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What the Heck is Vanning?

What the Heck is Vanning?

Vanning is a point of view. It’s a sub-culture. It’s a sport. It’s a pastime. It's a life-style. Vanning is as American as apple pie or hamburgers, and as international as bangers & mash, shrimp on the barbie or lutefisk. Vanning began over 50 years ago. Also known as Custom Vanning or Street Vanning, it is the direct descendant of California surfing, the Viet Nam War, the Detroit auto manufacturers (and others) competitively trying to capture the delivery and trades vehicle market, and the social upheaval of the 1960's and early 1970's. Throw in some American independence and International creativity and you have it – Vanning.

Out in the Golden State, California, during the late 1940's and early 1950's many surfers had adopted the original style station wagons as their vehicle of choice – the woodie. The original station wagon was meant for passengers and their baggage but had since morphed into more of a delivery vehicle.  Concurrently, Detroit stepped up it's efforts to market the panel delivery truck - just two seats up front and cargo space but with car-like dimensions. Before long many surfers and other beach and desert enthusiasts were also driving these panel trucks. They could be adapted for overnight camping and to haul all of their supplies and toys.

In 1949 Volkswagon had introduced the Transporter and the Microbus - one meant for hauling cargo and the other meant for hauling people. These were small, cheap-to-operate vehicles that suited the purposes of many of the same folks who were into woodies. Soon, so many people were converting these vehicles into campers that VW and others began producing camper versions. The VW "bus" eventually became an icon representing freedom of the road and freedom of spirit. This is a bit ironic because most van owners initially did not and many still do not accept the VW bus as a real van. Yet it has become so iconic and so connected with the “freedom of the road” and "Hippie" lifestyles that its influence cannot be denied.

Ford had introduced the first real cargo van, the Thames, in the UK in 1957. It did not meet with much enthusiasm. In 1960, Ford introduced the Econoline for the 1961 model year.  It was the first real cargo van produced in North America although it was built on an automobile frame. The engine was not in the front or the back; it was near the front in between the front seats accessible only from on top via the housing - the doghouse or coffin - or from underneath.  (In later models of all brands the engine would be moved to the front of the vehicle to allow access from the front as well as from the rear. This had the effect of making the "doghouse" look even more like it's namesake.) Chevy soon followed up with the Corvan (a rear-engined spinoff of the Corvair) in model year 1961 and the mid-engine G10 in model year 1964. Dodge introduced the A-100 van for the 1964 model year.  Trades people and delivery companies couldn’t get enough of these "cargo vans." By the end of the 1960's cargo vans were being produced all over the world a in both cargo and passenger versions. All sorts of window and door arrangements were offered. Passenger ersions of many kinds were also introduced.

Then it happened. During the late 1960's young men began returning to the US from service in Viet Nam. A good number of them didn't really want to fit into the main stream. On the West Coast, some took up the surfer lifestyle or something approaching a pre-hippie lifestyle.  Also in California and elsewhere in the US, there were a lot of young “gearheads” who just wanted something different with which to tinker. Hot rodding and street rodding were cool but they were expensive and too conventional for them. Soon they were buying used vans and panels, and converting them to their own designs – for the beach, the desert, camping, hauling their motorcycles or whatever they wanted. They began to find each other and before long clubs were forming made up of guys who drove these converted vans and panel trucks. The ladies were coming along for the ride and even buying vans for themselves – an often ignored early "women’s' lib" statement. The first recognized van club in the USA, Associated Vans, was formed in southern California in 1966. Many clubs soon followed but it was not until the early 1970's that vanning really started to make serious inroads throughout the rest of the US and Canada.

