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APRIL 18, 1980 -- Sharon Richards of Etobicoke, Ont., finishes up one of her paint jobs, a Star Trek theme for a van. Known in the business as Lady, she commanded up to $2,000 per mural. (Edward Regan/Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail. Originally published April 19, 1980,)
APRIL 18, 1980 -- Sharon Richards of Etobicoke, Ont., finishes up one of her paint jobs, a Star Trek theme for a van. Known in the business as Lady, she commanded up to $2,000 per mural. (Edward Regan/Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail. Originally published April 19, 1980,)

Road Rush

Shameful confession: Sex, rugs and boogie vans Add to ...

If you were born after 1980, you missed the Boogie Van era. I wasn't that lucky.

In case you haven't seen one, here's a boogie van spotters guide: The exterior will feature airbrushed murals, usually of saber-toothed tigers, axe-wielding barbarians or bare-breasted fantasy maidens. The interior will be lined with crushed velvet or quilted vinyl. There will be a bed in the back, and it will probably be accessorized with an animal-skin quilt and a ceiling mirror. On the rear bumper you will no doubt find a sticker that reads: "If this van's rockin', don't bother knockin'," or "Don't laugh, your daughter may be inside."

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Yes, we are talking about one of the worst car trends of all time. Imagine King Ludwig's castle remade as a Motel Six, and you have the boogie van. So it pains me to admit that I built two of them myself. Here is my confession:

Let me begin by saying that my crimes against taste and engineering were not premeditated. I'd just finished my first year of journalism school after quitting my job as a Porsche-VW mechanic out in Vancouver. Now I was in Halifax, looking for a summer job so I could pay the next year's tuition. I had tools and a mechanic's licence, but no one was hiring. Then I spotted an ad in the Chronicle Herald: "Mechanic wanted. Must have tools." Off I went.

I found myself in a rundown industrial mall that was home to an ambulance conversion shop. "We do some custom vans, too," the owner said. My ears pricked up. Custom vans? Boogie vans had been an unfortunate 1970s craze, with magazines, clubs and "van-ins" that drew thousands of shag-carpeted bedrooms on wheels driven by winking horn dogs. Now it was 1982. As far as I knew, the custom van trend was dead and gone, along with the Fu Manchu mustache, double knit pants and the CB radio.

Or so I thought.

I spent my first two weeks building an ambulance, which was actually kind of fun. We sliced the top off a brand-new Ford van with air-powered cutting wheels, and installed a new top cap, radios, lights and medicine cabinets. It wasn't as cool as working on Porsche 911s, but it was a new experience.

Then came my first boogie van. I came into the shop one morning to find a custom-painted Chevrolet van in my service bay. There was a television antenna welded to the roof, and the inside reminded me of a road-going version of the Playboy mansion - there were flame-shaped wall sconces, fake rocks and burgundy vinyl upholstery. On the dash was an engraved plastic sign: "Ass, grass or gas. No one rides for free."

My job was to install a waterbed in the back of the Chev. "It's right over there," the boss said, pointing to a giant cardboard box. I'd done many things during my career as a mechanic, but putting a waterbed in a rolling bordello wasn't one of them, and I had some misgivings. The waterbed would weigh more than half a ton once it was filled, adding to the Chev's already-considerable accessory load, which included a colour TV, a wet bar and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The seats had been replaced with giant leather thrones, and the entire interior was lined with solid oak boards. Then there were the rocks - they might be made of papier-mâché, but it all added up.

The waterbed would definitely overload the springs and tires (not to mention the brakes). But the boss said to go ahead. Two days later, the bed was installed on a frame I had constructed from angle iron and plywood. As we filled the bed with a hose, the van sagged lower and lower on its overburdened springs, and the tires flattened. I pumped in more air, terrified that the tires would explode. Miraculously, they held, but the van emitted ominous metallic groans, like an overloaded tramp steamer.

The owner arrived the next day to pick up the Chev. He had platform shoes and a Nehru jacket, and I smelled the intertwined aromas of hash and scotch as I showed him my work. I tried to warn him about the way the van would handle with the added weight. He ignored me and climbed onto the waterbed.

"Time for a test drive," he announced.

I later learned that he rolled the van on the way to Cape Breton. Just as well. But I was already working on our next custom van commission.

It began as a standard Ford tradesman's van. But our client had bold plans. His wife had drawn elaborate sketches of how it would appear - the white paint would disappear under multiple coats of metallic purple mist, and the van's flanks would be airbrushed with elaborate triptychs that depicted a vampire rising from a casket.

But the paint would be the finishing touch. First, we had to do an extensive set of alterations that would include everything from flared fenders to a casket mounted on a velvet-draped platform. The rear of the van would be sealed off and lined with sound-deadening material covered with tufted purple velvet. The only way in would be through a tombstone-shaped door located between the driver and passenger seats.

"Sunlight kills a vampire," the customer explained. Was it my imagination, or were his canine teeth actually filed into points?

We picked up the casket at a Halifax funeral home. It was solid mahogany with a purple silk liner, and it didn't seem to weigh much less than the waterbed. Just a few months before, I'd been tuning Porsches. Now I was constructing a wheeled vampire castle.

The next few weeks disappeared in a haze of work. We welded together the casket platform, installed thousands of dollars worth of crushed velvet and black shag carpet, and a steering wheel made of chromed chain. When the van came back from the paint shop, we added a final touch that the customer insisted on - a wooden rack that held laboratory vials filled with fake blood.

Even by boogie van standards, the vampire was a useless and disgusting vehicle. And I'd helped build it. How much lower could I sink?

A few days later, the customer arrived to pick up his creation. He had his three kids with him, plus his wife, a morbidly obese woman who looked on as he wrote a large cheque for a month of expert labour and a list of parts that filled several dozen pages. Since the vampire van had only two seats, I assumed that the owner and his wife had brought an extra car. But I was wrong - the kids crawled into the back through the tombstone-shaped door we'd built.

Where were the kids riding - in the casket? Since we'd removed all the windows and doors, there was no way of knowing. Which was probably for the best.

A month later, I was back at school. That spring I went back to the van shop to see if they needed me again. But the doors were locked, and there was a For Lease sign out front. My custom van building days were over. Which was, again, probably for the best. If you've installed one casket, you've installed them all.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

 

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