Sidepipes, mag wheels and murals of wizards were once the hallmarks of the ultimate vehicular form of self expression of the 1970s and ’80s. While the vanning craze of the malaise era eventually fell into obscurity, around the world the culture carried on. In Japan you can find custom vans ranging from wild bosozoku builds to even track built vans, Europe has a subset of van culture as well and Brazil, well let’s just say the Volkswagen Type 2 stayed in production until 2013 for a reason. Meanwhile in America, if we fast forward 35 years from when van culture left off, we began to see some millennials seeking adventure rediscovering what they called “#vanlife” and traveling the country while working remotely. Over the course the last few years the stigma of the clapped-out ex-plumber owned Chevy G20 “Rape Van” began to dissolve as a rediscovery of classic vanning bubbled to the surface of pop culture.
This summer, on the hottest day of August, we explored this subculture at the Chariots of the Gods Custom Van and Vintage Camper Show at Vinyl-Lux Upholstery. We started our journey accompanying Bill Jaap from Good Carma caravaning his personal fleet of Volkswagen vans to the show. The fleet included a water-cooled Vanagon Westfalia, and a pair of Type 2 bay window vans in Riviera and Westfalia form. Good Carma is a shop that specializes in Volkswagen, Audi and Subaru repair and is one of only a handful of shops in the midwest that are well versed with Volkswagen aircooled and waterboxer engines.
Once at the show the vans were parked with tops up with the exception of the Riviera which was clad with a well suited surfboard. There was even a Volkswagen themed game of cornhole was set out as well. Even Jordan from Van Go, came by the Good Carma camp to join in the fun.
Second to the Americans, Volkswagen’s offerings were the most prevalent. This wasn’t a coincidence though because, in the hands of hippies during the 1960’s the Type 2 became the catalyst to what would become American van culture. While the American vans fell out of favor with the general public, the classic aircooled Volkswagen van has always been one of the most iconic cult classic vehicles and have only become more sought after now that vanning is becoming popular again.
As we’ve stated on the podcast, the Vanagon is one of the most popular Volkswagen vans and can be very desirable if you can come across a properly cared for example. It’s just modernized enough to be a viable roadtrip vehicle on American highways but isn’t so modernized that it loses the allure of the classic Type 2. While the original Vanagon was aircooled, there are diesel and watercooled variants as well so take your pick. This van shown above is a watercooled version kitted out with larger steel wheels from GoWesty and a Fiamma awning for a superior camping experience. Note the swing away cooler in the rear of the van, likely from GoWesty as well.
Once we worked up the courage to exit the functional air conditioning of the Vanagon we began to walk around. The vast majority of the vans in show were the American full sized vans you typically equate with American vanning culture. Something made in the 70’s or 80’s by The Big 3 modified in period style. This is not without precedent since the Twin City Vans club has been around since the 1970s, which makes them a strong contender for oldest car club in Minnesota, along with the MSRA.
With a number of long time members still rocking 70s era vans, the newer members have plenty of guidance. The shocking thing about this show is the amount of well preserved vans, even modern builds follow the preservation of the original style largely. This Orange Dodge Tradesman looks the part with its Cragar wheels, body kit, sun visor and mural. In fact there are matching murals on each side.
While the driver side mural features the van venturing into the sunset, the passenger side shows the van coming out through a mountain pass. Creative paint work like this is rarely seen these days on builds. Before anyone asks, no that is not a vinyl wrap or anything, it’s an actual airbrush work which is even more impressive.
Wood covered walls, a solid sound system and a tucked and buttoned velvet roof with matching seat cushions make this Orange tradesman a bad ass mobile living room. These vans come from an era when you didn’t build your car for instagram likes, then move onto the next project, your van was your form of self expression.
The van was your Instagram page, people saw it and they saw what you were about. Did you like Rush? Why not paint the 2112 album cover on the side. Was Dungeons & Dragons your thing? Then you had better deck out that van with couches and a table with a dice tower built in it. A van was a mobile living room for anything you could think of, from adventuring through the world, to tailgating at concerts and everything in between. Many of these had couches, beds, TVs, CB Radios and everything, sometimes even including the kitchen sink.
Frankly the interiors of these vans are more important than the exteriors. While it’s cool to look at them, you spend your time inside of it rather than the outside. They’re made to be used. While the Orange van had an excellent interior, some were even more wild. There was a brown Dodge van with a shag interior that was honestly more comfortable looking than my own house. Note the stained glass sconces in the corners and the rotating captains chairs.
The table in the back looked infinitely comfy to chill out at. The lighting in the van is also something to behold with a swivel spotlight in the cabin and mood lighting throughout. The interior of this exudes the 1970s from the color palate to the shag carpet on everything.
I believe this van was an original van from back in the 1970s but was either restored or perfectly preserved. The porthole window in the back was one of dozens of styles you could get from circles to hearts and I’m not even kidding but that footprint gas pedal shape was an option as well.
