Get in the vans

Four decades of debauched van fandom explored in Vannin’

According to co-director Andrew Morgan it all started with a 1973 Dodge van he bought in 2011. When he began snooping online looking for parts and D.I.Y. projects for his ride he stumbled into the motorized universe that would result in his first feature Vannin’ . “I bought it as a hobby and a tool” he says. “But I quickly realized there was this whole subculture out there.”

The subculture Morgan speaks of is the truck-in universe a hard-partying Allman Brothers-loving bunch who live for customizing their vans (and partying with them). It’s a world that he and childhood pal-cum-co-director Nick Nummerdor were unaware of. The Michigan-bred duo knew vans as something bands used to get from show to show. Or schlocky adventure wagons as depicted in Stephen Frears’ 1996 film The Van . But when they started rooting around on the vannin.com forums they discovered something bigger: Namely the “2 per center” subculture a contingent who made vanning a lifestyle.

“We didn’t know what we were getting into when we first started attending truck-ins” says Nummerdor. “For a lack of a better term we didn’t do a ton of research so we’re coming more from the perspective of the outsider. But we jumped headfirst in the culture.

“Going to some of our initial truck-ins we learned the true scale of the van craze and how large in attendance these truck-ins were.”

And they were huge. The archival footage Vannin’ shows recalls an era where thousands of customized van enthusiasts would congregate throughout the ’70s and ’80s ready to drink beer shed their clothes and party. But those days are now gone — and though the film uses decades-old 8mm footage Vannin’ mostly happens at the 2012 Van Nationals in Elkhorn Wisc. Despite their dwindling numbers and aging members hundreds still gathered to display their vans drink copious amounts and well listen to really really loud music.

In a way the Van Nationals were a remnant of an era when van culture reigned supreme — the film at a point even shows Ronald McDonald posing with a van. The faithful however are still accommodating as ever. “Our first truck-in when we showed up we brought about five friends in Andrew’s van” says Nummerdor. “When we opened the side door there were a good dozen people waiting to meet us to offer us beer right away. We got right in the thick of it.”

“It’s what makes it really special” adds Morgan. “It was like ‘Sit down have a drink have a hot dog.’ There was this really great group of people.”

Instead of focusing on a grand narrative Vannin’ celebrates the people behind van culture — and of course the allure of the van itself. Vans promised the freedom of the open roads sure but they were also a rolling living room — and as both Morgan and Nummerdor say they saw endless customization. Some felt like bedrooms others had paint jobs that paid tribute to pop cultural icons while others still were impeccably maintained — the equivalent of hot rods.

“The amount of creativity that went into some of these vans was incredible” says Morgan. “There was so much variety. It’s different strokes for different folks. There were some really outlandish ornate ones — one was called the Deathstar and it was covered in Star Wars murals; another was called Vanishing Breed and it had live fishbowls built into it.”

“I liked the music-themed ones” adds Nummerdor. “Rock ’n’ roll is a huge part of the culture and there were vans dedicated to Janis Joplin the Allman Brothers and Ted Nugent…. But I really gravitated towards the ones in mint condition. There was this cherry red old Ford and I thought ‘If I could roll down the road in that and listen to Black Sabbath at 11…’”

He trails off into wishful thinking. Next we ask if the directors were aware of Calgary’s van culture a growing sect memorialized at music-hangout events like Vantopia and arguably memorialized by bearded road-ready acts like The Dudes and High Kicks. “I’m still pretty active on vannin.com ’s forums and I noticed a group called Vandits up there” Morgan says laughing. “I don’t know anything about them though.”

Well maybe they’ll earn a place in the next van doc. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. “This movie turned into something we totally didn’t expect. We thought it would just go up on Vimeo or something” says Morgan. “It’s just so much fun being part of the culture being part of the film. It became something we never imagined.”