Alicia Burrell and Glenn "Grizzly" Jones are sitting in the shade of an old Chevrolet Astro van parked on the dusty shore of Fiesta Island. More than a dozen restored vintage vans are gathered alongside them at the Vans at the Bay event. The two veterans of the San Diego vanning community say they're glad to see a renewed interest in their longtime automotive hobby, but they say the scene's still nothing like it was in the heyday of the '70s.
"Back in the day, hundreds of vans would've showed up to something like this," Grizzly says.
"But things really started to die out in the '80s and '90s," Burrell adds.
As the lore goes, vans were first manufactured in the United States in the '60s. They were quickly embraced by surfers, hippies and the counterculture movement that ran through the '70s, the decade when people really started transforming their vans, turning them into decked-out rolling rooms. A subculture sprang up around customized vans—several magazines dedicated to the lifestyle were published, multiple show-van competitions popped up and an article on "The Van Craze" even made it to the cover of Time in 1977.
The van craze has since petered out, but within the last three or four years there's been a notable resurgence. The New York Times even did a short piece on vanners in May.
A few vans away from Burrell and Grizzly, Andreas Stevens is answering the typical questions that come when people first set eyes on his Brubaker Box sports van.
"There were only two dozen of these ever made," he says, opening the door to the sleek fiberglass van that looks like it rolled out of a retro film set in another galaxy. "It was designed by this really well-known industrial designer named Curtis Brubaker. I did a full body-off restoration, but this was the original color of the sides. Basically, my whole mission was just to put it back exactly how it was when it was finished in '74...Period-correctness is always a thing for me and most vanners."
Stevens is the driving force behind San Diego's growing van subculture. Widely known as DJ Greyboy, a musician and deejay who's traveled the world playing music, he's also becoming one of the most recognizable members of the new generation of van enthusiasts that's popping up across the nation. He's organized three local "Vans by the Bay" meet-ups so far, making sure to invite the scene's movers and shakers like Matt Grayson, publisher of Rolling Heavy Magazine, a zine-sized publication that covers the van subculture.
"Right now, stuff has just been progressively getting more and more exciting," says Grayson, pulling freshly printed copies of Rolling Heavy out of the back of his black '76 Chevy. "Everybody's really starting to get into it, again. You get a whole lot less A-Team and Scooby-Doo references, which are just annoying as hell, and people are really starting to get it."
Grayson says the thing to understand about customized-van culture is that it's a lot like hot-rod culture—most of the people driving the vans are the ones working on the engines and improving their plush interiors and exteriors by hand.
"But vanning is also just about getting on the road," he says. "Going to the beach, camping and hanging out without having to pitch a tent. It's about having good times for the most part, really."
Parked nearby is Ben Vasquez, founder of the Los Angeles van club, The Vandoleros, which launched in 2010. The interior of his '76 Chevy Shorty has been refurbished, but like most of the vans at Fiesta Island, afghans, eight-track tape players and other era-correct items are present throughout. He's even left the original name of the van, The Stabbin' Cabin, intact.
"It's a survivor van, which means it's an old boogie van," Vasquez says. "It's an old party van from back in the day...It has most of the original interior but I had to redo the walls."
Don Konieczny and his bright red '65 Chevy stand out, mostly because he's got poster boards and scrapbooks filled with photos of vans displayed on tables and on the ground around him. The mechanic says he snaps a photo of a van whenever he sees one and fairly often he says he ends up meeting the vans' owners once they start looking around for parts.
"I keep the vans rolling," he says, later opening up the back of his van to show the windshield and other parts he's brought down for other vanners-in-need. "Vans are an acquired taste. There's no power steering, there's no power brakes, no AC, and you're sitting on the radiator. The older ones are primitive and it's getting harder and harder to find parts."
A few days after Vans at the Bay, Stevens invites me to his home. He has a handful of vans parked around his apartment and plenty of van ephemera inside. He pulls out books like Vans: Customized Vans in Colour by Alberto Martinez and Van People: The Great American Rainbow Boogie by Douglas Kent Hall before revealing one of his most beloved artifacts salvaged from '70s van culture—an over-sized handmade scrapbook detailing the life and times of Brass 1.
"As far as the vans that I own go, I'd say this is the most historically significant," he says, opening the book to reveal dozens of media clippings about the beautiful emerald green show van. "This van is called Brass 1 and I got it from the original owners in Visalia and it...was the first van to win all three of the van nationals...And as the story goes, the couple who owned it got a divorce and when the lawyers asked the wife whether she wanted the house or the van, she chose the van."
Stevens has Facebook pages and Instagram accounts for both his Brubaker Box van and Brass 1. He has plans to galvanize the local scene by perhaps reinvigorating the old, original clubs, San Diego Vans and Sunshine Super Vans. Both started in San Diego in the '70s but have since dwindled in membership. He also wants to eventually launch a West Coast national event that he hopes will attract hundreds of vintage vans from across the country.
"But I have to do it slowly as the craze starts to grow bigger," Stevens says. "The resurgence is really just...I think we're right in the middle of it taking off."