Music and motor vehicles have been my two lifelong obsessions, and my ownership of a GMC Vandura 3500 van, which was used as a tour vehicle for my band, brought both of them together.
I’ve been in bands on and off since I’ve been a teenager, and from 2000 to 2005, I was playing bass in a rock band that was, at least for me, a more serious undertaking than the type of bands I was typically in. Our singer and guitarist Chris was young, outgoing, and ambitious and booked live music at a local SF club, which put him in touch with numerous bands, musicians, and random music people around the country. We’d often open for touring bands and played several shows a month, sometimes out of town.
I was the oldest member. At the start, I was in my mid-30s, everyone else was in their 20s, and by the end, I had just turned 40 years old, and was essentially living out one of my teenage aspirations as I eased into middle age.
Initially, we each relied on our own vehicles to get ourselves and our gear back and forth from shows. At the time, my only operable car was a hot-rodded 1965 Falcon, and part of my bass amplifier rig was a speaker cabinet that weighed nearly 100 lbs and was about the size of a dishwasher. It wouldn’t fit in the Falcon’s trunk, but could with some wrestling be maneuvered into the Falcon’s back seat. I would sometimes carpool with our keyboard player Jen, who owned a Ford Explorer, which was much more suited for hauling musical gear. Her equipment was even heavier than mine – she had a vintage electric organ and a Leslie speaker cabinet (a large and complicated speaker cabinet that involved a motorized. rotating baffle to produce a tremolo effect) powered by an also very large and quite odd tube-powered Fender PA amplifier.
A little more than a year into the band’s existence, we were booked at a showcase in Austin, Texas. Our singer booked additional shows in LA, Tucson, San Antonio & Dallas, as well as an afternoon show in an Austin record store, and it seemed advisable to rent a van for the trip rather than try to carpool the 1750+ mile trip from San Francisco to Austin in our various vehicles.
The morning of our departure, we rented a Ford E350 15-passenger van, picking it up at San Francisco airport. At our practice space, we unclipped the rearmost bench seat, loaded our gear in the back, and then headed off to Texas.
Two things stand out about the rental van and that trip. First, this was back when smoking was fine in rental cars. I was the only nonsmoker in the band, and by the end of the trip, I smelled like a chain smoker.
Second – van rentals had only a set number of free miles a day. A common trick was to unhook the speed sensor by undoing a plug on the tailshaft of the transmission, which would stop the odometer from logging miles. It would also stop both the speedometer and overdrive from working. After being pulled over for speeding in Texas, we hooked it back up to get the speedometer working, as it dawned on us that speeding tickets could eat up any savings from not paying the mileage charge.
Traveling in one vehicle, especially a big one like the Ford van, was so much easier for us. We could trade off on driving for a few hours at a time. Even with all our gear piled in, there was plenty of room to stretch out. This was post-internet, but before smartphone navigation was a thing, and I remember putting together a big folder of MapQuest printouts for the trip.
I had for some time been thinking about getting a second car, and after our Texas trip, I started thinking that perhaps I should get a van instead. A scan of used car listings showed that a variety of vans were within my price range, so I started researching vans, as well as talking with numerous people I knew who owned or had owned vans – I knew quite a few musicians, so I had a decent cross-section of people to ask.
Burning up a transmission seemed to be a common van-specific breakdown for touring musicians. I’m guessing this was due to running all day while carrying close to or over the van’s rated weight capacity.
A note on van (and truck) weight ratings. Both are commonly designated as “half-ton”, “3/4 ton” or “one-ton” but this can be misleading — years ago, these corresponded to the actual weight capacity (for example, an older Ford F-100 could carry 1000 lbs). Over the past few decades, weight ratings increased, and the model names changed and somewhat aligned with the newer ratings. For example, a Chevrolet G1500 “half-ton” van had an actual max capacity (cargo + passengers) of about 2200 lbs. The actual maximum capacity could be found by subtracting the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) from the vehicle’s curb weight.
Given that we’d be traveling with 5 people, each with 1-200 pounds of musical equipment, plus luggage, merchandise, and possibly an additional passenger or two, I puzzled over whether a light-duty “half-ton” van might be over-taxed, or at least require a transmission cooler.
