The definition of a conversion van is a cargo van that has been outfitted with various luxuries, and these types of vehicles were extremely popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and many believe their history began then. However, there is some evidence that even the horse-drawn caravans that carried settlers to the western sections of the country were early forms of the conversion van.

The History of the Conversion Van

In the early days of the west, settlers often rode in horse-drawn carriages, usually in groups, when they left eastern areas of the country to seek fortune in the untamed west. These horse-drawn caravans included large wagons with a covered interior that served as both housing and a method for transporting cargo, much like today’s conversion vans. The wagons often contained benches that doubled as beds, storage cabinets, utensils for cooking, and even tables used by settlers during poor weather. When the household items were removed, either when the settlers camped or reached their destination, the covers could be removed and the wagons used to haul cargo.

Volkswagen Bus

Although horse drawn carriages may bear some resemblance to the conversion vans of today, the first true conversion van was probably the Volkswagen Bus, which became a symbol of the American counter culture. The VW Bus was less expensive than other vehicles, easier on gas, and relatively easy to maintain due to the accessability of the engine from the inside of the vehicle. Often connected to the “hippie” culture of the 1960’s as it was favored by nomadic types who preferred the open road to mainstream America, many owners turned the vehicles into roaming houses, complete with beds, refrigerators and storage cabinets.

Chevy Van

In 1961, Chevrolet introduced a van designed as a commercial vehicle with no windows in the side of the vehicle, although windows were added to later models. The vans were completely empty, with no seating or amenities in the rear of the vehicle, until, in the 1970’s, when owners began to use the empty but spacious cargo area to create unique living spaces. Initially, the conversions were do-it-yourself creations with owners adding household carpet or wood paneling on the inside. Some even cut windows in the van panels, often removing structural supports, making creating an unsafe vehicle in accidents. In the 1980’s, companies began manufacturing conversion vans that included high roofs, and luxury interiors that included everything from thickly padded seats to fiber-optic lighting. The federal government, during that decade, also instituted regulations designed to increase safety in the industry.

The birth of the minivan in the 1990’s reduced the popularity of the conversion van, although amenities found in early conversion vans led to many of the options found in vehicles today, including cup holders, portable televisions, sun roofs and elaborate stereo systems.