A panel van (or panelvan) is a form of van; in some national usages it is distinct from a purpose-designed van in that it is based on a family car chassis; elsewhere in the world it applies to any solid (rigid-bodied, non-articulated) van, smaller than a lorry or truck (although the latter is also a vague definition), without rear side windows — in this usage the term is fairly interchangeable with simply "van".
Panel vans are widely used in many parts of the world for transporting goods. In places where they are distinct from a "van" per se, they have less cargo space but better agility and manoeuvrability, making them particularly suited for cities with narrow streets and/or heavy traffic. Every major European car manufacturer has a panel van in their line-up; these models used to be modified versions of existing passenger cars, such as the Citroën Visa-based Citroën C15 or the SEAT Ibiza-based SEAT Inca. However, since the introduction of the Citroën Berlingo in 1996, it has become common for these vehicles to have a specific styling and structure, even if they may share chassis, powertrain or other components with passenger cars of the same brand. Examples of this new wave of panel vans are the Renault Kangoo (1997), the Fiat Doblò (2001), (Opel) Holden Combo (2001), Ford Transit Connect (2003) or the Volkswagen Caddy (2004).
Panel vans were also especially popular with younger car buyers in Australia during the 1970s.
In Australia, panel vans were a development of the Australian "ute" (a variety of pickup also based on a car chassis). By the late 1980s, they began to slowly disappear from Australian roads as demand fell and major manufacturers slowly ceased building them.
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, thereby extending 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 pop-out or swing-out windows at the rear to aid the driver's rear vision. These were eventually integrated into the body of the ute itself to form a hybrid vehicle that, while based on a ute body, offered more rear space than a conventional station wagon with its rear seats folded down. These became known to the Australian public essentially as panel vans.
Initial models were fitted at the rear with swing-down and -up doors (like utes), but later models came equipped with "barn-door" configurations that opened out to the sides of the vehicle, rather than down, aiding the loading of bulky freight into the vehicle without (as badly) damaging the body. Passengers could climb from the interior passenger cab into the cargo bay behind them easily. Later the installation of safety cages which segregated passengers from the cargo area became popular to prevent freight from the back sliding into the passenger cab (and potentially injuring the driver).
The first panel vans were manufactured by Holden and Ford in the late 1950s, but didn't become popular until the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, usually when based on the Holden Kingswood and Ford Falcon model of the time, panel vans had become Australian cultural icons. The Holden Sandman is probably the best-remembered of these: for example, one of the vehicles driven by Mel Gibson in the 1979 movie Mad Max was thought to be either a Sandman or a customised Kingswood panel van (apparently a 1975 HJ model in both cases). Ford panel vans (known briefly as Sundowners) were also popular, to a lesser degree. Chrysler also came to the party in 1976, offering a CL model Valiant panel van dubbed the Chrysler Drifter, but these could not compete with the popularity of Ford and particularly Holden, and were axed in 1978.
Younger drivers were especially attracted to panel vans, for reasons such as the ease with which a mattress could be installed within the cargo bay. Consequently, panel vans also attracted nicknames such as "sin bins", "shaggin' wagons","scooby-doo mobiles" and "fuck-trucks". During the 1970s it also became fashionable to decorate the exterior sides with murals painted with intricate detail.
Australian police forces also purchased fleets of panel vans to use in a black maria, or paddy wagon, role.
Painters, electricians, and general labourers also found panel vans ideal for their trades, as the cargo bay offering extended capacity otherwise wasted in passenger space, and a highly customisable interior, without the bulk or extended dimensions of other longer-base vans.
The final production of Holden's Sandman series, the HZ model, featured a choice of V8 engines only, along with a four-headlight grille and under bumper front spoiler. According to a GMH Price List dated 25 January 1979, a basic HZ Holden panel van was priced at AU$6,076, with the Sandman option package an additional AU$1,700. The further optional components also included 5.0 litre V8 engine and a limited slip differential. If a buyer selected every Sandman extra, the price would be more than 150% of the cost of the basic HZ model. By the end of 1979, the Sandman had largely lost its place in the contemporary Australian youth culture - order figures were down and many of the vehicles were now being sold with the stripes and tailgate logos deleted. The Sandman ute was phased out of production prior to the van, the last of which was manufactured in October 1979.
The popularity of panel vans waned in the 1980s. Holden's last release was their WB model, in 1983. Subsequently, Ford became the sole manufacturer of them until 1997, when the XH model was released. This was to prove the last entry in the history of the Australian panelvan. In 2003, Holden released a new Sandman, based on their VU model Holden Commodore of the time. These Sandmans were a limited edition release, and while they were identified (and marketed) as panel vans, they still retained the rear window and firewall of the ute they were originally based on, preventing movement between the cargo bay and the passenger cab, as offered by traditional panel vans.
Shazam Bodies have re-released the Panel Van for the Ford Falcon. They have one model in production plus a new model on the way and due for production in mid April 2007.