It also became evident that break-ins and theft were a frequent problem, and oftentimes the whole van was stolen to get at the equipment — I heard numerous stories of vans disappearing and being found a day or so later with the steering column smashed and all the gear inside missing.
On my band’s trip in our rented van, we’d covered the gear in the back with moving blankets, but I’d always felt like it presented an attractive target and was never all that comfortable with it. Right around this time, I’d had a guitar stolen from my Falcon after playing a show at the Hemlock bar in SF. One of those classic “it was only there for a minute” stories – I had left it in the back seat of my car which was parked in the alley next to the bar (the trunk was full with other gear). I went inside to haul out additional equipment, paused for a bit to talk to someone at the bar, and that was all the time it took for someone to smash my window and grab the guitar.
I started looking over the classifieds and Craigslist for likely van candidates. I had a budget of around $2000, and it seemed there were numerous possibilities in that price range.
Ford, Chevy, and Dodge had all introduced full-sized vans in the 1970s and kept the same basic platforms in production for many years. I didn’t have a brand preference – it seemed like each manufacturer had its advantages and drawbacks. Given my budget and what was available at the time, I was mostly looking at vans from the 1980s to the early 1990s, and I was hoping to find something on the newer side with niceties such as working air conditioning, overdrive transmission, and a motor with EFI and electronic ignition, though an older van conversion from the 70s might have tempted me had I come across one. I didn’t want anything too old or esoteric, though I did have an odd respect and admiration for one band I knew in SF that used a beat-up Corvair van as their band vehicle.
I also wanted to avoid an extended van – both because parking such a large vehicle in SF would have been a pain, and because that big extension on the back could cause weird handling if too much cargo was carried in the section behind the rear axle.
I found a likely candidate advertised on Craigslist. It was a Dodge van, formerly a phone company van, and the ad mentioned it included a generator and an air compressor. I figured I could remove and sell both to defray some of the purchase cost, or perhaps use the air compressor in my garage, but when I went to see the van, it became evident that the generator and compressor were solidly built into the structure of the vehicle, and removing them would be pretty involved and leave some major holes in the side of the vehicle. The van also showed some alarming rust scabs on the roof from a poorly-installed roof rack.
The van’s seller looked to be reselling commercial and government vehicles he had picked up at auction – I noticed an ex-police Crown Vic parked outside his house with a for-sale sign in the window. Other vehicles were scattered about his San Francisco neighborhood, and I remember him playing back his answering machine messages and hearing someone curse him out for taking up too much parking in the neighborhood — I assume they’d phoned the number on one of his For Sale signs. When he heard I was in a band, he said he had something I might be interested in. We walked a block or so from his place, and he showed me a former SFPD van.
It was a 1993 GMC Vandura 3500 – commonly known as a “one-ton” van — though the actual cargo capacity was well over a ton. Definitely capable of hauling all of my band’s personnel, gear, and then some. There was a bulkhead behind the front seats, and the cargo area had been divided into two cells for prisoner transport, each with steel benches and sheet metal riveted inside. Neither the side nor rear doors had any windows, though small vents had been set in each, covered with louvers and heavy steel mesh.
It looked like the perfect vehicle for my purposes. I took it for a test drive and it seemed to run well. It had perhaps 40,000 miles on it, much lower mileage than other vehicles I’d considered (and it had a 7th digit on the odometer to confirm that it hadn’t rolled over.) The asking price was a quite reasonable $1200.00. The body showed numerous scrapes and dings from years of hard service, and the police livery looked to have been quickly and not too elegantly removed. SFPD vans were typically painted black up to the beltline with the upper body and roof white. The roof on this van had been left white, but the upper body had been quickly and none too skillfully spray-painted black. The SFPD stars on the doors had been mostly scraped off, and a few of the other markings had been spray-painted over as well (not all of them, though, which would cause problems later.)
Inside, various brackets showed where the radio gear had once lived, and on the roof, a lightbar had clearly been removed, along with several antennas. I liked that it was the same Chevy/GMC van platform that had been introduced in 1971, I liked that it was a former police vehicle, and even the fact that it was a GMC was appealing – I’ve had a strange affection for badge-engineered cars, and GMC trucks and vans of this era are essentially Chevrolets with different badges.
