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Vans aren’t a segment that’s always popular, but when they are – buddy, you better watch out. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, vans became strangely popular for a particular group of people. Many people built custom vans at the time, but none did it quite like the fantasy and sci-fi nerds. There is no better example of this 1970s/80s subculture than “Vandalf,” the 1973 Dodge Tradesman. 

Vandalf mural on the side of this 1970s custom van
Dodge Tradesman Custom Van | Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer: alfaromeo

What is the Dodge Tradesman?

Utility vans were made by the bucket load in the 1970s and ’80s. At this time, vans were used as frequently as work vehicles as pickup trucks were. The Dodge Tradesman was drug around by one of three engine options; a 170 cubic inch Slant-6, a 225 cubic inch Slant-6, and a 318 cubic inch V8. The second-generation vans (Vandalf) scored a 360 cubic inch V8, making even more power. 

Dodge Tradesman Custom Van in profile
Dodge Tradesman Custom Van | Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer: alfaromeo

Thanks to this beefy powerplant, the Dodge Tradesman became quite popular to modify into fantasy and camper vans in the 1970s. Silodrome says this trend of customizing vans was known as “vannin’.” Since there were so many vans around, young people could pick up old used ones for nothing. And what better to do with a bunch of cheap old V8 vans but give them port-hole windows, shag carpeting, insane velour interiors, and painstaking airbrushed paint jobs of bare-chested women fighting demons on dragon back? I’ll wait.

Even though “Vandalf” has more class than that, it is still one of the best examples of the craft that we’ve seen in some time. Check it out. 

1970s custom van

The octagonal steering wheel on a 1970s custom van
Dodge Tradesman Custom Van | Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer: alfaromeo

As you might have guessed, “Vandalf” is a play on the name of the great Grey/White Wizard, Gandalf (or Olórin, if you ’bout that life) in Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. If this Tradesman is anything like the heroic Maiar, it is one hell of a van. 

We can’t prove whether or not it wields the Flame of Anor, but it does have quite the list of upgrades. The airbrushed artwork on the side of the van shows a mural of a wizard, a galaxy, and some sci-fi space castle, cause why not. This vehicle was customized by its former owner, the artist Dirty Donny Gillies of San Francisco, in 2014. The job was clearly done as a tribute to the vans of the 1970s, to which he nailed every last detail, down to the D&D dice shifter knob. 

Other improvements (yes, improvements) include a particularly over-the-top white faux-fur upholstery, a lifted rear end, quilted leather seats and dash, lake pipes, bubble windows, an octagonal steering wheel, and what looks to be a hood scoop on the roof. The longer you look at this wonderful creation, the more you have to love it. 

The dedication to the period is best seen in the upgraded audio equipment. Gillies installed Polk Audio speakers, an equalizer, and an Alpine CD stereo to the overhead console.

What motor does this Dodge Tradesman have?

Custom Dodge Tradesman with the doors open
Dodge Tradesman Custom Van | Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer: alfaromeo

Unfortunately, though Dodge offered the bigger motor in 1973, Vandalf got the 318 cubic inch powerplant. It’s still a V8, so those pipes aren’t just for show. The power is sent to the rear wheels via a three-speed automatic transmission. He also added front disc brakes along with a lowering kit to give the front end an aggressive look, like it’s diving into the unnamed deep chasm below the Bridge of Khazad Dum to eventually smote the Balrog’s ruin on the peak of Zirakzigil. 

I really can’t say enough good things about this van. It is everything right about automotive enthusiasm. It is only meant to be fun. There is zero pretense and even less concern for being cool. You have to love the dedication to building a rig so specifically for himself as Gillies did here. 

The Grey Pilgrim, Vandalf, is for sale on Bring-A-Trailer. Check out the listing here for more details.