By on September 23, 2019

1985 Toyota Van in California junkyard, LH front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsInspired by the unexpected success of the K-car-based Chrysler minivans in the early 1980s, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Toyota each made North American-market versions of their small mid-engined vans. Sales of the Mitsubishi Van (based on the Delica) and Nissan Van (based on the Vanette) never amounted to much over here, but Toyota had a minor hit with the Americanized TownAce van, known here as the Toyota Van.

The Toyota Van proved very durable and I still see plenty of them in wrecking yards to this day. Today’s Junkyard Treasure packs some extra-special provenance within its battered, 34-year-old flanks: it once served as the sacred icon of a Northern California band, appearing as the centerpiece of many music videos.

1985 Toyota Van in California junkyard, sticker - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsWhen I document a discarded vehicle, I always look for some clue that might allow me to track down bits of its story. Sometimes I find a car such as the Groovalicious Purple Princess of Peace Taurus wagon, with explanatory URLs all over the place; other times, a street address found in the car enables me to find its image on Google Earth. In this case, a sticker with a band’s name proved very useful. It took about 15 seconds of searching for “The Rellies” to find this (warning— NSFW):


Yes, this outfit didn’t roll in an Escalade or S-Class for their Santa Cruz-set, surf-influenced hip-hop videos. They used a well-worn 1985 Toyota passenger van. As you’ll see in the video, just about every detail I photographed in the wrecking yard can be seen during the van’s heyday as a music-video star. The broken left-side taillight lens. The stickers for Phinest Cannabis, Vida Juice, and the requisite 1980s-style Santa Cruz decal on the bumper.

A Toyota Van makes an excellent gig rig, of course, but few bands have made one part of their image.

1985 Toyota Van in California junkyard, air freshener - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsEven the Leather Car-Freshener Little Tree and heart-shaped pendant visible on the rear-view mirror in the videos went along for the ride when the van got discarded.

1985 Toyota Van in California junkyard, speedometer - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsI found this TownAce in a yard in San Jose during the summer of 2018; San Jose is the nearest big city to Santa Cruz, so it makes sense that its final tow-truck ride would be to this place (though the Moss Landing Pick-n-Pull is slightly closer).

1985 Toyota Van in California junkyard, interior - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsWhat I’m wondering is: what happened? The Rellies seemed to be performing gigs around the country, making high-production-value videos, all the things that a successful Toyota Van-driving band must do to make it. The final post on the band’s Facebook page came in June of 2018, just before their van appeared at the San Jose North Pick-n-Pull (where you’ll find the best junkyard tacos in Northern California).

1985 Toyota Van in California junkyard, sticker - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsDid the van get towed away from a gig in San Jose due to unpaid parking tickets? Did the body damage to the hood pop a radiator hose and cause the engine to overheat and die? Did the band decide to upgrade — if that’s the word— to a vintage GMC Value Van? CrabSpirits has been doing some detective work, and perhaps he’ll share his theories with us in the comments.


As you’d expect, the home-market ads for the TownAce tended to be pretty frantic.

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15 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1985 Toyota Van, Santa Cruz Music Video Edition...”


  • avatar
    dividebytube

    Back when my wife and I used to book small music acts, the musicians would show up in all types of different vehicles. A car hauling an enclosed trailer was popular, but the long range bands often had small RVs or even dilapidated short buses, the type used for short commuting or special needs kids. I always wondered what kind of money they were shelling out for gasoline versus their often lowly $$ intake. We’re talking groups that were promised $150 for a show with a percentage of the ($5 a head) door.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      A local polka band that played weekend bookings had a van bodied trailer they towed behind a Mazda GLC – they were loved in the area and made their events fun and entertaining.
      Lots of old wagons, vans, and capped pickups were used by local musicians. “Artists suffer for their art”.

  • avatar

    Sounds similar to what I was making in a band in the late 60s and into the 70s. A friend who’s been playing out for as long as I remember told me even in the 80s to early 90s the pay was similar. My youngest plays in a band now and they are actually averaging more for their gigs. The interesting thing is they are not well rehearsed – by his own admission and to his dismay – and yet still pull down more money compared to my – or my friends – experience. May be the time for a local, well rehearsed, cover band to make some decent money playing out. Or maybe not.

