I miss full-sized, truck-based, American-designed and built, V8-powered passenger vans. I miss regularly seeing them on our roads. I miss the artistic canvas that was many of their bodysides, replete with creatively-shaped “bubble” windows and custom paint and tape stripe packages ranging from mild to wild to rustic in the tradition of the late, great Bob Ross. I miss riding in comfy captain’s chairs that swiveled, reclined, and cradled me in their luxury like I was sitting in someone’s den or TV room. I’m aware that there are passenger versions of the Europe-sourced Dodge Sprinter, but those things are hideous. I’m talking about a van’s van.
I was a kid living abroad for a year when Chrysler Corporation unleashed the groundbreaking (and soon omnipresent) Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan “garageable” vans on the American public. I returned to the U.S. in late summer 1984 after a fourth grade stay in my father’s native Liberia and suddenly noticed all of these shrunken van-like things with carlike styling and hatchback tailgates on the streets of Flint. At the time, the ChryCo minivan twins actually seemed kind of cool and not at all (yet) unhip – projecting a solidly upper-middle-class image as the latest, greatest thing in family transportation. I never would have realized at the time that they would, for many American consumers, take the place of two of my favorite types of vehicles: station wagons and actual, full-sized vans.
I grew up primarily in the 1980’s. It was a glorious time to be a kid passenger, when parents and adults of the day wouldn’t think twice about letting you ride in the “way back” cargo area of a station wagon, or in the bed of a pickup under a fiberglass “Top Kik” roof extender / bed cover. Some of my very favorite highway memories are of goofing off with my younger brother in the back of some family friends’ station wagon or pickup. We’d make faces at cars, count headlights and just act stupid in what had felt like a rolling play-fort with windows – and usually far out of arm’s reach of authority. Still, Peter and I never flashed obscene gestures at drivers or passengers of other cars, as we were good Lutheran kids…or more accurately, had the good fear of Mom’s or Dad’s belt, by which punishment would have been sure, swift and severe if the driver had to pull the vehicle over to facilitate immediate disciplinary action.
Riding in the back of a station wagon or pickup truck on the freeway was more fun than a hay ride. However, riding in a passenger van like one of our three, featured Chevys would prove to be the ultimate. Chevy (and GMC) vans were positively everywhere in the primarily blue-collar, working class, GM factory town where I grew up. In Flint, Michigan, these vans would range from spartan, with many such examples used by churches as “buses” or by large families that needed more space than a station wagon could provide – to downright, finished-basement fancy.
A ride in a conversion van would outrank what I thought a limo would be like. Think about it. A nice, cool, dark, air-conditioned, rolling cave with soft, velour seats, side curtains, cupholders, a raised seating position, and a tinted sunroof – with an AC Delco factory stereo system and the low burble of a small-block V8 providing the soundtrack for what, in retrospect, seemed like a really spa-like environment. Let’s keep this PG-13…I’m aware some of these vans were used by some for adult activities, but I’m speaking only to the highly relaxing experience of being chauffeured around in one of these while sitting in your own seat that you didn’t have to share with anyone else.
I’ve identified all three of the featured vans as being possibly from between model year 1985 through ’91, judging by the refreshed taillamp lenses and the front grilles of each. What I particularly loved about these shots was that I found each van in a locale I felt was truly reflective of each one’s “native” environment. The titular blue beauty (as of this writing) is used as a clothes runner for a local dry cleaner in my neighborhood of Edgewater, on Chicago’s north side. The beige example was seen while I was walking though a Las Vegas neighborhood parallel to the stretch of S. Las Vegas Boulevard between downtown and what’s commonly known as “The Strip”. With the tower from the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino looming overhead, the sight of this modest-but-nice dwelling and van reminded me that families do indeed live there, and that real life in Vegas continues for real people who aren’t just there on vacation to catch a few shows or blow their annual work bonus.
The last example, black with orange and red flames, was spotted at one of my favorite eating establishments back home in Flint, the Starlite Diner. This thing is Flint On Wheels, in the very best way – it is big, bold, hearty, straightforward, and unrepentant in its working class pride and tall, wide stance. It is hungry and thirsty, just like many customers inside the diner. It is the direct opposite of lithe and may not be fashionable by current tastes, but it is all-American, built by GM, and not trying to be anything other than what it is. More importantly and simply, it just gets the job done. (As for me, I’ll take my hash browns with everything on them, a whole plate of fries on the side, and three extra slices of bacon on top. Just bring me my own ketchup bottle…and thanks.)
The minivan is the conveyance of choice for many American families. My older brother’s family currently has not one, but two such vehicles (Honda Odysseys) sitting in their driveway – and no other household vehicles. Others in the CC community, like me, have lamented the disappearance of the longroof. There are only a handful of station wagons currently available in the U.S. market today, most of which are somewhat specialized, like the Subaru Outback (one of which is parked in my younger brother’s driveway). In writing this piece, though, I wanted to recognize the U.S.-designed and sourced, full-sized passenger van – which was for much of my life a staple of U.S. driveways, roads and highways, and is now a dying breed. It is deserving of our love, having served our citizens and buyers for many long, hardworking years.
The blue van was photographed in Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois in July of 2015. The beige van (Las Vegas, Nevada) and black van (Flint, Michigan) were photographed in February 2016.