Riding a Van Back to the ’70s

John Francis Peters for The New York Times

Los Angeles — When Ben Vasquez bought his 1975 Chevrolet G10 van, its mural of an eagle soaring over a desert landscape was faded, and its plush interior, intended for amorous assignations, was shredded from years of neglect.

“It had been put through hell, just like most vans you find,” said Mr. Vasquez, 37, who builds hot rods for a living.

“I’ve returned it to what it was in the glory days, what they used to call a ‘boogie van,’ which is both a muscle car and a party vehicle,” said Mr. Vasquez, who has a tattoo on his right cheek of Elvis Presley’s insignia, a lightning bolt surrounded by the letters T.C.B. (for “Taking Care of Business”).

One of a new and growing generation of custom-van enthusiasts, Mr. Vasquez rebuilt the engine but didn’t touch the shopworn exterior or the lettering of the van’s bawdy name (The Stabbin’ Cabin). “Repainting a van that was built in the ’70s is kind of a sacrilege,” he said.

Mr. Vasquez is a member of the Vandoleros, a van club founded in 2010 in the style of the louche, free-spirited groups of the ’70s.

Giving voice to revivalists like the Vandoleros is Rolling Heavy, a magazine (or “van zine”) created by the photographer Matt Grayson in 2012 in the spirit of old issues of Easyriders, a lewd motorcycle publication started in June 1971.

Rolling Heavy hopes to bring “vanning” closer to the mainstream of car culture, Mr. Grayson said. “Vans have kind of gotten a bad rap because you’ve got these people running around yelling ‘Scooby-Doo’ or ‘A-Team’ or ‘kidnapper’ or whatever,” he said. “But it’s kind of like having a hot rod that you can still do all the same hot-rod stuff to, except it’s a van instead of a car. It’s a blank canvas.” Mr. Grayson’s own van is a black ’76 Chevy with Budweiser curtains inside.

Vanning was at it peak in 1977, when Time magazine declared it “an American craze.” Once the domain of tradesmen, the common van had become “a convertible den-bedroom-kitchen.”

“The guys who have been doing this since like ’73 get more excited than anyone, because it’s something they have been doing for so long and they thought was gone,” Mr. Grayson said.

The van has recently shown signs of cultural relevance now that Hillary Rodham Clinton has covered more than 1,000 miles in a black customized Chevrolet Express Explorer Limited SE, nicknamed Scooby, early in her presidential campaign.

Denny Smith, an organizer of the annual National Truck-In in Altamont, Ill., this July, said vanning went into a slump in the ’80s, when many enthusiasts settled down. “More and more people are coming back to it,” he said.

Donny Gillies, a freelance painter and illustrator from San Francisco who does graphic design for Metallica, harvested junkyards for parts to rebuild his 1973 Dodge B100, which he said was found derelict, full of chicken bones and rat droppings.

Inspired by the sci-fi fantasy murals that were de rigueur in the ’70s, Mr. Gillies, who is also a member of the Vandoleros, airbrushed a wizard mural on his vehicle and dubbed it Vandalf. Its cabin, lined with white shag carpeting and black light posters, includes a rack of eight-track cassettes.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Vasquez drove his van on Sunset Boulevard, Black Sabbath blaring from the stereo. In dense traffic, he pulled up next to a pristine mid-’60s Pontiac GTO convertible. “I want people to compare my van to that GTO,” he said. “I’ll totally keep up with it. These vans probably go just as fast, but you can’t paint a desert mural on a GTO.”

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