I’m happy to report that at this point in my career, some carmakers seem to know me. What I mean by this is that yesterday a representative at Ford reached out to tell me that, along with all the materials for the Mustang GT embargo that was dropping today, he had come across a bunch of old ’70s-era Ford ads for Econolines and Couriers and Mavericks and Mustang IIs – you know, the Golden Age Of Wonderful Crap. The ones that I found especially interesting are the ones for dealers, explaining how to market to The Youths. And lemme tell you, despite how every ’70s movie and TV show seems to portray a world that was 91% brown, gray, and laden with crime and despair, the youths that Ford dealers wanted to put into colorful-striped Econoline bone-wagons seemed to be having a pretty good time. Let’s take a look!
To look at this cover, you might very reasonably conclude that the most common form of public transportation in America were ropes suspended over quarry lakes, which would be swung over after chugging a Sun Drop from a green glass bottle in the perpetual late summer of the 1970s. Proper work attire would be a pair of perpetually-wet cutoffs and either no top or a bikini top, and every government building would proudly fly not just Old Glory, but your very own Freak Flag, which must be saluted.
The real mascot of this automotive era and culture has to be the custom van, even though that Bronco and Courier and F-150 are incredible as well. But let’s look at those Econolines closer, as they represent raw, uncut, no-baby-laxative-mixed-in ’70s purity:
There’s a lot of great details to learn here: the youth market wants to be “way ahead in making their van ‘right on’” and that you could order an Econline with a 42.6 gallon fuel tank! Holy crap! Let’s say an Econoline of that era gets, what, 12 miles to a gallon? That would give a range of 511.2 miles! That’s pretty good!
But what I’m really, really curious about are the customization options shown, like those fantastic stripe and decal kits. Some sort of make sense, like the rhino:
I can see how a van could evoke the idea of a charging rhino: big, powerful, fast, a little dangerous. That’s a cool, understandable association. But I’m going to need some help understanding this one:
That’s uh, that’s a buzzard, isn’t it? A vulture? An ugly, avian roadkill-eater? No offense to our vulture and buzzard readers, whom we absolutely welcome with open wings and a flattened possum, but I’m having some difficulty picturing the sort of person that wants a cool, flashy, bright yellow van with stripes and wants to be associated with a buzzard. A kicking buzzard, sure, but still, those guys eat deer entrails off the blacktop. Was that sexy?
Speaking of sexy, there’s no escaping the unspoken subtext of these vans: they’re mobile rooms, suitable for boning. Ford seems to have understood this, offering a “Cruising Van Interior” option that left the whole back open, just slathered in carpet, ready to accept a mattress and some blacklight posters and maybe a lava lamp, and, of course, your sweat-slicked body at the invite of those two in the captains’ chairs who “like your vibe.”
If a full-size Econoline was just too much for you, Ford was happy to apply the Custom Van treatment to a Pinto, which transformed it into a Pinto Cruising Wagon, complete with porthole bubble window. This was an option on their mainstream economy car! Does Honda offer a porthole window option on the CR-V? Can you get stripes like that on a Nissan Rogue? I don’t think so. We’ve fallen.
The intense ’70s joie de vivre wasn’t just for vans; look at this workhorse F-150! Not only was it bejazzled in the most earthtonic of gradient stripes, but the press photo has a real, no-joke rainbow right in there. Far too many F-150 buyers today would fill their roomy cargo pants with warm, loamy wastes if there were this many rainbows and color stripes associated with a current F-150, and that’s kind of tragic.
What’s not tragic at all is this little Ford Courier: hot damn these were cool little trucks! They were Mazdas dressed up as Fords, but what a costume! I love the front end that’s like a shrunken F-150 face complete with divided chrome grille, and that sort of Old West, branded leather-looking side and hood graphics are just superb, like the automotive design equivalent of Frito pie when you’re famished.
Option-wise, there was, of course, an abundance, but two caught my eye: first, that shifter, because the long, spindly shifter is something that we’ve wholesale turned out backs upon, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, though I’ve kvetched about that, at length. That shifter, though, is as long and spindly as a ski pole, and yet so very proud. Then there’s the CB radio, the grandparent of the cell phone, and a ’70s icon on its own. I like this design that incorporated everything – volume, channel display, scan, and probably squelch buttons or knobs all there in the handset. That’s some high-tech ’70s shit right there.
Of course, as I get all moon-eyed over these orange and brown wonders, it’s worth noting that there was a dark side, too. Look at this paragraph in what was, remember, a document for Ford dealers to use to sell cars:
Well, that sounds nice and creepy, doesn’t it? The questionably-legal “bird dog” system was essentially paying people for referrals. In this case, people in high schools and colleges? It seems there’s very mixed opinions on the practice, but, you know, this was the Free Wheelin’ era, as the title reminds us. It was a different time! When a high school kid might be actually seriously considered as a prospect to buy a new car, for example.
What a magical era.