There's a group standing in a vacant field in a rough part of the city. Tough-looking guys with nicknames like Ghetto and Shonuff wear leather vests over their club's colors and check out one another's wheels. Their clubhouse, across the alley, has a sign by its door warning, "Private Club. Members only."
It looks just like a biker club. But instead of motorcycles crowding the curb, there's a long line of gleaming, old-style, full-size vans filling the street.
This is the home of the Ultimate Express Van Club, where everything about vans is celebrated and revered. Its members belong to a subculture of van enthusiasts whose meeting places are campgrounds in the woods, who travel the country in long caravans to truck-ins and conventions, and who are united by one core belief: Vans are awesome.
"What so cool about vans?" one guy called Boski asks with a smile. "You can eat in it, sleep in it, cook in it. You ain't never gotta worry about nothin' in a van."
Shonuff agrees. "We like to travel, and you like to travel in comfort, don'tcha? You don't want to be closed up in no little old car."
There's nothing little about these vans. They're lane-filling view-blockers, big enough to have beds and televisions and stoves in them. Some are so well-stocked with furnishings they're almost a little house on wheels.
It's one of several van clubs in the city, all of which belong to a statewide council. At Ultimate Express, each member's van has the club's name and its driver's nickname in decals on the back windows. Some have tire covers with airbrushed imagery depicting all the vans the driver owned before this one.
Their choice of wheels, though, isn't the only thing setting the club apart from what it appears to be at first glance.
As the members hang outside in the weedy field, an ice cream truck rolls up, announcing itself with a loud, merry melody. Everyone standing there looks up as it stops in front of their clubhouse door.
Suddenly, several little children run out the door and up to the truck, yelling for their leather-clad parents to buy them a treat.
Though it didn't begin as such, along the way, Ultimate Express became a family thing. Even the local ice-cream man has come to know this and puts this place on his route.
"A lot of people mistake a lot of different clubs with rowdiness," says Rodney Eddie, nicknamed Columbo. "You know that persona that goes with it, if it's a motorcycle or van club — they're all about drinking and drugs and that's what they do. But what we're trying to say is that's not everybody."
Once Eddie saw the effect a friend's van had on the ladies, he got the fever.
"We went to this club and everybody came out. He had his doors open and all he had was just carpet in it, but all the girls went to his van," the 55-year-old remembers with a smile. "You know, all of the cars that were there, didn't matter what kind of car, they went to his van. The girls were so impressed, I'm like, 'Boy, I got to get me one of those.'"
Vans evolved from the Volkswagen Microbus of the '50s and '60s. American car companies came out with more powerful versions that evolved from hauling cargo to moving passengers. The 1970s were the height of van coolness, and a culture developed — with its own magazines and newsletters, van-only campouts and annual conventions that drew thousands of admirers.
There are two kinds out there. Conversion vans come as-is. Custom vans are the ones people put their stamp on, as others do with hot rods. They'll paint them, customize them, remodel them inside and out. Enthusiasts have put such things as disco balls, shag carpet or waterbeds inside them. Back then they were called "rollin' rooms," spawning the infamous phrase "If the van's rockin', don't come knockin'."
Eddie and a few friends founded Ultimate Express in 1979. "The only rules that we had was you had to have a van and your van had to have a CB," he says. With the CBs came handles, which members use to this day. Eddie became Columbo. James Stanley became Boski. Others picked names such as Rock, Dr. Doo and Thunder.
"Our motto was, whenever we did something, we want it to be the way we would have it be if we came to your place, so if your truck broke down we would pull it to my house and work on it," Eddie says. "And while we we're working on it, if your family's with you, we would barbecue."
Twenty years ago they bought an old building near Grand River and Schoolcraft, fixed it up, put TVs and a bar and a pool table inside, and made it their clubhouse. Shelves run along the walls inside, heavy with the weight of dozens of trophies from van contests over the years.
A member called Jesse James, 60, collects hundreds of rare old industry magazines with such names as Truckin' and Vans & Trucks. He spreads them out proudly on the pool table for members to see when they come back inside. They're reminders of the old days, when the most outrageous vans were the ones everyone dreamed of owning.
"You know, when Van & Truck magazine came out, you'd be flipping through the pages, and I mean I've seen some that were phenomenal," Eddie says. "It was better than some of our houses almost."
At first, the club was just guys who liked cruising around in their vans and showing them off. But as the members grew older and grew up, so did their ideals and expectations of what their club should be about.
"When we first started, I remember some of the other clubs were like, 'These young guys ain't gonna be around long,' 'cause we were young, we were brash." Eddie says. "We've come a long way. There's been a lot of clubs that have disbanded since we've been here."
After a few years, the club started doing community work, like cleaning the alley behind their building when someone dumps tires or trash there, holding Halloween events for the neighborhood kids, and running a Devil's Night patrol using their vans to spot and report arson fires near their clubhouse. Once a month, they haul the vans down to the Cass Corridor and feed the homeless.
As the years rolled by, some members' roles evolved too. Michael Jones, for example, gave himself a new CB name as his life changed. "I used to be Young Fool," the 38-year-old says. But now he's a high school teacher and coach, and that old name doesn't fit his new life. "I changed my name to Shonuff because I can't have my students calling me 'Young Fool.'" He was just elected club president.
Nowadays there are women van drivers in the club too, and members' spouses and kids come hang out as well. Their activities have become laid-back, family-friendly, down-home.
"We have things for kids and games, and people come and have a good time," says Jason Armstrong, known as J. Strong around here. He's typical of the newer members — a banker, a National Guardsman, a married father of three at 30 years old. "There's a lot of different things for everybody."
Their numbers declined as the club's members got older; people moved on or passed away. Minivans and SUVs came along and ate away at the van market. But the club has stabilized by changing with its members, and bringing in a new generation that shares the belief that there's nothing quite like riding in a van.
"For a while, everything became a commercial and got to be more of a competition, as opposed to camaraderie," Eddie says of long-gone days. "But we kind of changed it back around and made it more camaraderie. Everywhere we go we treat everybody like family — black, white, Mexican, it doesn't matter. Because we may not be the biggest, we may not be the best, but we're always gonna be the ultimate."Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]