Friday, October 22, 2010

From Disco Van to Beta Wagon

My automotive legacy has come full circle.

Early yesterday morning, we drove to an industrial cul de sac in a charmless part of town and picked up the mini-van that my in-laws insisted on giving us.  It had just arrived here after a week-long journey from the east coast on a big rig filled with other transplanted vehicles.

Over the past month or so, we tried to buy our own mini-van, but Dr. Mom's parents wouldn't hear of it.  Three years ago, they bought essentially the same vehicle that we have been thinking about getting.  They had been using it sporadically for their furniture refinishing business, but they swore that they didn't really need it.  We agreed to take it off their hands.  What else could we do?

So yesterday, after 27 years of driving, I found myself once again behind the wheel of my parents' (in-law this time) van, just like when I was sixteen and turned loose for the first time on the highways and byways of the D.C. suburbs.

My first car, which was never really mine but my parents' (I was the primary driver by default because no one else in the family wanted to be seen in it), was a 1979 Chevy conversion van.  My parents had bought the van in Washington state when we came back from our 2-year stint in the U.S.S.R.

Vans were at the peak of their popularity (okay, maybe just slightly beyond their peak) at the time, and it made sense for us to get one, since we planned to make a lot of road trips between Virginia--where we were to live--and Montana and points west, where most of our relatives were.

 This isn't actually our van, but it's the same model and pretty close to what ours looked like.  

The van's conservative paint scheme--white with a single blue stripe down the middle--belied the swanky disco dreamscape that awaited the lucky passenger who climbed aboard.  The bleak vistas in the wake of Mount Saint Helens' ashy eruption barely registered to us as we became acquainted with the cutting edge technology and comfort of our customized van.  AM/FM cassette deck with front and rear speakers? Check.  Light blue shag carpet on the floor and as an accent on the ceiling?  Roger that.  Plexiglass cupholders resting on orange plexiglass posts lit from beneath?  Naturally.  Stained glass (plastic) ceiling lights? 10-4, good buddy.

All of these features seemed extremely cool for about one year, and then precipitously less so every month that followed.

By the time I started driving, in 1983, I had embraced a stripped-down, boots-jeans-and-leather-jacket punk rock aesthetic; and it was a real stretch to get the Disco Van to mesh with the image I was cultivating.  The van was not old enough to be cool because it was campy, and it was definitely not cool in the way that its creators had intended it to be.  It was just an embarrassing and obvious mom & dad car, and an artifact of the culture against which punk rock had emerged as a reaction.  Had I not been such a lazy kid, I would have worked my fingers to the bone so I could have bought an old jalopy that wouldn't have been so conspicuous parked outside the 9:30 Club after Minor Threat shows.

But despite its liability in regard to my street cred, the Disco Van was practical in its way.  Because I'm not confident in my understanding of the applicability of the statute of limitations, I won't go into details about the ways in which the Disco Van was practical to a teenage boy and his knucklehead friends.  Suffice it to say many rites of passage were observed there.  In fact, some of those rites were observed by police officers and school officials who for whatever reason saw fit to issue nothing more than a few stern warnings and the odd traffic citation. ("Driving On The Median" was the oddest, I think.)

Cars were not as durable in those days, and I managed to run that rig practically into the ground by the time I (barely) graduated from high school, with a mere 85k on its odometer.  I got into at least three accidents in it, which established my pattern of having two or three wrecks a year until I finally decided to go away to college and be a pedestrian until I was mature enough to drive.

After I got my own car (a '77 Plymouth Fury former cop car), we signed the title of the Disco Van over to the father of the singer in my band, a professional automotive salvager who, to the eternal chagrin of his wife, often took his work home with him.  This arrangement worked out well, because we were then able to use the Disco Van as transportation for the band for as long as we could keep it running.

Alas, the Disco Van finally fell into the hands of one of my high school nemeses, who traded it with our singer's dad for some equally thrashed vehicle, and I lost track of it after that.  In the next couple years, I totalled my cop car and then my first pickup truck before I finally decided that I should go off to college anywhere they would accept me, if for no other reason than to keep me from having to commute.  That's how I ended up going to University of Montana for a couple years.  But that's a different story.

