Reader Question: What Happened to Conversion Vans?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Mark asks: Whatever happened to conversion vans? I saw one when I was out on my morning, and it occurred to me that I haven’t seen one in a long time. Whatever happened to them? They were once quite common, but they’re now rare.

My reply: I bet it’s got a lot to do with the rise of the Crossover SUV, which fills the same general niche and for less money. When conversion vans (see here for leasing deals) were at the peak of their popularity back in the ’70s and ’80s, there really weren’t many alternatives to them – short of an RV. There were sedans and coupes and station wagons (which had the room, but not the headroom; you couldn’t stand up inside).

So people took Chevy and Ford and Dodge vans and converted them. Added windows, shag carpets, bars and fridges, captain’s chairs – etc.

Then along came crossovers (and SUVs and minivans) in all sizes and factory converted into the same basic thing as the old-school conversion vans. Often, for less money.

For example: The base price of a 2019 Chevy Express is $35,000 – and that’s a stripped/cargo van. To convert it into something analogous to a ’70s or ’80s Mr. T van or similar would probably mean another $10k at least. You can buy a loaded minivan/crossover similarly fitted out for less – and it’s a factory install.

So I think that’s why…

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  1. They upscaled to full RVs, with popup roofs, water tanks, stoves, etc. The Mercedes Sprinters are still the most popular because they’re fairly tall and can be had with 4WD.

  2. Conversion vans used to be a huge industry in Northern Indiana. There were fairly large companies building them. You would see acres of vans parked in fields around the factory. It all seemed to come to an end pretty quickly.

    The remaining companies generally build mini-buses, ambulances and other custom vehicles built off of truck platforms.


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