Where Did All the Conversion Vans Go?
Once common for big families, now seemingly gone from roads.
Growing up with four older brothers in the mid-’90s, there weren’t a lot of vehicles out there that could comfortably shuttle this basketball team to and from school, church, and everywhere else. The advent of the minivan was still relatively new, and my mom claimed she hated how “tight” the steering on front-wheel-drive (FWD) cars was, so those were out of the question. For years, my mom drove full-sized vans,
My mom first got into full-sized vans with a short-nose Ford Econoline, then moved to a General Motors (GM) G-van conversion, then eventually a series of Ford Econoline conversions. She insisted that her van have a low roof and a six-cylinder engine. I don’t know why, I think she thought it would be easier on gas. Was it? Real-world, probably not really, she got maybe 14MPG mixed, but I digress.
She wasn’t the only parent in a large van, either. When I was a kid, it seemed like everyone had a conversion van. Every big family I knew of had a van made by Dodge, Chevy, or Ford, and people were really loyal as to what van tribe they belonged to.
But now, it seems like the conversion van has all but died. All of the conversion vans I’ve seen recently are at least 15 years old, clapped out, rusty, and just sort of sadly trucking along the side of the road, remnants of a bygone era when people could afford to have big families.
I learned to drive on my Mom’s 2000 Ford Econoline conversion van. It was slow, ill-handling, ultra-uncool, but golly it was comfortable. My mom bragged about how the chairs in her conversion vans felt like Barcaloungers that they had screwed to the floor. The carpet was high-pile and maybe a bit dated and ugly, but it was comfortable to put your feet on. Each row had heater vents that blew directly on you. The ceiling had a now dated 10-inch flatscreen TV with a VCR, but I’d imagine that back in 2000, that was probably really cool. The rear bench converted into a bed that was more comfortable than the one in a lot of people’s homes. The additional interior trim near the radio and all throughout the van was made of real wood! Sure, it was a tacky, gaudy mess, and not really stylish today, but back then, that van was pretty dank.
For the uninitiated, the conversion van is basically a big lounge on wheels. An upfitter, or outside company, buys the vans (or sometimes has a direct relationship with the van’s manufacturer) which turns them from boxes on wheels, to the mobile sofas I learned to drive on. This video from MotorWeek is a pretty succinct explanation of what conversion vans are, and how they’re made – I can’t imagine much has changed since the late 1990s when that video was first created.
No one really drives conversion vans anymore. Why? Could be a couple of reasons. Minivans have gotten bigger and more luxurious directly from the factory, so maybe a luxury conversion van might not offer as much of an upgrade as one may think.
Possibly, it could be due to safety standards. Lots of conversion vans started life as cargo vans. Then, big overstuffed custom upholstery was essentially screwed to the floor. Side airbags, curtain airbags, or modern crash or child safety were less strict back then. Gas mileage on these super-heavy luxury vans isn’t a strong suit, either.
Conversion vans were ultra-comfortable places to be on long trips, but how many people are taking long trips with their families these days? Aside from the depressing lack of disposable income and time off that a lot of families have, air travel has gotten significantly cheaper, so a lot of people opt to just fly to their destination.
There are companies out there still making conversion vans, but boy, expect to pay a pretty penny for them. Gone are the days where a not-so-old conversion van could be had for pennies on the dollar, even used examples will run ya upwards of $35000. New conversion vans sell for ungodly sums of money: Ohio-based conversion van dealer Mike Castrucci’s vans list for more than $80,000. This all-wheel-drive (AWD), 9-passenger Ford Transit conversion van was listed for more than $92,000. Oh, and it’s sold. That is a lot of coin, especially when a nice minivan can be had for $35,000. The interior of new style conversion vans are no doubt plusher than a basic van, or even a really nice Minivan, but is it worth $90,000? I dunno, the seats that they use in modern conversion vans, no doubt are probably much safer in a crash, but it can’t beat the comfort of a big, overstuffed velour lounge chair, in an old Econoline conversion van.
Sigh. Hopefully, the conversion van doesn’t go entirely the way of the dodo.