Curbside Classic: 1979 Dodge B100 Van – Is It The Real Thing?

Talk about long-lived vehicles. The Dodge Van–staple of plumbers, electricians, utility companies and the ’70s Custom-Van Man–enjoyed a long run, from 1971 to 2003. And wow, what a run it was! Lots of these jack-of-all-trades vans, mostly of late ’80s to early ’00s vintage, are still running about in the Quad Cities. This one, clearly  an earlier version decked out in period Coca-Cola livery, gave me pause and inspired me to read up on them. So come along, and let’s learn a bit more about the good old full-size Dodge van.

To fully understand just how modern the all-new ’71 Dodge van was, compare it with the 1970 model. While amazingly space- and fuel-efficient (especially with the Slant Six), the venerable A100 van was getting a little long in the tooth by 1970; in fact, it was essentially the same vehicle Dodge had introduced in 1964. Starting with the new ’69 Ford Econoline, the Big Three were moving away from the VW van template with its driver-as-a-crush-zone front end. Like so many other domestic products of the ’70s, the Dodge van was about to get bigger.

What a difference a year makes, eh? Naturally, the van itself was longer–no longer was the engine completely situated between the front seats–but the upsizing didn’t stop there. The standard-wheelbase B-Series measured 109.6 inches axle to axle, significantly longer than the both the outgoing standard- and long-wheelbase A100s. The new, long-wheelbase B-Series got a healthy bump to 127.6 inches, which provided plenty of stretch-out space, not to mention a great foundation for a brand-new camper van. From the beginning, the B-van was popular with camper conversion companies that offered everything from simple pop-tops and roof extensions to cab-and-chassis Chinook conversions with dedicated camper bodies behind the front doors.

Like the rest of the van, the new instrument panel was much more car-like. If you ignored the slightly more upright steering column, this could have been a Coronet or Dart dash. Why, it even has fake wood!

The more mainstream “windowed” Sportsman version (solid-panel jobs were Tradesmans) was quite popular too. Depending on its configuration, a Sportsman wagon (yes, Ma Mopar called them “wagons”) could haul from eight to 15 people. The latter capacity could be achieved by ordering the long wheelbase model with the rear-quarter extension. While doing so probably made parallel parking a monumnetal task, it did provide space for another row of forward-facing seating. Try that in your Country Squire!

Many Plymouth Sport Suburban and Dodge Monaco Wagon owners recognized that fact, and proceeded to trade in their woodgrain-sided Family Trucksters for one of these babies. In the ’70s, full-size passenger vans rode a rising tide of popularity that presaged the SUV craze two decades ahead, as many a suburbanite became a Van Man–or in more than a few cases, a Van Woman.

It certainly didn’t hurt that these Sportsman vans were not only quite car-like, but downright fancy in top trim. Just a few years earlier, a man would have been hard-pressed to convince his wife to forego her Town & Country or Grand Safari for an A100–they were just too “truckish.” That just wouldn’t fly in fashion-conscious suburbs like Naperville, Schaumburg and Burr Ridge. The new Sportsman, however, provided a nearly car-like ride and interior environment. Driving a van no longer meant putting up with a tinny and rattling (albeit functional) penalty box. Would you like power steering, power brakes, automatic, A/C, carpeting, two-tone paint and upscale interior trim? No problem! With the A100, vans weren’t just for plumbers anymore. You could Brougham them up as much as you wanted.

Also working in the Sportsman/Tradesman’s favor was a rising interest in the great outdoors. Ironically, more and more people were hitting already-congested roads in order to get away from it all. For larger families, a loaded Sportsman offered a lot more take-it-along cargo room than an equivalent Royal Monaco three-row wagon.

I would be remiss by not pointing out the other side–or should I say polar opposite–of the ’70s van craze. On one hand, there were the prosperous suburbanites who went camping with their nice, factory-issue Sportsmans; on the other a younger set who, disillusioned with current anemic tape-and-stripe “muscle” cars, were going for customized Tradesman, Econoline or Chevy Van panel jobs.

