Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Mr. Van's Gambit: The Toy Legacy of Star Wars Custom Vans

Ron writes:

 I was perusing YouTube videos of custom vans when I saw a comment that resonated. The '70s, declared the commenter, were a time when people tattooed their vans rather than their bodies. 

Deep truths: you find them when you aren't looking for them.

But, yeah, tattooed vans were a thing in the '70s, so much so that at least two movies were based on them. 

The best of the pair, the 1977 The Van, is a sweet-spirited coming-of-age thing about a boy named Bobby who believes a custom van is his ticket to manhood. Of course, it doesn't take Bobby long to learn that being a man is somewhat more complicated. There aren't any tickets, and it turns out that mag wheels create more problems than they solve. But the lessons don't diminish the fun of the movie or our investment in Bobby's wonderment as he beholds for the first time the glistening van with all its outré accoutrements. To Bobby the van represents freedom, the ascendancy of personal style, and the kinky rush of unmitigated consumerism -- which to most American boys of that era were the prerogatives of adulthood.

I include myself in that cohort.

As a kid I assumed that when I was grown up I'd have an amazing stereo system with lots of fancy knobs and also probably a fish tank. A really large and expensive fish tank that looked great lit up in a dark room with maybe one or two neon signs and posters of naked ladies next to it. Shoot, I'd be an adult and most likely rich. Who was going to stop me from having a ridiculous fish tank with neon signs? 

I'm now in my 40s and I still don't have a fish tank. And stereos, like custom vans, are mostly a thing of the past. The possessions I once associated with adulthood now seem dubious, or at least highly impractical. 

You know what the 40-something me has in the way of possessions? Action figures. And I had those when I was 10. 

Irony, thy name is middle age.

Since this is a Star Wars blog, I'm sure most of my readers have already noted that The Van was released in the same year as Star Wars. Yes, 1977: it was a great year for vans and space opera. (Also disco and inflation, but let's not talk about those.)

In hindsight, a mashup of vans and Star Wars was probably inevitable. 

As this magazine makes clear, the public liked this mashup of the otherworldly and the mundane. Perhaps they even yearned for it.

According to the article inside the magazine, the proclaimed Star Wars Van cost $40,000. That's almost $180,000 in 2021 dollars. That's a lot of van. 

I have no idea why someone thought it was a good idea to combine Star Wars with 2001: A Space Odyssey. But when you've already mashed up Star Wars and vans, why not throw Stanley Kubrick into the mix?

The principal toy licensee for Star Wars was, of course, Kenner. And if you've read my other articles, such as this one, you know that in 1977 Kenner was struggling to bring Star Wars product to market. To the folks at Kenner, a magazine like the one pictured above must have seemed like a gift. 

"Wait," you can almost hear them saying, "there's a vogue for Star Wars...vans?"

In 1977 there was quite a bit of anxiety around Kenner. Toys based on exotic creatures and spacecraft needed to be developed, and pronto. There's a lot of work involved there -- design work, engineering work, etc. But here was an opportunity to skip all that -- to release Star Wars vans. 

It only seems crazy if you don't think about it. The public clearly wanted Star Wars vans. There were whole magazines about it!

And Kenner already had vans. You can see them prominently featured in this newspaper advertisement from 1977.

They were part of the SSP line, among Kenner's most popular. Short for "Super Sonic Power," SSP technology allowed kids to utilize a ripcord-activated gyro to send a vehicle roaring across the kitchen floor in a trail of sparks and glory, like something out of a Bruce Springsteen song. Exciting!

But that's nothing compared to the excitement promised by the Turn On Game. 

What to make of the Turn On Game? It seems geared towards the Twister market -- that is, teens looking for an excuse to get a little frisky. But the ad pitches it as an "all family" thing. Hmmm. It's fun for all ages even though it's probably illegal in most states.

The boldness of Kenner's Star Wars vans lies in their refusal to ask forgiveness for their shamelessness. They are nothing more than SSP vans with Star Wars graphics. Don't like it? Well, just turn the page of the catalog and look into buying....

...SSP vans without Star Wars graphics.

Hey, at least they changed the orientation of the vans in the accompanying photographs. Pretty clever! Not that that stopped anyone from detecting the ruse.

How much of a premium did the Star Wars version of the product sell at?

About 12 percent. Uncle George needs his vig

As you no doubt noticed when looking at the above page from Kenner's 1978 wholesale catalog, Star Wars vans came packaged singly as well as together in a deluxe racing set. 

Here you see the white "Heroes" van. Its graphics depict exactly what its name implies.

The graphics on the Darth Vader van remind me of the those found on the first round of Burger King glasses. What would you call that style? 70s Moderne? 

Star Wars was the only Star Wars film released in the '70s, and it looks like it. The same is true of its merchandise. By the time The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters, it was the '80s, and (alas!) everything looked different. 

The racing set upped the ante by providing both vans as well as plastic oil drums and pylons. It would have been nice had Kenner provided some less earthly objects for their Star Wars vans to crash into. But that would have required effort.

Actually, now that I think about it, pylons and oil drums were totally appropriate. These vans were among the few vintage products whose intended play pattern was entirely mundane. Kids who played with Star Wars vans weren't recreating the struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire; they were racing bitchin' custom vans that just happened to feature graphics based on the most popular movie of the decade. If there was a fantasy being indulged, it was a fantasy more closely allied to The Van than to Star Wars.

