Curbside Classic: 1977 Dodge Sportsman Royal Van – Peak Dodge Van

It’s a bit hard to imagine a time when the Ford Econoline (or the F-Series pickups) actually didn’t dominate their categories. Of course I speak of the Econoline’s long run until a few years ago when it was replaced by the Transit. But in the seventies, the Dodge van was king; in 1977, they outsold the Econoline 226k to 179k. Yet the Dodge pickup was a perpetual laggard and a very distant third to Chevy and Ford. How to explain the Dodge van’s dominance?

Maybe that splendid ’70s color scheme?

I spotted this fine relic parked not far from the UO campus. As I approached, one of our still-plentiful Mercedes w123s photobombed it. It makes for a handy comparison of two very disparate seventies-mobiles.

The second generation vans from the Big Three were a very significant improvement in terms of being domesticated to the expectations of the times. The gen 1 vans had their roots in late 50s minimalism, but that now seemed ages ago, as average incomes (and expectations) were peaking in the early 70s. For families (and others) that placed a premium over space (and space efficiency), these really were a much better family truckster than the traditional wagon: Much shorter, yet a lot roomier.

But ti wasn’t families and plumbers that pushed Dodge van sales skywards. Van fever was a raging contagious disease that was the more mainstream analog to the VW hippie vans of the 60s. Even young folks with jobs wanted in on the image of freedom, even if it came with a three year loan from the bank.

Let’s face it; the van is the the ultimate automobile form. I don’t say that just because I’m a confirmed van owner and lover, but realistically, evolution is ultimately going to favor the box, for a whole lot of obvious reasons. Especially so when they become autonomous. It’s just a better box for whatever your lifestyle choices and preferences!

And Dodge somehow managed to convey that more successfully than Ford and Chevy, and there’s no doubt that Dodges outnumbered the others in the lifestyle sector.

And that includes the actual RV industry, where the Dodge van cutaway chassis utterly dominated the field, until the market imploded in 1979 and Dodge completely exited it during its crisis of the times. As a former ’77 Dodge Chinook owner, these do speak to me in many familiar ways.

This includes everything from the iconic and legendary TransVan.

To a vast number of Class C motorhomes in all sizes, shapes, colors and textures.

They were once everywhere; now there’s just a few left on the curbs occupied almost invariably by the homeless. But not Dodge motorhomeless.

In addition to bare-bones work vans and cruisin’ vans and RVs, Dodge also did well with the station-wagon alternative set. And that’s what we have here: a Sportsman Royal, meaning the top trim level of the passenger van.

In 1977, Dodge replaced the modest little low-back bucket seats with nice high-back versions, with armrests, even.

Which does not explain why our ’77 Chinook, which came very well optioned and trimmed, still had the old low-back seats. Hmm. I might have kept it if it did have them.  We also missed out on the splendid cup-holder engine topper. Oh well. And that nice striped door upholstery.

This is a 127″ three-row van, and it has very fine vintage upholstery. Isn’t that so much more cheerful than today’s drab and dreary stuff? And folks put down the 70s; they don’t know what they were missing.

The third seat. The partial sheepskin uppers are a mystery to me. Why?

And here’s the very roomy cargo area. Another bench seat could be had here, but that left very little room for cargo.

Of course more room was available via a Dodge Maxivan, the first of its kind with an extended rear and seating for 15. Or 12 and lots of luggage. Or just long rolls of carpet.

And that rear addition was soon lengthened further, and given some proper windows, in 1978.

Looking at these two Maxivans shows how in addition to the longer rear cap, in 1978 other significant changes were undertaken, with larger side windows, and the sliding door was moved to the front.

This ’77 was the last year for the original-style body, with the side door set back a bit. That small window was essentially the 18″ plug that defined the difference between this and the short wheelbase (109″) versions. The sliding door arrived in 1975, as an option to the two outswinging doors.

Here’s a swb (109″) version, with the boxier front end that arrived in 1979.

The side-hinged rear door apparently was an option but so popular that in became standard in 1977 on the Sportsman passenger van.

The white spoked wheels are of course so utterly period correct. Unless you lived through the white spoker era, you’ll never be able to imagine just how popular they were on pickups and vans.

It’s late and I need to put this and myself to bed. I could go on all night about Dodge vans, having owned three as well as the spiritual successor to it, the Promaster.

What I really need is not a Peugeot grille for it, but a Dodge one. Too bad it’s not still sold as a Dodge in Mexico or such. I’m a Dodge van lover, the Promaster will always be a Dodge in my heart.



1971 & 1979 Dodge Maxivans – Dodge Pioneers the Really Big Van

1976 Dodge B100 Short Wheelbase Van