Here they come up Van Nuys, past Otto's Pink Pig and Bob's Big Boy, past Guerrero 24-Hour Bail Bonds and the cyclists outside the Copper Penny—hundreds of wildly modified vehicles of every pedigree and alias. There are '56 metal-flaked Chevys riding so low you couldn't slide a pack of Luckies under the rocker panel, BMW Bavarians with ghost-flame paint jobs and side pipes, raked Toyota mini-pickups with wide slicks, dune buggies sprouting CB antennas and flared skirts, a sprinkling of perfect '32 Fords, a woodie or two and, of course, the vans. One can almost hear the Beach Boys singing, "...we'll have fun, fun, fun 'til her daddy takes the T-Bird away." But it is the vans, whose high profiles rise above the more conventional vehicles like icebergs, that provide something new—that are perhaps bizarre indicators of what we are and where we're going.
Wednesday night on Van Nuys is club night, show-off night for the under-25 set of Nam vets, high-schoolers, dropouts, tuned-ins and garden-variety crazies of Los Angeles. The vans carry names like Inversion, Vandal, Sundance, No Big Thing, Phantom Flasher and Calypso. There are screaming yellow vans with flared fenders, air spoilers mounted on the roof; vans with Iron Cross-shaped rear accent windows; vans with personal messages on the sides or desert-cum-cowboy murals; vans pinstriped to the rain gutters: vans with tooled leather landau tops, carved redwood bumpers and mag wheels; vans in every color of the rainbow.
Kids park, open the doors and show off the elaborate interiors. There is everything from family-room Spanish to Playboy shag and suede. There is an Early American interior featuring a plastic-fieldstone hearth with electric logs, a maple couch covered in spread eagles and an authentic butter churn. There is Old West decor featuring flocked red wallpaper, banisters, a brass bedstead and spittoons—and a live potted fern. Van interiors often are of so many vibrant colors, clashing styles and schlock oddities that one thinks they must be playpens for Primal Scream therapy. Shag runs everywhere except over the speedometer, which is illegal. Each has the same basics—bed, refrigerator/icebox and quadraphonic stereo.
While the young men pop the tops off Coors cans, teen-age girls walk by as if furniture shopping, comparing interiors and angling for rides.
In contrast, up in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, senior citizens are folding up their aluminum chairs and climbing into vans for a game of two-handed canasta before folding down the sofa for the night. In increasing numbers, the van is replacing the trailer-camper and the mini-motor home as the recreational vehicle of modest-budget campers. Fitted with a shower, toilet, a bubble top for stand-up comfort, stove, icebox, double bed and comfortable, high-backed "captain's" chairs for driver and passenger, the van is uniquely suited to the needs and wallet of the weekender, the hunter, fisherman, motorcyclist and leisure buff.
In the late '50s the van became the vehicle of plumbers, dry cleaners and florists, replacing the panel truck. Then during the Woodstock years one began to see old Dodge vans loaded with amplifiers, rock groups, dogs and groupies, and one noticed the occasional van fitted with print curtains and roughed-in beds and chests.
But it was in Southern California that vans became vehicles to be taken seriously. On the dream coast, where it is not unusual to commute three or four hours a day to a job, and where recreational areas are hundreds of miles from home, vehicles are as important as houses, maybe more so. One's car or van reflects a personal choice, not a Detroit directive.
George Barris, 50, the elder statesman of car customizing, is happy to recount the history of the van. Sporting a bandito mustache, a modified electro-frizz Afro, a T shirt bearing his own likeness and an ad for his Hollywood "Motorama Cars of the Stars" museum, Barris speaks in the hushed tones of the founder of a mystical order. "It started with the surfers,"' he says. "They'd been using woodies to transport their surfboards to the beach. But that's all it was—transport. Then the kids lit on the idea of the van. It could hold as many surfboards as you wanted, and it had no windows in the back so there was privacy to change clothes and do, well, you know, whatever. But the main thing was that kids could stay at the beach in comfort. They like to surf about five in the morning when the waves are best, and the van was the answer.
"They quickly added stereo, carpeting, beds, iceboxes, the things that made them happy. And it wasn't long before they were enough of a force to create an 'after-market' of custom equipment and parts."
Like hot rods of old, vans became expressions of personality, the property of teen life. Social scientists would call them "peer pressure objects."