“L.A. is like an open air loony bin, and there are a lot of vans out there. Everybody seems to have a van.”
—Anonymous surfer in the line-up at Narragansett Pier, 1967
We all know that cool and hip trends begin out in California: surfboards, skateboards, movies, clothes, food, hot tubs, music, cars, and vans are
all the offspring of various themes and offshoots of some character’s ideas and design. Hobie Alter designed surfboards and catamarans. The Beach Boys wrote songs of the surfing and hot rod cars. Smoothies are a Cali thing. MGM makes movies. Surf baggies and sandals are a Cali thing. Vans, the skateboard kicks, are a west coast creation.
I know you get where I’m heading with this nod to the golden coast of the United States. And, I know you are aware that the trends then head east after the aforementioned items have saturated the vast and rugged coastline of California. As the surfer mentioned to me while surfing at the Pier, I kind of got the loony bin idea, but the van observation was something I didn’t quite get at that time, because there weren’t many around town. I get it now.
The Volkswagen—the People’s Car—was developed in 1950 in West Germany. Shortly before in 1947, a Dutch guy designed a small bus which eventually became the VW Microbus and the act of hauling cargo and people started to get interesting and very practical. The Beetle and Microbus were the first Volkswagen designs and they profoundly changed travel in the USA and Europe. Seventy years after the Microbus was created, we now have an arc of van design and evolution to examine, and it leads us to one conclusion; we live in a mobile society, and we can’t sit still. We like to be on the move, and we want to get where we’re going in comfort and style.
I saw my first VW van at Narragansett Pier in 1968. A local surfer named Charlie Johnson had one with his boards on top and a cool stereo system blasting Jim Hendrix’s song “Foxy Lady” while we all hung out at the seawall. Charlie also had a Beetle with the vanity license plate, Bummer. (He still has the plate.) Johnson was way ahead of the curve as a surfer, sailor and van guy. Moreover, he first sailed a 16-foot Hobie Cat off the town Beach at Narragansett Pier circa 1970. As I stated earlier, trends begin out west and then morph into being a thing here on the east coast. Then, certain people—Charlie Johnson was one of those people—dial in and others follow suit. The next thing we knew there were vans of all makes and designs seen all around coastal New England. They were trending in today’s marketing parlance.
In the late 50s, Volkswagen came out with a camper van which has had several iterations and changes in design for comfort and function for over the past fifty years. Campers were now another market with demand all over the continental United States. Volkswagen saw said demand and the supplied it from Woodstock to the Redwood Forests and from Key West to Nova Scotia. The VW van could be modified by the owner or designed by the company and people couldn’t get enough of these practical and affordable rigs. It was only a matter of time before other car manufacturers wanted a piece of this expanding market, and started to design and trick out vans and campers in an almost decadent fashion; Ford, Chevrolet, et al hopped on the bandwagon. Wood panels, pop tops, crushed velour, sinks, stoves and refrigerators created cozy hideouts and comfortable rides for folks who were road dogging it on long-distance cross-country trips. This was the genesis of what is known today as Van Life.
Before the van trend happened, I read of people traveling cross-country in their station wagons and hitting all fifty states. My folks knew a couple who did this and as a teenager I was intrigued. They just took off, hit the road and made it up as they went along. They roughed it.
John Steinbeck had a GMC pickup truck with an austere and boxy cabin on the bed. He called his rig Rocinante. which was the name of Don Quixote’s horse. Steinbeck was on a quest with his dog Charley to see the country. Furthermore, we can’t forget Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady doing their wacky cross-country trips searching for their America and raising prodigious hell while on their merry and pranksterous way. This is all good stuff. Romantic stuff.
Perfect stuff for a guy like me, who at age 24 needed to hit the road for a minute and see something other than the environs of Little Rhody. So, I bought a van and hit the road and headed south. In 1975 there was nothing called Van Life, there were just people traveling all over the country in various camper rigs. Snazzy and tricked out campers were all the rage, but my van was not snazzy—at all. It was an eyesore, but it afforded me a place to flop in Florida, and to go surfing for a winter. I got a snootful of the gypsy life for nine months; it was fun, but I got tired of starting my van with a screwdriver.
There is a resurgence happening with campers, and over the past two years I feel the pandemic has boosted sales of some fancy rigs. In California, ahem, where this new Van Life of course started, we will see some very fancy and pricey Sprinter, and Mercedes Benz campers on the highways and by-ways. Moreover, this trend did come east as we knew it would. These things were probably good pandemic hideouts, and people threw down substantial scoots for the comfort. Subsequently, they had increased visibility with a sweet optic, and the market blew up. Finally, all I can say about living in a van on the cusp of vagrancy is that it was an adventure; however, I’d rather drift in my sailboat and read a book; there’s less traffic. Maybe drifting will be the next trend. ‘Nuff said.