They are the unsung heroes of the car industry if you ask me. Day in and day out they haul crying babies, smelly teens, and parents arguing about where they should go out to eat the one day they get away from the kids every six months. They also can make pretty kick-ass crew haulers such as the A-team van and Scoobie Doo’s mystery machine. Hell, even the Ninja Turtles rocked a van! A lot of people hate on them, but they are the most practical family hauler out there and have been for decades. They offer tons of interior space, a comfortable ride, easy accessibility, and lots of space behind the seats for illegal fireworks or whatever else you are into. I have never owned one personally and I would prefer a large SUV, but I would totally rock a van if I had to. Some people say they aren’t “cool” or “manly” but I disagree a bit on that last one. What’s more manly than driving around your offspring, young people who you played a part in creating and giving life to, in a vehicle that keeps you close to them? Maybe that’s the lame dad in me coming out but either way, vans have their place!
One version of the van became so popular that over time people referred to every van as one. Back in 1983 a couple of guys at Chrysler had an idea that the populace needed a bigger vehicle with more room for families, but they also wanted it to keep a car-like driving experience. At the time Chrysler was going under and just keeping its head above water with a loan from the government. It was no easy task for these guys to coax the controlling interest in the company to take a chance by spending half of its financial recourses on the development of a whole new type of car, but they did, and the birth of the minivan changed the future of automobiles forever. The minivan offered more room for the family and still offered the amenities and driving experience that was similar to the cars of the time. The engineers didn’t want to make the car too big and have it be cumbersome or intimidating to drive for the soccer mom audience they were targeting and it worked! The Caravan get it “car & van”, sold like hot cakes. The vans couldn’t be built fast enough, and customers were waiting weeks for delivery of their new rides. That was the beginning of the classic sliding door as well. We had one for a short time growing up, it was the Plymouth version I think, the Voyager. It was a terrible light purple color, but it got the job done and hauled my brother and I around with the family just fine. It was an honest vehicle that changed the game for families all over the country and paved the way for today’s vans and SUVs!
Now, the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth minivans definitely weren’t the first vans on the scene worldwide though. Vans had been around for decades. One of the most iconic being the VW bus. The microbus was only the second offering form Volkswagen and debuted in 1950 with its boxy shape and rear engine configuration. For some reason it quickly became the preferred mode of transportation for hippies and an icon for American counterculture in the 1960’s. The first version nicknamed “the splitty” on account of its split front window was replaced with “the bay” in 1967. In 1975 VW released a camper version of the bus with larger windows and was popular with the outdoors crowd. Along the production timeline there were a few different models that varied mostly with the number of windows one could get. They ranged from 11 windows in the standard to 23 windows in the sunroof deluxe models! The original bus was powered by a 25hp 1.1L air cooled 4-cylinder and was soon replaced with a 1.5L 47hp unit. It wasn’t until the second generation where there was a 1.7L unit available with 65 hp that the bus could get out of its own way. There was a third generation of the bus sold in the states briefly badged the Vanagon, but it didn’t last long due to high tariffs. That was the end of the VW bus here in the states, but it was manufactured for other countries for decades to come ending in the 2000’s. VW is planning on bringing the bus back in the next few years as a fully electric vehicle that will offer dual motors for all-wheel-drive and there will be a cargo version as well.
Work vans, you see them everywhere. You know, the while Chevy and Ford cargo vans, usually with a business name or design on the side of them. They are popular for the service industry for a reason, they are very practical and offer a ton of interior space. They become rolling offices for many. For those who want to be self-employed and their business needs to be mobile, there really isn’t a better option. For example, we had our carpets cleaned in our home a few weeks ago and the guy that did them was self employed and the equipment used to do it all fits in the back of a Ford E350. My neighbor bought a new Ford Raptor last year and once a month he has a mobile detail service come out and detail his truck. They use a Chevy Express cargo van to haul around their equipment. I thought this would be decent side gig for me as I really do enjoy cleaning out my cars and take pride in them looking nice, but I just don’t have the time these days. Anyways, you see where I’m going here, there are many things you can do with the versatility a van provides. These same work vans can be configured with seating from the factory for up to 15 people for those of you with too many kids and have never heard of contraception. They can also be outfitted into pretty sweet campers as well with some places offering four-wheel-drive conversions making them an overlanding dream if you ask me. They are typically built on ¾ ton or 1-ton chassis for the payload and have plenty of power with big V-8 or even diesel engines so most of their tow ratings are up there with half ton trucks making them even more versatile. People have made DIY campers out of them too which looks like it would be a pretty fun project! So, if you are wanting to start your own catering or power washing business you can’t go wrong with a full-size van, just don’t offer to sell candy to kids out of one.
One of the coolest “van builds”, if that’s such a thing, is from Bisimoto Engineering. They build some pretty sweet cars and I had seen this van years ago and then most recently on the fastest car, a Netflix show where people who build their cars race a supercar to see if their “built not bought” jobby can beat it. Bisimoto builds unloved cars and has some pretty cool builds. Anyways, it’s based off of a 2014 Honda Odyssey and it probably the best-looking Honda minivan I’ve seen. Its slammed on bags and has a massive front mount intercooler hanging off the front end. It has a manual transmission swap out of an Acura TL which is sweet. The TL Type-S gearbox has a factory limited slip but with a sticky enough tire, one would still destroy the drivetrain. Why is that? Well the guys at Bisimoto built the van with a 1,029 hp so you can imagine there would be a bit a carnage there. Bisimoto counters this with boost-per-gear via the AEM engine management system limiting boost in every gear. It ranges from 13 psi in first gear up to 40 psi in 6th! They kept the Honda J35 V-6 and completely built the motor then added a Turbonetics 7265 turbocharger to the mix, the thing sounds amazing! On ethanol the engine makes the 1029 hp and on plane old 91 octane it still makes 600-wheel horsepower which for most people would be just fine for their minivan. It’s the most powerful minivan I’ve seen to date and it was done very cleanly as it was built for Honda of America’s SEMA showcase back in 2013. The van has since been sold but it remains a very cool build for some lucky collector.
So, I’m not the minivan type and would much prefer a large SUV like I said but I could definitely see the practicality. If I was going to buy a van though, I think I’d go all out on a Mercedes Sprinter van in the four-wheel-drive variety. In a world where I had unlimited recourses id build one for overlanding while still maintaining seating for the family which wouldn’t be too hard as they have a ton of room in them depending on what wheelbase you choose. If you equip the van with the optional 3.0L diesel engine you can tow up to 7,700 lbs. which is plenty especially if you are going to tow an overlanding trailer, which is what id do. I would have as large of a tire as I could without lifting it or cutting fenders and the aftermarket has tons of options as far as outfitting these for off roading. The sky is the limit with one of these things especially for an overlanding build, they are a great blank canvas! Vans can be cool, it’s all about your vision. From all of us here at Gearbox, have fun, be safe, and keep the shiny side up!