COAL: 1985 Chevrolet G20 Sportvan – Go West Young Man, In A $1 Van

beige van

Two automotive rites of passage that I feel every gear head should experience is to live in a vehicle and to own a $1 vehicle. The romantic idea of living in a van and driving cross-country is certainly appealing to many people, not just gear heads. Vans are automotive lepers, no one really wants to own a van for the driving experience; they need an large appliance to haul the tools of their trade or a comfortable velvet-lined home (or bordello) on wheels. Free vehicles also have great appeal in that they offer a good story, though usually there’s a catch. All the better if you can combine these two rites of passage in one vehicle that allows you to fulfill a dream of moving 1600 kms across the country in an economical fashion.

Eagle sx4

With my latest Hornet nearing death’s door I had bought an ’81 AMC Eagle SX/4  similar to the one you see above to serve as its replacement. It had the usual rocker rust and other AMC maladies but was certainly salvageable. Then one day, my Dad said a co-worker of his was looking to get rid of an old Jeep and a Chevy van. Would I be interested? Can’t hurt to look.

I was initially far more interested in the Jeep but as it turns out it had been rolled and wasn’t even suitable as a parts car. The van however ran fine, he had purchased it from his ex Father-in-law and used it sparingly to haul building supplies. Since I have no pics of it, you’ll have to settle for what little pics I can find online of windowed, long wheelbase, bottom rung Chevy vans. It says a lot about a vehicle when the only pics you can find online are from fleet auctions. The van had a 305 with an auto tranny, power steering and brakes, one row of cheap vinyl seats in the back for passengers, peeling purple tint and a fair amount of rust. I was also cautioned that a brake line was badly rusted but not wanting to make a return visit to pick it up, I “bought” it and signed over the papers on the spot. As you might guess, the brake line broke on a side street 5 blocks from home as some dummy pulled in front of me. Fortunately again, I avoided an accident and the van and I made it home uninjured.

Blue Sportvan

Once home, it became apparent that the van would be jumping ahead of the Eagle as the next replacement in the beater cycle. Aside from fixing the brake line, replacing shocks, and performing the usual tune-up, all it needed was a metal patch welded over the rust on the bottom of the sliding rear door. I just cut out a big flat piece of sheet metal, welded it, ground down the ugliness and primered it over. Good to go!

There’s something weird about a single 23 year old guy driving an old van that doesn’t have a plumber’s name advertised on the side. People look at you differently, but given the history of the vehicles I had owned that was nothing new to me. It was also the source of endless jokes from my friends, I pretty much set myself up for that. Setting stereotypes aside, it took a bit of time to get used to driving this box. It was considerably larger and bus-like than anything I had previously driven. Also, while the upright seating position allows for excellent visibility, having your feet crammed in a space between the wheel well and the doghouse is pretty annoying.

1985 Chevy Van Ad

The other reason it jumped the queue in the beater cycle is that I had just graduated from University and was ready to escape the frozen tundra of Winnipeg and head west to the mountains of British Columbia. A travel van like Paul’s would have been much better but that would have cost money. No I would have to do it very cheaply and therefore improvise. Since the lease was up on the house some friends and I rented at the end of October, I decided to go west in early November exactly 9 years ago.

I loaded up the van with as many of my possessions as I could, trying to get as much furniture in as possible since I would be starting from scratch in BC. I had a cooler full of food on the passenger seat, and clothes and other smaller items on the bench seat. In the cargo area was a couch, a disassembled single bed, a dresser, a TV, computer and a lot of boxes. The only functional item back there was the couch which I slept on and it required quite a crawl to get to. Since I had been working as a bartender through my last couple of years of University, my vague plan was to go town to town in BC until I was offered a bartending job. Little to no planning went into this trip but the idea was to get a winter of skiing under my belt before proceeding with a career related to my degree.

Van interior

pic via

Setting out on November 1st, the weather decided that I had left too late. A blizzard followed me from Winnipeg to Regina where I slept on the couch in -5°C. Fortunately traction in the snow was not bad on my well worn tires due to the amount of weight in the van. The 300 000+ kms on the old 305 were evident however as it struggled with any hill or wind. For this reason and in the interest of fuel economy I kept to the secondary highways and restricted myself to 90 km/hr. I was in no hurry anyway.


My second night would be spent parked in the shadow of the Big Truck in Sparwood, BC.  Little did I know it at the time, but one day I would be driving similar trucks working at the coal mines in the area. That’s right, this COAL writer is a Coal Miner! Anyway, the weather got much worse as the temperature hit -25°C overnight and sleep did not come easy as I shivered in my sleeping bag. Clearly, the romantic notion of living and sleeping in an old van could not be possible much longer. I would have to focus on getting a job soon and renting heated accommodations. For the rest of the trip, I would couch surf with friends or splurge on a crappy hotel room when cold weather wouldn’t allow a night on the couch in the van.

After less than two weeks of wandering around the mountains applying for jobs I was offered a bartending gig at a bar in Invermere, BC. I would never sleep in the van again as a co-worker let me stay on his couch and I soon found reasonable accommodations in a basement suite. The van had performed admirably getting me and my things across the country but it would soon have a new role; that of the party-mobile.


I was in a small mountain boom town full of like-minded people still in their wild years. I happened to have a vehicle that could carry 5 people legally and at least another 10 on the floor in the cargo area. Whose vehicle do you think we took to the bar or bush parties? We could really maximize the sober driver to drunk passenger ratio with this thing. Gas is also cheap when split 10 ways.

As my winter out west turned into a summer and more, it became obvious that the van’s days were numbered. While still mechanically sound, it acquired a pile of stupid little problems that weren’t easily fixed. Towards the end, both front door handles broke and I had caved in the sliding door doing something stupid so the only way in and out was through the barn doors at the back. Not a way to make a graceful exit in any social situation. Furthermore, it would have to pass an out of province safety inspection to be registered in BC and the abuse I had heaped on it would ensure that it would never pass. The good news though is that you won’t have to hear me complain about inspections anymore as all vehicles bought in BC don’t require inspection.


While this van certainly wasn’t sporty it was very versatile. I removed the rear seat a few times (what a battle) to help friends move in a single load. There was almost 10 feet of cargo area. In it’s final month I picked up and hauled home it’s replacement and the subject of next week’s COAL as well. Yup, I would become a motorcycle guy. In the end, the van shared the same fate as the beater that preceded it, it would be hauled away for free and taken to the local junkyard.