And now I find myself once again tooling around town in a van.  I thought I might feel sheepish about it because of the bourgeois stigma, but I find that I don't really give a rat's ass about what other people think of my new rig.  Like the Disco Van in its day, the Beta Wagon is extremely practical for my needs.  It might not be as manly as my pickup with the lumber rack (and "No on Prop. 8" sticker), but it's far safer and more convenient than any car I've ever had.  Sure, it's versatile.  But it's essentially designed to transport children; and since childcare is my job these days, it wouldn't make any sense to drive anything else.  All the other options we considered--sport wagons, crossovers, hybrid SUV's--would have been compromises in service of preserving the illusion of our youth and hipness, which is way more uncool than driving a mini-van.        



  1. Is yours a gas guzzler? A neighbor had a huge Ram van that carried all 7 of them... and thensome... We had a Grand Caravan w/the huge engine that had the extended length as well as the huge engine- not a good move on my hubby's part... omg, will never buy an American car again... nothing but issues. Yeah, I know toyota has their issues but so far my accelerator is fine.

  2. I'm so very proud. You've embraced the MV. You'll be forever digging fish crackers out of the many crevices, but the family will be at peace in world of cross-country vacations. And maybe a few Plexiglas cup holders (with disco light enhancements) will give it that little something special.

  3. All you need to do with the van is spray it black,put a red stripe on each side and you've cracked it.

    "Quit your jibba jabba,fool,I ain't gettin' on no plane"

  4. ha ha.

    Considering you're driving your parent in laws van,my word verification for the last posting was "maspest"

    pop an apostrophe in and bingo...

  5. If the Disco Van were green with blue flowers on it, you could have solved mysteries!
    Some people lurve their MV's, but I just can't do it. Give me an SUV any day. I'm currently driving a Volvo XC90, but we're looking at a BMW X5 (which makes my heart flutter). No MV's for this mama!

  6. From Disco Van to Easy-Listening Wagon. Such is the passage of time. Excellent post.

    I dig the new makeover, by the way.

  7. I think you need to pimp out your new swagger wagon with purple lights and spinners.

    Not for yourself, of course, but to pass down to your children so they can have the same enriching experience that you got from the Disco van.

    It's a rite of passage.

  8. And your second choice was a motorcycle with a sidecar, but the van will suffice.

  9. My husband, back when we were pregnant with our first, made a comment about "well I guess we should be getting you a minivan one of these days."

    Over my dead body.

    (Or accidental conception of triplets.)

    Yep, I totally decided to only have two children just so I could still mostly comfortably fit into a mostly normal sized car with mostly insane kiddos in tow.

  10. And more than enough room for Stella Pooch. Now has Di Pi shared with you his Croc supplier?

  11. I'm going full circle as well having started out with a pair of gas guzzling land yachts (a 64 Ford Galaxy 500 - 8MPG HWY/6 in town followed by a 66 GTO - 6MPG coasting downhill with a tailwind) progressing through pickups, imports, a station wagon and a mini van. Then, 2 years ago, I traded the wife's mini van in for a huge green SUV with a carbon footprint so large it earned the name Godzilla! Once she got home from work and discovered what I had done I was in the doghouse for a couple of weeks but it was worth it!

  12. University of Montana. Do tell.

  13. @KBF--Naw, it gets pretty good mileage. It's a little foreign number but it still seats 7. I'll probably only drive it ten miles a week anyway. My Chevy van, on the other hand, got about 8mpg.

    @Nicole--Funny you should mention food debris. I folded out one of the back seats and found a big cache of rice under it. Such a cliche, coming from my Asian in-laws.

    @Jacks--Excellent idea! "I pity the fool who be messin' with my ride."

    @Heels--We thought about the X5 before we had kids, but it got pretty bad reviews and we had a friend who hated hers. We looked briefly at the Highlander hybrid recently, but it costs almost 50k, doesn't get very good mileage, and is nowhere near as practical as a van.


    @Shannon--I don't want my kids to ever have anything like any of the experiences I had in the Disco Van. Anyway, they will probably demand hovercrafts by the time they're old enough to drive.

    @David--My second choice is actually a bicycle with a trailer. Or rather, that's my first choice, but sometimes I need to get the kids places in a hurry.

    @Marty--Yeah, it's been interesting for me to learn that there's at least as much resistance to mini-vans from women as from men. It's truly a gender-neutral vehicle in that everyone loves/hates them equally

    @Nubian--Stella's going to love it. Before getting the van, we had to put her in the trunk of our hatchback. I hope to never cross the Croc line. I have some pride still.

