Conversion vans were among the most popular automotive fads of the 1970s and 1980s.
Known as “land yachts,” 1970s conversion vans epitomized the hippie lifestyle of the era. Flashy painted murals graced the exteriors, and thick shag carpeting, tapestry hangings, mini blinds and captain’s chairs were the norm for the interiors. Also inside was that requisite plush fold-out bed.
One of the earliest producers of conversion vans was Rockwood Vans of Goshen, Indiana. The Chevrolet Van/GMC Vandura, Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari, Ford E-Series and Dodge Ram Van were popular early conversion van models.
No ’70s van, of course, would have been complete without a rocking sound system and complementary lighting. CB radios and customized horns reflected that era’s “modern” technology. Custom exterior paint jobs included pinstripes, flames, wizards and dragons.
The wheels of the classic conversion vans were stunning. The ubiquitous slotted mag wheel of the ’70s was popular, as were wire wheels and Cooper Cobra, Mickey Thompson, Indy Profile and Keystone tires.
The Mystery Machine
Among the most famous examples of the classic conversion van was the Scooby Doo “Mystery Machine.” The vehicle was a blue-painted generic panel van with a horizontal green stripe and two orange-painted flowers. The words “The Mystery Machine” were painted in orange on both sides. A green-painted front spare tire holder featured a center orange-painted flower. Two roof racks sat on top to provide extra storage. The roof also contained a place for a large antenna. Inside, a storage area in back accommodated ropes, ladders and lanterns. A table and chairs and bench could also fit in the back.
Modern Conversion Vans
When they hear the word “van,” many people envision a minivan with a soccer mom at the wheel. Technically, a conversion van is quite different. Today, the conversion vans are still large but feature more elegant exterior paint jobs that replace the psychedelic murals of the vintage models. Luxurious leather seating has replaced the fold-out beds, and computerized digital entertainment systems have replaced the bulky sound systems of the previous century.
Most modern conversion vans are more fuel efficient and come in either low or high-topped models. Many are equipped with captain’s chairs and a rear bench that can convert into a bed. Contemporary conversion vans can usually accommodate up to seven passengers. Compact flat-screened TVs and gaming systems have replaced the oversized TVs and DVRs of the past.
Modern full-sized conversion vans include the Chevrolet Express and Van, Dodge Ram Van, Ford Transit, GMC Savana and Ventura, Mercedes Sprinter, Nissan NV and Ram ProMaster.
The Resurging Trend
Recently, conversion vans have once again become more popular not just for nostalgic reasons but for the sake of practicality as well. Why? First, a conversion van is built on a frame and is thus supreme in durability and safety over an SUV.
In addition, while offering every bit as much space as an SUV, a conversion van is typically more affordable. Conversion vans also provide better fuel mileage than many SUVs. They’re also anything but RV-like and are ideal for campers who need a comfortable place to sleep or just some relaxing time out of the elements.