In 1977, George Lucas unleashed the first installment of a global merchandise seller and occasional movie franchise called Star Wars. It was the first huff of collective future nostalgia that the world would ever take from the galaxy far, far away’s glue pot, despite their being dropped in about halfway through the story, at Episode 4 (sorry, IV). This Chevy Van came out in the same year and, in case you couldn’t see where this metaphor was going, also is the middle chapter of a rather influential story. Unlike everyone’s favorite series of Lego sets however, the Chevy Van never quite reached the cultural fundamentalism of Star Wars. Who’d have guessed?
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been capitalizing the word “Van” as if it is the name of an individual place or thing- Tatooine or The Empire, for instance- and that’s no accident. As the delightfully seventies typeface above proves, Chevy decided to call a spade a spade and call this van a Van. This particular Van is part of the second series of the vans that were actually called Vans, which themselves were spiritual successors to the Corvair Greenbrier. In other words, the Van is the Obi Wan Kenobi to the Greenbrier’s Qui Gon Jinn. Which I suppose makes the Chevy Express (which replaced the Chevy Van) Luke Skywalker. Of the Chevy Van’s run, this is part of the third and final generation, which was a pretty big deal. See, the first two generations of the Van had the engine behind the front seats, which allowed the vehicles’ front ends to be flat. Which is not only pretty nifty, but also super useful for workmen who need to maneuver their cargo vans around construction sites, factories, or Rebel Bases. The third generation moved the engine to a more conventional place, in front of the driver, because Ford did a similar thing a few years earlier. The move gave the van its stubby front end, and made the engine easier to work on.
Speaking of that engine, you had a number of different options, in all different styles too. There was an inline 6, a V6, three different gasoline V8s (one of which went up to 7.4 liters!) and two different diesel V8s, though those only were around towards the end of the Van’s run. A three speed automatic and a four speed automatic or manual were your transmission options. The Van could also be had with a system called V-Drive, though this particular one doesn’t have it. V-Drive doesn’t have anything to do with hyperdrive, much to the chagrin of this labored Star Wars metaphor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Here’s a diagram and here’s a shot of a tipped-over Van so you can see what it looks like. In essence, it eliminates a four-wheel drive vehicle’s need for a solid front axle. This means that the front suspension could remain at the same height as a normal car and be independent. Not many Vans left the factory with V-Drive, and after a time the company that produced the system, Dana, split off from General Motors, forging its own way in the universe and appearing on some Fords throughout the late seventies and early eighties. Dana went out of business not long after.
Let’s stay in the seventies for now, though. In addition to creating both Star Wars and this Chevy Van, 1977 has yet another claim to fame. The mid seventies were a high point (in more ways than one) for what is known as “Vannin'” culture. You know what this is. Shag carpeting. Tassel pants. CB radios. Huge murals of dragons being slayed with vorpal blades by girls in gold-plated underwear that could only be more gaudy if they were drawn using velvet. People modified their Chevy, GMC, Ford, and Dodge vans until they were almost unrecognizable, and then they all got together an talked. About what, you ask? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Van stuff, presumably. And despite the fact that I don’t fully understand it, I like Vannin’ culture. More so than other car sects, such as Donk’s or citizens of Stancenation. Vanners don’t street race. Vanners don’t bother themselves with performance modifications. They just kick back with a couple of beers and talk about how house-like their van is. Or maybe how grey their ponytail is getting. It’s kinda cool, really. What type of vehicle provides a greater automotive canvas than a van? A gathering of vanners is like a rolling art gallery. An art gallery that has a weird propensity for science fiction and fantasy literature, but an art gallery all the same. Though its prominence has waned since its mid-seventies heyday (think original trilogy versus Jar Jar Binks), Vannin’ is still a defining car culture. It also spawned a really great ad campaign for Honda.
Though the Chevy Van was a popular canvas for vanners, it doesn’t look like this aggressively orange example ever joined that particular fray. But I’m glad I stumbled upon it anyway: in Chelsea, of all places. Think of this as a sort of sequel to my stirring call to action to save the van from cultural irrelevance. There’s a lot of stuff here, and stuff that is being overlooked by the greater car community. Together, though, I think we can save the van. We can tap into a deeper level of human awareness, awaken a Force if you will, and use that to collectively pluck the van from its staid and dull place in the universe and restore it to its former state of exaltation and glory! May the Force be with us!
- Some of the writers at Car and Driver visited a congregation of vanners late last year. Things got weird.
- The GMC version of this was popular among a special brand of falsely accused Vietnam veterans, and accompanied them on a number of their action-packed adventures. It was called the Vandura.