Confessions of a Conversion Van Driver

Vojta Dobe
by Vojta Dobe
confessions of a conversion van driver

My name is Vojta and I drive a conversion van. And, yes, I do that in Europe. And no, I have never offered anyone free candy. Actually, no one even expects me to do so, as pedophiles in Europe don’t drive big vans. Or at least people don’t think they do.

But still, my daily driver is a huge American van with an embarrassingly large six cylinder engine which gulps gas by the gallons instead of liters, and with a suspension designed in early seventies. What in the world has led me to such choice? Especially when I’m living in Europe, land of wonderful, cool and very modern vans, like various Volkswagen Transporters, Ford Transits and other much more sophisticated vehicles?

First and most obvious reason is the looks. The G20, especially in this dark gray color, looks positively butch compared to any European van. While ours are very clever and practical, with very boxy, yet somehow aerodynamic shapes, the G20 is remniniscent of the past when even commercial vehicles were designed to look pretty, more than to be practical.

The bulbous body, pointy hood, massive grille with two-row headlights, massive chrome bumpers. And in conversion van form, with tall side windows and spare wheel cover in the back, it brings lots of looks on Czech streets. Not as much as fullsize sedan or a pony car, but people definitely notice it. And it’s the good kind of attention. Unless it’s late-model Escalade or Hummer or something, American cars ten to generate positive attention. With an expensive German car, even a fancy van like VW Multivan or MB Vito, people tend to look at you like some rich prick. This? They come at the gas station or parking lots, and ask about the car. Truth is, that 80% of questions is “how much fuel does that thing of yours suck?”, but people react in positive way. And if you like attention, this alone may be worth purchasing a car like this – just being that cool dude with old American van.

Maybe the biggest part of this appeal comes from the Europeans’ romantic ideas of Americana – almost every European man had, at least once, for a little while, dreamed of commanding the huge, shiny Kenworth or Peterbilt across the vast expenses of some American deserts, or through the endless fields of the Midwest. And while driving a semi truck is quite an impractical way of getting around, the conversion van offers at least a glimpse of the experience. Sitting high, with low and wide windshield in front of you, deep, rumbling tone of the engine and reflections in the windows, showing your massive car with lots of orange and red lights, just like American trucks.

Yes, when I think about it, I can’t escape the feeling that this is pretty stupid reason to own and drive any vehicle, let alone the one you use daily. Bit still, it’s one of the easier and cheaper ways of catering to your inner child.

Second reason for owning a conversion van is the driving comfort. While this may sound crazy to American ears, American vans, even remnants of the past like this G20, are much more comfortable to drive than their European counterparts. How is it possible, with several more decades of development and tradition of making sophisticated vehicles on European side? For the most part, this may come as result of American ignorance to lowly issues of practicality or efficient packaging. While Europeans try to make use of each and every cubic centimeter, the US engineers are happy to forfeit several cubic feet under the floor just to have it nice and flat. While the elevated floor reduced the usable cargo space, moved the center of gravity significantly higher and generally made the Chevy Van much worse van than a Transit or Traffic, or similar European van, it also made it, quite surprisingly, much more “car-like” to drive.

That’s not to say that the Chevy Van drives like a car – it doesn’t, and between it’s primitive suspension, short wheelbase and high body, it is, in fact, quite a terrible handler. But with the floor raised above the driveshaft, you sit like in a car, or an SUV. The seating position is right, the steering wheel is where it should be, and angled like it should be. The dash is in front of you. If you compare it to some European van, where you sit like in a truck, with your feet down below, steering wheel flat like in a bus, and dash somewhere under it, the Chevy suddenly feels strangely relaxing.

And then there’s the engine. Even the 4.3 V6 in this example is a power monster compared to contemporary European vans, and its massive torque low down makes for especially effortless performance. Of course, I we were to compare it to the current crop of the Eurovans, it would be whole another story – many modern turbodiesel engines would walk all over the tired old six cylinder. But then again, to make that comparison fair, we would have to use a modern iteration of Chevy Van – which would be equipped with 5.3 or 6.0 Vortec V8, offering performance reserved only to sports cars in Europe.

The whole experience of driving an American fullsize van, be it Econoline, G20 or Express, or even a smaller one, like Astro, is much more akin to driving a large SUV. While in European ones, you are always aware of the commercial roots of the vehicle, the American van feels much more like a big SUV – you don’t feel like delivery truck driver, but more like a commander of some strange behemoth from other world. Because on European roads, American vans really ARE behemoths.

