The 1970s were a time of cultural change, and this was reflected in the cars of the era. One of the most iconic trends of the decade was the custom van craze. This trend saw van owners transforming their vehicles into unique and personalized spaces. Let’s take a look at the origins and legacy of this trend.
The custom van craze can be traced back to the 1960s, when hippies began using VW buses as mobile homes. This trend became mainstream in the early 1970s, when van manufacturers like Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge began producing vans specifically designed for customization.
The custom van craze was about more than just transportation. As the muscle car era faded, the custom van emerged as the ultimate self-expression vehicle. It was customized and tricked-out to showcase the owner’s unique style to the world. These vans were impressive and portable, providing a luxurious space to indulge in various activities, whether they were legal or illicit. In essence, they were a rolling pampered pad that allowed individuals to take their extracurricular pursuits on the road. It was a way for people to express themselves, to create a space that reflected their personality and style. Vans were transformed into everything from rolling bedrooms to mobile discos.
The key to a successful custom van was personalization. Numerous van owners opted to equip their vehicles with impressive audio systems, lighting, cozy shag carpeting, luxurious Captain’s chairs, comfortable beds, unique bubble windows, sleek louvres, stylish spoilers, eye-catching mag wheels, distinctive custom horns, CB radios, and to complete the look, a personalized airbrushed paint job showcasing a selection of themes such as Wizardry, Warlocks, Waves, or Western landscapes. Some van owners even added refrigerators to their vehicles, making them fully functional living spaces. Other design elements included custom lighting, sound systems, and even fish tanks. No two custom vans were alike, as each owner put their own personal touch on their vehicle.
The custom van craze was short-lived, Sadly, the culture faded away as the 70s oil crisis took its toll and the concept of the minivan gained popularity—but the custom vans still had a lasting impact on car culture. It paved the way for other customization trends, such as the lowrider and the hot rod. It also helped popularize the idea of the car as a personal expression of style.
Today, custom vans are still popular among collectors and enthusiasts. Many of the original custom vans from the 1970s are still on the road and you can find some at car shows from time to time. Thankfully todays new vans are being customized all the time. While the new vans like the Sprinter are being modified to go off-road or made into really cool vans for campgrounds, I still have not seen one with an axe wielding Viking airbrushed on the side like the old days—It may be a comeback, or it may be in response to the home foreclosure rate being what they are…
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