By the way, the Van Set has long been recognized as one of the rarest of Kenner's Star Wars products.

Kenner wasn't the only company to sense an opportunity in the association of Star Wars with custom vans. As I mentioned in this post from a few years back, MPC's line of Star Wars model kits included three van products.

MPC, like Kenner, was one of the companies constituting The General Mills Fun Group. So it's possible that some some cross-pollination occurred between the two outfits. Who had the van idea first? I don't think anyone knows. 

Although the above image derives from a catalog that was issued in 1980, MPC's vans debuted in 1978, the same year as Kenner's.

While the R2-D2 model, with its novel dome, is clearly the funkiest, I have a soft spot for the graphics used on the Vader van, which are just so totally metal. To my mind it's a tossup as to which of those is the coolest MPC Star Wars van. 

The Luke van, on the other hand, is dreadful.

Is that the most anemic looking Luke to appear on a Star Wars product? You can almost hear him whispering "pew pew" as he attempts to hold his blaster at chest level.

Although Kenner's vans were somewhat pricey, MPC's were only a little more expensive than an action figure. You can see them featured in the lower portion of this advertisement from 1980.

Well, that about covers custom Star Wars vans and the vintage toys that paid tribute to them. Although the Age of Vans was brief, it was colorful and yielded some of the weirder toys of the era.

But before I wrap this up, I'd like to shed some light on a couple of concepts that, as far as I know, have been shrouded in darkness since they were first mooted way back in 1978. Had they been acted upon, the history of Star Wars vans would be just a little richer than it is today.

I found documentation relating to these concepts while browsing some files owned by my friend Eddie. 

Above you see the folder they were stored in for all those years.

In early 1978, just as Kenner was getting ready to roll out their SSP Star Wars vans, the company was contacted by an outfit called Mr. Van, Inc., which presented Kenner with a couple of van-related proposals.

The first involved Mr. Van driving the "original Star Wars Van" to New York City for Toy Fair 1978. 

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few Star Wars vans cruising the streets in the late '70s, so I doubt that Mr. Van's claim of originality was justified. But Mr. Van made it just the same. I guess if your name is Mr. Van, there are few in vandom who will dare to challenge you on such matters.

I Googled "Mr. Van" and "original Star Wars Van" but didn't find anything relevant. 

Fortunately, Eddie's folder contained some snapshots. 

Above you see what I assume to be the OSWV in all its glory along with some kid holding a trophy.

The OSWV's interior was every bit as luxurious as you'd expect from a company capable of meeting "all your vanning needs."

But it was the second of Mr. Van's proposals that really caught my interest. It's an offer to provide to Kenner "any number" of custom-made "Star Wars Mini-Vans" for use in an in-store promotion.

Star Wars mini-vans? Well, that sounds interesting. What do you reckon they looked like? 

Fortunately, Eddie's folder does not mess around. When it teases something, it delivers.

Here you see one of the mini-vans surrounded by what I take to be the staff of Mr. Van. 

Presumably, the dude in the butterfly collar is Mr. Van himself because he's the only one not wearing a uniform like some kind of effing employee.

This image, showing Trophy Kid inside the van, makes it clear that the mini-vans were more than just showpieces; they could be driven by people small enough to crawl inside of them -- namely children.

Here you see the mini-van parked beside the OSWV. 

These photos must have been taken at a custom van show, one at which Mr. Van had a sizable booth.

And at which Chewbacca made an appearance.

When you think about it, if there's a character in Star Wars who is pretty much guaranteed to be a fan of custom vans, it's Chewbacca. 

Unfortunately, neither of Mr. Van's proposals was adopted. 

What happened?

Based on the notes adorning this second copy of the proposal letter, multiple parties inside Kenner rejected Mr. Van's ideas, though the potential to review them at the June meeting sounds at least semi-promising.

It's possible that licensing was a problem. I think it's safe to say that Mr. Van, despite his clear passion for Star Wars and evident association with Chewbacca, had no official relationship with either Lucasfilm or Fox.

Here's the thing, though: the concept may not have died in 1978.

The more perceptive of my readers have probably already picked up on the fact that the second portion of Mr. Van's scheme sounds an awful lot like a promotion Kenner ran in 1984.

That promotion offered retail outlets a ride-on speeder bike toy as a sales driver and potential giveaway. 

The speeder bikes were, as the mini-vans would have been, produced by an outside vendor, in this case Huffy. They were sized so that a child could ride them. They were upscaled versions of an available Kenner toy. Trophy Kid and Speeder Bike Kid both had bowl cuts.

Do you see the similarities? 

We'll probably never know if the Huffy-Kenner promotion was inspired by Mr. Van. But then we'll never know a lot of things, like the author of Beowulf or the last decimal place of Pi. It's the absence of an answer that makes the question interesting.

In the '80s people started painting their jean jackets rather than their vans, and the age of tattooed vans came to a close. I feel as though we've lost something. Why do I always feel as though we've lost something? 

Thanks to Eddie and Yehuda Kleinman for helping with the photos used in this article.

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