A Look Inside Rob Machado’s 1978 Dodge Surf Van, the ‘Creeper’

Rob’s van mostly travels between his home and his home break, Seaside Reef. Photo: Aoun

“Absolutely nothing in the van works, except that it starts. It’s the perfect beach rig,” says Rob Machado. “There is no odometer, speedometer, windshield wipers or radio.”

When it comes to a surf mobile, what Rob’s 1978 Dodge Tradesman lacks in tech it makes up for in character. There’s nothing else he’d rather drive to the beach.

And Rob should know, he’s been around the world chasing waves a few times. A former Pipeline Master, U.S. Open of Surfing champion and constant fixture in the top five in the ratings on the WSL Championship Tour (formerly the ASP World Tour) for the better part of the 1990s and 2000s, Rob’s one of the most well traveled, well respected and recognizable surfers on the planet.

Since hanging up the competitive jersey he’s perfected the art of soul surfing – “cruising,” as he may call it – and has recently been shaping boards under his own label, Rob Machado Surfboards.

“I call it the ‘Creeper,'” he says of the van. “It’s a little creepy. But I wouldn’t be able to live without a van now. Once you get into the van life you can’t go back. It’s part of livin’. I’m convinced.”

Fingerpainting adorns the exterior of the van, done by Rob’s children. Photo: Aoun

For Rob, who lives in Cardiff By The Sea in San Diego’s North County, van life got rolling at an early age.

“I don’t remember it, but my dad was showing me some old photos of us camping in Australia in a VW van. I was like, ‘What?! We had a VW van? Dang it, dude, why didn’t you keep that thing?!’”

And in his early teens, when he started to get serious about surf contests, his dad once again stepped in with plush mobile accommodations.

“My dad was like, ‘So this is amateur surf contests … you go down to the beach on Saturday morning and you stand there until Sunday afternoon and you get a trophy and you go home. Hmm, okay,’” says Rob, laughing at the memory. “So, he went and bought an old motorhome. And he got himself a little TV. We’d get down to the beach super early. He’d get a killer spot. And on the weekends, there’s always some kind of sports on TV.

“He’d just be in there hanging out, watching sports, and would be like, ‘Just let me know when your heat’s up, I’ll be down there.’ So that was a huge part of my amateur surf career. I had a giant bag of Honey Nut Cheerios in there and was killing it. The RV was the go-to for all those long weekends at the beach.”

Little traces of Rob’s young son are strewn throughout the van: wetsuits, boogie boards, ninja turtle masks and a prized stick collection. Photo: Aoun

Some years after his career on the ASP World Tour concluded, Rob was hanging at home in Cardiff when his then-roommate had a flash of inspiration.

“I think I’m going to buy this old van and fix it up,” Rob recalls him saying.

“And he went and bought it,” he continues. “It barely even ran. It broke down on the way home. He left it on the side of the freeway in the middle of nowhere before he finally got the thing home. Then it kind of became our rad, little cruisey beach van. He stripped everything out of the inside and built a simple little bench and a bed that you could slide boards under. We started taking it everywhere. We’d go check the surf and it would be like, ‘Let’s take the van.’”

Check the waves, pick a board. There are at least eight inside at any time. Photo: Aoun

Then one day Rob’s roommate came upon tough financial times.

“He came up to me one day and was like, ‘Dude, I gotta sell the van,’” recalls Rob.

“And I was like, ‘Why? You need some cash or what? You can’t sell the van, that’s our beach ride.’”

So, Rob wrote his friend a check for $1,500 to help make ends meet.

“I gave it to him and he was like, ‘Okay, you’re half owner of the van,’’ says Rob. “He told me I could drive it whenever I want, so I started taking it down to Seaside and stuff.”

Paipos and boogie boards round out the van quiver. Photo: Aoun

A year later the roommate moved out and Rob took full ownership of the Creeper. He collaborated with artistic woodworker, craftsman and surfer Jay Nelson on a four-day rebuild of the inside of the van.

“Jay got in there and made it more tricked out and cool and groovy. It’s just kinda been hanging on ever since,” says Rob.

Skylights and faux grass make the van a perfect hangout spot on a sunny day. Photo: Spinner

A little further on down the road and the Creeper is his de facto transportation these days – but strictly for the beach.

“I’m lucky if I take it to La Jolla. And to the north, Oceanside, maybe. That’s kind of its realm. I’d say it’s strictly North County. I like to keep it between Seaside and Swamis,” says Rob.

The importance of options. Photo: Aoun

“It’s my garage on wheels. I go to the beach, look at the waves, and go, ‘Rad! I’m going to ride my paipo. Or I’m going to ride this or that.’ The only thing that constantly cycles in and out of the van are my boards. I’m always putting new boards in, taking old boards out, putting more new boards in.”

Jay Nelson helped Rob build an elevated bed with shelving underneath for boards. Photo: Aoun

As far as his favorite features go, “The bed combo-ed with the board storage underneath is hard to beat,” says Rob. “Without fins I can fit like eight boards under the bed. The front end of the bed lifts up and that’s where we built all the little compartments to hold wax and fins and stuff. We put a single burner stove in there in case you want to make a cup of tea on a winter day. It’s not too fancy.”

Hidden compartments underneath the bed hold wax and fins. Photo: Spinner

Obviously, the Creeper also has its quirks.

“I don’t know what causes it, but every nine months to a year I’ll get the craziest backfire ever. One summer day I was down at Seaside parking lot and the whole lot was packed. I went to start the thing and it literally sounded like a shotgun blast. It probably set off 10 car alarms. People hit the deck. A bunch of people were just staring at me. I just drove off, like, ‘Okay, see ya later.’”

Few controls or gauges still function, but that doesn’t bother Rob. Photo: Spinner

It’s been a good run, but considering Rob has no idea how many miles are on the engine or even what kind of condition anything under the hood is in, who knows how much longer the thing’s going to be lurking up and down Coast Highway.

Each drive could be its last, but that’s part of the fun. Photo: Aoun

“If you see it parked on the side of the road it might be the end,” laughs Rob. “It might be dead.”

This piece was produced with support from our friends at Reef.

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