On the Road: Vandits Van Club

CALGARY – In junior high school I’d spend my time in math class drawing vans.

Come to think of it, that could be a significant reason why I don’t comprehend complex math equations.

But I digress. By the end of class, I’d have sketched a Ford Econoline panel van with side exit lake pipes, wide rear tires and some sort of mural on the flanks. I was van mad, and I date myself because the custom van movement seemed to pass into obscurity in the early 1980s. And, to date, I’ve never owned a cool old van, but I still admire them.

“Vans sort of died out around that time,” says Arlen Smith of the Vandits Van Club in Calgary.

Smith is an operating partner and general manager of the Palomino Smokehouse and Showroom on 7 th Avenue in the heart of downtown. The venue is described as ‘Calgary’s premier event space and independent live music venue’. Here, in the basement club, you can hear bands such as Viet Cong, Jeff Gladstone & The Bad Ideas or Scenic Route to Alaska.

Vans, bands, and beer. According to Smith, they’re all connected.

“If you have a band and tour, you need a van,” Smith explains.

And it’s this connectivity that sees the second annual Vantopia event happening this weekend, June 6 to 8 in Equity, Alberta. Equity is a very small community on Hwy. 21, between Three Hills and Trochu, roughly one hour and 45 minutes northeast of Calgary.

Hosted on private land by the Vandits club, Smith says they’re hoping to see approximately 40 vans and close to 150 people at the van show and music party. Bands planning to rock the event include Bison, Chron Goblin, High Kicks, Temple, Man Cub, Ball & Chain and Jackson Phibes, among several others.

“It’s all slightly hedonistic,” Smith says, “because it’s all about people going out to party, rock and roll, and having a good time.”

But it’s also about the vans.

According to Smith, the Vandits formed in Calgary about three years ago, and in the grand scheme of van culture, it is a relatively young club. There are some van clubs that have been around the better part of four decades.

Vandits, he says, is a relatively loose group of van fanatics. Many of the members are in bands, including Cory Martens of the Breathe Knives,

Dan Vacon of The Dudes, Dojo Workhorse and The High Kicks, Trenton Bullard of Man Cub, Kevin Pachal of MUFDVR and Darty of Chron Goblin.

The only stipulation the club has is no front-wheel drive vans are allowed. Sorry, GMC Safari and Ford Aerostar owners, but they’re just not interested in minivans.

Smith owns a metal flake orange1967 Ford Econoline that he bought about three years ago. Prior to buying the Ford, he had a 1972 Dodge Tradesman.

He’s slowly working on the Ford, breathing some new life into the old panel van. Although still equipped with its original inline-6 cylinder engine, Smith plans to replace that with a 302 cubic inch high-output Mustang engine.

Smith says, “The old six-cylinder is great, but it doesn’t fare very well in the mountains.”

Smith’s Ford is not a daily driver, either. For that, he commutes in a Toyota Highlander. He’s also got a 2007 Harley-Davidson.

For him, however, vans are the coolest thing on wheels.

“You can’t sleep in a Corvette, and you can’t put all of your friends in a Camaro,” he explains. “You can make a van look as badass as a muscle car, but with a lot more comfort.”

While the van craze seemed to fade in the early 1980s, Smith and the Vandits are pushing for and seeing a resurgence of interest. Part of the van phenomenon is captured in a new documentary film called Vannin’ – which debuted earlier this year in Calgary. The film takes its name from the van shows and parties that remain popular, and is made up of six days of footage shot at the 40 th National Truck-In, known as the Van Nationals.

While the old vans included plenty of shag carpet, wet bars and full size beds, Smith says some of the newly customized vintage vans include gaming consoles, multiple TVs – some of them as large as 40” flat screens — and even fireplaces.

“We all love vans,” Smith says of the Vandits, and adds, “we’re happy to help bring them back to their heyday.”

Greg Williams is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Have an auto related item to share for the column or What’s Next? Contact him at 403-287-1067 or [email protected] Visit his website at gregwilliams.ca.


To see your event listed, email the details, at least three weeks in advance, to [email protected]

June 7: From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Corvettes Unlimited Club of Calgary presents their Corvettes and Friends Spring Show & Shine at Shaganappi Motors at the corner of Shaganappi and Crowchild Trails in northwest Calgary. All GM vehicles are welcome; registration fee is a Food Bank donation. People’s choice awards for best of each generation and overall best GM car. Spectators welcome, contact Doug Campbell at 403-281-4681 or email [email protected] for more information.

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