    To the transportation end of things, we used a van to haul our gear with everyone riding in the van along with the gear (4 piece). The drummer often drove separate due to his work situation. At the time we were using EV VOTT cabs for PA along with an Altec 1220 board. The dang VOTT cabs took up a third of the vans space. Most bands in my area used vans or a couple of station wagons. The “cool” bands secured a used hearse – the built in casket rollers being a huge plus to loading and unloading ease.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Redundant Bell Canada or Canada Post vans and cube trucks were highly popular among bands in Ontario in the 70’s and 80’s. Cheap to buy.

    Small, short box ex-school buses were also used. We owned about a dozen of these where I worked to be used for various tasks. They were fairly robust, and if you looked you could find some that were diesel powered.

    The big news from this posting is that we may get to read something written by the inimitable and much missed ‘Crabspirits’.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    These Toyota Hi Ace vans were seen around SoCal in the past. Not much recently. It is rare to see the next Toyota the Previa “Jellybean”. Lots of the various years of Siennas.
    For band transport, back in ancient times, it was a VW (pre-68), Ford, or Dodge van. By the late 1970s the bands that I knew each musician carried their own equipment. A drummer got his entire kit in a VW Scirocco and had room for him to drive and two passengers.
    The most recent group that I know did the same. All came in their own vehicle. The bass player got his stuff, their PA system, and some keyboards in a Saab 900.

  • avatar
    Boff

    I was in a few bands back in the day (’88-91) and we never had an acceptable band vehicle. My first band it was an early-80’s Corvette that the guitar player picked up for a song because the previous owner had torched the interior for the insurance money. We were only a trio but it took 5 trips to get to any gig. The next band we actually had 2 cars, a 2nd-gen Honda Prelude and a 1st-gen Mazda GLC. ‘Nuff said. Then the singer got an enormous Plymouth Fury from her dad but her big brother banned us from using it because we refusing to stop smoking in it. Then the bass player bought a dirt-cheap Econoline van, but it never ran for more than a day or two in succession. The few gigs we played out of town we had to rent a van, which was humiliating.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I hate it when the mouth breathers smash the taillights to get a $1 used bulb….

    -Nate

  • avatar
    conundrum

    A friend and I were once driven around Montreal in one of these by its enthusiastic owner at a silly rate of knots. Mid ’80s, I think. Perched within a foot of the likely accident scene scared the sh*t out of me. The endless bongoing ride likewise. And the thing was brand new, yet seemed equipped with bungee cords for front shocks.

    Bloody awful thing. Don’t care if it lasted forever. Rubbish is rubbish and that starts with design.

    • 0 avatar
      SaulTigh

      I would never want to own one, for the reasons you’ve stated, but I still think they’re damn cool. I also respect their longevity.

      When I was in elementary school, the “cool parents” down the street had one of these in red which the mom drove, and the dad drove an Audi 5000. They had a basement, which was rare in our neighborhood and their son had the GI Joe aircraft carrier and a boom box with a frickin’ B&W TV in it. Needless to say, all the neighborhood kids wanted to play there.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        I rode in these things on the Caribbean and Centro America, when new they rode well but they were always overloaded and run far too fast over bad roads, killing the shocks and so pogoed along at dangerous speeds yet still ran well until they were wrecked or rusted out .

        A friend of mine found the U.S.A. spec 4 X 4 version in the back of a Ford dealer and bought it, spent some time getting it back up to snuff, I thought it great if crude .

        -Nate

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Californians have a different idea of “durability” than those of us who live where there is an 8mo a year annual salt bath for cars. These things did not make it to their 10th birthday in Maine. It doesn’t matter how reliable and long lived the mechanicals are when they fall out onto the road due to rampant rust.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      Boy howdy you said it ~

      I grew up Down East and watched all those glorious 1930’s. 40’s, 50’s & 60’s vehicles dissolve into red powder .

      Sadly I’ve had to crush perfectly good, rust free, un dented California cars & bodies because no one wanted them, not even FREE .

      -Nate

  • avatar

    Worked in a bar in Boston in the 80’s. Richard’s Pub in Allston-Brighton. His niche was bluegrass. We got the whole bluegrass musician circuit for the Northeast.

    They all arrived in battered wagons of some stripe, or an occasional battered full van. I saw full band sets fit into Accord Wagons and in VW buses…. They slept on each other’s couches.

    They gave me the best line ever…”We drive for a living, when we stop we play music”.

    I know ever word of Rockytop. That’s not good.

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