It had a fuel-injected 350 V8, massive front disc brakes, and a 4L80E overdrive transmission. It struck me that this equipment in a passenger car would be pretty impressive.
An aside on the 4L80E transmission — it was essentially an overdrive evolution of the venerable General Motors Turbo-Hydramatic 400, and was used in Chevrolet and GMC trucks, as well as the Hummer H1. It was never installed in GM passenger cars, but it was, oddly, used in Bentley, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Rolls Royce applications. So this pedestrian van shared a major component with a number of British exotics.
After looking at the van, I debated about buying it for perhaps a day, and decided to pull the trigger. When I picked it up from the seller, he offered to cut off a step welded to the back bumper with his oxy/acetylene cutting torch. Part of the police van equipment had been a step protruding under the rear bumper for the use of the detainees who had to ride in back. It looked to have been hit a number of times, as it was bent a bit downward. The van had no back (or side) windows and I imagined that step had caused numerous problems when backing the van. The seller had a deft hand with his cutting torch, and also neatly cut out a section of chain tread plate over the license plate area, exposing the license plate well, making the back bumper look fairly normal. I was surprised that the long-hidden license plate lights still worked. The rear bumper with a few remaining bits of the step can be seen in the photo below – it was mounted below where the license plate is now.
Upon buying the, I immediately dealt with a few mechanical quirks. The horn didn’t work, and peering under the dash, it looked to have been unplugged – plugging it in got it working again, and I wondered if the horn button had been used for some kind of now-removed police equipment. The dipstick was also missing from the engine compartment – given how many different variations of the Chevy/GMC van had been built over the years, I decided to order a new dipstick at the parts counter of the Chevrolet dealer on Van Ness rather than scavenging a junkyard dipstick that might have the wrong markings.
Registering the van at the DMV, I was surprised to learn that it required commercial plates. Tags would be over $200/year rather than the $40 or so I was used to paying on the fully depreciated vehicles I typically drove. The commercial plates did, however, give the unexpected bonus of being able to park in commercial parking/loading zones in San Francisco during business hours.
Parking the van in SF was not as bad as one might think. The Dodge Charger I had owned some years before was actually longer, and although the van had no back windows, it had large mirrors with stick-on fisheyes that gave me a pretty good view of what was behind me.
My band had a local show right after I bought the van and we tried it out to haul our gear. Even for an in-town show, being able to park and unload one vehicle was far easier than everyone showing up separately and unloading and then looking for parking in a busy SF neighborhood. At the end of the show, we loaded up the back of the van with our gear, the band, and a few friends and headed out. It was still set up as a prisoner transport vehicle, so there were no windows or lights in the back, and the doors had to be opened from the outside. After driving 4 or 5 blocks, there was a furious pounding on the bulkhead behind me. There were maybe 5-6 people locked in the cell in back and several of them had lit up cigarettes – in a tiny chamber with just a single small vent hole for air. We stopped the van, aired it out, and continued on.
I began work on getting the van a little more accommodating to long-distance travel. I removed the bulkheads, put in a window on the sliding door, took out the benches over the wheelwells, and found a replacement door handle mechanism in a junkyard that allowed the side door to be opened from inside. The van was a big metal box, hot in summer and cold in winter, and I removed some of the interior sheet metal paneling and replaced it with Mylar insulation and eventually wood paneling in an effort to make the interior a little more comfortable.
I also put in a roof vent – there was a stamped indentation for one in the roof. A window was installed on the passenger-side sliding door to make the interior a bit less claustrophobic, and I found a fairly presentable bench seat/sofa bed out of a van conversion at a pick-&-pull junkyard and bolted it in to create a second row of seats behind the driver’s seat. Behind that, the back third of the van was a storage locker for gear, which was only accessible through the van’s back doors. The back doors had no windows, and I installed a hockey puck padlock & shackle to secure them — the lock can be seen in the gas station photo above. With enough work, I suppose someone could have got at our gear, but I hoped to at least slow them down, and the van never had a break-in while I owned it.
The van had air conditioning which sort of worked when I bought it. A local AC shop replaced an old hose and recharged the system for maybe $150. My 1993 van used Freon (R12) which wasn’t yet alarmingly expensive when I had it recharged.
