rob gilley

Ode to the Man Van

| posted on June 05, 2011

Mini-Van or Man Van? Semantics aside, these may be the best surf vehicles on earth. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

As the sting of his recent SURFER firing begins to fade, Rob Gilley now turns his blog attention towards memories and stories garnered from his long lackluster career.

I just couldn’t claim it. The title of this blog was supposed to be, “Ode to the Mini-Van,” but I couldn’t do it. I haired out.

There’s just too much stigma attached to the mini-van. Too much soccer mom baggage. Too much suburban conformist paranoia. Too much time-travel-fear that the 18-year old me would hunt down the forty-year old me, Terminator-style, if he found out I was driving one.

So that’s why I call mine a man van—to avoid all that.

But if you want the truth, here it is: Mini-vans are actually the most functional urban surf vehicles on the road.

And now that it’s out there, here’s what I would say to that zit-faced, 18-year old time traveler if he finds me: There’s not a more functional, comfortable, or efficient up-and-down-the-coast surf vehicle that can touch it.

The only autos that come close are full-size cargo vans, but those things get jack squat for gas mileage and, well, full-size vans are kind of creepy.

No, the mini-van is it. The proverbial shizzle: You can stack ten boards in it and sleep in it at the same time. You can hang dry a full suit from the lifted hatchback. You can slide open a side door and be in surf check/bucket seat /George Hamilton nirvana.

With a sleeping bag and some Bartles and Jaymes, you can boink in it.

Hell, with the right Tupperware and some newspaper, you can perch logs in it.

I know, I know. This is pretty shocking. This whole thing is making your head spin. Really throwing off your whole forest green Tacoma-centered universe.

But you better get use to it, because surfing mini-vans are here to stay. They’re all over Japan and coming to a surf town near you. In fact, they’re already here. A bunch of notable surfers already drive them but won’t go on the record to discuss it.

But eventually I did find one brave soul to claim the mini-van. One authoritative source.

Yes, the Brawny Towel Man himself: Grant Washburn.

Grant is the perfect patient zero. The perfect surfer to drive mini-vans out of the closet. As a six foot five Mavericks regular with a healthy appetite, Grant is taller than you, surfs bigger waves than you, and craps bigger than you. In fact, his actual craps are bigger than Victor Ribas.

So let’s hear what Grant has to say:

So you drive a mini-van, Grant. What do you own?

“I am a previous owner of two VW Vanagons, and converted to a Toyota Sienna for better mileage and airbags.”

What got you started on mini-vans?

“There was a singular, defining moment that led me to become a van convert. It was after a particularly cold evening session at Mavericks, back in the early 90s. Like many of life’s turning points, this “light bulb” epiphany shines like a beacon, a clear snapshot, rising from decades of foggy memories. A cruel wind grew during a slate gray afternoon, and the elements had stiffened my limbs and eroded my judgment. The fun had blown away, my energy was gone, and I bobbed for an eternity fantasizing about wool socks and a warm beer. I don’t recall anything more from that session, until I staggered into the lot and dropped my board in the dirt.

“It started to rain. I groped for my keys with a hand locked by hypothermic rigor mortis (an unusual sensation in Northern California, but all too familiar for surfers from New England). Three other vehicles remained. Each contained a cold-water warrior. Evan Slater’s Previa was closest, a permanent fixture in those days, providing a mobile bedroom/garage for the rabid Todos traveler. I noticed his windows were steamed up, as if he was taking a hot shower. Beyond were Doc Renneker’s metallic-blue Aerostar, and John “Three Piece” Raymond’s Dodge Caravan. My mind was tormented by the task of peeling off my 5-mil. My vehicle at the time was a two-door slot car, with eyebolts driven through the roof so I wouldn’t lose my 10’8”. It offered no shelter. Attempting to use Evan’s sauna as a windbreak, I clenched my teeth and unzipped. Naked to the elements, I bared my torso and groveled to pull the first foot free. The frigid, 20th Century rubber was as inflexible as my cramping muscles. I thrashed against the injustice, not caring if my $350 suit was ripped apart. I was beyond miserable, with any recollection of the day’s classic rides or shred of enjoyable experience forever banished by my suffering. It was then that a gust tore through the darkness, snatched my towel and sent it tumbling into a puddle. Thus the hideous memory was etched into my gray matter for all eternity.

“No doubt I had admired the versatility and spaciousness of the little vans for some time, but after that day I jealously coveted them. I was never huge on vehicular vanity (I had driven a station wagon in college, and beyond the rusted eyebolt roof-rack, this car was a wreck), but I liked to drive something with agility. After this session, I didn’t care if I had to pedal a covered wagon.”

