A van’s long, strange trip: Terry Fox camper coming to Victoria

The Ford camper van that Terry Fox used on his 1980 Marathon of Hope is coming to Victoria next month as part of an exhibition of Fox memorabilia.

It’s the latest chapter in the van’s long, strange history, which includes sweat, tears, laughter and at least one fist fight during Fox’s famous run to raise money for cancer research, followed by decades spent off the public radar as a punk band’s touring rig.

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The 1980 Ford Econoline, now part of an exhibit developed by Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History and the Terry Fox Centre, will be on display at the Royal B.C Museum for six months starting April 12, the same date Terry started his run in Newfoundland in 1980.

The Victoria exhibit will be the only chance to see the van outside its display in Ottawa.

Terry’s younger brother Darrell was 17 when he took a seat in the van next to Terry’s best friend, Doug Allward, in late May 1980, as the run took Terry through New Brunswick.

“Oh, it smelled,” said Darrell, now 54 and a senior advisor at the Terry Fox Research Institute. “Three young men lived in it. That was our home.”

Etched forever in Canada’s collective memory is how Terry’s run ended tragically just outside of Thunder Bay, Ont., that September, when the cancer that had claimed his leg spread to his lungs. He died in hospital June 28, 1981, a month short of his 23rd birthday.

Since his death, annual commemorative Terry Fox Runs have been held in 31 countries, raising more than $750 million.

But before Terry Fox became the heroic face of cancer research in Canada and around the world, he was the determined young man who enlisted his best friend and kid brother in his quest to run from coast to coast.

Initially, the trio spent nights sleeping in the van at the side of the road. As the run gained momentum, the van became their sanctuary as they were swarmed by crowds of well-wishers, reporters and TV cameras.

Doug and Darrell rode in the van while Terry ran behind, but sometimes at day’s end, Terry would drive off by himself, looking for a stretch of Maritime coast and listening to country music that Darrell taped for him.

“That was his minor escape when he had the opportunity,” Darrell said.

As Terry’s Marathon of Hope crossed Ontario and rose in profile, the trio were offered complimentary motel accommodation along the way. But Terry always preferred the van’s built-in bed. “It was a bed he was familiar with. It became his bed,” said Darrell.

The van’s funky, young-man vibe kept the reporters and others at a distance, Darrell said. Blame piles of dirty laundry and the porta potty at the back. Take any three young guys away from their parents for the first time and it’s likely that personal hygiene won’t be a priority.

“My shoes stank,” Darrell said. “People just avoided the van. The only people in it were us three — and maybe Bill from time to time.”

That would be Bill Vigars, the organizer assigned by the Ontario Cancer Society to help the boys out on the tour. Then in his mid-30s, Vigars met up with the trio in June of that year.

Vigars remembers a brief stop on a stretch of Ontario highway near Sudbury, when another van, heading east, pulled over and some scruffy guys got out, gave Terry what money they could, and then went on their way. It was years later that Vigars found out they were Tom Cochrane and his bandmates, then just starting out.

Boredom and close quarters sometimes took a toll on the journey, most memorably during a stop in Hamilton, Ont., where Doug and Darrell argued about the choice of music in the van. Darrell liked April Wine and Bryan Adams. Doug didn’t.

“I got into a fist fight with Doug and he ended up getting a bleeding nose,” Darrell recalled.


Vigars remembers Terry getting involved as well: “[Doug and Darrell] roll onto the floor fighting, Terry dives over top of me, and he’s swinging, too. I pulled them apart like dad.”

The van was abruptly abandoned amid the sadness and shock that surrounded the run’s end. Terry was suffering from chest pains, and on Sept. 1, he couldn’t go on. He saw a doctor, and the next day he told reporters the cancer had returned. He later flew home to B.C.

Vigars wrapped things up in Thunder Bay. “I took the van down to the Salvation Army in Thunder Bay and gave them a bunch of old clothes. I packed some other stuff and shipped it home.”

The van had been a loaner from Ford. A volunteer drove it back to southern Ontario, where it was put on a London car lot and sold.

That was the last the Fox family saw of the van for a quarter-century.

Then, in 2005, author Douglas Coupland released his pictorial tribute book Terry. The author was at a gallery opening in Vancouver in the fall of 2006 when a fellow artist mentioned the Marathon of Hope van featured in the book, telling Coupland: “Some guy in a band owns it — he lives out by the PNE.”

The next morning, Coupland and Darrell went out and found the van.

“There was still the same shag carpeting that was in it from 1980,” Coupland recalled in an email. “The stories that carpet could tell.”

It turned out that a Vancouver-based punk band had put more than 300,000 kilometres on the van. The band leader’s father bought it in 1984, then gave it to his son. The musician agreed to give the van to the foundation.

“He said it just kept running,” Darrell said. The Marathon of Hope lettering on the side of the van had been painted over, but the raised letters were still visible.

Ford agreed to restore the van, which involved shipping it back to Ontario again. That job was finished by May 2008 and the restored van was taken on a cross-Canada tour before being sent to its permanent home at the Canadian Museum of History.

The interior is pretty much exactly how it was back in the summer of 1980 — barring one notable feature.

“We didn’t bring back the odour,” Darrell said.

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