I also put in seat belts from a passenger van – my van, despite being a cargo van, had the fittings for rear belts in place. Behind the bench seat/sofa, in front of the equipment locker, I had left a small area to fold down the seat, which I figured would be used to keep luggage accessible from the passenger area, but which my bandmates quickly figured out could also be used as a place to sleep. Early on I remember telling them “If we get in a crash, you’re going to fly through the windshield”, but I would eventually sleep there myself on numerous occasions.
Above is a shot before I paneled the van – you can see the insulation I put in, as well as the bunk behind the seat. I’m not sure what’s up with Jen’s seatbelt – it looks like she has it on backwards. Nor am I sure what Chris did to elicit that look from Jen.
With these upgrades in place, we organized a weekend trip to Portland and Seattle. We had a show in San Francisco the night before we left for Portland, and after loading out our gear in San Francisco, we went to our singer Chris’s house, spent the night there, and woke up early the next morning to make the 10-hour drive to Portland – we pulled in around 7 pm or so, giving us time to grab dinner before our show in Portland’s old town.
The drive from Portland to Seattle was a relative cakewalk after our drive from SF to Portland, and our payout in Seattle was $300, which was at that time the most our band had earned in a night. We used some of this money to splurge on a motel partway between Seattle and San Francisco for the trip back. While sitting in the van parked outside the motel, I noticed there was an item wrapped in paper jammed in one of the metal supports inside the van. I poked at it and what looked to be a glass crack pipe fell out – presumably hidden there when it was used for arrestee transport. I tossed the pipe in the trash and was thankful it hadn’t been discovered at a traffic stop.
I added a CD player to the van – this was pre-smartphone, but we’d all bring binders of CDs and CDRs and take turns sharing music. I also installed both a kill switch and an armored sleeve around the steering column (much like in the image below) in the hopes that it would further slow down any potential thieves.
I made a drink holder for the engine doghouse out of scrap plywood – the engine cover had two shallow square indentations that were about the size to hold a beverage, but anything placed there tended to spill if the vehicle was in motion – this happened to a cup of chowder purchased at the Pike Place Market on our first trip to Seattle. I’m guessing that when the van was designed in the early 70s, cupholders as they now exist were far in the future and nobody had thought that a drink would be rested in the interior while the vehicle was in motion. My Falcon has two very shallow circular indentations on the inside of the glovebox lid which similarly seem to be designed to hold a beverage only while the car was parked.
The van had a “chirp-chirp-chirp” backup alarm. I disconnected it one evening when I was parallel parking around 2 am after a show – I didn’t want to antagonize everyone in the neighborhood.
My Vandura would provide reliable service on many trips. We’d typically book an out-of-town show and try to tack on another show or two on the way out or back. Las Vegas and LA, or Portland and Seattle, for example, though there were numerous times we’d drive to LA and back just for a single weekend show.
Other than replacing consumables like tires and brakes, the van didn’t need much work. At one point it needed new tie rods & an alignment, and later on, clogged EGR passages triggered a check engine light. For the latter, I took it to a mechanic who was able to clean out the EGR passages in the intake manifold with wire gun brushes. Noticing it was an ex-police vehicle, he remarked that it had probably spent as much time idling as it had being driven.
On the highway, cars would frequently slow down in front of me as it looked like some sort of police vehicle was behind them. The ex-police vehicle status also led to some legal trouble. Some months after buying it, I was given a ticket because the van too closely resembled a police van. The officer who wrote the ticket seemed to take a long time looking up what code it was in violation of, and coming back, he told me it was a fix-it ticket, and I would just need to show that I’d removed all police markings and get it signed off. This was easier said than done. I removed or painted over all the markings, spraying big spots of red oxide primer where the SFPD door decals used to be for good measure. I hoped that would suffice – if not, I thought I could perhaps paint a mural on the side or something. I took it to the local California Highway Patrol office, which normally signs off on equipment violations, and they told me the San Francisco Police would need to sign off on the ticket. An SFPD Sergeant at the Mission police station inspected it, agreed that it no longer resembled a police vehicle, but said he couldn’t sign off on the violation as the section of the code it was in violation of wasn’t listed as a “correctible violation” even though that box was checked on the ticket. He did, however, make a note that it no longer resembled a police vehicle and suggested I explain it to a judge at traffic court.
