Vans are still a thing in certain pockets of the automotive hobby, but if you want to see the real thing, you need to roll back the clock to the mid-1970s, when the custom van craze really hit its stride.
You can pinpoint the beginning of the van craze to almost the day when EPA regulations strangled the once-ubiquitous muscle car nearly out of existence, and the arrival of the 55 mile per hour speed limit. If you were going to have to go slow, why not do it in the ultimate example of rolling personal expression: The custom van.
You have to go back a few years earlier to see the origins of the custom van craze. In the late 1960s, when music festivals like the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and Altamont were life-defining events, vans were a significant mode of transport for getting you and all your friends to the gig.
They were plentiful, cheap, and had all kinds of room for 1960s-music-festival-style entertainment, such as vigorous debates about the staying on the Gold Standard, Parcheesi tournaments and quilting bees.
The humble van — transport of phone installers, electricians and plumbers — was suddenly cool. More than a decade before Chrysler would revolutionize the van business and cut the coolness right out of it, the full-size van was a blank canvas for limitless customization.
A couple of things made the 1970s a perfect time for van customization. Vans got larger in the 1970s, with more interior volume, allowing for things like beds and couches that were nearly as large as those as you’d fit in your home.
Between 1967 and 1968, the Ford Econoline’s wheelbase grew 15 inches, and then in 1975, it grew even larger. The short wheelbase 1975 Econoline was just a half-inch shorter than the long wheelbase version of the same van a year before.
Magazines were still a huge, moneymaking venture, and several important magazines exploded just as the scene took off, providing a captive audience for a ton of mom-and-pop advertisers that provided aftermarket support.
Finally, the Big Three automakers jumped on the craze and started selling partially “custom” vans straight from the factory.
Right from your local dealer, you could order a van equipped with custom 1970s graphics, slot mags, Wide Oval tires and swivel buckets.
Custom van shows began to crop up all over the country, and the level of personalization went off the charts, starting with window designs like portholes, stars, diamonds and teardrops:
Pinstriping had been a cool thing since the 1950s, but it went full tilt during the van craze:
And if that wasn’t enough, you’d just pay an airbrush artist to whip you up some subtle, tasteful, understated artwork for the flanks. Requisite themes included wizards, unicorns, wizards riding unicorns or KISS.
Sadly, the custom van craze lasted about as long — and concurrent with — the C.B. Radio craze. By 1984, it was all over, as Dodge rolled out its all-new Caravan minivan, transforming the van from rolling sin bin to Mom’s taxi.
Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, or Rod Stewart singing show tunes, the van experienced a hard landing after the birth of the minivan. While #vanlife is a thing on Instagram, but it’s a collection of pretentious photos from absurdly photogenic people, who have spent gazillions outfitting $50,000 Sprinters and Transits with every spendy device known to man, from composting toilets to solar arrays, all to photograph themselves in exotic locations, all paid for by the sale of hemp t-shirts and farm-to-table vegan cat food.
Not a KISS mural in sight.