One of the things I like so much about workhorse vans is how much they tend to blend into the background texture of modern reality. There always seems to be some around somewhere near you, busily doing their jobs and not making a big thing about it. But I’d like to make a big thing out of a thing made big: the clunky joy of extended vans.
Extended vans are exactly what you think they are: vans, but extended. Longtail vans. They’re the way that van-makers—mostly American van-makers, it seems—would get a bigger van option with the absolute minimum of engineering and design, by just cutting the butt off the normal van and welding on a longer one.
There’s no wheelbase extentions or anything like that—just a normal van, with a bigger chunk at the rear.
I noticed one of these the other day, and what struck me was something I’ve seen a billion times before but somehow never seemed as big a deal as it did in that moment: the seam.
What I find charming about these vans is just how obvious what was done to them was. There’s a van, and then there’s a big seam, and then there’s more van.
They’re kind of funny-looking, really, maybe seeming like a baby rhino with a well-filled diaper, or something. But for some reason, I like them?
I think I just like the honesty of these things, where you can look at it and see exactly what happened: make rear of van open, add on bigger end cap. These things were staples of delivery van fleets, small-district school buses, and church vans.
In fact, I once dated a girl who was the lead singer for a band that had an ex-school bus version of these for their tour van, which I drove as tour driver back in the carefree ‘90s, in my non-bald-spot-having youth.
On the Ford Econoline versions, they spent a bit more effort hiding the magic, with a styling crease that hides the seam, or at least makes it look more deliberate, only to be ratted out by that wonderful little rear side marker lamp blanking panel:
I remember noticing these even as a little, detail-obsessed kid, and for some reason probably best left to hours of therapy, it made me happy. Like I was seeing a hint of how a magic trick worked. It was a little clue to a secret about how the world actually worked, or something.
I suppose if you were really ballsy, you could replace the blank panel with extra rear marker lights, so everyone would know you were not fucking around, here.
Interestingly, I think GM was the only one out of the Big Three not to screw around with any van ass-enhancing, preferring to just go all out and offer a longer wheelbase version of their workhorse vans:
Technically, this is a better solution, engineering-wise, but I’m still fond of the hacky, tack-on-more-rear method used by Ford and Mopar.
Modern vans come in multiple sizes, too, of course, and there’s longer versions built on the same wheelbase as shorter ones. But modern van designs somehow manage to hide their methods better, and I don’t think any have that tacked-on-ass look of these older extended vans.
Even I realize this is an unusually deep cut for a car design detail to notice, and is precisely the kind of thing done based on the assumption that, really, nobody gives a shit. And, those old designers were basically correct. Nobody really did give a shit.
Except for me, today. Now I can’t stop looking at these oddly-proportioned and useful machines whenever I see one.
Don’t be ashamed, van-extenders. This works.