I showed up in court and realized I would be in for a long wait. After several hours, the court clerk read off a list of violation numbers including mine, and said they could be dismissed on completion of traffic school. I decided to opt for traffic school and be done with it. It seemed strange that I was being offered traffic school for an equipment violation, but I paid the traffic school fee and was able to complete the online version at home in a few hours. In the lead photo, you can see the van early on with all its markings and a bit of the SFPD decal still on the door.
One evening I got a call from an SF musician and promoter I knew, asking if the van and I were free. He had booked a touring act to perform that night, and they had shown up in town via Greyhound bus, carrying only guitars. No drums. No amps. No vehicle and no way to get to the club. They were lounging in his living room while he scrambled to line up equipment. He had realized that transporting both the band and gear to the club would require numerous trips in his Buick Regal and asked if he could hire me and the van for the evening. I wasn’t up to anything that night, and figured it couldn’t hurt to have a promoter owe me a favor, so I spent the evening as driver for an indie act. They weren’t exactly famous, but they were better known than the sort of band I usually played in – I had seen them live on one of their other trips to SF. While driving them to the club, I asked the band if they usually toured by Greyhound, and they apparently had been doing so for the last month or so. They seemed nonchalant about it and said they usually were able to borrow gear and make it to the club one way or another. It dawned on me that they were probably touring this way because they were living entirely off of the minimal proceeds from playing live shows – living a meager, quite possibly sub-minimum-wage existence off of rock & roll. They gave a quite impressive live show, and I told the promoter he didn’t need to pay me and to give it to the band. Some years later I would see this same band debuting their latest album on Conan O’Brien.
I also used the van a lot outside the band. It did ride a bit firm without a load of cargo, though not all that intolerably – my 1986 Mustang had been a lot harsher on the bad pavement common around the SF Bay Area. The van had working AC, a decent stereo, and the upright seating position was comfortable on long drives, although the left front wheelwell used up a good part of the driver’s-side footspace, and I could never figure out where to rest my left foot.
My future wife Jean and I would often take the van on trips out of town – camping, to LA, and numerous trips to Lake Tahoe. In winter there’s often chain control on the highways going to Tahoe, and the generous ground clearance and space in the van’s wheelwells made putting on tire chains far easier than on a passenger car, although the empty interior did amplify the noise of the chains on the pavement.
At one point we took it on a week-long road trip through Nevada and Utah. I threw a mountain bike in the back to ride on the Slickrock trail in Moab, Utah – the locker that held all my band’s music gear also was ideal to keep my bike safe and out of view on the trip.
During my ownership of the van, I moved 3 different times and having a big vehicle came in handy as I moved from one apartment to another, finally moving into a flat in SF that Jean and I bought. Our flat was definitely a fixer-upper, and the van came in handy to carry lumber, sheetrock, and other building supplies as well as to haul construction debris to the dump. It was also useful when we hit estate sales — it easily hauled furniture for our new place. At one point, I had an old O’Keefe & Merritt stove stored in the back of the van for a week or so until it could be carried up the stairs to our kitchen.
In 2005, my band had recently put out a record and was booked at a festival in Memphis, Tennessee, and we organized an ambitious tour around this show. Starting in Oakland, over the course of 2 1/2 weeks we would proceed to San Diego, Tucson, Austin TX, Memphis, Athens & Columbus Ohio, Hamtramck Michigan, Milwaukee & Green Bay Wisconsin, finally ending up in Chicago.
We were also booked for a show in Kentucky that we missed as we were caught in standstill traffic in a rainstorm for hours and didn’t make it into town until near the end of the evening.
Before leaving, I had multiple sets of keys for the van cut. On our earlier Texas trip, we had one set of keys for our rental van and we were constantly asking each other for them to get something out of the van or put something in it. I figured I’d avoid the issue and give everyone a set.
