Word origin and usage
Van meaning a type of vehicle arose as a contraction of the word caravan. The earliest records of van as a vehicle in English are in the mid 19th century meaning a covered wagon for transporting goods (earliest reported record 1829). Caravan with the same meaning has records since the 1670s. A caravan, meaning one wagon, had arisen as an extension or corruption of caravan meaning a convoy of multiple wagons.
The word van has slightly different, but overlapping, meanings in different forms of English. While the word always now applies to boxy cargo vans, other applications are found to a greater or lesser extent in the different English-speaking countries.
In Australian English, the term van is commonly used to describe a minivan, a passenger minibus, or an Australian panel van as manufactured by companies such as Holden and Ford at various times.
A full-size van used for commercial purposes is also known as a van; however, a passenger vehicle with more than 7 or 8 seats is more likely to be called a minibus.
Finally, the term van can sometimes be used interchangeably with caravan, which in the U.S. is referred to as a travel trailer.
The British term people mover is also used in Australian English to describe a passenger van. The American usage of van to mean a cargo box trailer or semi-trailer is used rarely, if ever, in Australia.
In India, the van is one of the most common modes of transport and is often used for transporting school children to and from schools, usually when parents, especially working parents, are often too busy to pick their children up from school or when school buses are full and unable to accommodate other children.
Van - note baggage rails in rear side windows
Early Japanese vans include the Kurogane Baby, Mazda Bongo and the Toyota LiteAce van. The Japanese also produced many vans based on the American flat nose model, but also mini-vans which for the American market have generally evolved to the long-wheelbase front wheel drive form factor pioneered by the Nissan Prairie and Mitsubishi Chariot. Microvans, vans that fulfill kei car regulations, are very popular for small business. The term is also used to describe full-fledged station wagons (passenger car front sheetmetal, flat folding back seats, windows all around) and even hatchbacks with a basic trim package intended for commercial use. These are sometimes referred to as "Light Vans" (Japanese: ライトバン).
In British English, the word van refers to vehicles that carry goods only, on both roads and rails. What would be called a minivan in American English is called a people-carrier or MPV, or multi-purpose vehicle, and larger passenger vehicles are called a minibus. The Telegraph newspaper introduced the idea of "White Van Man", a typical working class man or small business owner who would have a white Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, or similar panel van. Today the phrase "man and van" refers to light removal firms normally operated by a sole business owner transporting anything from the contents of a whole house to just a few boxes. The word "van" also refers to railway covered goods wagons, called "boxcars" in the United States.
In the United States, a van can also refer to a box-shaped trailer or semi-trailer used to carry goods. In this case there is a differentiation between a "dry van", used to carry most goods, and a refrigerated van, or reefer, used for cold goods. A railway car used to carry baggage is also called a van.
A vehicle referred to as a full-size van is usually a large, boxy vehicle that has a platform and powertrain similar to their light truck counterparts. These vans may be sold with the space behind the front seats empty for transporting of goods (cargo van), or furnished for passenger use by either the manufacturer (wagon) or another company for more personal comforts, such as entertainment systems (conversion van). Full-size vans often have a very short hood (bonnet), with the engine block moved to within the passenger cabin.
A cutaway van chassis is a variation of the full size van which was developed for use by many second stage manufacturers. Such a unit generally has a van front end, and driver controls in a cab body which extends only to a point aft of the driver and passenger seats, where the rest of the van body is cutoff (leading to the terminology "cutaway"). From that point aft, usually only the chassis frame rails and running gear extend to the rear when the unit is shipped as an "incomplete vehicle". A second stage manufacturer, commonly known as a bodybuilder, will complete the vehicle for uses such as recreational vehicles, small school buses, minibuses, type III ambulances, and delivery trucks. A large portion of cutaway van chassis are equipped with dual rear wheels. Some second stage manufacturers also add a third weight-bearing single wheel "tag axle" for larger minibus models.
The term van may also refer to a minivan. However, minivans are usually distinguished by their smaller size and traditionally front wheel drive powertrain, although many now are being equipped with four wheel drive. Minivans typically offer seven or eight passenger seating capacity (similar to the smallest full-sized vans), and better fuel economy than full-sized vans, at the expense of power, cargo space, and towing capacity. In addition, many new minivans have dual side sliding doors.