The US custom van craze of the seventies filled the vacuum left by the demise of the American muscle car. Neutered by creeping legislation and spiking insurance premiums the oil crisis of ’73 lowered the curtain. The average consumer could no longer play.

In a post Vietnam era, NASA stopped going to the moon, the dollar lost its gold standard, and recession loomed out of the energy crisis. Americans still wanted their automotive kicks, but where was fun to be had? Hotrods were scooped up by the old guys. Motor City was losing its Mojo, serving up flaccid family fodder, pseudo luxury barges, or if you were really unlucky, wheezy economy cars that in extremis burst into flames in a fender bender (Hello Ford Pinto)

All of these things converged to propel the humble commercial van into the spotlight as the unlikely automotive anti hero of the age. Forget riding across America hanging off the monkey bars on your crotch rocket. Now you could cruise the big wide open, rolling in your custom four wheeled crib.

Clubs formed across the states. Van fests were taking place from sea to shining sea. Vanners who called themselves truckers (?) rode in convoys and kept in touch with CB radio. The custom van was no longer a vehicle, it was a scene, a lifestyle choice. A stash for your surfboards on the West Coast. A camper for the family in the hinterlands. A garage for your trail bikes in the desert. Everywhere else it was a party machine, sans Scooby Doo and any sense of mystery, where the spirits had a proof rating and the hash was hotboxed. Bumper stickers announced, ‘Ass, grass or cash, nobody rides for free’ 

Entire industries sprang up to pimp your ride. Air brush artists charged big bucks to decorate your van to reflect your persona, be it fantasy, fun, or dyspeptic. Custom painters laid down candy colours, metal flake, and swathes of stripes. You could add flames, lace, sunrays, fish scales, and geometric teasers in the style of Rubiks cube. Bubble windows on the sides were crucial. Louvres on the back windows were a thing. Hood scoops and spoilers were cool. Flared arches, mag slots, and sidepipes were practically de rigueur.

Step inside to find your wonderworld. A pine log cabin, a wild west saloon, a pirate galleon, a Tudor castle with ( electric) fireplace – or for the players, something straight out of Hefners pad; waterbed by the door, leather and vinyl, and shag on floor, and ceiling. The van was a cosplay arena infinitely more thrilling than some pixels in the Metaverse.


Time magazine noted the van craze sweeping America. Custom van publications sprouted up. Hollywood jumped aboard with ‘vansploitation’ movies, all were woeful B roll tat. Corporations muscled in. The likes of Yamaha and Coca Cola made custom vans to promote their wares. Ford woke up to the fact that there was money to be made, and produced their own line of custom vans. They ticked the boxes with metallic paint, stripes and bubble windows; It was custom- lite. Dodge went all in with the Street Van, including a members club, and magazine, plus a range of branded after market accessories for those doing builds of their own.


Dodge advertising was simple. Van gets girl, sometimes with clothes. Others were slightly more subtle; chess on the beach with a beach babe, – your custom van awaits to celebrate checkmate. Vibes of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ – except McQueen rode a beach buggy in the dunes,

A new decade brought new fashions and aspirations. Goodbye, shag carpet and carefree living. The eighties saw the custom van in decline. They didn’t mix well with shoulder pads and espadrilles. ‘Taking care of business’ was secondary to getting business done as America learnt to worship Wall Street. The birth of the minivan hit sales. It was functional, without the funk. It suited the toned down, serious sensibilities of those working toward the sharp lines of a BMW and a corporate credit card. The Boogie Van, the epitome of free living, free loving, independence, was reduced to a trope for serial killers. No one was knocking, and the van was no longer rocking.

The owners of the two vans pictured here remember seeing the custom vans prowling the streets, when they were kids.. The green Dodge Tradesman is an original survivor.

Its airbrushed artwork denotes the Death Dealer, a character drawn by the Godfather of fantasy art, Frank Frazetta. He also illustrated the popular renditions of Conan the Barbarian amongst others. The Death Dealer also features on the debut album cover of rock band Molly Hatchet. Inside, the van is practical and restrained in its decor, presenting a sober take on the interiors of the period, compared to those created for shows and featured in magazines. 

The second van is a new build on an original short bed Ford Econoline. This van is prime Boogie, intentionally created to feature as many period custom paint styles as possible revelling in sunrays , lace , fish scales, metal flake, ghost flames and layered stripes. The colours were mixed by hand to produce seventies nostalgia. Candy brown and gold layered over a base coat of black with metal flake laid on the lower quarter and many layers of lacquer. Side pipes and louvres, bubble windows and chrome wheels filling flared arches complete the look. The paint plays with changing light conditions, the rich detail of patterns and hues.enables the Ford to pull off flashy and classy at the same time. Its a love letter to the Boogie van era and the Dodge is a timepiece to be preserved. Both are art displayed on metal canvas.
Sleazy riders? Back in the day, maybe. These days the sleaze is nostalgic reference and embraced only in irony. Both owners use their vans to run their children about. The kids think they are the coolest things ever. Kids aren’t daft. Do you want to dribble to school in a looky- likey SUV, or rumble into the parking lot flexing like a rock star?

They are not the only ones. New clubs have popped up and custom van fests see a rise in attendees. original vans are fetching big money. It’s van life, with a twist. Leave the V Dubs to the insta spammers. The Boogie van, an anti hero that rode the seventies zeitgeist is once again a cult niche wagon. In a homogenized, corporate 21st century, it’s a vibrant burst of individuality guaranteed to leave karens shrieking in your wake. Violet wrapped Lamborghinis are tired memes. Seventies cheese never looked so good.


Images Steve Swanson
Additional advertising images Ford, Chevy, Dodge via Pinterest and Wikicommons
Many thanks to Ash, Kyle and Scott and all the ‘agents’ @Coldwarmotors  

About The Author

Steve Swanson

Steve turns any opportunity to write about cars into a roadtrip. It's seen him ride shotgun in a Bentley Blower with Clive Cussler, and cross paths with automotive YouTubers in Canada and the US. His work has been published in Magneto, Classic Cars, Classic American and some magazines that no MotorPunk reader has ever heard of. When he's not writing or driving you can find him kicking tyres at seedy auctions and hawking junk optimistically described as Automobilia

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