While the trip to Arizona and Texas some years earlier had been a blast and had proceeded on a much more leisurely basis, this was more of a grind. Most days we would drive for hours and arrive at a bar or nightclub. Sometimes we’d get a soundcheck (setting up and testing our equipment & relative volume prior to the show), or we’d arrive in town early enough to take a look around, meet up with friends, take in a few sights, or try the local food, but other times we’d get to our destination and be hauling in our gear not long before we went on stage. We’d usually be booked with one or two other bands, so before or after our set we’d be hanging around the club, perhaps sell the occasional record or T-shirt, and at the end of the evening load our gear back out. Generally, we’d have to wait until sometime after the bar or club closed to get paid. Depending on what locality we were in and when bars typically closed there, it might be 2 or 3 in the morning by the time we left. We’d then sleep for the night – sometimes staying with someone we knew, on occasion with someone we met who offered us a place to crash for the night, or else all crammed into a single motel room. The next morning, we’d get back in the van and again drive all day to the next stop. We had a few nights off but for the most part, the routine was drive all day, play a show, sleep, and repeat.
For the festival in Memphis, we had a few days off as it was a 3-day event – this proved fortuitous as our singer/guitarist Chris had dropped his amp and broken one of the vacuum tubes (guitar amplifiers still frequently use vacuum tubes, which give a better tone than transistor amps) and messed up the reverb springs. We headed out the morning after the show in hopes of finding someone who could fix it that day – this turned out to be a music store that also stocked cigar-box guitars and one-man-band equipment. I’ve always found Memphis to be a unique and captivating city and I was glad we had a few days to enjoy the sites, sounds, and local food.
Back on the road, someone cranked open the roof vent on the highway. The plastic hatch was only meant to be opened when the van was stationary, and the wind quickly ripped it off. We found that an album cover from a 12” LP was exactly the size to fix the hole in the roof – we all would frequently hit record stores in our time between shows and the jacket of someone’s dollar-bin find was sacrificed to be duct-taped in place to fix the hatch. The improvised repair held up for the rest of the trip.
The trip ended in Chicago. While my band got along well with each other, and are all still friends and in touch with each other two decades later, spending so much time in close proximity to each other had got a little old by the end of the trip. I remember near the end, we all walked into a coffee shop for breakfast one morning and ended up all sitting at separate tables.
The tour had been organized around everyone’s time off schedule, and some of the band had opted to fly back to San Francisco to avoid burning up yet more vacation days. Our drummer Ian and I drove the van full of equipment back home after our final show of the trip, leaving Chicago at about 2 am. We alternated driving and sleeping until we were both so exhausted we pulled over to catch an actual night’s sleep at a motel. Refreshed, we hit the road and made it back to the Bay Area the next day – the entire trip back from Chicago to San Francisco had taken us under 48 hours. Arriving home, I was very happy to sleep in my own bed.
The band played a number of shows after that, but some months later, several members decided to call it quits and the band was no more.
I was still working on my flat, and continued to use the van as my everyday driver for a year or so after the band broke up. I did sometimes think of selling it, but it was a running, reliable vehicle, and any replacement within my budget at the time would have been an unknown quantity. I never had any qualms about parking it on the street, and its ability to haul massive amounts of cargo still frequently came in handy.
Eventually, an acquaintance got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in selling the van. He was planning a move across the country and was looking to move him, his dog, two motorcycles, and several rolling tool chests. After a bit of thought, I decided it was time to let the van go. As we did the paperwork I handed over the numerous sets of keys I had earlier cut for each band member and I think he was a bit surprised at how many sets of keys his new van came with.
Some years later I heard he’d moved back to California and my old van was sitting in a backyard somewhere in the East Bay, though I haven’t seen the Vandura since I sold it. I went back to using my Falcon as my only driver for a time, but would pick up another car before long.
While I sometimes miss my van, mostly when I need to haul something large, it was connected with a specific time in my life that’s now passed. I still play music and have been in several bands since then, and have even played an occasional show out of town, but music is more of a hobby for me now, and it seems unlikely I’ll ever again feel the need for a dedicated band vehicle.
Credit for most of the photos in this article goes to my friend and bandmate Jennifer Hale. You can check out her work at Halephoto.com. Some readers of this site may find her photo essay on vintage motorcycle rallies of interest. You might even see a picture of me in a few of them.