Has This Brute Converted My Thinking?

When one is quite young, there are some things that leave a lasting impression. Perhaps it was the first car you ever drove or that girl who, well, you know. It leaves an impression that always stays with you.

One of mine was a long time ago. I had traveled the 20 miles to the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer with my father as the ’78 Volare needed some warranty work done. While that isn’t what left the impression (this wasn’t an infrequent occurrence), what did was the woman I met at the dealership. She owned the place and really took a shining to me – I was about 8 years old. She asked my father if I could take a ride with her. We then got in her Chrysler wagon and went across town to fetch her daughter-in-law so they could both come back and see a brand new, just delivered Dodge conversion van.

Being black inside and out, with some type of then cool and now garish graphics, it left an impression on me. Thirty years later, I still remember it well.

This event prompted conversion vans to leave an impression on me. Unlike the girl that, you know, my thoughts about conversion vans have been a mixed bag.

We had a true and unusual need to buy a large vehicle for a cross-continental trip in 2010. My wife, ever the automotive hunter, found and bought ours from a couple in their 70’s who used it as a fun-mobile. A 2000 Ford E-150, upfitted by Osage Conversions, it had 89,000 miles and was equipped with a 5.4 liter V8; that’s 330 cubic inches for those who think in English units.

Our itinerary coincided with our being in South Dakota during the height of the Sturgis 75th Anniversary Celebration. If I thought Buick Century’s were plentiful in Missouri, they can’t hold a candle to Harley’s in South Dakota during August. We slept in the van two nights in a row due to the few available hotel rooms being 10% of what I paid for the van.

It is understandable why conversion vans have enjoyed popularity. Enjoyed is intentionally past tense as while sales were 200,000 annually as recently as 1994, sales of these vehicles are currently in the range of 20,000 sales annually. Sales of conversion vans have given way to sales of SUV’s and crew cab pickups. Another potential factor is the safety concern of these rigs, as upfitting generally involves installation of large portrait windows and raised roofs. The raised roof versions have long been a source of scrutiny as a simple google search for “conversion van safety” found a multitude of articles with various horror stories.

There have been many moments I have questioned the sanity of having such a vehicle. They are hard to work on as my changing the spark plugs required a lot of contortion from both inside and outside the vehicle. The barn doors on the back create obstacles in loading large objects, like an automatic transmission. Handling is not its forte, nor is visibility. The three times in my life I have backed into things was while driving a full-size van.

On the flip-side, it’s on a pickup chassis, so it will pull whatever I need it to pull. It is highly comfortable with our white Ford having Flexsteel produced seats. It isn’t as hard on fuel as one might think given its bulk. Parts are cheap. Finding its twin in a parking lot simply will not happen, unlike those who drive silver Camrys or white Impalas.

In addition to the impressionable moments we have all had, there are also teachable moments in life. Recently I took my wife to St. Louis for a homeschool conference. Conversion vans were out in force, some of which are pictured here. From looking around the lot, I discovered two things. First, I had the only crew cab pickup on the lot (the irony of this and the loss of conversion van sales wasn’t lost on me). Second, as some homeschooling families tend to have more than the average 2.3 children, practicality enters into the equation for them. What is reliable, moves a lot of people in comfort, is plentiful, and doesn’t break the bank to purchase and maintain? A conversion van.

Despite my mixed feeling on these critters, I have concluded conversion vans are like light beer or diet soda. There is a place for them yet they simply aren’t for everyone as not everyone will have a taste for them. But if you have a need or taste, you might just wonder how you ever got by without it.