The challenging task of selling full-size vans to normal people

Image: cycleworld.com

Many of you shared my excitement about the Ford Transit full-size being available with a 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 engine and all-wheel-drive. But while we, car dorks, would get excited about such thing, the general public won’t. Vans, simply aren’t cool. Even minivans, as great as they are, are slow sellers.

Most people buy vans because they have to. Tradespeople, contractors, delivery businesses, mobile business sites, bank robbers, kidnappers, and shuttling services are probably the type of businesses that most full-size vans are sold to. Jack and Jill Smith are not likely to trade their Explorer in for one.

The general idea behind marketing anything is to convince an unlikely buyer that they want or need your product. Fortune 500 companies have grown from a questionable product or service that was properly marketed and managed. Can the same be done for full-size vans?

Image source: speedhunters.com

In the 1960s and 70s vanning was the thing to do. A modified full-size van was a mobile party room – just don’t come a knockin’ when the thing was rockin’. It made sense at a time when money for those wanting to party was tight. The trend continued into the 1980s and 90s where full-size vans become frequently converted into ultimate family vehicles – four large seats, raised roof, power sofa bed, a TV and VCP, some had little refrigerators. Those were as cool as they were comfortable.

If the world is anything, it is cyclical. Trends come and go, and then come back again. It’s my theory that trends often skip a generation, sometimes two. Basically, no one wants to be like their parents. 70s kids hate stations wagons just as 80s kids hate minivans. I have a feeling that 90s kids don’t love large SUVs, just as likely that 00s kids won’t like cross-overs.

So here we are, late ‘10s, about a generation or two after the vanning craze, and an interesting thing is happening. Image Google search hashtag #vanlife on your portable electronic device. The result will yield vans of all kinds and ages. In those same images will be people. Not just any people – young people. Free and happy young people in their twenties and thirties, wanting to explore the world and each other. Or perhaps they just can’t afford a decent apartment on their mediocre post-college salaries. Does any of this sound familiar?

It doesn’t matter if people don’t need a full-size van. Most pickup truck buyers don’t need a pickup truck. Nobody needs a Jeep Wrangler, it’s not even a good vehicle (I’ll take my Gladiator in Billet Silver Metallic #pleaseandthankyou). But it’s easy to show people why they may want a pickup truck or a Jeep. Both of these vehicles offer freedoms, they can make life easier, and they can make you feel good about yourself. It’s equally easy to show people why they need a tiny overpowered sports car.

But how the hell do you convince someone that they need a large van? It’s a big box on wheels with nothing inside. Preconceived notions of typical van-driving people don’t help things.

And yet, there is #vanlife. It’s time to move into the present.

Sometime ago, likely in part to the #overlanding trend, Toyota made a deal with Yakima, maker of various racks for bikes, skis, canoes, and just about everything else. As a Toyota owner and an owner of bikes, skis, and such, that made sense to me. Fitting the right rack to one’s vehicle isn’t an easy task. But at a dealership, a properly trained sales person will chose the right rack for your vehicle and your needs. They’ll even install it for you and roll cost into your monthly payments, making you feel as though you got an amazing deal.

But it gets better. At a recent auto show I saw a Tacoma TRD Pro outfitted with some cool racks. On them were canoes and in the bed was camping gear. There was also a 4Runner with a tent on the roof. Next to it was Land Cruiser with a cool looking ski box. The new RAV4 had mountain bikes on it. But Toyota isn’t in the business of selling bikes, boats, or tents. Nope. Toyota, like every other maker of anything, is in the business of selling dreams – the car is just an object in the said dream.

There isn’t a single damn person on the planet who dreams of a owning a full-size van. Not one. Those who need them, buy them. That’s it. That the full-size van market in a nutshell. Except… there is #vanlife.

In my adventures of buying and selling properties I learned that people have no imagination. They can’t imagine the possibilities and the potentials of a property. This is why the world of flipping houses is so fascinating to so many, even if the television shows blatantly lie about costs and schedules. These shows, in extremely simple ways, allow people to see the before and after. Like Bob Ross’ shows, they take a blank canvas and they fill with beautiful things that most people can’t easily imagine.

If there is a vehicle that is a blank canvas, it is the full-size van. It’s the only vehicle that can have two seats or 15 seats. Unlike a pickup truck, its cargo area is accessible from the side and the rear, and it is longer, with a higher capacity. Planking in a mattress or half a dozen bikes does not require any modifications. Minimalist and outdoorsy is where it’s at now and I can’t think of better vehicle than an AWD full-size van for that. Likewise, like the conversion vans of the 80s, it’s an excellent family road trip vehicle.

But ya gotta make it cool. Those wanting to sell full-size vans must take that canvas and paint on it. Show typical people what a van can do for them; how it can make things easier, better, more comfortable. Show that there is some life, some interesting potential to this appliance. The young outdoorsy crew is just a start. Bikers, skydivers, weekend racers, musicians, dominatrix, boaters, snowmobilers, horse riders – all these people could use a cool and capable van that they could otherwise drive to their daily grinds.

