Sometimes bad can be good—especially when we are referring to vansploitation movies of the 1970s. Like the hot-rod and biker movies of the 1950s and 1960s, the 1970s was the golden age of movies about vans. But let us be clear: This genre of celluloid includes some of the cheesiest, most sexist, and dumbest plotlines in motion picture history—think “Smokey and the Bandit” meets “Porky’s”—but it also includes some of the coolest customized vans of all-time. Chances are you’ve probably never heard of or ever watched any of these silly vansploitation flicks, so know up front that the vans usually feature wild paint jobs with suggestive graphics, shag carpeting, CB radios, waterbeds, mirrors on the ceiling, refrigerators, toasters, and much more.
Here are four essential vansploitation movies to check out.
“Blue Summer” (1973)
The earliest known vansploitation movie of the ’70s is “Blue Summer,” directed by Chuck Vincent—who is known mostly for directing a number of the era’s adult films. Basically, it is the story of two beer-swilling high-school graduates who meet female hitchhikers, a preacher, a righteous biker, and other crazy locals in their groovy Dodge van with flowers all around and a butterfly up front. The beat-up gray van is named “The Meat Wagon” by its owner, and you can guess that this one isn’t exactly for the kiddos.
This vansploitation film features one of the coolest custom vans of all time. The star of “Supervan” is named “Vandora,” and it’s a solar-powered machine with lasers that was created by George Barris. The legendary “King of Kustomizers” used a Dodge Sportsman as the base for his futuristic ride, and he also appears as a judge in the movie. Poet and writer Charles Bukowski also makes a cameo and can be seen briefly during a wet t-shirt contest. You can skip the first 20 minutes of this movie because that’s when Vandora finally enters the scene. Far out, man.
“The Van” (1977)
“Bobby couldn’t make it … till he went Fun-Truckin’!” teases the poster for this classic pile of vansploitation. “The Van” is directed by Sam Grossman and is about a kid that spends all of his money on a customized bright yellow Dodge dubbed “The Straight Arrow.” It has a huge glass window with giant phallic arrow graphics on its sides—it’s not very subtle at all. Strangely, the theme song “Chevy Van” by Sammy Johns is used throughout the movie’s terrible soundtrack. Go figure. Also as a bonus, funnyman Danny DeVito co-stars in a pre-“Taxi” type of role with a slight “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” character vibe.
“Van Nuys Blvd.” (1979)
This one is the best of the vansploitation bunch, as “Van Nuys Blvd.” is the culmination of the vansploitation genre. It is still cheesy but also the easiest one of these movies to watch. It is directed by William Sachs and stars Bill Adler as a small-town hayseed who heads to the bright lights of Van Nuys, California, to cruise his Ford Econoline van on the now legendary boulevard. It also stars Cynthia Wood, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year who drives and races a bad ass Dodge Tradesman van of her own. This one is definitely the “American Graffiti” of vansploitation movies, and it is more than worth a look for its footage of the Southern California car-culture scene of its day.