Life on wheels: The evolution of van culture

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Van culture is nothing new. In the United States, the history of van culture moves in tandem with the youth movements that followed the Second World War. It all started when Volkswagen (VW) conceptualized its first bus in 1947, but it wasn’t until after a couple of decades had passed that these vehicles became a prominent feature of car culture. Today, van culture is thriving more than ever, as this lifestyle has garnered new dimensions and continues to evolve from old ones.

Van culture blossomed in the 1960s when the liberated youth piled into their hippie mobiles and rambled west along Route 66, the Main Street of America. These cars represented the unconventionality of the ’60s. They were the physical manifestation of the unbounded freedom and uninhibited ideas that a new generation was beginning to wield. With its steering wheel perched directly above the front tires and its bubbling, happy-go-lucky frame, the VW Type 2, often called the “combi,” (for “combined-use vehicles”) carried people full of hope toward a revolutionary end.

In the ’70s, van culture took on new dimensions but remained important. The disenchanted youth steered clear of stagnant, corrupt political systems and instead set a course toward an independent way of life. Vans became a communal form of escapism, where nomads could band together and live beyond the broken conventions of 1970s society. Van culture became a kinetic network, connecting people who shared visions of an alternative lifestyle. Van culture was at the heart of the counterculture.

Van culture became a kinetic network, connecting people who shared visions of an alternative lifestyle.

When you’re driving down the highway and see an ol’ Type 2 up ahead, images of sun-soaked hippies holding flowers, guitars and a weathered suitcase may pan across your mind. VW buses like this were often used to transport peace mongers, musicians and wayfarers alike to concerts, festivals and anti-war protests. As the bus passes into your rearview mirror, a tie-dyed nostalgia pulls at the heart while benevolent daydreams continue to flitter across hazy eyes.

And yet, while this may be an enchanting image, it’s an anachronistic one.

It’s now 2020, a new decade in which van culture has new relevance. While technology and creativity have added to the beauty and fun of this lifestyle, van culture, in part, has grown as a result of an urgent social issue.

Volkswagen and many other automakers have enhanced their buses, camper vans and self-contained vehicles, elevating van culture to new heights. Van culture has acquired a new dimension: one of aesthetic appeal. Today, you can live more comfortably in some campervans than you can in many apartments. With the right amount of capital, people can invest in vans, like VW’s Californian or its variant, the Grand Californian, and convert them into lavish mobile homes. In this way, you can live life as a wanderlust-ing vagabond, while still enjoying the modern perks of 21st-century living.

This evolved iteration of “the 1960s van” shows that van culture is no longer in the fray of alt-society, or a faction of the counterculture. It’s become a glorified adjunct to the mainstream. Just go check out the #vanlife tag on Instagram, or a campervan photo board on Pinterest. You will see an artistically-inclined showcase of beautified camper vans, adorned with southwestern blankets, twinkle lights and maybe even a succulent potted on the dash or an air plant dangling near the window. The pictures portrayed on the media are incredible, if not outright unbelievable.

But your van need not be decked out in “insta-worthy” glamour. While decking out a camper van is pure fun and an exciting way to get after adventure, van culture occupies a far more complex space in our society today. Beyond style, there is great utility and even necessity. 

Most people who travel or live in their vans are actually seeking the simplicity that comes with life on the road: streamlined, minimalized, sustainable and green. Van culture embraces a lifestyle that cultivates a deeper consciousness for many different things. With the limited space that comes with living in a van, people can only carry their most essential items with them, forcing them to reassess what’s truly valuable in their life. The lack of material goods allows people to embrace immaterial things like health, nature and freedom.

Additionally, in downscaling electricity, water usage and waste, life in a van can inadvertently lead to a greener lifestyle, and perhaps a more frugal one. There may be high costs of petrol, but this is significant only if you consider the meaning of #vanlife to be a road trip. However, more often than not, people living in their vans aren’t actually driving them around.

With the limited space that comes with living in a van, people can only carry their most essential items with them, forcing them to reassess what’s truly valuable in their life.

A van can simply be a home base. The pockets of the United States where campervans are allowed to congregate and settle into something of a permanent residence harbor very unique communities. When you drive along Pacific Coast Highway between Point Dume and Topanga Canyon or pass through Ashland, Oregon, you will see them — these variations of the traditional neighborhood.

Though outside the States, New Zealand also captures the zeitgeist of van culture. It’s the motherland of all self-contained vehicles, from manual Hyundai H100s to Nissan Serenas to solar-paneled Toyota HiAces and more. In these places, van culture can offer a special community, and nowhere else is the world’s natural beauty more vivid.

While the residents of these campervan communities may opt for this type of homestead due to their lifestyle preferences, many people who find themselves living in vans are not there by choice. You need not look further than this city for proof of that. Berkeley is populated by many who are part of the so-called #vanlife, and yet many of these individuals live this way out of necessity, not preference.

Unaffordable housing and homelessness is a serious issue, particularly in Berkeley. Living in a van, car or old bus can be a viable solution for people who need alternative housing options. If anything, this more dire facet of van culture should be an urgent call to action, a sign that the revolutionary ideas that got their start with the Type 2 back in the sixties must persist and prevail today. Van culture will embrace anyone who becomes a part of it, but living in a van should be a personal choice, not a last resort solution to unaffordable housing. 

Although housing insecurity has become an unfortunate feature of van culture, there is an overwhelming number of people who engage in this lifestyle because it’s a beautiful one that fosters diverse communities. 

Maybe you’re a cash-strapped postgrad trying to buy time before the dust settles and work begins, or a modern-day hippie dodging the conventions and demands of mainstream society. Or maybe you’re an adventure-seeking parent taking the family out on the road for a long weekend, or a socially-conscious advocate taking a stand against unchecked gentrification and wastefulness.

Whether you’re an old hippie or a young nomad, a billionaire or a bum: there is a place for everyone in van culture. The inclusivity of this lifestyle is what makes it a prosperous culture and the reason why it’s graced our social history with such a vibrant flare. Van culture has deep roots, but more importantly, it has a redefined place in 21st century Americana.

Contact Jacqueline Moran at [email protected].