Pirates of the Caravan. Juicy Lucy. The Fox Den.
Each van carries a name, a unique paint job and a story. Some boast a minibar.
They were just a few of the most colorful custom vans on display over the weekend as hundreds of enthusiasts from all over North America descended on a Missouri campground to show off their unique rides and compete for honors.
The van fest, organized by the local club Vantasia Vans of Kansas City, marked the group’s 40th annual “Spring Fever” event and drew about 160 entries in its various van competitions over a rainy weekend.
The vans, some of them decades old, have been customized in almost every way imaginable: The roof lowered eight inches, a tear-drop shaped window, shag carpeting. And that’s not to mention the murals painted on the sides, depicting anything from an aquatic scene right out of “Finding Dory” to nude victims undergoing human sacrifice.
Or, taking for example Don Noone’s van, a paint job inspired by the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a hardwood interior imitating the inside of a sailing ship.
Noone, the ringleader of the event and president of Vantasia Vans, is quick to say his van has twice won top honors in a national competition. But more than awards, Spring Fever is about fun, family and sharing a love of vans, he said.
“It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” Noone said. “We are a unique group of people, but we are the type of people, if you broke down in some town, you could call a vanner and they’ll come help you. It’s a community around the world — Europe, Australia.”
Talk to the folks who drove across the country to be here, and they’ll tell you the vans are loaded with more than sound systems, waterbeds and refrigerators. They also carry art, crafts, memories and family history.
Custom van culture is nothing new in America — in Kansas City, Kan., its roots go back at least as far as the 1970s, when a community of hobbyists used to gather at Peter’s Drive-In on State Avenue — but the rise of social media has further tightened the links between van clubs around the world.
For the first time this year Spring Fever was held in Bevier, about two hours northeast of Kansas City, instead of a campground closer to Kansas City that the campers no longer found suitable. Spring Fever is not open to the general public, but anyone with a van can register to attend. The four days of events are carefully planned: This year’s headline band, Capt. Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters, was booked two years in advance.
The Vanner’s Creed
Some vans on display here have appeared for the first time after decades in obscurity.
Ken Henecke, a member of the Salt City Vans club in Syracuse, N.Y., arrived with “Juicy Lucy,” an orange 1965 Chevrolet van with a scantily clad woman painted on the rear.
The van once belonged to a van enthusiast called “Reverend Mike,” and it had been in storage for 37 years until Henecke bought it. Henecke said he didn’t know the full back story of Reverend Mike’s nickname but understood he was “somewhat of a ladies’ man.”
Henecke stopped at Spring Fever on his way to Colorado, where he’ll give Juicy Lucy to his son, also a van guy.
It’s not uncommon for the vans to make their way down through the generations.
“The Fox Den” is a 1978 Chevrolet that Sean and Peggy McCasland bought used in Dallas seven years ago. It bears paintings of foxes on its side and is filled with stuffed foxes and fox paraphernalia.
When the married couple, from Muskogee, Okla., first showed photos of the van to Sean McCasland’s father — a longtime van man — the father recognized it. He had, in the 1980s, built the custom wooden running boards engraved with the van’s name for his friend, the former owner. On Facebook, the family tracked down photos of Sean McCasland’s parents with the van 34 years ago.
The van is the McCaslands’ pride and joy, even though passersby sometimes, on seeing it, ask them whether they are selling weed. The answer is no. The couple, both federal employees, have nothing to do with drugs, they said.
“That’s a stereotype,” they say in unison.
Spring Fever is a family-friendly affair, as are most such gatherings, vanners say. Some retired enthusiasts spend months traveling the country from event to event — they can find one virtually every month somewhere in the U.S.
Asked why they are so dedicated to this way of life, a few travelers on Saturday simply displayed a T-shirt printed with the “Vanner’s Creed”:
“I don’t try to explain why I am a vanner. For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”