If you grew up after JKF but before Slick Willy, chances are pretty good your youth was shaped to a large degree by the custom vans of the 70s.
These babies wrapped up every adolescent emotion in one explosive lava-melt package on wheels …
The were exciting …
They were gaudy …
They were gorgeous …
They were hideous …
They were forbidden …
They were hedonistic …
They were freedom …
They were all these and much more, and once they snared you with their rebel taint, you’d never be free.
Here, then, are just five of the reasons you’ll never be able to wash yourself clean of the custom vans of the 70s.
The Colors, Man
Thing about custom vans was, they had custom paint jobs. And dudes who drove these things took “custom” to a whole other level than, say, custom dry cleaners.
I mean, if you could think of it, it could be slapped on the side of a van, apparently.
Tie-dye, a mermaid coming up out of the see, a sunset, a sunrise, a pet rock.
Heck, there were probably a few Karen Carpenter and Leif Garrett vans rolling around out there.
And the one thing they all had in common was … they were vans.
Oh … but I meant besides that.
The one thing they all had in common was that the colors were bold and wild and sort of smeared into reality like the edges of a bad dream.
The only other place a kid might see something even close was in one of those toxic chemical balloon things that came in an ointment tube.
Or, you know, after licking a few envelopes closed.
Ooh, Ooh that Smell
You ever actually get inside one of those custom vans?
Or even close enough to one that you could make out the peace sign dream catcher hanging from the rearview mirror?
Because, if you did, you most surely caught a waft of that van smell.
It’s hard to describe, and there was nothing else like it in my world at the time.
Now, with the hindsight of skepticism and failed experiences, I can tell you it was a cocktail … but I still can’t identify all the pieces.
I do know there was some form of each of these, though …
- Carpet fibers (see below)
If the owner was a dude over 30, all of that was replaced by desperation … which is pretty much just the smell of those dying and decaying dreams in an old man’s fantasies, anyway.
She Was Sex
There is a line in the The Affair that sums up the best parts of that Showtime series pretty well … “She was sex.”
It’s written by one main character about another — the woman he had an affair with — as part of a novelization of their romance.
Alison (the “she” in this case) wasn’t all that enamored with his characterization.
For his troubles, old Noah — the author and cheating lowlife in The Affair — might as well have been talking about custom vans.
They were sex.
That’s why your mom didn’t want you to go near them, and why your older sister spent nights and weekends in one, and why you were dying to get inside one … whether you realized the reason or not.
Unlike Alison, though, custom vans embraced their purpose. Played it up. Smashed it into your memory like a spoonful of corn in a pile of mashed potatoes.
And you’ll never shake that feeling of forbidden excitement whenever you see a custom van, or think of one … or smell one … no matter how creepy it may seem.
And it can seem pretty creepy.
I mean, you ever watch shows like Forensic Files?
You know the ones … the “true crime” vehicles that run you through some gruesome discovery and the scrambling aftermath as authorities try to figure out what happened and who did it.
Inevitably — and this is born out by the statistics I keep in my head — one out of every five point seven six shows revolves around the disappearance of a kid or woman who was last seen walking down a city sidewalk on a brightly lit day.
And you know what else was seen in that city on that brightly lit day?
“Well, I seen this big ol’ van just driving along real slow, up and down the street. Didn’t think much about it, other’n how the paint job looked like an Asteroids game. Pretty nifty.”
In case you didn’t catch it, what Elmer saw was a van. A conversion van. Almost always, a 1970s custom conversion van.
It’s all enough to make you feel like every car driving down the street is watching you. Following you. Especially when it’s a van.
I’m telling you … those custom vans of the 70s will plop you right down in the middle of a Rockwell song.
Orange Triangular Carpet Fibers
And every time a custom van played into some disappearance or murder on Forensic Files, you could be sure what was coming next.
“Lab tests showed the presence of peculiar triangular orange carpet fibers in the airway of Lisa Joe,” narrator Peter Thomas would intone.
He had the kind of knowing old-man voice that creeps you out with its softness and kindness, because you know he’s channeling hell right into your eardrums.
And when Thomas whipped out his “Orange Triangular Carpet Fibers” shtick, you knew how the bad guy would get caught.
Because it was a quick series of logical jumps …
This carpet was sold only between 1973 and 1978
This carpet was sold only from a factory in the remote swamphills of Piss Swamp, Arkansas.
This carpet was sold to Piss Swamp locals at a discount, and to Chrysler in Windsor at a significant premium.
Chrysler in Windsor used the carpet in all of their Dodge Ram Tradesman vans.
The carpet fibers found in the victim’s throat matched a remnant a Detroit bum was using as a blanket, and he’d had it since 1975.
Chrysler made 147 orange Tradesman in 1975.
Fifteen of those 147 vans were sold in Detroit.
David Lynn James moved from Detroit to Shatole, Indiana, in 1981
The victim was killed in Shatole in 1982.
David Lynn James drove an orange Tradesman with a missing orange floor mat.
You knew James was screwed the second old Pete started in with his “orange triangular carpet fibers” deal.
And, if you’re like me, chances are about even your still know someone with a custom van from the 70s and that little doubt niggles in the back of your mind.
Is the carpet orange?
It probably is.
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