In all this I intentionally left out one group – families with kids. As a father of two I constantly see families traveling to far away sporting events, camps, clubs, competitions, or races. I saw minivans with two roof boxes on them and SUVs with seven bikes. I’ve seen people eat, sleep, work, and simply take shelter in their vehicles during those weekends. These people don’t know how much happier they would be in an appropriately setup van. Not if you don’t show them.

But to make it cool, you got to start with showing its potential. You got to make it part of dream. Start with a hashtag.

34 Comments

  1. I’ve had the same feeling, that if there’s a future for the van, it’s thanks to Instagram. and moreso that it’d probably follow a similar path that vans took starting in the 60’s with hippie vans through 70’s shaggin’ wagons to the overstuffed conversion vans of the 80’s and 90s. I don’t know if the bohemian #vanlife aesthetic could be corporatized (not that it would shock me), but something like a Transit Raptor (not far off what you sort of drew up) seems almost feasible with the combination of AWD and Ecoboost being possible, and would be a reasonable analogue to the Cruising Wagon, so long as you could sell buyers as it being the right tool to have when they take their dirt bikes and side by sides and whatever to some far off destination.
    The Nissan NV200 Recon that was shared here (from the Chicago Auto Show) would also be a good way forward – it’s small enough to be a reasonable daily driver, but looks exciting and adventurous compared to the small crossovers that are driven by the sort of person you when to high school with and only hear from when they’re trying to sell you on some new multi-level marketing scheme.

  2. I’ve had the same feeling, that if there’s a future for the van, it’s thanks to Instagram. and moreso that it’d probably follow a similar path that vans took starting in the 60’s with hippie vans through 70’s shaggin’ wagons to the overstuffed conversion vans of the 80’s and 90s. I don’t know if the bohemian #vanlife aesthetic could be corporatized (not that it would shock me), but something like a Transit Raptor (not far off what you sort of drew up) seems almost feasible with the combination of AWD and Ecoboost being possible, and would be a reasonable analogue to the Cruising Wagon, so long as you could sell buyers as it being the right tool to have when they take their dirt bikes and side by sides and whatever to some far off destination.
    The Nissan NV200 Recon that was shared here (from the Chicago Auto Show) would also be a good way forward – it’s small enough to be a reasonable daily driver, but looks exciting and adventurous compared to the small crossovers that are driven by the sort of person you when to high school with and only hear from when they’re trying to sell you on some new multi-level marketing scheme.

      1. That’s very fair – it hasn’t caught on with those olds in the automotive industry though.
        *am an (Millennial-aged) old in the automotive industry.

  3. The inevitable endpoint of insane property prices, crazy commutes and autonomous vehicles is young folks priced out of apartments living in constantly moving autonomous camper vans. They can’t move you on if you’re always moving, all your stuff delivered via a drone that pinpoints your current GPS location.

    Barstool futurism aside, I do think it’s bang on that vans, and possibly even minivans will be cool again, a vehicle can that actually carries people and stuff, it’s the obvious rebellion to crossovers that make a big deal of looking functional and rugged, but are actually rubbish in terms of exterior dimension vs. interior space. There’s also increasing urbanization too, when you’re going nowhere fast, something airy and comfortable, but that takes up the least footprint for the most interior space starts to look appealing.

    1. “I do think it’s bang on that vans…”

      Don’t forget that vans have a reputation as “shaggin’ wagons”. Probably because they used to have lots of shag carpet.

    2. The first paragraph could be the opening monologue for a movie set in a dystopian future (present?) a la Terminator or Mad Max….

  4. Vans were cool almost fifty years ago because parents were married and moms didn’t work. Once moms went to work and parents started worrying more about acting like children than they did their children, opportunities for teenagers to hook up with their classmates didn’t have to involve backseats or foam mattresses in the backs of vans. They got laid in their own beds in their empty homes, and suddenly mopeds made more sense for transportation in the world of diminished expectations that progressives like Nixon and Carter were inflicting.

  5. in a middle-class society, what sells is aspiration and “cool” – demonstrating that one has picked what one *wants* rather than what one needs. station wagons and minivans were never cool, they were practical. they were the last vestiges of blandness. SUVs didn’t become popular because people were in dire need of offroad prowess and towing capacity, they became popular because they looked mean and rugged and Biggie Smalls rapped about them. everyone wanted a bite of that, and now it’s just the standard. full-size vans didn’t become cool because people needed daily drivers that they could live in, they became cool because in the ’60s and ’70s everyone took a few tokes and realized it was okay to have sex.

    just the same, the *practical* aspects of van life – sans hashtag – are not what’s driving the popularity of “vanning” today, or you’d see the price of Econolines go through the roof. no, the #vanlife phenomenon, or at least the vans that are cool because of it, owes itself to the victory of the hipster. around ten years ago you couldn’t swing a cat without some muscled-up gel-haired bro complaining about hipsters, but here we are and instead of bitching about hipsters now we just all became wannabe hipsters. (i want to clarify that i’ve always thought hating on hipsters was dumb, and i might have a fixed-gear or two in my past, but that’s besides the point.) ((did i just say i was into being a hipster before being a hipster was cool?))

    the aesthetic the mainstream has co-opted from the hipster elevates the vintage, the twee, the authentically offbeat, the deliberately anti-modern. while it doesn’t quite *embrace* impracticality, it doesn’t consider it much of a hindrance either. all of these virtues are embodied by the classic Volkswagen van, and not the practical, reliable Econoline. the market is driven by cool, and today’s cool is driven by a culture that rejects the warm embrace of big business after we were all burned during the Bush era. today’s cool just wants to purchase something whose capitalistic duty has been done for decades. no new van will be cool by these standards. it is inherently impossible.

