What Ever Happened to Conversion Vans?

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Hello good people of Jalopnik, and welcome to Letters to Doug, your favorite weekly column wherein you write letters to Doug and Doug responds to them!*

*Actually, Doug only responds to one of them. He burns the rest.

If you’re interested in sending a letter to Doug, please do it! You can reach me via e-mail at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, or through the regular mail at “DOUG - USA.” The postman will know the rest.


Anyway, today’s letter comes to us from a reader I’ve named Sven, who writes:

Dear Doug (If that really is your name),

Writing to get your opinions on the disappearance of the relatively routine sight on the roads in the 1990s- that’s right... The conversion van.

I’m talking like the Chevy Mark III and the like who had giant captain’s chairs in the 2nd row and lie flat back benches that made a bed. A cloud on the interstate of life and summer road trips.

They just disappeared ~2000. I would think with the (current) low gas prices that they could come back to great success. Like the poor man’s RV or better yet the rich Chevy Spark owner...

Thoughts? Witty comments? The PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW! (Okay probably just me)


Sven is asking a great question here, and I’ve decided to divide up my answer into two parts: first, I’ll deal with what physically happened to the conversion vans we used to see on the road. And second, I’ll cover the reasons why nobody buys conversion vans anymore, except for Hillary Clinton, who is currently driving around rural Iowa in a black Chevy Express conversion van while thinking: If only I weren’t in politics, I could be sitting in a Volvo right now.


Here’s the deal with those conversion vans we used to see in the 1990s, Sven: they’re all sitting in junkyards somewhere.

In fact, this is true of most 1980s and 1990s General Motors vehicles, regardless of whether it’s a conversion van or a Beretta with 13-inch steel wheels. This is because General Motors’ primary strategy throughout the 1980s and 1990s was to build vehicles as quickly as possible, and then allow customers to do the test-driving in a pilot program entitled “Good luck, first model year owners!”


Ha ha! I’m just kidding, of course. This program also extended to second model year owners, and third model year owners, and pretty much any General Motors vehicle from any model year right up until they filed for bankruptcy. That’s when some outsider finally took a look at GM’s product strategy and said: Maybe we should be spending more than $12.97 on vehicle development.

Of course, unreliability isn’t the only issue. The other problem is that these vans are literally worthless for the same reason a used mattress is literally worthless: because nobody wants to buy your smelly, used, discarded living materials. When Sven looks at a conversion van, he sees “a cloud on the interstate of life.” When most people look at a conversion van, they see enough Cheez-It crumbs to stock a grocery store display.


But while that explains why nobody is buying used conversion vans, it doesn’t answer the more pressing question: how come nobody buys new conversion vans anymore?

Although this is a very challenging question, Sven, I believe I am prepared to give you two possible explanations.


The first is that conversion vans are now insanely expensive. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to head on over to Autotrader, search for “Chevrolet Express,” and take a look at prices yourself. These things cost like sixty grand, which is a lot of money for some overstuffed chairs, side graphics that look like a ‘90s screensaver, and a stupid conversion van name like “Magellan.”

Problem number two: we don’t need conversion vans anymore. In today’s modern world, your average everyday minivan offers just about everything you once needed a conversion van in order to get. Rear entertainment? It’s there. Leather seats? Check. Captain’s chairs? You can get ‘em. Minivans also now offer dual sliding doors, and rear climate control, and by God, the damn Honda Odyssey even has a vacuum cleaner.


So if you’re Joe Q. Public and you want to take your family on a road trip, why the hell would you need a conversion van? You can just head on down to your local Honda dealer and pick up a fully-loaded Odyssey for way less than the cost of a Chevy Express conversion van. Meanwhile, if you really need a conversion van, you can skip the old-school Chevy and go for a slick new Ford Transit or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

Either way, you won’t have to deal with the old-school conversion van’s driving dynamics, which feel like they’re stuck somewhere between “Model T” and “Conestoga Wagon.”


And so, Sven, we can see why the conversion van has died a slow death: old ones are worthless and unreliable, and new ones are expensive and uncompetitive. In fact, I think there’s really only one remaining use for conversion vans: if you’re on the road, campaigning, and you need an American-made command center where you can really spread out and talk strategy. Hillary already has hers. Maybe Donald Trump is next?

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.