What is the largest amount of surfboards that you have had in your vehicle?
And how long is the longest one?

“I can get a stack of 10-footers in there and still have room for passengers. I usually leave 2 or 3 in it all season—it’s a rolling quiver.”

Would you like to use this opportunity to narc on other surfers who drive mini-vans, and if so, who?

“More than half of the Mavericks regulars drive them, so we should just mock guys like Christy Davis who use bike chains and padlocks to keep their precious boards in their little pick-ups.”

Would you patronize a business that advertises mini-van to Man Van conversions?

“Whoa now! Are you talking about desecrating a Sienna? Is nothing sacred?”

Do you think that mini-van manufacturers are missing an opportunity by not marketing their product to surfers?

“I suspect they know who will buy what, and why, and that the guys looking for a solid surf rig will find it. Why waste ad dollars?”

What is your overall feeling toward mini-vans, and your mini-van in particular?

“I am a passionate devotee. These are great rigs, and work as an invisibility cloak around town.”

So there you have it: One of the most respected big wave riders in the world just let the entire surf world know that it’s OK to drive a mini-van.

Let the boinking begin.

  • zeno malan

    More of a comment on boinking then surf mobile.
    I vote for a generic surf/camp van. That comes with built in floor drain for changing within.
    All other feature should be generic also. Minimal windows and thief proof. (Especially sneaky enriques south of the border.)
    Cabinets, and bed would be standard features, and extras thereafter optional.
    From the VW van to my Pathfinder stripped of rear seats and flatbed added. Roof rack/rocket box/2nd spare mount(appears to be 50 cal mount) –

    I continue to pray for GM and our bailout money to produce the ultimate in 3rd world living.

    Pester your friendly, local Chevy dealer for yours now.

    Vote for a President that will promote van life. Everyone should surf!

  • Kimball

    Here’s a cool video on KorduroyTV on how to live in your van-

  • T Mcgee

    I am thoroughly for this article. As Mr. Gilley said, mini, sorry, MAN vans are the shizzle. As a landlocked surfer who has to drive at least six hours to get to the nearest surf spot, I know the power of a man van. My van (nicknamed Sanchez) has served me well in the last couple of years, on long surf trips to tough destinations, never once getting stuck in the sand (or unplowed New England roads), and serving as my personal bedroom, shower, and kitchen. I’m sure that the man van will go down in history as one of the best surf vehicles ever created. (and the boinking’s pretty good too)

  • Dewey

    Started surfing in 1962. First surf vehicle was a 57 VW with welded on racks. Have been through many other types including a couple of vans and trucks. Vans are for young guys who have understanding girl friends. Luxury becomes more important as you get older. Now have a pop-up camper. Urban camping is harder but it puts a van to shame in the luxury boinking department.

  • MG

    Everyone knows that suburban soccer moms drive SUVs. So if you’re driving an SUV, you look frumpy.

  • Ben S

    Bob Simmons drove a mini-van-like vehicle and lived out of it, surfing up and down the coast. It didn’t have the side-sliding doors, but it’s shape is reminiscent of our modern man-van you write about here Gilley. I enjoyed this write-up very much.

  • Sean

    The man van doesn’t need Grant Washburn as a spokesman, though he sure doesn’t hurt. Leading is always lonely highway, no apologies need be.

  • thrash

    i say G washburn in the parking lot at mauves once. He is soo big its a joke. Straight up had the body of a NFL tight end. and he was about 6 inches taller than the roof of his MAN-VAN, so i don’t anyone was thinking about how pussy his car was. nobody would fuck with someone that big

  • Erik

    I pretty much agree with the sentiment within, although being a complete car whore I don’t think I’ll be cruising a van anytime soon. BMW E30 Estate however… If I had the money though it would be a Range Rover, no matter the weather you’ll cosy up pretty quickly once you get into one of those bad boys! Great article guys.

  • J

    Shit!…should I sell my Tundra!? Compelling case, but I still like the pickup for wash down factor and ease of sand removal (that’s right I’m type “A”). Plus we don’t have to deal with the cold factor in Socal.

  • Gregor Wilson

    I’ve own a problematic but fun VW Eurovan (non-camper). Girlfriend at the time and I drove across Canada and lived in it for 6 months. We substituted a kayak and mountain bike for the surfboards at that time. Had a blast but October was getting dark and damp in coastal BC in the evenings.

    The beauty of the more contemporary Odyssey was that whenever I did car camp I never got harassed by the RCMP because they never expect campers in a soccer van. No hassles.

  • drexnefex

    Toyo Previa. Booya.

