It was thirty years ago, more or less, on a balmy evening not unlike this one, when a group of men—six to 10 of them, witnesses recall—were gathered in the Crown fuel station parking lot near Mondawmin Mall. Just the men and their custom vans.
They were coming up with a name for their club.
“I remember the meeting,” says David Jones, aka “Carpet Bagger.” “We were sitting around talkin’, people kicking out different names and what-not. I said, ‘Let’s name the club “Nomads.”’ I kind of explained it. You are a wanderer. You don’t belong to anyone.”
And so it was that the legend, which lives to this day in camping trips up and down the East Coast, was born. The Nomads, all African-American, mostly men (“Ramblin’ Rose” Pryor Trusty was a member too) formed part of a custom brotherhood animated by beer and music, crazy paint schemes, wild wheels, CB radios and gratuitous nudity.
They’re still truckin’ today, in the midst of what might be a vanning comeback.
Custom vans were the new thing in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The VW microbus—cheap, roomy, often fit-out for camping, and horrendously under-powered—inspired legions of others to grab at bigger, more muscular American-made vans and fit them out likewise.
“Back then the van, you know, it was a thing for work,” Jones says. “But you know a conversion van, the kind you can get today? That’s what we were trying to do back then.”
The men installed plush carpeting, trick lighting, cookstoves, sinks—and, of course, beds. Captain’s chairs and bubble windows, mega-stereos, TVs, bad-ass paint jobs, fender flares . . . some vanners—among them Willie “SWAT” Godfrey, the club’s current president—even put extra axles and wheels on their vans, stretching the boxes three feet and giving them a semi-truck look.
It was something like Monster Garage meets Woodstock. “We elevated what the hippies done,” Jones says.
The Nomads were a black hippie gearhead nudist club, trucking all over the Mid-Atlantic and deep into redneck white-folk territory. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“The important thing at the meeting was, people wanted to use CB handles instead of names, because we knew each other by those CB names,” Jones says, recalling one of the most important rule-setting arguments in the club’s history. “But I wanted to use real names. And I won that argument. I wanted to use our real names because if something happened to a club member, if they got in an accident or they were on the news, people in the club needed to know that ‘Carpet Bagger’ was Davy Jones.
“For the longest kind of time we didn’t know his name,” Jones says, nodding to SWAT, whose shop, Godfrey Auto Works, at 3605 Woodland Ave., the Nomads are gathered in. It’s a spare space with a desk and a small table, and a shelf of van-topped trophies lining one wall. Through a swinging door is a vast garage housing a half-dozen cars, including an old Cadillac with new gold paint, a ’72 Ford Maverick with a race motor in it, a classic Mustang, and some other customers’ cars. Godfrey still bashes panels, sands, and sculpts with metal and filler back there.
Eric Nelson walks in. He’s got a leather vest on with the name “Nasty Man” stitched on the breast.
He says he joined the club in the mid-’70s after seeing dudes roll through his neighborhoods in these tricked-out vans. “I had a car,” he says. “I always wanted a van.”
Nelson went to Lester Parker at Monument Ford and got a new car in 1975 that he needed his father to co-sign for. By ’76 he was trading it in for a Ford van. He was 25 years old at the time. “When I got it there was nothing in it but carpet. I put a sofa bed in there. I already had an ice box,” he says.“SWAT painted it for me a couple of times.”
SWAT left the fine work—the pinstripes, the murals, the flames and the wings—to others, he says.
“There was a guy back in the old times, his name was Butch; we called him Wandering Art,” SWAT says. “He’d do your bug deflector or your tire cover. He had a school bus he used to ride around in.”
SWAT’s got a box out now with Nomads meeting minutes going back 30 years or more—and a bunch of old photos. There’s a picture of one of the six-wheel vans he made. “It had four captain’s chairs, a sofa bed, TV, everything,” he says.
There’s a photo of the club circa 1975—a band of young, black men looking like they had the world by the short and curlies. “Only trouble with that picture—most of them are dead,” he says.
Lee Coleman—“Angel Wings”—is one who didn’t make it. He was president of the club in ’77. He had wings painted on his van. “He died a year after that,” SWAT says.
Some of the custom work was wildly creative. SWAT’s first van—the old, right-hand drive U.S. Mail truck whose boxy style, like that of a police SWAT vehicle, gave him his nickname—had a turntable hanging from the ceiling, he says, and a La-Z-Boy recliner for his aunt so she’d be comfortable on trips back home to North Carolina.
After that was totalled in a crash, he took a ’74 Ford Van and grafted the rear hatchback from a ’71 Pinto to its side.
“Before GM made the minivan, where the bottom doors flip out and the top door flips up, we were doing that in custom vans,” SWAT says. “I wish I patented that.”
SWAT did more than that, his friends say. They remember all kinds of reworked doors, with hinges anywhere they might go—gull wing effects, tilters, double and triple door arrangements.
“Don’t forget the light show,” Jones says.
It was partly about style but it was also about getting out of the city and going to a big state park or a big show field on the weekends. There was music, food, beer, and contests judging the best customizations on the vans—which the Nomads often won. Of the impressive raft of trophies in the office, “we threw most of them away,” SWAT says.
And there were women, naked women. Also men—naked men.
SWAT: “It was like the hippies.”
Nelson: “We’d get to a spot; in a few hours it was like a city.” All the van clubs, trucking in to show and shine and eat and drink and gossip and brag.
“We had all the creature comforts,” Jones says. The camp site would usually have showers, public restrooms, sometimes a hall with a kitchen, all for $5 or $10.
SWAT extracts a photo—maybe late ’70s, early ’80s. A huge field, groups of people, many, many campers. “That’s Cumberland,” he says. “That’s a national event.”
There were 1,300 vans, more or less.
“We really used to have fun,” SWAT says. “Remember when we went to Danville, Virginia?”
“Remember burnt chimney?” Jones replies.
“I think my second wife burned my van,” SWAT says. “We used to fix a pot of stew when we get up there and stay up all night. We didn’t have much, but let me tell you, it was some kind of good.
“Most of this was about the people,” SWAT says. “They would do a show and shine too.”
“Streaking!” someone says.
“I started ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ down in Tallysville, Virginia, because they weren’t used to seeing black people streak,” SWAT says. But “we’ve been family oriented the whole time,” he adds, shuffling another old Polaroid. “We used to bring the kids [pointing to a kid maybe 10 years old in a photo]—that one’s 40 now.”
“First one I went to was Fishersville, Virginia,” Nelson says. “And when I got there the man at the gate was wearing nothing but a top hat.” He busts out laughing. “I been back every year since then.”
“But the truck-ins, they don’t let us back!” SWAT says, referring to the huge all-van-club annual events where the movement’s legend is extended and its by-laws are written. About 10 percent of vanners at any given time were African-American, SWAT says. There was no racial trouble. Indeed, the current controversy isn’t about race but vehicle type—vans versus camp trailers and motorhomes.
“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.”