CARS Easy Rider

A not-so-young man’s thoughts turn to hauling kids and the conversion van.

THERE IS A CERTAIN POINT IN LIFE AT

which you recognize the change, when you realize carefree youth has given way to adulthood. It hit me when I found myself test driving a full-sized, family-oriented conversion van. Owning such a vehicle-a mobile living room-once seemed inconceivable. But that was before parenthood, before life became a parade of soccer balls and trips to see grandparents. All of a sudden a van seems kind of, well, practical.

As I whipped out of the lot and onto Northwest Highway, deftly maneuvering (power steering) the Dodge van’s 127.6-inch wheelbase around the curb, I pictured myself driving a luxury car surrounded by its packing crate. The outside is box-like, but inside are gadgets galore. Four captain’s chairs with enough adjustments to satisfy the most sadistic dentist, a TV and VCR, dual stereos, wall plugs for headsets, track lighting. I flipped a switch and the rear seat became a queen-sized bed.

Punching the accelerator of the 318-cubic-inch V-8 (16 m.p.g.) moved us snappily into traffic, the built-in fuzz buster ready to tip me off to lurking radar. It felt good. I was looking down on traffic from above my two-tone, blue-on-blue door. Along for the ride were our courteous salesman, Sonny, and my father, in town for a short visit. He had bought his conversion van just the week before, one of the 265,000 such vans it is estimated will be sold this year. My dad (and Sonny) firmly believe I need one of these things.

Conversion vans begin life as plain, panel variety vans, but between the factory and the dealer, an independent “converter” turns the homely caterpillar into a butterfly. Scenery-size windows are cut, carpet laid, real wood trim, plush upholstery, and various amenities installed.

One might expect to mortgage his middle age for such a vehicle. Surprise. The van I was driving-did I mention the pleated shades and rear air?-could be had for about $19,000 after rebate.

“You definitely get more bang for your buck,” says Ron Reiff, whose high-top Chevy van converted by Star-craft also has a TV and VCR. “I’ll pick up seven kids from Preston Hollow Elementary, and my son Jacob will show his buddies the TV in his van. They’ll all be perfectly quiet while they watch fifteen minutes of some silly game show. I didn’t buy it for that reason, but it made a situation that can be a real headache very relaxing.”

As 1 hit the on ramp to LBJ it was easy to envision my son’s soccer team raptly tuned to Vanna spinning Fortune’s wheel (as opposed to noisily practicing their headers). Maybe I did need one.

Test drive over, I pulled into the lot with a tinge of regret. I could have been headed for Yellowstone. This was the vehicle for it. But as I adjusted the visor, I caught a glimpse of my boyish face in the lighted vanity mirror. Maybe I hadn’t changed, after all. Okay, so 1 had, and so the face wasn’t exactly boyish. It still wasn’t quite time to admit it. Yet. Sorry, Sonny. Sorry, Dad.

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