What is a Panel Van?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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Panel vans are motor vehicles that are distinguished by a body that does not have windows on the sides or the rear of the design. Often used for the transportation of goods for short distances, vans of this type have been used over the years by florists, plumbers, electricians, and office supply businesses. The panel van usually has a load capacity that is similar to that of a standard sized pickup truck, but has the advantage of being enclosed, preventing inclement weather from damaging any goods during transport.

The panel van has its origins in the early years of the automotive industry. While there is some controversy over who manufactured the first van of this type, there is common agreement that the basic design was well established by the end of the 1920’s. By that point, the panel van was not only used for transporting commercial goods, but also used by many law enforcement agencies as a means of transporting criminals from a jail to a courthouse, or even as a means of transporting people to jail once they had been arrested. This particular incarnation of the panel van was sometimes known as the Black Moriah, or simply as a paddy wagon.


Business owners quickly saw the panel van as not only a practical way to deliver goods to local customers, but also as an excellent way to advertise. With the solid sides and rear doors of the vehicle, it was a simple task to add lettering and graphics to the exterior paint job, allowing the van to effectively function as a moving billboard. Using a van for this approach to advertising often allowed businesses to promote themselves even in areas where such publicity devices as billboards or the distribution of leaflets was strictly forbidden.

The custom panel van reached a peak of popularity among consumers during the decade of the 1960’s. During that era, many young people would purchase used panel vans, repair the engines, and repaint the body of the vans in the psychedelic styles that were popular during the latter half of that decade. Within a few years, panel vans began to fall out of favor, losing ground to newer transportation vans that did include windows along the sides and rear doors of the vehicles. However, the popularity of the commercial panel van continues to the present day.

It is difficult to determine how large the vehicle must be in order to be considered a true panel van. To some extent, this is because the term is used differently in many nations around the world. However, the general design plus the range of applications tend to remain the same from one country to another.


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