Remember when practically every family had a conversion van?
Before the minivan and SUV were staples of family conveyance, these juggernauts of suburbia were seemingly parked in every driveway.
Top image: Chevrolet, 1989 / Flickr
During the 1980s and '90s, the most luxurious means of family conveyance was the conversion van. Parked in seemingly every driveway on the block, these behemoths were how we got to our kids' Little League games and the grocery store; they were the mode of transportation for weekend camping trips or cross-country family odysseys that culminated with a visit to Disneyland.
Comfy captain chairs, curtains, tables, wood trim, light strips—these were commonplace. And some even brought the excess up a notch with the inclusion of televisions, VCRs and refrigerators.
But where did these marvelous monsters of creature comforts go? Like any fad, conversion vans started out niche, ballooned to the mainstream and slowly deflated.
First a cottage industry of dedicated hobbyists and small-time van customizers, the conversion van emerged in the '70s when van enthusiasts began building custom, or "cruiser," rides. These tricked out, shagadelic vehicles sported plenty of attitude and airbrushed side murals, depicting everything from Tolkien-esque fantasy landscapes to images of the American Southwest and Star Wars.
By the early '80s, Ford was marketing sporty, colorful—and empty—vans ready to be customized at your local custom shop. As the craze continued, more headway into the mainstream was made. Before long, the ubiquitous Chevy Starcraft and its counterparts from Ford, GMC and Dodge were the family-friendly vehicles of choice, fully loaded and ready to take your kid and his buddies to football practice.
The rise of the conversion van spelled the death of the station wagon. Sales continued to soar, and for the year 1994 alone it is estimated almost 200,000 of the family-oriented vehicles were sold. But today the conversion van has vanished from suburbia. One can't help but think of row after row of these monuments to '90s affluence and cheap gas rusting away in junk yards across the country.
Perhaps it was changing tastes favoring the minivan and SUV that rendered them obsolete. Perhaps it had more to do with soaring gas prices and poor aerodynamics. Whatever the reason, the conversion van now is a fading memory in the collective American mind.
The Conversion Van: A Retrospective
Tricked out, shagadelic "cruisers" sported plenty of attitude and sweet side art.
All That Carpet!
This sporty Ford came empty (aside from carpeted everything), ready to be customized at your local shop.
The Family Van Arrives
This early, family-friendly vehicle from GMC was a harbinger of things to come.
Behold: the quintessential conversion van. This Chevy sports a high-top ceiling.
This brochure shows typical plushness levels available for a family conversion van.
The U.S.S. Enterprise
This one came out circa Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Dodge Had You Covered