In the mid to late '60s, groups of van and panel drivers began to go on “runs” often to the beach but also to the desert and other points of interest. These “van runs” slowly became more organized and better attended. Eventually, some of the more organized groups of vanners or van clubs began to sponsor these van runs. One very positive aspect of the weekend runs was that they encouraged people to party “in-place” rather than going out on the open road.  If you’re going to indulge, do it safely. Of course, the latter point may have been lost on many of the parents of the girls who were riding in those “hippie vans.” Another notable feature of these van runs, even those that were daytrips to the local mall parking lot, was the van show – the “show and shine.” Those van owners who were into modifying their vehicles would line them up and show them off. This was especially true for those who were starting to make the interiors and the exteriors very creative and very fancy. Some even began to have talented car painters paint murals or graphic designs on the exterior of their van or panel.  They even began to name their vans after a particular theme. The day of the show van - "Show & Shine" - had begun. Before long, show and shine became a standard feature of most van events with “official” judges judging the vans and panels, and nice looking trophies being awarded, many of which were homemade with a great deal of creativity. (Decades later, as miniature lighting became practical and affordable, some vanners would rig lighting on the interior and/or the exterior of their van for showing at night – the “Bright and Shine.”)

By the late 1960’s most vans were being manufactured on a truck chassis. This fact, combined with the CB (citizens band radio) craze brought on by the first oil crisis and reduced highway speed limits in the mid 70’s, brought an attitude to vanning that we were “truckers” and that our vans could be and should be called “trucks.” Thus, vanners were now “Truckin’” and very much a part of the CB wackiness.  However, vanners traveled in “caravans” not convoys – always a bit unique.

At some point it became expected that each vehicle attending these van runs would receive a "goody bag" stuffed with both usable and unusable trinkets and items gathered by the host club/organization. The goody bags were typically given out at the gate as each truck rolled in. Providing the best goody bag of the season became a badge of honor for hosting van clubs/organizations. Several other items came to be expected as vanning progressed through the late 60’s and into the 70’s. The first was a dash plaque to commemorate attendance. Dash plaques were stamped metal shapes embossed or painted with the artwork of the eVANt that had adhesive tape on the back so that they could be mounted on the dash of the van/panel or elsewhere. Many vanners mounted them on the door of the icebox that, by then, so many vanners had installed. These dash plaques were among the first "collectibles" of vanning.

Many eVANts began providing window stickers either as part of the admission fee or for an extra charge. Also available at many eVANts were commemorative hat/lapel pins, T-shirts with the eVANt artwork either silk-screen or transferred on, belt buckles and many, many other "collectibles" and trinkets commemorating the specific eVANt or generically celebrating vanning. Many vanners began to collect and trade these items. Collecting and trading led to the accumulation of the vast collection of vanning memorabilia, tradables and artifacts that comprise the Museum of Vannings' extensive collection. Click Here to learn how the Museum of Vanning collection was started and how it grew.

By the early 1970's two things were happening.  Van enthusiasts were holding more and more "vans & panels only" events and car magazines like Hot Rod and Car & Truck were starting to take notice of these Custom Vans or Street Vans – at least the fancier ones. Still there was little communication between different vanning groups outside of their local areas.  Keep in mind that there was no cable TV, no cell phones, no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram, etc. back then, only newspapers, magazines, broadcast TV, snail mail and expensive long-distance phone calls. Eventually, the minds of a group of vanners in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Vans of Denver, and Terry Cook, editor of Hot Rod magazine came together. Terry called for a "national van event" and RMVD met the challenge by hosting the First National Truck-In at Tiger Run, Colorado, in July of 1973. Original members of RMVD remember that they thought of the National first and Terry chimed in. Such are the vagaries of history. (Sometime during the early '70s the weekend van runs began to be called "truck-ins" or "van-ins.") This first national van event drew nearly 1000 vans (and some panels) from across the country and everyone wanted another one. So, the National Truck-In® was born – a national event for vanners only. 

[Stay tuned for a more detailed history of the National Truck-In®.]

As will be detailed in the forthcoming history of the National Truck-In®, the challenge of keeping this “National eVANt” as an event “by vanners, for vanners” resulted in the development of a movement within vanning called “2%” which brought about considerable controversy about how vanners should conduct themselves and their eVANts. The 2%ers essentially believed that vanners should control as much as possible and that commercialism should be minimized.  They also believed that “anything goes” as long as nobody gets hurt and you replace what you break; i.e., “we can be as crazy as we want as long as we don’t really hurt anything or anybody.” The opposing view, the “98%” view, was that vanning couldn’t grow and sustain itself unless there were more organization and rules as well as commercial interests – that vanning should be more “main stream.” Vanning should be better organized and not as rowdy. Elements of this controversy are still an undercurrent in vanning to this day.

