Deep inside the world of car clubs, automobile collectors and motorcycle gangs lies a nostalgic subculture that is infatuated with something once described as the shaggin’ wagon: the panel van.
Originally built as utility vehicles for plumbers and electricians, the vans were co-opted in the 1970s by rockers who airbrushed scenes of scantily clad barbarians and fire-breathing dragons on their sides. These vehicles managed
to keep their fans over the past 20 years, despite fading from popularity, no doubt done in by images of smoke-filled vans blasting classic rock while nervous housewives tut-tutted nearby.
Today, the world of vanning is having a moment, based on the refreshingly simple needs of its fans: camping out in the middle of nowhere while surrounded by good friends and lots of beer.
Yes, this crowd sure loves a good party. Beards, beer, bands and vans are the requirements for a rockin’ van soiree. But vans didn’t initially have their beginnings in party culture. Only in the mid-1960s, with the popularity of the VW Microbus, did the van become an “it” vehicle for vacations and young folks looking for a bit of adventure. As the use of domestic vans grew through the 1970s, so did the culture around them. The side panels proved perfect for elaborate paint jobs, while the interiors were decked out with floor-to-ceiling shag carpet and velour curtains.
For the die-hards, however, the vans are works of art as much as vehicles for good times. This is the culture you’ll find in Calgary’s vanning community. A documentary called Vannin’ was featured at the Calgary Underground Film Festival last month and it brought vanners from all over town out of the faux-bois woodwork.
Arlen Smith, president of the Vandits Van Club Calgary, is in the midst of planning the club’s big summer bash, Vantopia II, a long weekender (June 6-8) of music, beer and, of course, vans. The barrier to entry is not high. “It is definitely a lot easier to join us than a motorcycle club,” Smith says. “If you like the same things we like (beer, music, vans—you get the point) and get along with us, you’ll probably be asked to join.”
And, of course, you’ll need a pretty slick-looking vehicle. Smith is currently driving a metallic orange 1967 Ford Econoline Heavy Duty. “My van is very surfer-esque—it’s all Mexican blankets and hardwood,” he says. “Mine is the only pre-1970 van in the club at the moment, but we have all sorts of camper vans and vintage Chevy boogie vans with shag carpets. The only rule is no front-wheel drive.”
Spencer Brown, a founding member of the Vandits and talent booker for Vantopia, owns a 1973 Econoline that has been converted into a camper. “It is basically a toaster on wheels that you can sleep in and then make breakfast in the next morning,” he says. When he’s camped at Vantopia, Brown can follow up breakfast with a little live music. This year’s musical offerings include acts like Bison and The Wisers. “Vanning and rock ’n’ roll is obviously a match made down below,” he says, before offering proof. “What do bands transport gear to and from shows in? A dozen Cars2Go? I rest my case.”
The music scene’s seal of approval coupled with overall functionality means that vans are likely here to stay. In fact, it might be time to start scouring the classifieds for a van—and an airbrush.