David "Carpetbagger" Jones, left, and Willie "Swat" Godfrey of the Nomad Van Club in front of Jones' van at their West Baltimore clubhouse.

David "Carpetbagger" Jones, left, and Willie "Swat" Godfrey of the Nomad Van Club in front of Jones' van at their West Baltimore clubhouse. (J.M. GIORDANO / June 11, 2014)

“The people that had vans in the ’70s and ’80s,” Jones says, “in the ’90s they started getting pickup trucks to pull their trailer.” SWAT did that. He’s got a 42-foot diesel camper now, because the van movement for these guys was always all about camping in comfort and style—and vans are less comfortable as you get older. But motorhomes aren’t technically “vans,” say the club’s keepers. The web site announcing the Van Nationals in July says the event is strictly “vans only,” adding that “there is an area for non-vans and motor homes with water and electric outside the main gate.”

“We’ve missed the last three council meetings,” SWAT says. “They can’t accept change. Here we have a thing that’s dying, and you won’t let the old-timers in?”

The Nomads are saddened by this.

And SWAT’s heart is still a vanner’s. “I told Eric, 30-some years ago—we will be the last Nomads. Didn’t I say that?”

“There are thousands and thousands of people that know us, and they’ll tell ya quick—them the Nomads!” Nelson answers.

“We have been towing trailers—we started the vanners, and we started towing the high-lows,” SWAT says.

In a way, this kind of drama is not new. Over-commercialization, milking the movement, seems to affect all subcultures as they grow up. The cycle is the same: Start with grass roots, fun, in-group. Expand to a bigger, more visible group. Solve problems that come with bigness; make structure. Structure then takes over, confusing itself with the movement and culture. Then: splits. Splinter groups. Death. Revival.

There’s an essay at Vannin.com on “The History of the 2%” by George Kettle, which tells of the conflict between hard-partying original vanners and a certain van show promoter. That particular controversy dates from 1976.

Still, the vanning subculture is as slow to change as the vehicles themselves. A 1998 or 2003 Dodge van was much the same design as the 1975 model. Ford is only changing its 1970s-based van platform this year.

But in recent years some new blood has entered the vanning world. A young Midwestern man known as “Matchstick” started a company making new panels out of fiberglass—plus a magazine to promote them. And in L.A. there’s a young guns club called Vandeleros. Even The Wall Street Journal noticed the trend in a recent story.

“The Grand Funk-blasting, mobile rumpus rooms of yesteryear—have held on to some dedicated enthusiasts,” the story reported.

That there are people still out there truckin’ in the best 1970s style has been amazing people for a long time, the men say. Nelson remembers a trip the club took in 2003.

“We went to a meeting in Florida, or some place and they found this guy . . . and he said, ‘I couldn’t believe you guys were still around when they told me.’ He was so excited. I think he did the first something—he did the Coca Cola van or something.”

“He was more of a promoter,” SWAT says. “He worked for a big car manufacturer, and he was in such awe.”

But the conversation always turns back to the “splash parties” the club hosted at the Padonia Park Club up near Cockeysville for years. It’d be $10 at the gate for all the beer you could drink and plenty from the grill, the men say. Plus music, dancing and—oh yeah—the “teeny-weenie-bikini contest.”

“Male and female,” Nelson says. “It’s amazing what people will do for a trophy.”

SWAT says at least 20 each, men and women, would line up and be judged at these events “for their 5.6 seconds of fame, as I call it.” The men are both cracking up again, and then Nelson remembers the most important thing:

“It was always outdoors,” he says, “and it never rained on us.”

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