Nate Van Hofwegen, the showrunner of Chariots of the Gods, picked up this 1974 Dodge Tradesman from the original owner who received it from his parents as a high school graduation gift. They had purchased it new in 1974 and had it modified before giving it to their son, this may go down as one of the coolest graduation gifts of all time. The mural, by Bruce White, is quite well preserved for it’s age and we can all be happy that this van is in good hands with Nate.
If you’ve noticed there was an abundance of Mopar vans being featured, that was true, there were a lot of Dodge B series vans. While it was the last brand to the van party, they were ready to embrace the trend offering a plethora of engines ranging from 225 slant-6 to the 440 Magnum V8 and options of manual or automatic transmissions. After muscle cars were strangled with emissions devices, the rules weren’t as strict for trucks and vans so Dodge started to put their performance engines into those platforms. They had a line called the “Adult Toys” line most famously making the Lil Red Express and Midnight Express trucks, but they also featured a trim level of the B series called the Street Van. In the mid-1970’s this van had it all with options for custom interior patterns, chrome wheels, porthole windows and an official owner’s club called the “Dodge Van Clan.”
It wasn’t just Dodge that offered factory custom vans. This more modestly built Chevrolet G20 was a very well preserved example of an upscale trim of the first face lift the third generation G series van. The third generation G series van, much like the Dodge B series, embraced van culture and from 1973-1977 offered an extensive catalog of customization options with shag interior and even side pipes from the factory. GM had a deal where a company called Van-Tastic supplied custom accessories through their dealerships. Later on it’s lifespan the G series would become famous for becoming the A-Team van.
Although there were factory supported custom vans, seeing just how wild people could get when they put their minds to it shows just what you can do with these American vans as a platform. This green Dodge van caught my eye from across the show with it’s gullwing door, custom interior and body kit. This van really had it all, the vertically mounted window between the gullwing door and front door is just an additional added touch that set this van apart too.
Although the third generation Chevy G series vans were the most iconic GM vans, there was a single second generation G series van that was in show. While it was unique because of it’s model, it also had the best name of any van in the show.
It’s name was the Road Toad. Maybe I’m the only one that finds that name immensely entertaining. What I think we can all appreciate though is that excellent work they did with the stained glass rear windows. I really wish we still gave our cars such excellent names publicly.
The G series wasn’t GM’s first foray into the van segment however. That honor would have to go to the Corvair based Greenbriar van. This was the most unique domestic van in show with more in common with the Volkswagen Type 2s than anything else due to it’s aircooled flat 6 engine. The modifications to this van were minor but with the tinted high beams, mag 5-spoke wheels and custom antenna, it looked like it had driven out from the background of a Steve McQueen movie.
Today, if you’re trying to find a classic American van, the Econoline is likely your best bet to find. These stayed in production until 2014 with a direct timeline that didn’t end until the English Transit van took over it’s position. It wasn’t a fall from grace like the other brands either because the Transit is one kick ass vehicle. The classic Econoline however, has a place in the hearts of FoMoCo loving van aficionados everywhere though. The third generation Econoline was unique in that it was the only full size van until the 90s to use a body on frame construction, in lieu of a monocoque design. While the lack of a monocoque made it’s cargo floor taller in comparison to the other domestic vans, it likely added to the longevity of the van because it was more modular for fleet use. That being said, a slightly higher floor has in no way stopped vanners from doing what they do.
The fourth generation Econoline remained largely unchanged from 1991 until 2014. Existing completely beyond the vanning craze, these have largely been ignored but they can be just as solid of a platform as any other van. This late model Econoline was one of a handful at Chariots of the Gods and was definitely the most eye catching. That mural was hand painted as well, it’s amazing how much these can transform.
Although hand painted murals were king at the show, there was a place for vinyl wraps as well. This Dodge Tradesman had one of the best vinyl wraps I’ve ever seen at any show, not just van shows either. Although too wild for some, I think this van was a good example of blending classic and modern.
Outside of classic American vans and offerings from Volkswagen, there was a sole Japanese offering, in form of a Mitsubishi Delica. If there was ever to be a single van to represent Japanese vans, the Delica would certainly be on the shortlist. Mitsubishi has historically had a penchant for offroading so of course the Delica would come with 4WD, lifted suspension and knobbly tires from the factory. Mitsubishi’s other penchant in the 80’s/90’s was for technology, so feeding into that, the Delica is loaded to the gills with the tech of the era including an ice box for keeping drinks chilled, front and rear climate control and plenty of other gadgets for trekking through the wilderness. Of course I would be remiss to not mention the four sunroofs you get as well.
From mild to wild, domestic or import, new or old, Chariots of the Gods celebrated everything that makes vanning great. The popularity of custom vans is growing despite the hiatus they took in the American car culture’s eye. Chariots of the Gods also keeps an open mind to other styles of van culture as well, so if it’s a Mystery Machine Econoline or a Van Kulture VIP-style Sienna, all are welcome at this show. So far every year that we’ve been to Chariots of the Gods it has been growing and we look forward to being there next year.