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Searching for a home for Terry Fox’s iconic camper van


Searching for a home for Terry Fox's sanctuary on wheels

The camper van that served as Terry Fox’s home during his Marathon of Hope.

The '80 Econoline camper van that escorted the heroic runner on Marathon of Hope faces going back into obscurity

A piece of iconic Canadian automotive and cultural history is temporarily parked in a Victoria museum and looking for a permanent home.

Time is running out.

The 1980 Ford E-250 Econoline camper van isn't much to look at with its beige trim with brown accents, but the signage proclaiming his Marathon of Hope brings immediate recognition.

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Terry Fox on Danforth Avenue in Toronto on July 12, 1980. Jeremy Gilbert

It evokes a stirring response from any Canadian who remembers Terry Fox's skip-hop-stride gait on the nightly news and in the retelling of his story during the past 37 years.

That van was their mobile castle as Fox, brother Darrell and buddy Doug Alward travelled westward from St. John's on the Marathon of Hope to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society.

The Econolines, a basic full-size model, first rolled off the production line in 1961 to replace the Ford F-series panel van. In fact, it was so rugged and practical its production run only ended in 2015 when it was replaced by the Ford Transit.

Modified by Funcraft, the third-generation Econoline Super-Van camper, donated on loan by Ford Canada, featured a fibreglass cap offering more headroom, fridge, a cook-top and tartan-sofa bed where Terry would lie listening to cassette tapes or reading a poem an admirer had given him, It couldn't be done by Edgar Guest, which was taped to the wall.

"Terry got the big bed," Darrell Fox says. "Doug was the chef, though he could destroy even canned food and I have no idea how he and I managed to squeeze into the bunk beds when I look at it now. We got the van because Terry just wrote a letter to Ford asking and telling them about his planned Marathon of Hope and they were great, they brought it to St. John's that first day and they were always supporting us."

On the road, it was home and sanctuary. It was their living room, their bedroom and their confessional. There were fights, tears and pain but great joy, says Bill Vigars, the Canadian Cancer Society publicist who ended up a de facto road manager for the Marathon of Hope.

"You open the doors of that van and the stories just flow out," Darrell says.

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Terry's legacy lives on, however, and millions of Canadians – and others around the world – run, walk, wheel in his footsteps each year on Terry Fox Day, this year on Sept. 20.

Almost anything connected with Terry Fox and the Marathon of Hope has become an artifact of Canadian pride and an attraction: his prosthesis, T-shirt and other items he wore or used are on display at a travelling exhibit Terry Fox: Running to the Heart of Canada, which is currently at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria until Oct. 1, including the famed Ford Econoline.

The van on display at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on April 1, 2015. Fox got the big bed on top, where he would lie listening to cassette tapes or reading a poem an admirer had given him.

Next to Fox's prosthetic, however, it is perhaps the van that is most instantly recognizable.

When the current exhibit at the Royal BC ends Oct. 1, the question is what next? Storage? Another temporary exhibit? Or a permanent home?

"We're still plugging away," Darrell says. "We're having good discussions with the museum in Ottawa and we'd like to see it travel to other provinces where the exhibit hasn't been yet."

It's been 37 years since that van set off after Fox ceremoniously dipped his leg into the icy Atlantic on April 12, 1980 and ran a marathon a day for 143 consecutive days, wind, rain, sun or snow and, initially at least in relative obscurity.

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By the time the van followed him into Toronto, Canada's media capital, he was a national hero and would go on to become the youngest person ever awarded the Order of Canada. As we all know, however, the marathons were cut short near Thunder Bay on Sept. 1 when the cancer returned and the pain in his chest was too much to ignore. He stopped running, looked around and got into the van and went to the hospital.

Fox had run 5,373 kilometres but his marathon was over. He died June 28, 1981 at 22-years-old but he's inspired generations with his heroic battle.

The story of the van too has become part of that legend. When the Marathon of Hope ended, Vigars took it back to Ford in Oakville where it was auctioned.

And that was that, at least for 25 years until Douglas Coupland's book Terry (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005) was published. A year later, Coupland bumped into an artist friend who noted he'd seen the van parked near the Pacific National Exhibition grounds. Coupland called Darrell and the two went and found it in moribund condition.

The van, perhaps infused with Terry Fox's spirit, stubbornly wouldn't quit either. So, Ford Canada restored it and by spring 2008 it went out on a cross-Canada tour and it has remained on the road or at exhibits ever since.

"This is an important part of our history, it shouldn't be packed away, people want to see the artifacts and connect with the Terry Fox story," Vigars says. "It's important for all Canadians to keep this fight going."

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