carpet, white wagon wheels and fender flares. Seven years later I found a 1976 B-200 with original murals, porthole windows and a full custom interior. I spent the next year restoring that and still have it to this day and it’s taken us all over the U.S. and Canada! Vannin’ is a great lifestyle!

    At 17 my brother gave me his beat up 64 Econoline window van, cool first car! Subsequently I bought a new 75 shorty Dodge w/ a slant 6, 3 on the tree. Many great memories customizing it , camping and cross country road trips, fun times.

    Nicely written, Mr. Stein; I have always thought vans and station wagons were cool – convenient, easy to drive, and ready for any adventure. One of your links took me back to your remembrances of the 1961 Chrysler, which was also well-written and full of smiles. Look forward to your next automotive musings!

    Great article makes me think of all the good times I had in the past in my Mother’s flower shop van, a 1972 GMC short wheelbase green van with a 350 engine and posi traction rear. You could burn rubber with ease. I would haul my friends to cross the PA/Md border to go out drinking when the drinking age in Md was 18. It only had a drivers and passenger seat, but we would set up lawn chairs for the passengers. The Quarry in Edenville was also a popular destination in the van. My Mom sold the Flower Shop in the 80’s and my brother’s friend bought the 72 van, he drove it to well past 300,000 miles.

    I have this exact van…. I love it. Bought it for $1500 off a guy in an alleyway. I threw a queen bed in the back and replaced a fuel hose and the seatbelts and it trundles along with a roar. Cruise-O-Matic and a hole where the radio once was, it’s iconic. I christened it Bruce, and he is my adventure companion. I look forward to having stories like yours.

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