    This video pretty much says it all:

  • Will

    I drive an Opel Zafira, which is about as macho as Barney The Dinosaur. Yet it has a 1.8litre 16-valve engine with plenty of kick, and it has more than enough space for boards and wetsuits. I only have to put my boards on the roof is when my missus and kids come along. I reckon it has as much as interior space as say, a Jeep Wrangler, but uses far less fuel.

  • kfkook

    sometimes memories of that childlike joy are lost when people have self entitlement to instant gratification that our younger generation embrace……..all of us would have a better time if we remember what our kindergarten teachers taught us, be kind to your neighbor, they may teach you something you never knew…dig deep people and remember everyone is there to enjoy the ride! Surf on.

  • Surfvan

    Ive restored a 87 Toyota 5sp 4wd van over the last year and I love it. Litterally worry about how life would be without it… I’ve owned full size trucks with 11ft campers on back but theres no gas mileage and no fun to drive any real distance. I’ve owned small fuel efficient cars that can zip you to the furthest point on fumes but theres just no room. My “wonderwagon” was the answer… it has a tiny 4banger engine that gets a decent 22mpg thankfully to a real 4wd chassy that can be turned completely off and eliminate all that extra rotating mass… something not available in todays modern push button 4wd. I have a nice heater, power system, bench seat that turns into a bed and all the room for storage i could need while out on adventures. The man-van is the evolution of the surf vehicle.

  • Jy Jy

    This article did it! My boyfriend and I have been looking around for a vehicle to support our very active lifestyle. Our priority is surfing, but we also do a lot of camping at mountain biking parks. We both have motorcycles that are around 700lbs each, so we need towing capacity. Let’s not forget the kayaking.

    We currently have a Mazda B2600 we use when we go surfing, but it’s a pain in the ass when we can’t stop anywhere after surfing because we have a few thousand dollars worth of equipment in the back of the truck. Boards tend to disappear in Cocoabeach, FL if left unattended.

    We have looked at SUV’s, but he really wanted an F150. The MPG on these vehicles is rediculous ! We looked at Element’s but they don’t have the towing capacity that we need.

    Enter this article. I was so entertained by it I forwarded to my boyfriend and some of my other surfing buddies. My boyfriend is now convinced that a mini van is the way to go. However, he maintains that we will call it my mini van and not his.

    He has done a ton of research and thinks we should go with a Honda Odessey, I have had Toyota’s all of my life and am partial to the Sienna.

    Thank you for this great, entertaining yet informative article.

    • Jy Jy

      I was asked last weekend at a surf session in Playa Linda, FL why I have a mini van and no kids. I looked up this article and sent it to them as my answer. I didn’t realize I had posted Here. I figured I would give an update. We went with the Toyota Sienna. 5 years later we still love it. We have trailored our motorcycles to the Dragon in North Carolina, numerous off road biking camping trips and most recently towed our new mega pop up camper to Anastasia State Park for a weekend of surfing in St. Augustine, FL. Let’s not forget the countless naps I take on my lunch break in the back of the van.

      My now husband has a10′ and I have a 9′ board that both fit down the center console. We have had as many as 7 boards of various sizes inside the van and are still able to carry passengers. It’s also handy when I have to make multiple stops after a surf session and don’t have to worry about someone running off with my boards.

      Happy surfing!

  • Evan Howard

    I have a sprinter van made by mercedes. It was a great travel and surf van for kayaking, bike and everything else..comes stock with a 4 hours heater that runs of the engine blocks heat. I had a tall top which was great for living in. It got about 25 miles per gallon and was powerful. It cost me a bit to get into it but it was the best for living in. I sold that to use the money for other things and am liking at doing up a mini van for quick trips. I had a vw but the power sucked and so did the mpg. I am think dodge caravans because they seem to be cheaper with lower miles. A oddessey looks sweet and I had one but my sprinter which i liked. what have other done? caravans, eurovans, oddessey, town and country’s…..what have you done for platforms or beds or what?

  • The Sunshine House

    …hunt me down Terminator style… Classic!! Great article

  • Kevin Welsh

    I had a couple of ’67 Chevy Vans back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Fully decked out with 8 track ‘n that new cassette player. The were “groovy” back then. Bought them as hand me downs from my brother Chris. He and his buddies drove one from Cocoa Beach to Pike’s Peak. Ended up trading my 2nd one in for a brand new ’84 Chevy S-10 Blazer when SUV’s were introduced. Went back to a Chevy Astro Van then another couple of Blazers. Cruising in an Honda Element and Toyota FJ now which is quite roomy and fuel efficient. But the best ride is cruising in the Class A Dolphin RV (lazy boy, etc) but 8 mpg isn’t for everyone. Man Van’s are awesome! Feel one coming on sometime in the future.