The mid '70s brought unexpected and unbridled growth in vanning. Even some regional events were hosting thousands of vans for the weekend. This growth brought many challenges because most vanners just wanted simple, laid back partying with friends and fellow van enthusiasts with minimum hassles. Low hassle is hard to come by when hundreds or even thousands of vans and many thousands of vanners are straining the facilities of the hosting venue beyond their limits. Things were beginning to unravel but no one was yet paying much attention; they were all caught up in how big this was getting. First, there was the second "oil crisis" of the late '70s. Vans did not get good gas mileage in the first place and having to wait in line for fillups did not encourage long distance runs to faraway eVANTs. By the late 1980's, attendance at van events was definitely down, many eVANts ceased to be held and many van clubs were disbanding, joining the ranks of the "fallen flags." Only the best managed or best located eVANts would survive the ensuing decades. More van clubs began to fold as the cost of new vans and gasoline continued to go up and the pressures of the two-income family economy decreased membership. Vanning had to change to be sustainable – and it did. Vanning has become less rowdy, albeit still exuberant, and more family oriented as the original vanners raised their children and matured themselves.

One influence that began in the late '70s has helped to keep vanning going. The Council-of-Councils grew out of many vanners' desire for better communication and coordination.  First conceived in the deep south, the CofC, is a once-a-year meeting of representatives from local and regional van councils from all over the US, Canada and even Northwest Europe and Australia. Held as a mid-winter party, the CofC has helped vanners discuss and decide on many relevant issues such as how van events are run and many other vanning related issues. CofC also works closely with the National Truck-In Board to maintain and preserve the National Truck-In®.

The introduction of the Dodge Caravan (and Plymouth Voyager), the first minivans, in model year 1984 was a significant point in vanning history. This was a front wheel drive van of much smaller proportions than the standard model vans of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The minivan was, in the eyes of most, a mixed blessing for vanning.  Yes, they were more economical, but were they really a van? Most vanners came down on the side of yes, because they also made a cargo model as well as a passenger model, they were really vans. However, it was already obvious to those who were paying attention that the days of the full size van might be numbered. The move towards smaller, more economical van models was advanced by General Motors with the introduction of the Chevy Astro (and GMC Safari) in model year 1985. Sized between full-sized vans and minivans, the Astro retained rear wheel drive (or all wheel) and a traditional cargo van appearance.  Both minivans and Astro/Safari offered passenger versions. Minivans are still manufactured today by nearly all auto manufacturers. However, the Astro and Safari series were discontinued after the 2005 model year to the dismay of many vanners who had come to love the practical, durable aspects of the Astro/Safari.

The ensuing decades have seen vanners become less rowdy and more pragmatic if not more organized. Vanners still have that rambunctious, rebellious spirit that made them so unique so long ago and which resisted too much change and too much conventionalism. Yes we're older and many of us now sleep in a nice camper or a motel instead of our vans but we'll still drive for hundreds of miles to spend the weekend partying with old friends and to make new friends. Some vanners even accept VW buses as vans although the "controversy" still lingers. The advent of the modern van, the Ford Transit and the Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter among others, has brought new life and interest but also some more questions about "what is a van?" Vanning is beginning to experience an influx of younger people – people who did not grow up vanning but have discovered that they are interested in vans, especially the earlier models. There is almost a sense of déjà vu. Part of the Museum of Vanning's mission is to make vanning history available and understandable to these "newbies" so that they will understand the uniqueness of this cultural phenomenon in which they've chosen to participate.

[Editor's Note: Vanning is not to be confused with Van Life. Van Life is a term used to describe those people who chose to live out of a converted van or camper van, at least most of the time. Most Vanners do not live in their vans except to go "vanning." However, there are many Van Lifers who attend vanning eVANts and many Vanners who occasionally live in their vans for more than several days.]

There is a saying about Vanning that goes, "If I have to explain vanning to you, you won't get it." However. the Museum of Vanning has the goal of explaining vanning to as many people as we can. Who knows? Maybe you're a Vanner and don't yet know it. Maybe you'll “get it.”

Some of the preceding was paraphrased from "A Brief History of Vanning" written by Bert Neely, aka Raoul, and published in the 1993 Vanner Yearbook.  RIP, Raoul.

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