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Culture

Voluntary vanslaughter

What’s happened to the passion wagon?

Greg Beato

The Nissan NV200, a concept vehicle currently on display at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, is a minivan with the sleek contouring of a really expensive laptop and a “patented sliding cargo pod” that emerges from the rear of the vehicle like a supersized desk drawer. The cargo pod features enough compartments to store the entire inventory of your local Sharper Image outlet. The NV200’s cabin includes a two built-in LCD monitors and a closet-like receptacle for your suit jacket. In charming Jinglish, Nissan characterizes the vehicle as “A Smart Business Tool of New Generation—for Active Professionals.” Now, every traffic jam is an opportunity to punch up your latest PowerPoint presentation in your cubicle away from cubicle.

The NV200 isn’t available commercially yet, but the fact that even a prototype exists is the saddest van-related news since it turned out that Teri Hatcher doesn’t actually like to have sex in the old VW “passion wagon” she keeps parked in front of her LA mansion. (In 2005, the actress successfully sued a British tabloid for fabricating this tale.)

Is this what the van has come to—white-collar milk trucks for cultural creatives eager to maximize their billing hours? In the 1970s, the van was a temple of middle-class hedonism, trimmed with fur, chrome, simulated walnut and the classiest knitted textile known to man, crushed velour. The abundant presence of the latter meant that it was no good for camping. In the era of gas rationing, the 10 or so blocks per gallon it got only increased its impracticality. But none of that mattered. The manic, country-crossing malcontents of On the Road and Easy Rider may have hit America’s highways in search of kicks, liberation and transcendence, but the seekers of the 1970s knew that all of that could be found without ever leaving the driveway.

In large part, this was due to the van’s legendary power as an aphrodisiac. “I’ve had Corvettes, race cars, race boats, you name it,” one proud 32-year-old phone-company employee told the Washington Post in 1975. “But there’s something about a good-looking man in a good-looking van that women just can’t pass up.” A year earlier, country singer Sammy Johns had attained the No. 5 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Chevy Van,” a saccharine toe-tapper that somehow made random anonymous hitchhiker sex sound as wholesome as a Hallmark card. In 1977, Hollywood added a low-budget comedy called The Van to the shaggin’ wagon canon. “Bobby couldn’t make it ... till he went fun-truckin’!” its promo poster exclaimed, and indeed, what woman could resist a vehicle outfitted with a waterbed, an eight-track player, white fur and, in a truly pimpish touch, a toaster?

The presence of that kitchen appliance signals the genius of ’70s vandom—customizing 5,000-pound vehicles allowed straight men to satisfy their impulses toward interior design and domesticity without calling their masculinity into question. There were engines involved, after all. Plus exterior airbrushed murals depicting angry Vikings and ritual Aztec sacrifice. Which ultimately made it possible for the men of the ’70s to experiment with beaded curtains and shag carpeting with the unbridled brio of Liberace at a napkin-ring auction. And the ladies loved them for it!

In the 1990s, alas, productivity trumped hedonism. Recreation was still permitted, but only if it involved extensive planning and more gear than a roach clip. The SUV replaced the customized van as the masculine leisure vehicle of choice. Meanwhile, legions of women jumping off the corporate fast track in favor of full-time mommyhood needed something that would assert their masculinity, a reminder that they were still professionals, CEOs of the sandbox. The van, with its heritage as work-oriented, utilitarian vehicle, fit that purpose, but it needed to be butched up, which is to say, toned down. This new species of van was for managing babies, not making them. Massive chrome tailpipes, waterbeds and interiors upholstered in a dozen complementary shades of fuschia gave way to integrated child safety seats and gray-on-gray interiors as bland as a hotel conference room.

The Nissan NV200 is an attempt to bring sexy back to the category, but it’s the kind of sexiness that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with iPhones and Philippe Starck kitchen faucets. In the same way that no one would ever have sex on a Karim Rashid sofa, for example, no one will ever have sex in an NV200. Anything as messy and human as two people coupling would only undermine its relentless tastefulness. So if it’s rocking, go ahead and knock. It just means they’re faxin’ inside.

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