A 1966 GMC Value Van
When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, sometimes I think of vans... sin bins, rolling pleasure palaces, hotel rooms on wheels, whatever. That's what many of them were back them, and the freedom of driving a rolling mansion (Or at least part of one) during our first energy crisis was an All-American event that is sadly all but gone today.
When we think of a Chevy Van, maybe a large vehicle with a rounded profile, lots of windows, and maybe a sliding side door comes to mind. Sammy Johns immortalized them in his 1974 song "Chevy Van." "I gave a girl... a ride in my wagon."
Also when we think of Chevy vans, we don't normally think of GMC vans. But they are essentially one and the same, and a very unique one is our subject for today.
Please witness a 1966 GMC Value Van, or as it was more commonly called, a Step Van. They were very square and boxy to make full use of the space inside, and this one's front end always reminded me of the Chariot from "Lost In Space." But their most unique feature may have been the front doors that slid back into the body and latched. The rear doors were "barn door" style; there were no side doors other than the two front sliding doors.
The van had a 6-cylinder engine, a 292 cu. inch if memory serves, with a column-mounted 3-speed manual (aka "Three on the tree"), and was definitely no sports car. It had power brakes, but manual steering. So parking was a pain, but once underway, it wasn't too hard to steer. This van sat on a 102-inch wheelbase, and was the smallest of the Step Vans.
My bud Dave bought this one in 1974, just in time for his Senior year in high school, to replace his ailing 1970 Opel Kadette Rallye. Now these were the days when the high school kids with their parents' notes could smoke outside between classes; no self-respecting macho guy dared to take typing; and you had to keep that rifle mounted in the back window of your pickup empty... or they would make you go out there and unload it!
But other than a miniature baseball bat, this van was defenseless (OK, I kept my BB gun in there sometimes). It was, however, loaded with all the latest electronic gizmos of the day... a CB radio, overhead lights (They flashed, of course), an alarm system with a 6-volt siren on a 12-volt system, and an AM/FM radio with 8-Track tape player. Elton John only sounded better live in concert.
We never figured its MPG, but after gas hit the ridiculous price of 50 cents per gallon, Dave installed a "Fuel Economy Gauge," which was a glorified vacuum gauge, and mounted it next to the rear view mirror. You can see it here on the left. No numbers were printed on the dial, but it told you when to ease your foot off of the gas for best mileage.
The van was so popular at school that at lunchtime, Dave sometimes had trouble even getting inside his own van. His "guests" sometimes closed the doors, locked him out, and enjoyed its comforts to themselves.
Moving aft, Dave installed stick-on mirrors above and beside the couch, salt & pepper shag carpet, and yes, a mirrored disco ball. After all, this was the late '70s. The driver's seat was fixed, but the passenger's seat was "removable," meaning it was kind of loose. You just hung on as best you could sometimes and tried to not fall out of the open door.
It had no air conditioning, but since both front doors slid open and latched, there was no great need unless you were going slow or were in town. A compressor would have put great stress on that 6-cylinder anyway and further reduced the power and gas mileage. It seemed we were always in an energy crisis during our time with this van, as we were told we would run out of fossil fuels by 1984.
The van came with a nice upper and lower cabinet system, an icebox, a 12 volt lamp, a small closet right behind the driver, and behind that, the couch neatly folded out into a bed. At 18 years old, Dave had many requests to borrow the van for the weekends, even just overnight. He loaned it once to a bud, and the van was returned with a cracked windshield. That friend did not repair the van, and Dave was more cautious about loaning it out from there on.
We took the van camping almost every warm weekend, but there was one campout I'm so glad I missed. It seems that many pre-flavored vodkas were the choice of drink(s) for the night, and the three musketeers that partook eventually spent their evening hugging tires, bumpers, and anything else that gave them support, as their legs no longer could. But recovery was swift, and the van lived on after a little hosing out.
By an amazing and timely coincidence, Hollywood took notice of this van series in the classic 1978 Cheech & Chong movie "Up In Smoke." I think we even took the Value Van to see the movie, not expecting to see its likeness on the big screen.
We about fell onto the theatre floor laughing when we saw them build and paint this van, as it was so similar to Dave's. Their van allowed them to smuggle some "upholstery" into the USA after spending a "weekday" in Tijuana, while being pursued by Stacy Keech as the inept Sgt. Stedenko.
Somewhat customized, their van was fitted with rectangular headlights, circa-1953 Cadillac quarter panels, a one-piece windshield (probably for filming purposes), and covered with a unique green "fiberous" substance. I think theirs was a Chevy, not a GMC. But again, what's the difference.
As they say, all good things must end, and around 1981, Dave sold his van. I think something had come loose in the valve linkage, and a repair was prohibitively costly at the time. Dave bought a Chevy Nova and a condo, so his needs for a roving retreat were about over anyway. I now regret not trying to buy it.
The last time I saw Dave's van was around 1991, some 10 years or so later, and it was owned by a flea market vendor. The Value Van had been painted blue and silver, had chrome wheels, RWL tires, and looked like the rust was advancing. But the cabinets and salt & pepper carpet were still in, the windshield still was cracked, and the wires stuck out of their respective holes.
The front bumper was now also chromed, Dave's overhead lights were gone, and the amber front parking light covers had been replaced with clear/white lenses. I did not get to hear it run.
Though cruising vans are rare these days, the minivan/van era is far from dead. A year or so ago, Honda brought the van back in a series of commercials hinting at this era, suggesting that we "Respect The Van." Maybe like all fads the van craze will return, most likely built on minivans or vehicles like a Ford Transit Connect. Build on today's larger vans... I doubt it.
If I saw this van today for sale, I'd try to buy it. Even if it didn't move under its own power, what a treasure trove of memories the thing would have. Hopefully the cabinets, closet, and fold-out bed are still there. Dave could install a refrigerator, add an overhead air conditioning system, and put the lights back on the roof. He could replace any rusted body panels, and definitely return the van to its "original" red and white paint scheme. Maybe drop a 350 in there just for fun.
With a lot of work and some fresh parts, the Value Van could be restored to its 1970s glory--after all, 30+ years later, Dave still has the original sound system, CB radio, Fuel Economy Gauge, and the mirrored ball.
--That Car Guy (Chuck)
Credits: Dave took all of the pictures of the van while it was red & white. The "Up In Smoke" image is from IMCDB.com (InternetMovieCarDataBase). I took the photo of Dave's van after it had been painted blue & silver.