    @Rocket Man--that is a bold move! Not only did you invoke your lady's ire, you risked getting firebombed by eco-terrorists. Although I don't necessarily agree with your decision to burn entire dinosaurs with your bus, I have to admire your chutzpah.

  14. via your description of the Disco Van, it sounds kind of like the mullet of vehicles (Conservative look on the outside and "shag-o-rific" on the inside)

    I have to admit that when my kids were little, I had a Chevy Astro Van and I loved it for Road Trips and the Drive-In and transporting groups of kids from one place to the other.

    My first car was a 1979 Cadillac Sedan Deville (that's a 4 door boat) in pale yellow with a vinyl top and an 8-track player. I paid for it on my own and I bought it used in 1990!

  15. Dude. You'll have plenty of room in the back there to make a set of triplets!

  16. I learned to drive in a minivan.

    I wish it had been as cool as your Disco Van.

  17. It's funny how the image of our vehicles ages right along with us. Great post! By the way, I mentioned you in my recent post for having one of my favorite blog descriptions :-)

  18. It's better than a beaver panel station wagon lol.

  19. You could pimp it out with fresh paint, chrome 24's & custom vinyl graphics on the sides... However, when you pull up to pick up the kids from anywhere, people may think it's a drive-by.

  20. First, I was nine in '83. HA!

    Second, that van would have been totally sweet for a band. Oh to just throw a mattress in the back and make a party wagon.

    Lastly, if that didn't work, you could have always just blacked out the windows and painted "Free Candy" on the side.

    Perhaps I've said too much.

  21. Ah the Beta Wagon... catchy. What's really funny is pulling up the van to the valet station at a fancy restaurant and watching the valet kick all the McDonalds trash out of the way before he shuts the door and drives off.

  22. Should have gotten a Chevette.

  23. Great post. I have never taken the minivan route. I currently squeeze my 2 big kids into the back of a Scion XA. The good news is that I can always find a parking spot for my little car.

  24. My first car was a 1974 Maverick that I painted plaid.

    You can only really go downhill from there.

  25. I like this blog
    I like Vintage picture
    Nice Vintage School France's Blog

  26. As a card-carrying member of the SUV/minivan-averse (i.e., Subaru drivers), I'm glad to see at least that you didn't fall for new "Man Van" marketing scheme launched by Chrystler:

    We've actually made the Subu work w/out any compromises (unless you count not having to cart around other people's kids a compromise). And that's with two kids, a dog, & usually way more stuff than we need. L. suggested recently that we get a mini-van. All I had to say was, "Okay, but you're the one driving it." That put an end to it (so it's not just the guys...).

  27. Confession: I drove a '77 Chevy Impala Station Wagon that I loved. It was really cool and a lot of fun.

    Wouldn't bother me at all to drive a minivan. Ok, I sometimes do on the weekend- the mystery machine.

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. Funny... that car would have been campy enough to be cool at my age in high school (about ten years later, give or take) and yet I was stuck behind the wheel of my mom and dad's Plymouth Grand Voyager. Decidedly NOT cool. Though, like you say, the van definitely had a lot of plus sides in terms of practicality for teenage boys.

    That van of mine/my parents got broken into one night outside the 930 club, in fact. Broken into for the loose change in the console. I had a bag of M&Ms in the car - the thief ate them, but left the empty bag. They had the nerve to stick around, sitting in the car, while they finished the candy. And of course, there was a cop about 50' away while this went down. When I got him to file a report after the show, he told me I "shouldn't have parked it under a tree."

  30. Beta Wagon, nice. I call my the Suburban Assault Vehicle, of course I got mine pre-Swagger Wagon days.

  31. Minivans can be a sanity saver. For one thing, when your kids get old enough to start bickering to the point where your brain wants to fall out of your head and flop around in agony for a few minutes, you can separate them into two different seats. Of course, there will be the inevitable argument of who sits in the middle seat (and thus closer to the observation of Mom and Dad) and who gets the much cooler, and hipper, back seat. Still, having them in two different seats where they are less likely to harass each other constantly is wonderful. My husband's Honda Accord might get better mileage than the Kia minivan, but we're ready to send them to military school by the time we get to our destination in the Accord (which in this case is totally misnamed!), whereas we're only mildly irritated if we're in the minivan.


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