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October 19, 2019

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A van to reflect the stages of his life

Pahrump man’s eye-catching conversions like a diary on wheels

Van

Leila Navidi

Paul Tunnecliff of Pahrump sits inside his 1975 Chevrolet van Tuesday, July 28, 2009. He has renovated it several times since he bought it new and is trying to start a van club.

Paul Tunnecliff and his van

Paul Tunnecliff of Pahrump sits inside his 1975 Chevrolet van Tuesday, July 28, 2009.  He has renovated it several times since he bought it new and is trying to start a van club. Launch slideshow »

What can you say about a man who works on the same Chevy van for 34 years? Or rather, what can the van say about the man?

Because for 34 years, Paul Tunnecliff of Pahrump has been a vanner, converting and reconverting his van ’70s style. Every 10 years or so he has torn his van to pieces, stripping it down to nothing and rebuilding it in his own image.

Tunnecliff met his van in October 1975 as a teenager in Riverside, Calif. He had been with a van before, but it was stolen. For the new van, he would be its first, its original owner.

Flush with excitement, Tunnecliff looked at his van, which he ordered direct from the factory fully loaded and sporting an eight-track stereo system. And he knew he would do so much more to the van. He left his parents’ business to take a job at a van conversion shop. He told his parents it was just for a season, but inside, he knew: It was for life.

When he was done with the first conversion of his van, he was not quite 20. The van was painted gold and brown. It had oak parquet floors, rosewood cabinets, walls lined with the same brown fur they put on teddy bears and, in back, behind a fake-brick wall, a 6-foot by 6-foot bed covered in gold velveteen.

A shag wagon.

And Tunnecliff just kept converting vans. Soon he was managing van conversion shops and consulting on how to run other van conversion shops. Eventually he opened his own shop. And all this time, Tunnecliff and his van were taking part in the wild vanning years of the ’70s and ’80s in Southern California — participating in van rallies that played like mellower biker rallies, complete with massive stereos, wet T-shirt contests and all the necessary supplies.

“Back then, oh, I remember some of the runs we went on ... well, no, I don’t remember them,” Tunnecliff says.

And in the early ’80s he redid the van again, fitting it with aircraft-style switches and gauges, brushed aluminum surfaces and tight red upholstery. Outside, it was wrapped in an elaborate space mural containing, among other images, the three then-surviving Beatles as astronauts exploring a rocky world beneath a nebulous vision of John Lennon among the stars. Tunnecliff won competitions with that van. He toured Europe in that van, once inspiring a French driver on his left to hop the curb and drive on the right-hand sidewalk so he could see both sides.

By the time he got back, the van craze was dying — done in, Tunnecliff says, by factory-standard so-called conversions that pushed the small van converters out of business. Tunnecliff went into the business of repairing and servicing medical equipment.

But he kept working on the van. The van, Tunnecliff admits, controls his life to a certain extent. It’s not a hobby, he says, because the affair has been an enduring one. The van has so much of his blood and sweat in it and it reflects so much of his life.

“After 34 years, you know what it needs. It’s like being married to it,” Tunnecliff says. And, indeed, he is a bit jealous of it. He doesn’t let anyone else drive it, and he’s made his current wife (the van has outlasted a previous wife and several girlfriends) promise that after he dies, she’ll either keep the van or have it crushed. “I don’t want anybody else owning it, anybody else driving it.”

Among other effects, it has meant he’s always searched for jobs that would give him access to a shop full of equipment and has searched for housing that could not only accommodate the van but keep it safe from accidents and theft. That was why when he and his wife decided they wanted to move from Palm Desert to Las Vegas, they ended up in Pahrump. They were moving to Southern Nevada at the height of the real estate boom, and Pahrump was where Tunnecliff could afford to have a custom garage built for the van.

And once he was installed in the garage, he ripped the van apart again, remaking it for his mid 50s. It’s not his regular driver, but he still drives it, just not very far — usually just around town or to Las Vegas. Tunnecliff says vanning is coming back in the new millennium, although this time not in Southern California but in the Midwest. The other day Tunnecliff posted an ad on craigslist trying to find Las Vegans interested in a van club. No luck so far, but he’s hoping his van might spark some interest.

Decorwise, the van has a bit of a nautical theme that Tunnecliff can’t explain. But the dominant features are a pair of large, cushy chairs and a pop-down widescreen television.

A family room on wheels.

Built for comfort, Tunnecliff says, not for flash.

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