Which brings me to the last difference, but a very important one. The width. The European vans, designed for European roads and city streets, tend to be quite narrow – even the real big ones, like Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. This has little effect on actual space inside, but has a great effect on feeling of space. In the G20, with your passenger sitting somewhere far to the right, and captain chairs allowing you to walk freely from the front of the vehicle to the back, you feel like you’re sitting in spacious room, not confined in some tin can of a car. This is also augmented by a strange effect of isolation from other road users, brought by the raised floor.

It’s these things what makes the conversion vans one of the most comfortable vehicles ever made for long road trips. And even more so in case of better equipped ones, like this Vandura a group of my friends imported from USA recently. With the plush leather seating, lots of lights, TVs, tables and ashtrays everywhere, and loads of wood, it just feels like a true road yacht – and much more literally so than is the case of large sedans.

This charm, together with relatively low prices compared to the European offering like posh Mercedes-Benzes or VW Multivans, is probably the reason why conversion vans count among the most popular American cars in Europe – if we exclude the common stuff officially imported here, like various minivans, big Chryslers and occasional pony cars, the conversion vans count among most often seen “true American” machines on the old continent.

For me, the conversion van represents fantastic combination of a “hobby” car and practical vehicle. It looks cool, it is unique to drive and I can go to US car meets and cruises with it, but it also holds seven people, transports furniture and you can even sleep or party in it. Yeah, the fuel economy is terrible for European standards – maybe 12 l/100 km (19mpg) outside the town, and 15-17 liters (14-16 mpg)in city traffic. But this is at least partially offset by the fact it’s cheap, and virtually unbreakable.

And ever since I started driving this thing around, I tend to look at other cars and think – how could I live with a car that serves only as a car, and not as a mobile home or a cargo truck?

Join the conversation
2 of 76 comments
  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Oct 01, 2013

    Vojta, you are slowly succumbing to the siren song. Catch yourself, before it's too late.

  • -Nate -Nate on Oct 02, 2013

    Nice article ; I'm not a big van lover but as an older American (I remember when the Ford Econoline was introduced) I do Ken their attraction . My son, when he was 12 (1990) , told me these were called ' Raper vans' by all the school kids . The Diesel versions began coming out (IIRC) in the late 1970's and were not very popular , we could buy them two years old for about $2,000 in *perfect* condition and sent every one we could find , to Europe for stupid money , the exporter / broker guys told me they got $10,000 + each for them . wow . Vojta ; these conversion vans , mostly with V-8 engines , are being junked by the thousands right now and NO ONE ever wants to buy them so the Pick-A-Part yards are absolutely jam packed with them , mostly with under 100,000 miles and in VGC . I wonder if you could turn $ome $ buying them up and exporting them ? . -Nate

  • Bullnuke Well, production cuts may be due to transport-to-market issues. The MV Fremantle Highway is in a Rotterdam shipyard undergoing repairs from the last shipment of VW products (along with BMW and others) and to adequately fireproof it. The word in the shipping community is that insurance necessary for ships moving EVs is under serious review.
  • Frank Wait until the gov't subsidies end, you aint seen nothing yet. Ive been "on the floor" when they pulled them for fuel efficient vehicles back during/after the recession and the sales of those cars stopped dead in their tracks
  • Vulpine The issue is really stupidly simple; both names can be taken the wrong way by those who enjoy abusing language. Implying a certain piece of anatomy is a sign of juvenile idiocy which is what triggered the original name-change. The problem was not caused by the company but rather by those who continuously ridiculed the original name for the purpose of VERY low-brow humor.
  • Sgeffe There's someone around where I live who has a recent WRX-STi, but the few times I've been behind this guy, he's always driving right at the underposted arbitrary numbers that some politician pulled out of their backside and slapped on a sign! With no gendarmes or schoolkids present! Haven't been behind this driver on the freeway, but my guess is that he does the left lane police thing with the best of 'em!What's the point of buying such a vehicle if you're never going to exceed a speed limit? (And I've pondered that whilst in line in the left lane at 63mph behind a couple of Accord V6s, as well as an AMG E-Klasse!)
  • Mebgardner I'm not the market for a malleable Tuner / Track model, so I dont know: If you are considering a purchase of one of these, do you consider the Insurance Cost Of Ownership aspect? Or just screw it, I'm gonna buy it no matter.The WRX is at the top of the Insurance Cost pole for tuner models, is why I ask.