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In Australia circa 1970, just about everyone knew someone who drove a Ford or Holden panel van – but what are the origins of this automotive icon?

Known as a blind van in the United Kingdom and a sedan delivery in the United States, the humble panel van is technically a small cargo vehicle that utilises a passenger car chassis. As a general rule, they are typically manufactured with a single front bench seat, and no side windows behind the b-pillar. A panel van is usually smaller than panel trucks and cargo vans, both of which are designed around a body on frame truck chassis. 

North American panel vans were initially based upon the two door station wagon style models, while Europe’s narrower roads dictated that panel vans were more so the smaller donor chassis of subcompact cars in that market. In Australia, panel vans were developed as an extension of the ute, a small pickup truck based on a passenger car chassis. Technically speaking, we have the Americans to thank for the invention of the panel van, as it was when the half-car, half-truck Frankenvans found their way across the Pacific Ocean in the early 1970’s that the phenomenon really took off. 

The History Of The Panel Van In Australia

Surprisingly, the very first Holden panel van was the FJ Holden and was released in 1953 – close to twenty years before panel vans were in their prime. The first FJ was based on a corresponding ute model, with additional bodywork at the rear. Ford Australia soon followed suit, and released its own panel van version of the XK Falcon in 1961, marketed as the ‘sedan delivery’ body style. 

Panel vans’ combination of cargo space and customisable interior in a relatively compact vehicle made them attractive to painters, electricians, general labourers and even film crews. The Australian Police Force also used panel vans, which were commonly referred to as ‘divvy vans’ or ‘paddy waggons’, with the latter still being a slang term that is used even today. 

By the early 1970’s, the popularity of the panel van was beginning to taper off in the United States, but things were just kicking off here in the Land Down Under. Panel vans were – and still very much are – an icon of Australian culture in the 1970s, and at the time provided young people with both the freedom and accommodation to escape a more conservative society. While Holden’s Sandman is the most well-known, the Ford Sundowner and Chrysler Drifter were also a big part of surf culture at the time.

However, this was just the beginning though, as hard-sided utes proved to be a prime canvas for customisation. Back then, the aesthetic shopping list for the young Australian male was simple enough – find the biggest V8 you could possibly squeeze under the bonnet, mag wheels, window curtains, a mattress in the back, pinstriping, bubble windows, self-adhesive mural kits and deep wall-to-wall shag pile carpeting, and an eight track tape player. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the humble panel van soon became a means to an end for just about every young Aussie male from Cairns to Canberra at the time.

Most utes usually had an option of metal, then later rigid plastic, shells that would fit over the back of the tray of the ute. In turn, this extended the vertical space drivers could store in the tray, usually to just above the existing roofline of the passenger cab. Later shells offered plastic windows for ventilation along the sides, and even featured pop-out or swing-out windows at the rear to aid the driver’s rear vision. These became integrated into the body of the ute itself to form a panel van which integrated the passenger cabin with the cargo area, which soon developed a raised roofline, thus offering more rear space than a conventional station wagon with its rear seats folded down.

However, the 1980’s saw the demise of the panel van. When the Holden HZ ceased production, so too did the Sandman. Holden tried to bring back the Sandman courtesy of the VF Commodore in 2015, but it didn’t have anywhere near the level of cultural impact that Holden had hoped for. 

Even so, the panel van has since been immortalised and embedded into Australian culture, and even features as a national postage stamp. If the many annual panel van enthusiast events held around the country are any indication, love for the humble panel van doesn’t look like it’s going to disappear anytime soon. 

Your Guide To Everything Classic Cars 

Finding a fellow vintage auto enthusiast can feel a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, but rest assured that Classic’s Garage understands the thrill more than most. Having spent forty years collecting anything and everything from matchbox cars to hub caps, he’s successfully followed his passion to source, collect and stock beautiful and low mileage classic automobiles from around the world. With extensive experience in the automotive industry, it was only a matter of time before Wayne expanded on his love of vintage, iconic vehicles to share his knowledge and passion with the public.

Although his passion is for automobiles built before 1978, with a particular love for Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Oldsmobiles and even Fords, Wayne is just as passionate about the stories of the owners. Just like the cars, he has found that his fellow classic car enthusiasts all have wildly different attractions and logic behind their passion or hobby, and this often translates into how the car is presented. If it’s even remotely different, rare or just plain unusual, Wayne will overcome the relevant logistical and geographical challenges of bringing the cars to his showroom in Australia. 

Classic’s Garage is a showroom conveniently located at Seventeen Mile Rocks, that specialises in the restoration and sales of vintage automobiles. If you’re on the hunt for Brisbane classic cars – quite simply, Wayne is your man. If you would like to arrange a viewing or inspect any other of our classic vehicles, please get in touch with us today.