Sex on wheels: Tales of unrequited panel van love

Lack of privacy? Get a panel van.

Photographers: Povi Pullinen

BLAME it on the oral contraceptive pill.

First released in the 1960s, it allowed baby boomers to become the first generation of the 20th century to widely engage in premarital naughtiness. Sadly, even the most enlightened parents didn’t allow sleepovers, and living together was also rare back then; most couples lived at home until they married. So, we all had sex in cars instead, and lo, it was good. It’s also what fuelled the 1970s van boom.

I got my licence in January 1972 and my first proper girlfriend that September. Happy days, you might think, but the limitations of sexual congress in a Morris 1100 were soon apparent* as was the lack of privacy, especially during the day. The answer? Get a panel van.

Up until then, the idea of a panel van as a, ahem, ‘recreational’ vehicle was as foreign as buying a ute. They were workhorses built for tradies who drove them into the ground. Surfers were the first to cotton on to their other benefits, and then suddenly every bastard wanted one. Prices skyrocketed. I sold the Morry for $300 in early 1973, hoping to get my hands on a van, but by then the horse had already bolted.

The closest I got was finding an EJ in the dodgiest car yard on Parramatta Road. It was stuffed after a decade of hard work and neglect, the 138 grey motor oily and fumey and every panel dented, including a big shunt in the rear three-quarter. Suspension, steering and brakes were knackered, but it was only $500. I went back with a mechanic mate of Dad’s, but the van was mysteriously absent when we called at the agreed time. The omens weren’t good, then, but I decided a few days later to buy it anyway – what could possibly go wrong? Luckily, some other lust-crazed schmuck beat me to it.

Those of my mates who went straight to work from school bought brand-new vans. These were the days when you could tick the V8 box on even the most basic model, which is how Phil found himself in a white XA with bench seat, three-on-the-tree and a 302. He fitted some humongous T/As under the bum, which with its short diff gears and industrial-strength springs made it undriveable in the wet. I was jealous.

By the time Phil traded it in on an XC, Ford was building vans with buckets, 351, four-speed and GT dash. He had a bronze one, low and loud, and good enough for 100mph between the lights along Epping Road with four of us in the back. Then Roger traded his XB on a new 308 Sandman and it was always on.

Sadly, I was a uni student and my budget was gonna buy jack-all. So I did what a lot of other poor folk did and bought a later-model station wagon in much better condition for a fraction of the price. My girlfriend whipped up some curtains and it was all good, but it never had the cred of a pano.

Saturday nights we’d all go to the drive-in and reverse-park in the back row. It was quite a social scene – sitting on the tailgates, imbibing beer and other, er, ‘refreshments’, checking out the cars. Well, it was for the first movie, anyway. Then everyone would disappear, and before long the beat of squeaky springs would herald the start of the main feature.

The other alternative was a split-window Kombi, which I bought when I was 19. Mine was an early semaphore model, mostly rust and bog, and unimaginably slow. But it was cheap, just $200, and infinitely cooler than my wagon. Once again, my girlfriend stitched up some curtains and we had a ball breaking down all over the NSW North Coast.

By now, the custom van thing was taking off, so I had a modest go at pinstriping the exterior, retrimming the cabin (complete with tacho) and fitting out the rear. I even gave it a name: Crystal Voyager. I found some fat rims and fitted even fatter tyres, turning a poor-handling pile of junk into something much worse. One year, the mechanic doing the roadworthy inspection took to the cabin floor with a screwdriver, puncturing it with every blow. “Fix it,” he said. I had an old hydraulic jack at home, so I placed it under the chassis and started bogging up the floor. Suddenly the Kombi dropped back onto its wheels. I put it down to the jack failing, but not so – the jack had pushed its way through the chassis rail. So I bogged that up too. Bizarrely, of all the cars I’ve owned, it was the worst and would today be worth the most.

So I never owned a panel van, but I did get a taste for station wagons. The first was an HD Holden, the oldest a 1956 Standard 10, the coolest a two-tone EK, the fastest a V8 HJ and the best the white EH I still own. I mostly use it to transport guitars and amps to gigs throughout the Central West, as often as not sleeping in it afterwards. Sometimes my girlfriend comes along and sleeps in it too.