The Ford Econoline wasn't just a van, it was America's draft horse. It was how Americans got stuff — building stuff, delivering stuff, repairing stuff — done. Now it's going away, to be replaced by the Ford Transit. But the Econoline was more than just a work truck. It was freedom in a box.
For a generation of suburban vagabonds, the Ford E-Series represented release from the townie's claustrophobia born of ranch houses and shopping centers. Just as John Steinbeck had, in his waning years, hit the road with a French standard poodle named Charley, in a three-quarter ton GMC pickup camper named after Don Quixote's horse, a new generation found the Econoline. Vans were cheap and plentiful, provided transportation and housing in one, reliable unit and were nondescript — keeping cops and car thieves guessing long enough to get away, unmolested.
The Econoline played a major role in cult-classic road memoir, Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon. Moon, suffering from a crisis of identity, he being half white, half of Osage Nation tribal ancestry, hit the road to find himself by seeking out towns with interesting names. It was a book that did for post-boomers what On The Road did for their parents. It was a how-to book for wanderlust, inspiring enough itchy restlessness to set countless youths down the B-roads of America looking for weird shit and transcendence.
And then there was indie rock. The Econoline was a linchpin in the philosophy of "jamming econo," the defining tenet of punk rock (or is that post-punk?) band Minutemen, which wore a protestant sailor's work ethic on its deeply-flanneled sleeves.
The phrase referred to the band's low-cost approach to record production and touring, a reflection of its do-it-yourself attitude. The band always traveled in a spartan, white Econoline.
Minutemen bassist Mike Watt still has one. It's a 2005 Econoline E-350 he calls "the boat." It replaced a nearly identical 1990 model with almost 250,000 miles on the clock. In fact, to his count, Watt's crisscrossed the country in no fewer than four Econoline vans in more than 30 years of touring. (Minutemen singer and guitarist D. Boon was killed in a road accident in 1985 when he was thrown from a van. It was a Dodge.)
Naturally, the Econoline had been a fixture in the custom-van craze of the 1970s. Airbrushed murals, disco balls and wall-to-wall shag carpeting aside, the trend arose from the same promise — the freedom of unencumbered mobility — combined with the promise of easy sex from itinerant roller-derby girls in hot pants.
It's the romance of the van, and the road. It's the cowboy on his horse, it's the biker sleeping under the stars. It's the American dream. Or it once was.
(Photo: AP Photo/Aynsley Floyd; Shawn Econo/Flickr)