Junkyard Find: 1972 Ford Econoline "BIG CHEESE"

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

What kind of discarded vehicles look like they'd have the most interesting stories to tell? Customized Detroit vans from the 1960s and 1970s, of course! Today's Junkyard Find is just such a van, a Colorado second-generation Econoline called BIG CHEESE.

junkyard find 1972 ford econoline big cheese

I think this van began its career as a work vehicle for a market or caterer in the Denver metropolitan region, then became an individual's personal transportation in later decades.

There are faded illustrations of cheese and (I think) meat that appear to date back to the 1970s.

It has plenty of now-indecipherable lettering on its flanks.

The color appears to have been a vivid cheddar-ish yellow to begin with.

I asked among my acquaintances whose families have been in this region for generations and nobody can recall a company that had a cheese-themed delivery Econoline like this one. Perhaps it started out in St. Louis or Salt Lake City and moved to Colorado after its delivery days were over.

The build tag says it was built at the Lorain plant in Ohio.

The owner of Rosen-Novak Ford came to a bad end two decades ago.

This is a long-wheelbase Econoline cargo van, which makes it a SuperVan.

You could get double-hinged doors or a single big sliding door on the right side of the '72 SuperVan. This one has the slider.


The original engine was a 302-cubic-inch ( 5.0-liter) Windsor V8, rated at 140 horsepower. This might even be that engine, though I'd bet that this van has had at least a couple of swaps during its long life.

The transmission is a patriotic three-speed column-shift manual, colloquially known as a " three-on-the-tree." A three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic was available as an option (but would have been seen as just wasted money by most cargo-van buyers in the early 1970s).

Naturally, someone has installed tube headers on the engine.

The first-generation Econoline vans were built for the 1961 through 1967 model years. They were based on the Falcon chassis and had mid-mounted engines located between the front seats. The second-generation Econolines were based on the F-Series truck chassis.

The engine was still located pretty far back in the 1968-1974 Econolines, but they were no longer true forward-control vans.

There isn't much of a hood here. The following generation of Econoline got a distinctive long snout.

There's a bit of paneling and a crude curtain inside.

Some comfortable captain-style seats have been installed up front.

Not exactly luxurious, but not just bare steel.

A Chrysler AM radio of early-to-mid-1970s vintage was installed on the left side of the driver's seat, presumably to prevent theft. Yes, thieves stole mono AM radios 50 years ago.

That radio must be hooked up to a couple of speakers because there's an aftermarket fader control on the dash.

There's a J.C. Penney "Pinto" branded CB radio. CB went to 40 channels in 1977, so this 23-channel unit was obsolete when Jimmy Carter was still in office. J.C. Penney sold Pinto mopeds during the 1970s.

There's plenty of rust to be found.

We may never know the full history of BIG CHEESE, but we can assume that this van had numerous adventures.

The new Ford Econoline carries everything… including the kitchen sink.

[Images: The Author]

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3 of 28 comments
  • Ajla Ajla on Jul 18, 2023

    I'd be interested in the date code on the tires. Considering the age of the equipment inside I'm thinking this van has been a static decoration longer than it was transportation.

  • Steve S. Steve S. on Jul 18, 2023

    "Breaker one-nine, this is the Big Cheese!"

    Dave was living the dream, the dream he had since he was fourteen, of owning a custom van. In the 1970s vans were everywhere, especially in Colorado where he grew up. His older sister's boyfriend had one, a blue Dodge Tradesman 200 complete with the usual shag carpeting, dark wood-like paneling on the walls, a mini disco ball and of course a bed in the back. Their Dad didn't like his daughter's boyfriend at all, but Dave thought he was cool, and Terry was happy to show him the ins and outs of his van, including the six-speaker Jensen sound system and the mirrored ceiling. Best of all, he told him of all the adventures he had in that van, including the trip he made in a miles-long caravan of vans to the 1976 National Street Van Association Truck-In in Bowling Green, Kentucky. There, some 6000 vans converged on a park for a week-long party where people met, drank beer, smoked a little weed, and put the beds in their vans to good use in what seemed like the Woodstock of van culture. It was big and mainstream enough that even Ford and Chevy had displays of their van offerings. Dave was starstruck and couldn't wait to get a van of his own. He pored over van magazines and advertisements for van accessories; he even dreamed about taking the Van Customizing course advertised in every magazine that was aimed at young males: "CUSTOMIZE-Restore AUTO VAN Interiors! You're needed now for this exiting, HIGH-PAYING FIELD!" Dave sent in the coupon for the free booklet.

    But it was 1980 and vans were on their way out. The economy was lousy, gas prices were high, and many of the vanners had moved onto the next stage of their lives; marrying, settling down, and raising the kids they likely conceived in their vans.

    Dave didn't notice, or pretended not to. In his mind he was building an awesome custom van, an expression of his tastes and personality, tricked out with all the accessories he had picked out-the porthole window ("Should I stick with a round one or get the octagon or diamond gemstone?") maroon shag carpet, dark walnut paneling on the sides, button-tufted leatherette upholstery in the back surrounding the bed like the basement rumpus room of his bachelor uncle.

    Dave took his meager savings and purchased a well-used Ford Econoline van that belonged to a catering company. "BIG CHEESE" it said on the sides in orange letters. "That's the name of my van," Dave proudly told his buddy Mark who he went to high school with until Mark dropped out due to his undiagnosed ADHD. Dave and Mark were close. Dave wasn't cool or popular at all and Mark was the only person his age who didn't care.

    "OK, what are you going to do with the rest of the lettering? Paint it over?" asked Mark. "I think I can scrub it all off with some Comet," Dave replied.

    The Econoline was as basic as it got. Three on the tree, no radio, no air conditioning, no options at all except for the 302 V8 instead of the standard straight six. The original owner put on a set of headers for a little extra power there.

