Ford Econoline Club Wagon XLT

The sun dips slowly downwards, touching gently the cloud of dust above the horizon. Everything is brushed with liquid gold; a slow, heavy luxury that warms and soothes. Oranges turn to greys as the sun continues its journey. It takes its time, building the fuzzy anticipation until, with a final kiss, it slips away and the deep blue sky rushes in behind it.

Enjoying it all from the comfort of your armchair, you turn to your wife and smile, and fetch yourself another drink. It's a balmy summer's evening, and watching a sunset is the finest thing imaginable.

For Poles, the beginning of May is an incredibly long weekend, bringing not one but two bank holidays. The First of May is a day off for almost everyone in Europe, but the Third of May celebrates Poland's, and Europe's, first Constitution, outlining freedoms for all men under the Republic. Poles celebrate this in the best way possible; they go to their dzialkas, sit in the sun, and get drunk.

The dzialka concept can be hard to fathom for Westerners. The dzialka itself is a piece of land, usually just a bare patch of grass left to turn itself almost into a meadow. Within its grounds may be a small wooden cabin or shack, but even in 2010 the concept of running water and permanent electricity on your dzialka would certainly mark it out as a luxurious one. That's not to say some people don't build magnificent brick houses with full bathrooms and kitchens with a tree-lined avenue leading up to it, but by making the dzialka too comfortable, you're somehow missing the point. A dzialka should hark back to the days before towering concrete blocks and modern conveniences, when every Pole lived off the land in peace and harmony with nature. And beer.

Therefore, the armchair you sit in should be an old one, with the arm a bit worn and one leg a bit too short. It shouldn't be a heated, tilted one made of leather in an air-conditioned cabin screened behind one-way privacy glass. That would be just a bit too luxurious, which is to miss the point entirely. Simple pleasures, that's the key. And, I really must stress, beer.

When the Ford Econoline was released in the States in 1961, it took the van world by storm, much as its sister, the Ford Transit, had done a few years earlier in Europe. It's cubic profile and internal spaciousness made it perfect for chucking stuff in the back and moving it across the country. In fact, it made stuff-moving so pleasing it quickly became a hobby, and youngsters up and down America worked out how much fun can be had with a van with a mattress and a crate of beers in the back.

These casual meets quickly became known as Vanning. Young men enticed young women into the back of their Fords, met up with other vans, and drove off someplace quiet to listen to stadium rock beneath the stars. It was an idyllic version of traveller-camping that goes back to the wagon trains of American Westward Expansion, only with Fords instead of horses. The culture that grew up around Vanning quickly turned to customisation, with carpets, mirror balls, lurid paint jobs and porthole windows all par for the course. I'd love to say these were innocent times, if it weren't for the fact that a large number of Americans were conceived this way.

Those early Econolines from the Sixties are now serious collectors items, but they were replaced in 1968 with the shape people recognise today. Just like the Ford of Germany's Transit, the Econoline earned a nose at the front the engine and a more pronounced cab shape, becoming the quintessential form that we recognise as vans today. Being based on a truck chassis the E-series, as it became known, allowed it to share all the mechanical parts from its pick-up sister, the F-series. Together, the E- and F- have utterly dominated the American truck sector of the market for decades.

The Club Wagon was a development of those E-series. A passenger rather than a cargo van, the Club was a padded, cosseted minibus that gave comfortable seats, floor AND ceiling carpet, and curtains to every model. That way, you could order your customisation from the factory, and not have to worry about dripping paint or malfunctioning stereos, and you could have whatever garish coloured stripes and weird glass straight from the options list without any risk of getting your hands dirty. For those who simply wanted everything, Ford made the XLT, which this one is, which offered the ultimate in trim; air-conditioning both front and back, cruise control and premium sound systems; in fact, everything you'd need to make Vanning a casual, leisurely experience.

In that way, Vanning itself grew into a more cumbersome and heavy beast. With the increased wealth of the average van owner, so too grew the market to exploit it, and National Van Meets were soon organised with live bands, fun fairs, competitions, and of course beer. These mass events were commercialised, televised, and regulated to provide good, clean fun. And with the arrival of massive chromed wagons sporting factory metallic paint and plush interiors, they also became child-friendly. The van was no longer a rough-and-ready teen machine, passion wagon or love truck; it was a mature, adult and even luxurious vehicle that let you appreciate the simple things without all the risks associated with damp mattresses.

That's not to say that the Club Wagon XLT isn't a "real" van. These earlier models are still bought today by teenagers in awful condition for a few hundred bucks, and treated like dirt because they don't meet the even-more-luxurious standards of today's van-owners. Mid-Eighties ones such as these (identified by the blue oval on the nose instead of the F O R D lettering) aren't even considered collectors items like their earlier brethren, but the yellow plates on this one highlight that at least its owner considers it a classic. As it should be; it might be a pampered sort of Vanning, but a solid wagon such as this still embodies that spirit of going out on the road and finding like-minded people to have a drink with.

And as the sun sets, from my own wobbly, scruffy armchair, I raise my beer to that.