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Vanning Collectables, Vanning History & The Museum of Vanning by Joe Madonia, Curator & Director

How the Museum Collection Began and Grew

Vanning Collectables, Vanning History & The Museum of Vanning by Joe Madonia, Curator & Director

If you are a Vanner (and you know who you are), you may skip to the third paragraph. If you are not a vanner or just want to know more --- read on.

In the late 1960’s many young men in California and other places were back from the Vietnam conflict and they were restless - even bored. Coincidently, the Detroit auto makers had been slowly innovating delivery vehicles based on the earlier panel trucks, relatives of the even earlier station wagons. These new delivery “trucks” were called delivery vans or cargo vans and were quite unique in design with the engine located between the driver and passenger seats. Some of those restless young men bought these “vans” (a few bought panel trucks), usually used, and started to personalize them to their own needs be it surfing, camping, partying or other activities. At first these individuals were mostly loners but eventually they began to discover each other and to congregate at parks and other facilities to share their common interests and just hang out.

As they continued to spend time together, they began to make “runs” to specific destinations or just spend weekends together at places where they could do their own thing without being bothered by others, especially the authorities or nosey neighbors. Inevitably, these groups morphed into “van clubs” with catchy names and logos, banners, etc. Soon, girl friends, wives and single females also began to participate. These clubs began to interact and this resulted in organized activities the most elaborate of which were called “truck-ins” or “van-ins.” One club or a group of clubs would host guests who drove vans (or panel trucks) at a park, fairground or other camping facility for the whole weekend. Activities included van shows to show off the modifications to their vans, games for young and old, runs to nearby attractions, trophies and lots of other activities. These eVANts promoted “staying put” so as to minimize driving under the influence outside the grounds. Since most folks stayed parked all weekend there was considerable socializing at each group’s campsite and lots of cruising from camp to camp. Early-on, the hosts began to give attendees “goody bags” filled with freebies collected from local businesses and an event dash plaque and, soon, event window stickers were included. Vanners began to display the plaques and stickers in or on their vans and, since they couldn’t be easily removed, anybody who had an extra, unattached plaque or sticker had a rarity – a collectable. 

Soon, vendors began to offer even more “collectables” at these eVANts. By the early 1970’s, in addition to dash plaques and stickers, vanners had eVANt T-shirts, collectable hats, patches, glasses/mugs, and other memorabilia to trade. Some vanners from around the country began trading their extra collectables they had picked up during their travels. We would all get together at every truck-in and trade for a new found treasure. We had our boxes or suit cases full of stuff to trade and would do so for hours. Some of my fondest memories of van runs were these trading sessions and they have resulted in lifetime friendships. 

I purchased my first van, a ’67 Ford Econoline in 1974, and I haven’t looked back since. I began collecting vanning memorabilia at my first van show in 1975 and my first truck-in in 1976 -- patches, buttons, stickers, T-shirts and, always, the event dash plaque. It was the highlight of our trading sessions when someone had a collectable from “out West” or Canada – places that most of us only dreamed of “trucking to.” My own collection of vanning “stuff” grew and grew.  In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I began to meet vanners from around the world and, yes, they liked collecting also. So, I began trading through the mail with vanners from about 15 different countries…and my collection continued to grow.

On one of my first long-distant vanning runs, to a Wisconsin truck-in in the early ‘80s, I noticed a string of different museums, from Henry Ford in Detroit to clock and cheese museums in Wisconsin, not to mention about five auto related museums along the way. The seed was planted and I thought, “Why not?”  “Maybe someday.” After the cheese museum I was sold on the idea that someday there would be a museum dedicated to Vanning and the Custom Van.

In 1979 I began having collectables made for my own van club’s run called “Van-In Vasion” in Michigan. I had the 3rd van club pin made (Breezin’ Easy Vans) and the very first event pin. Since then nearly 1,000 van related pins have been created. My passion for collectables was so strong that I started producing and selling memorabilia at van and other events.

The mid ‘90s brought an increase in gas prices and, unfortunately, a decrease in vanning collectibles. With less “van stuff” showing up, our trading sessions started to decline. But, in 1995 the next new thing to come down the pike was about to happen. I produced an event toy van for the 21st National Truck-In®.  We had actually done a prototype toy van the previous year at the 20th Nats® and found that they were a hit. Along with the van toy races, the collecting craze is still going strong today.  The business world has recognized the Custom Van since the ‘60s and the amount of toy van memorabilia is staggering and endless.

So, where am I going with all of this? Well…to Florida, of course. After 30 years of collecting van stuff I realized it was time for the world to enjoy it all too. The collection had moved twice in Michigan and now resided in the Tampa - St. Petersburg area. In 2012 we had our grand opening with nearly 100 visitors dropping in during the Florida Council of Councils meeting. In 2013, with the help of generous donors, we purchased land for a new museum building. The new museum building was completed in 2014, again thanks to generous donations. Currently we have moved much of the existing collection to the new building and are still completing the interior with new display spaces. We recently installed air conditioning which, in addition to more comfort for our visitors, will help preserve the collection and make is possible for us to complete a vanning library to house our extensive collection of historical vanning documents.

Some of the items you can expect to see at the Museum of Vanning & Hall of Fame are over 20,000 dash plaques and complete editions of almost every van magazine ever published, plus 1000’s of van event pins, patches, stickers, posters, hats, van dealer literature and van owner manuals. And, of course lots of Toy Vans. I have also been able to collect artifacts that help document the history and cultural influence of vanning and van clubs, including the sagas of the National Street Van Association (NSVA), NAVA, NAVO, NSRA, the National Truck-In® and the Council-of-Councils. There is also a tribute to the most famous of vanning collectible traders – Space Trader Whale.

We also have a vanning “gift shop” full of collectibles for sale so you can add to your collection or find that souvenir to get your collection started. And, just like any other van event you may attend, you will receive a souvenir dash plaque of you visit to the Museum of Vanning & Hall of Fame. We have taken the gift shop online so that you may purchase vanning memorabilia from the comfort of your own home.

How Vanning Got A Museum Slide Show Video

Click on this Video Link to watch a narrated slide show about how Vanning got a museum. It takes about 28 minutes. We strongly suggest expanding the video to full screen for better viewing.

If you are a Vanner or just interested in this unique American & International phenomenon, and you would like to get involved, "Click Here."