    1. Can I get that comment framed?

      Seriously, excellent observation and nothing to disagree about. But when it turns funny, at least to me, is when big corporations co-opt hastags, or call their vehicles “rebel”, which is an inherent oxymoron unless they produce vehicles in a shed, using a hammer, being drunk.

      Also, what I miss, is an acceptance of utility sans cool. My favourite example is the lack of small 7 seater vans in the new car market. I had some time to go to a Kia/Mercedes/PSA dealership yesterday. The Kia Carens, what I came to look at, had just been discontinued. So has almost every other minivan that doesn’t look like an SUV, as the Peugeot 5008 does. I sat in the Citroën C4 Grand Tourer though which really impressed me with its excellent visibility. But who cares about thinks like that? Sigh.

    2. Can I get that comment framed?

      Seriously, excellent observation and nothing to disagree about. But when it turns funny, at least to me, is when big corporations co-opt hastags, or call their vehicles “rebel”, which is an inherent oxymoron unless they produce vehicles in a shed, using a hammer, being drunk.

      Also, what I miss, is an acceptance of utility sans cool. My favourite example is the lack of small 7 seater vans in the new car market. I had some time to go to a Kia/Mercedes/PSA dealership yesterday. The Kia Carens, what I came to look at, had just been discontinued. So has almost every other minivan that doesn’t look like an SUV, as the Peugeot 5008 does. I sat in the Citroën C4 Grand Tourer though which really impressed me with its excellent visibility. But who cares about thinks like that? Sigh.

      1. “…unless they produce vehicles in a shed, using a hammer, being drunk.”

        Do you know how I can get a brochure? I may be interested.

    3. Good points.

      You don’t market something into popularity– it evolves into it, everyone jumps onto it for a while, and then it eventually becomes so mainstream that something else becomes more appealing. Its prevalence will then shrink to a realistic level in the market. I’m old enough now that I (fortunately) feel fairly immune to such cycles– I drive what I drive, and don’t care much what anyone else thinks about it. I currently own a minivan because it’s a practical choice for hauling three kids, not because I particularly like it. I do often wax nostalgic about my dad’s green ’73 Econoline Chateau Club Wagon that was our family vacation vehicle when I was young, but “#vanlife” has, and will have, absolutely zero influence on my interest.

      [Edit: Was E.E. Cummings an early hipster, by the way?]

        1. as was perhaps archy the cockroach but not mehitabel who was more of an aesthete with sensibilities tending towards a middlebrow perception of classicism but don t tell her i said that

      1. It is the same as most counterculture things. “I want to be different!” In the same way all these other people are being different.

  6. I’ve kept a full-size van as part of my herd since college days. If I had to liquidate my possessions, a van would be among the very last things I’d let go. I could still move stuff, build things, and get to work with one. Not to mention sleep in it. Down by the river. Now, that’s practical. Why, practically sells itself, I’d say.

    Oh. Right. Normal people, you said.

  7. Vans with even rudimental furniture and toilets are so unpractical and expensive, only pensionists and hipsters have them.
    Normal people don’t have enough time to justify such a specialised vacation tool – a 4wd CUV w/roof box and a membership of the national hiking club will bring you anywhere, and you still can park it in park decks (all dimensions have practical limits down there..) and pay non-commercial grade repair bills.

    1. I agree with you that time and money don’t always work in favor of the full-sized van. As an exaggerated example, my parents used their RV maybe three times in ten years of ownership, hardly making the purchase worthwhile. However, categorizing the van as an option only of “pensionists and hipsters”, is a bit judgmental. The van will deliver a decidedly different vacationing experience than the CUV, but perhaps one that you don’t personally find appealing. My wife would certainly agree with you, but I would think the van would be more fun and memorable. Regardless, even as often as we vacation to National and State Parks, it wouldn’t be a practical choice for us.

  8. One of the best things about a van is its adaptability, so I’m fully on board with not impairing its cargo hauling capabilities. I’m currently building my own camper conversion on my Econoline, and a key part of the design is a removable kitchen unit and bed platform that leaves the cargo area open when needed. I still want to be able to haul 4’x8′ building materials or a sofa, or I’ll just feel like it’s a waste of a perfectly good van. The more useful a vehicle is, the easier it is to justify keeping it around.

    1. I’ve been having fun thinking of something just like this, only with a smaller Transit Connect.
      Just a very carefully-dimensioned piece of furniture that slides right in to provide some fun camping storage, and hangs from the garage ceiling housing spiders for the other fifteen years.

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