Maybe the reason for the late ’70s disillusionment came from the highly impressionable “Boomers”. Weaned in the early-to-mid-’60s on health, happiness and prosperity–not to mention GTXs, Mustang GTs and Chevelle SS396s–they were now busy making memories in these eye-searing shoe boxes. What in the wide, wide world of sports was a-goin’ on here? But I digress…

By 1978, the Tradesman and Sportsman were mostly the same vehicles introduced in 1971. Chrysler did not handle the ’70s very well, and the flop of their all-new 1974 full-sizers made things even worse. Since the B-Series was relatively new, I’d guess that Chrysler wasn’t all too concerned about updating it. Nevertheless, the Road Wheels were a welcome addition.

In 1975, Ford debuted the new Econoline, which was even more car-like than the GM and Mopar competition. And of course, much Broughamier: Club Chateau, anyone? But cash-strapped Chrysler didn’t have sufficient time or money to mess with the vans, so the 1975-78 Sportsman and Tradesman carried on with only minor changes.

One welcome change was a redesigned instrument panel featuring more legible gauges than its predecessor and over double the amount of fake-wood trim. Interiors were, if anything, even more plush. And when else but in the ’70s would you see a baby-blue interior like this one? As they had since their 1971 introduction, both the Tradesman and Sportsman were available with either a sliding passenger door or double-hinged units.

In 1979, Chrysler finally got around to updating their full-size vans despite being in the depths of crisis. The smooth nose and faired-in front bumper of the earlier model gave way to a more contemporary, squared-off grille, wraparound parking lights, newly vertical tail lights and beefier, more prominent front and rear bumpers.

Standard B-Series vans got dual round headlights, but you could get stacked rectangular quad lamps if you wanted a dressier van. While passenger vans retained the Sportsman nameplate, panel vans were designated by their GVW rating. i.e., B100, B200, etc. The Tradesman name faded into the sunset, never to return.

The light-duty B100 again offered the standard 225 cu in Slant Six and optional 360 cu in V8, but now a new and rather unusual power plant was on the option list: A 243 cu in six-cylinder diesel (ED: A Mitsubishi unit that was theoretically available in 1978). You learn something new every day; I wasn’t even aware that these vans ever offered a diesel engine. I wonder what the take rate was?

Transmission choices were predictable, as always, comprising a three-speed manual, a four-speed with overdrive and an automatic. Underneath their new styling, these vans were basically the same old Tradesman, and would remain much the same in the years to come; in fact, the 1979 style received only very slight changes through the 1993 model year. Despite a 1994 nose job, and a chassis update in ’98, the Ram Van/Ram Wagon finally came to the end of the road after 2003.

I had a memorable experience with one of these Hamtramck Hummingbirds. In 1991, I went with my entire sixth grade class on a school-sponsored trip to Camp CILCA, near Springfield. It was a fun time, with hiking, swimming, canoeing and side trips to the Wildlife Prairie State Park and Dickson Mounds State Museum in Lewiston.

Anyway, our chariot (with our principal’s late ’80s Mazda B-Series pickup leading the way) was a 15-passenger, white-with-red interior 1979 Plymouth Voyager van (sold from 1974-1983 as a badge-engineered Sportsman) that I recall was on loan to us from a local church. Several teachers were along as chaperons, and our little caravan of voyagers (see what I did there?) headed south on I-80. The van wore a good crop of rust even then, but was nevertheless pretty comfy and stone-reliable. I remember sitting in the shotgun seat and reading the owners manual–yes, I was a car nut even then. During one memorable incident, my friend Cameron found a Barbie doll under a seat, gleefully pulled off its head, and then threw it out the window–somewhere around Dixon, I think. Of course, he got into trouble, but it was still funny.

That long-ago Voyager, as the longest passenger version, was the opposite of this Dodge: Today’s cool red CC is the short-deck, short-wheelbase panel van. Since it’s decked out in period Coca-Cola trim, I wondered whether it actually was an original Coca-Cola truck in Wichita or if the owner simply painted it that way. Certainly, it has a V8, but 30 years after the build date, not necessarily the original 360. Just look at those pipes! Inside, it appeared to have most of the comforts of home, including a fridge (what beverages could be inside?), sink and other niceties.

Actually, this van doesn’t live too far from me, and when I recently spotted it in the parking lot of a local home-improvement store I had to finally get some pictures. I know the owner drives it from time to time, having seen it on John Deere Road just a couple of days ago.

With its stock hubcaps, whitewalls and cool paint job, this late ’70s Mopar is truly striking. Long live the full-size Dodge van!