Go to any car show and you can spot many Chevelles, Camaros and Mustangs. And in recent years, lifted or lowered trucks are easy to find too. But what don’t you see? Old-school, custom vans! When was the last time you saw a custom van at a car show? Well, if you’ve been to a car show in Ottawa in the last few years, the odds are pretty good.
Traditional Ford E-series custom van. Credit: Mark Linzmayer
The absence of custom vans is surprising considering how popular they once were. The custom van craze was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s. They were known for wild exteriors and even wilder interiors.
Renfrew Old Home week circa 1977 or 1978. We all lined up to see it up close. Photo credit: Jodie McGetchie
Companies were doing them up and touring them around to community events to showcase their products. Individuals were cruising around, entering shows and camping with them. They were the best of both worlds, you could have fun driving it and once you parked… Um, we’ll just stop there.
Custom van interior with several bars and a bed. Credit: Paul Psutka
It’s not all about the interiors though. Vans offer creative owners a huge blank canvas that can be coated in a nice subtle colour or wild artwork. Many vans were done in popular themes including Disney characters, popular movies, and commercial products such as the Coca-Cola/denim machine of the 70s.
Van with the common custom van accessories. Credit: Roger McGetchie
Just like hot rods and muscle cars enthusiasts who had local performance shops like Young’s Speed Shop, the vanners had local shops of their own such as Can Custom Vans. This shop specialized in van parts, accessories and installations. This was the place to go to get louvers, sunroofs, flares, spoilers and all the other custom van necessities. This was just one of many shops that supported van owners looking to make their rides their own. Even some of the big chains such as Canadian Tire had a section of products dedicated to van customizing.
Variety of vans at a show. Credit: Rob Hall
And, like any other group of enthusiasts with similar interests, there were clubs! Nationals van clubs are still going strong, but back in the day there were local van clubs in the Ottawa area such as Ottawa Valley Vans. Like any club, they attended local and not so local car shows and hosted other fun events.
Do these vans look familiar? Credit: Rob Hall
Don’t mistake the limited-visibility of vans at show as meaning that the van enthusiasts and culture are fading. It is still alive and well with national clubs and events going strong! Next time you’re at a car show, and see one of these beauties, take the time to check out the workmanship and creativity and talk with the owners. I’m sure they’ll have a fun story to tell.