    "We're going to need something to listen to on the way to the Truck-In, Mark opined. "A radio. And a CB. We GOTTA get a CB!" "Can't afford a CB," said Dave. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it!" Dave knew better than to ask.

    Dave proudly showed his new van to Terry. Terry held his tongue as he looked over the run-down vehicle. "You think it'll make it to the Truck-In?" asked Dave, hopefully. "Not the way it's running now. Those look like the original spark plugs. You should at least throw a tune-up kit at it. Say, I'll give you the original radio from my van. It won't fit in the dash, but maybe you can rig something up."

    Mark came up with a CB, still on it's mounting bracket which was bent and twisted from having been ripped off some dashboard in a hurry.

    Customizing the van amounted to installing the radio and CB and throwing a mattress and a couple of sleeping bags in the back, and hanging a curtain behind the front seats. Dave was saving money for the trip.

    But trip to where? There was to be no more Truck-Ins like the ones in Bowling Green. A schism had developed between the NSVA and many of the regional van clubs over the increasing commercialization of the sport, and legal wrangling over control of trademarks led to the sudden demise of the NSVA. Van-ins were still being "organized", if you want to call it that, by the regional clubs.

    Dave and Mark decided to attend their first Van-In put on by the local association in Colorado Springs. It was just a short trip down the Interstate from their home in suburban Denver. Terry told them it wouldn't be as big as Bowling Green, but it would be a good place to start. Before they headed off, he warned them, "Watch yourselves down there. Some of those people like to party REAL hard."

    Dave and Mark headed south on I-25. Dave turned on the CB, listened to the chatter for awhile, then decided to join in.

    "Breaker one-nine, this is the Big Cheese, come on!"

    No answer from anyone. "Is that thing working?" asked Mark.

    "Breaker breaker, this is the Big Cheese, over!"

    "Boy, you NEVER holler "breaker breaker" unless it's dang important!" some trucker hollered back. "What'sa matter with you?"

    Dave, his face burning with embarrassment, put down the mike and didn't pick it up again.

    Dave and Mark rolled into the fairgrounds and found a place to park, then got out and took in the sights. There were men there with long hair and beards, but not a shirt to be seen on any of them. There were surprisingly few women, and the ones who were there looked nothing like the models in the van ads or the girls in such movies as "The Van". They were in their mid-twenties but somehow looked older. Somewhere there was a band playing onstage. The air was redolent of campfire and pot smoke and the porta-potties lined up nearby.

    "Show us your ****!" shouted a voice directly behind them. A pair of women walking along obliged, looking like they'd done it so often that they were bored of it.

    Dave and Mark turned around and saw a paunchy old hippie with long scraggly hair and beard in cutoff jeans and no shirt. "Hi, I'm Fat Jack! What do they call you?"

    "Uh, Big Cheese," said Dave, uncomfortably.

    "Looks like your first Van-In. How do you like it so far?"

    "Just got here," said Dave.

    "Well Cheese, welcome to the life! Glad to see young people getting involved," said Fat Jack, grabbing his hand and shaking it vigorously. "We've got some real good people here. Real good people. Hey, if you're looking for some grass or pills, you can find 'em anywhere. But if you wanna score some acid, see me."

    "Cool", said Dave.

    Dave and Mark wandered over to the stage, arriving just as the band was finished with their set. As they were picking up their instruments an announcer took the mike and said, "Stick around for the bikini contest! We've got some lovely ladies who are just dying to let it all hang out for your viewing pleasure!" Hoots and hollers came from the seething crowd. "Better be some choice tuna this time!" someone shouted.

    Dave and Mark didn't stick around for that. "Lets look at some vans", said Mark.

    They expected to see some the high-dollar custom rigs with the murals and sidepipes and interiors that wouldn't look out of place in the Playboy mansion, and there were a few of those, but most of the vans were quite ordinary, and a surprising number were like Dave's Econoline. Many of them had stickers that had "2%" on them.

    "Hey, what's 2%?" Dave asked a guy crawling out of his stock-looking Chevy van.

    "WE are the 2%!", shouted the man. "We're the ones who they said were ruining it for everyone. Well, we're still here, they're all gone!"

    This was the schism between NSVA and many of the regional clubs. Between the organized corporate types and the ones who liked to cuss, drink, do drugs, and have lots of carnal relations. Dave read about some of this in the van magazines, but he found the whole thing confusing and boring. Apparently a lot of people did, and got out of vanning when NSVA folded. What was left was the 2%. Like the 1%er bikers, these were a rougher group than he expected.

    This was more like Altamont than Woodstock.

    Mark said to Dave, "Hey check it out, that guy's shooting up!"

    That was the last straw for Dave. He looked around for someone, anyone who looked like someone he'd want to talk to, and finding none he told Mark "Man, let's get the hell out of here!" Dave and Mark were vanners for exactly two hours, fifteen minutes.

    Dave and Mark made it back to Denver by dusk. Next day Dave put an ad in the classifieds to sell the van. "Big Cheese", said Dave to himself, shaking his head. "What the hell was I thinking?"

    An old hippie type, tanned, skinny, scraggly hair and beard came to look at the van. "Wanna trade? I got some good stuff, 'ludes, reds..."

    "Nope, $700 cash", Dave said firmly, but he took $500 just to be rid of the thing. It's what he had in it.

    As he drove off Dave heard the old hippie say, "Breaker one-nine, this is the Big Cheese!"

    • Jeff S Jeff S on Jul 18, 2023

      Good story makes me think of CrabSpirits. Followup story is that the van never made it out of the parking lot and the old hippie was calling for a wrecker on his CB.

  • ToolGuy Here is an interesting graphic, if you're into that sort of thing.
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