Custom van culture first emerged in America in the ‘60s and flourished throughout the ‘70s. A host of custom vans cropped up across the country, many of them featuring specific themes. Kansas City custom van owners Don and Becky Noone got into vanning in 1975, the year after they graduated high school. It was the height of the custom van era, and their first venture, Knights in White Satin, was only the start.
Their most recent work, Pirates of the Caravan, has won numerous awards and ranks among the masterpieces of American custom vans.
It started when the Noone’s bought a 1976 Ford Econoline, named Jolly Rodger, from their friend Mel Slaybaugh. Mel, also a custom vanner, had already kitted the Ford out in a nautical theme, but it had been sitting garaged for 18 years when the Noones bought it in 2007. Since it was already (pardon the pun) decked out in maritime glory, they decided to keep this heading, using the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise as their compass.
The Ford is equipped with the deceptively named “385” V8, which is christened after the 3.85 inch stroke, not the 460 cubic-inch displacement. It’s the last of the Ford big blocks, and puts 365 hp toward motivating the boat of a van. But it needed work. When they bought the van from Mel, it didn’t even run, and had to be winched onto a trailer. So the Noones sent it to a local mechanic, who made several minor repairs. He also gave it some upgrades: white ceramic-coated headers by Hooker, and a shiny new K&N custom air filter to sit atop the carb.
Then the Noones got started on the look. It received a new set of wheels and tires and a pair fender flares. But that’s only the start of the exterior modifications. Nautical wood trim now surrounds the headlights and windows. A pirate flag flies from the antenna. The batteries, since replaced, were painted to look like little treasure chests, actual wooden batteries being inexplicably unavailable.
And the entire surface is coated in a giant Pirates mural, detailed enough to ruffle the rainbow feathers of the parrots at Disney Legal. For the art, the Noones commissioned KC Customs, a local motorcycle shop, who used actual DVD covers as models for the mural. But it’s the interior that’s most impressive. Everything is coated in rich wood, from the floor to the ship’s-rail bedecked ceiling. The captain’s chairs in a van like this are only for the captain and first mate, so the pair amidships have been removed. There is still a rear bench, or “couch,” as vanners call them and behind it, the Noones added some simulation fish lights in the shape of portholes. Speaking of simulation lighting, the ceiling is fitted with blue lights to give the impression of being in Davy Jones’ locker.
Step inside and you’ll be met with about all the pirate memorabilia you could fit in an Econoline’s cargo hold, from captains’ busts to rum bottles. The hatch leading fore to the bridge is decorated with a helm wheel and flanked port and starboard with stained glass windows.
Best of all, along that port gunwale is the ship’s map desk, perfect for the likes of Captain Jack, as he sits and plots a heading along America’s freeways.
This attention to detail and creativity has not gone unnoticed. The Noones currently hold the title of the Best Van in America, as awarded at the 2011 Van Nationals in Old Washington, Ohio. It’s not the first American Van title they’ve won, either. They also won in 2009. Why didn’t they win last year? Because they drove Pirates of the Caravan to the Canada VanFeast, their biggest van event, and won there, instead.
Clearly, a ton of work has gone into the Noones’ masterpiece (over 4,000 hours, according to Don) and they just keep winning. Could someone eventually commandeer the title? Perhaps. But somehow one can’t imagine that the Noones would mind a mutiny so much. After all, new, creative ideas like Pirates of the Caravan are what custom vanning is all about, and if some vanner could accomplish something cooler, it would be a great treasure, indeed.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.