The 1970’s were a time defined by decadence and over-indulgence. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll seemed to be the mantra for most, after the tumultuous sixties shattered any existing concept of the American Dream. The Watergate Scandal and ongoing fight for equality amongst African Americans, homosexuals, and women left the nation in a state of social unrest and uproar. However, new subcultures flourished and folks found themselves wrapped skin tight in denim and polyester, higher than their fros on speed n’ weed. It was undoubtedly an era of excess and fleeting fads. One trend that is no exception was the custom van craze of the late seventies. High gas prices and increasing insurance rates had brought the muscle cars of yesteryear to a screeching halt. By the mid 70’s most automobile manufacturers including Chevy, Dodge, Ford, and GMC were offering stylish conversion van models. Marketing efforts were geared towards the free lovin’ free wheelin’ youth of the time, and there were no shortage of ways to express your individuality through the customization of your ride. Loaded with everything from CB radios, 8-track players, mini bars, shag carpeting, swivel seats, waterbeds, and airbrushed murals, the van was the ultimate form of cruising in true seventies style. Easily considered a sex toy, the aptly labeled ‘shaggin wagon’ was a chariot for all of one’s wildest exploits. A film reminiscent of the era, and perhaps one of the only to precisely encapsulate this mystical motor trend, is 1977’s drive-in gem, THE VAN.
Released by Crown International Pictures, the movie follows Stuart Goetz as Bobby, a sex deprived high-school dweeb who blows his hard earned cash on the custom van of his dreams. The ride of choice just happens to be a bright yellow 1977 Dodge D300 Tradesman van, fully decked out with an 8-track player and waterbed. Sure that his new set of wheels will help him score chicks, Bobby sets out to chase some tail. The film cruises through his series of sexual mishaps and coming of age in the fur-covered backseat of his van, Straight Arrow. Featuring a cameo from Danny DeVito as Bobby’s gambling, high-strung, Hawaiian shirt-wearing boss, this not-so cinematic masterpiece serves as a perfect artifact of the time in which it takes place. Everything from the casual sex, to the clothing styles worn, to the lax west coast lifestyle is accurately depicted. The movie also comes equipped with a soft rockin’ Sammy Johns soaked soundtrack, featuring his 1975 hit ‘Chevy Van’ as the title track. Listen closely to the misogynistic lyrics, which depict a “fast love and leave ‘em” motto that is reflective of the carefree sexual attitude of the era. And although not too many songs on the subject had been penned, it is still funny that ‘Chevy Van’ be the theme when our boy Bobby actually swerves a Dodge. The film was followed up in 1978 by another Crown International release, the even more entertaining MALIBU BEACH. This installment finds THE VAN’s antagonist, Dugan, (played by 60’s biker bad boy Stephen Oliver) lurking a sweet lifeguard while again supplying a slice of sex soaked 70’s teen culture. Crown Pictures was a notorious figure in grindhouse cinema, delivering exploitation style films that featured gratuitous drug use and erotic situations, especially among teenagers.
Sadly, the AIDS epidemic of the early eighties raised sexual and social awareness, stifling the free spirited style of the 1970’s. The dawn of a new decade also found fads falling out of fashion, including the custom van, which drove off into a part of seventies history forever. After watching THE VAN, I was reminded of a childhood experience involving my crazy Aunt Donna picking me up in a rockin’ rainbow striped Econoline. At the time I was absolutely mortified as I stared out the back bubble window, but as it goes, times have changed, and I would now kill for a ride in that vintage beast of beauty! So if you’re feeling a lil’ nostalgic too, I suggest you twist one up, turn on your lava lamp, and take a trip down memory lane with this fun truckin’ film!