The Van of Death
In the early ‘70s, my family had two cars. My father drove a blue Toyota, and my mother drove a big green/fake wood station wagon. (Similar to the Family Truckster in the movie Vacation.) In the mid-‘70s, my father purchased a white Chevrolet van, and my mother drove a cream Toyota Corolla.
We liked camping, and my father converted the white van into a four-person camper. He made a plywood shelf in the back that allowed me to sleep about three feet above the floor. Because he built the shelf inside the van, it could not be removed. The van had a back seat bolted to the frame, and he attached giant plywood skis to move it outside. He glued carpet on the floor, preventing the back seat from sliding around.
My father cut plywood to make a platform over the two front seats and the dashboard. There was a hole for the steering wheel, and my sister slept in this small area. When driving, he placed this plywood sheet on top of the back plywood sheet. My parents slept lengthwise below my bed. The only other modification was changing out the dome lights with fluorescents because they use less electricity.
We went on many trips, and I fondly remember those times. As a vehicle, my father drove that white van everywhere. It was his work truck, transportation, and camper. Eventually, the maintenance and mileage became too great, and my father sold it.
My father purchased a used light-blue Chevrolet van in the ‘80s. By this time, my sister and I were far too big to sleep in this vehicle, so my father did not make any modifications.
In 1988, I learned how to drive, and my car of choice was my mother’s Corolla. It had great visibility, acceleration, braking, and handling. Plus, the air conditioner was fantastic.
Unfortunately, I did most of my early driving in that blue van. Its design had many driving flaws. For visibility, I could look forward but not down. There was a small driver’s side mirror, but the seat position made it difficult to see on the left side. One or two motorcycles could easily hide in the blind spot. The passenger window was small, far away, and high. So, the mirror was hard to see, and there was a blind spot big enough to hide a pickup truck. The epic problems were with the back windows. They were tiny, and I could only see large trucks or cars far behind me.
When I changed lanes, I looked and craned my neck hard. Then, I flicked on the turn signals, waited for ten clicks, and slowly eased over while looking at the mirrors and listening for horns.
And there was more fun! The brakes were gentle, the acceleration was modest, and the steering was vague. I had at least ten close calls, and driving was always stressful.
One flaw outshined all others. Like the white van, my father wanted a back seat. The blue van did not come with one, and we went to a junkyard to get one from a junked Volkswagen van. My father and I attached wooden planks to it. However, the blue van did not have carpet, which allowed the back seat to slide in all directions. Did I mention the Volkswagen seat did not have seat belts?
When the van rapidly stopped, the seat would slide forward, and the passengers (if lucky) would slam into the back of the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Unlucky passengers crashed into the dashboard. Taking a sharp turn slammed them into the side panels.
This is how that blue van earned the nickname “The Van of Death.” Despite the negatives, the blue van was my lifeline. I went to friends houses, stores and explored the town.
I recall one fun trip going to the locksmith with a giant file cabinet, and it went flying during a fast corner which made a nice dent in the side. Another time, I was in an unfamiliar part of town and did not know about a big hump in the road. I was going too fast and took off like the General Lee from the television show The Dukes of Hazzard. Because the shock absorbers were not great, there was a big bounce. This event scared the life out of me.
Around 2000, my father replaced the blue van with a white Chevrolet van. It was faster, had better handling, large windows, an enormous window on the passenger side, and oversized mirrors. There was something else of note. It had an AC Delco radio, and despite being basic, it was by far the best car sound system I have ever heard.
We all have childhood experiences; some are more negative than others, but they are the best learning experiences. I can certainly say I am a better driver, but if circumstances were slightly different, I could have died in an accident. Yet, I survived and now have experiences to write about.
You’re the best -Bill
June 07, 2023
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