Quick Stats: Johnny Van Zant, lead singer/songwriter, Lynyrd Skynyrd
Daily Driver: 2017 GMC Sierra Denali (Johnny’s rating: 8 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: see below
Favorite road trip: Jacksonville to Smoky Mountains
Car he learned to drive in: Ford Galaxie
First car bought: 1978 Ford Econoline van
The trucks in Johnny Van Zant’s garage all have an emotional tie to loved ones who’ve passed. That includes two trucks that belonged to his brother Ronnie, the original singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Van Zant has sung in honor of him since 1987 in what may be considered the quintessential Southern rock band.
Van Zant’s resplendent 1955 Chevy belonged to his older brother. He had it updated to drive in hot summer weather in the band’s hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. He’s the only member who still lives there.
“We kept it in our family all these years,” Van Zant tells MotorTrend. “CMT had a show where they redid old vehicles. The doggone show went underneath, and we had to get proof it was mine. They went bankrupt, it was a mess. I got that truck back to Florida and said, ‘I’m never going to let nobody take it out of Florida again. They had my truck on a lift in a garage, thank God they didn’t start on it.”
Van Zant took the truck to a local dealer where he’s a regular customer. “They had master mechanics, and it took a period of two years to do this truck. It went to two or three different mechanics, and it came out beautiful. It’s a fantastic truck,” he says, rating the truck an 11 or 12 out of 10. “I call it my ‘Sunday truck.’ Whenever I’m off the road and if it’s Sunday, I try to take it out and drive it around and just enjoy it.”
He put $65,000 into the truck, which includes a $17,000 paint job. “I redid all the seats, the block’s the same, but it’s got new headers, it’s got maple wood in the body, it’s a gorgeous truck,” he says. “In the old days, the ’55s had the gear shift on the steering wheel, but when Ronnie had it, he put it in the floor.”
It didn’t have air conditioning and power steering, which Van Zant added. Whenever he drives the Chevy, it turns lots of heads and elicits comments. “I wanted to be able to cruise in it and enjoy it. But I have found out old vehicles are mechanics’ dreams and non-mechanics’ nightmares,” he says, laughing.
Although some of our loved ones may no longer be around physically, our cars can be the last vestiges that connect us to them, a physical place we can still see and feel them. Van Zant will probably never get rid of his beloved brother’s truck.
“The last time I’ve seen him before he passed, he was in this truck,” he says. “And after he passed, his widow gave it to my father. Then it went to my brother Donnie, he’s in a group called 38 Special. Then it came over to me. Then it went back to my dad, so it’s just been back around. One thing I did do was I kept all the original steering wheel, and everybody kept telling me, ‘You need to put a new steering wheel in there.’ I said, ‘No, I want to keep the original steering wheel. All of us have held that steering wheel and driven that truck.’ So I thought it was a cool thing.”
The truck was in the garage for a good nine years wasting away, until he found the right people to work on it. “Now it’s a prized possession, which it was before, but now it’s a really nice prized possession,” Van Zant says. “It’s got a lot of the original stuff to it, but we’ve had to improvise on different things, like the hood. We could never get it to fit right, so we had to get a new hood. But I tried to keep it as original as I could.”
This Chevy was also in a 1990 video Van Zant made. “I had a song called ‘Brickyard Road.’ It was number one at AOR, which was FM radio at the time, so it was a pretty cool thing,” he adds.
1972 Jeep Wrangler
This 1972 Jeep also belonged to Van Zant’s brother Ronnie. “I have a little canvas top on it, no doors. It’s a hog, it’s a five-speed and no power steering,” he says. “My daughter was like, ‘Dad, can you leave me that?’ I said, ‘No, I won’t.’ I’m like, ‘I ain’t giving you that, you have to be a man to drive it.’ I’m afraid something would happen bad.”
Van Zant rates it a 6 because of how it handles. “It’s not that it’s a bad vehicle, but you really have to put some muscle into it. You’re shifting gears and there’s no power steering,” he says.
After Lynyrd Skynyrd had the fatal plane crash in 1977 that took Van Zant’s brother, one of the road crew ended up with the Jeep and it later passed hands to Ronnie’s youngest daughter. “She called me and said, ‘Hey, Uncle Johnny, I’m wanting to get rid of the Jeep. I want to give you first bids on it.’ I said, “Sure, I want it.’ Had it in the garage, it’s safe. It’s nice to go out there and see that now.”
2017 GMC Sierra Denali
Van Zant bought this truck because his daughter had a Sierra. “I lost my daughter,” he says. “I had the Sierra, I gave that to my daughter when she was 26, and she drove that thing and she passed away a couple of years ago. I had a Ford F-150 Platinum before this one, and after she passed, I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to get me another Sierra and drive it in her honor.’”
He bought a Sierra with the Denali package. “It’s kind of my thing to her. You know what? She drove that old Sierra, and she didn’t want to get rid of it. They had the airbags that were recalled in them, so she got rid of it not too long before she passed and got a Tahoe. But she drove that thing, shoot, all the way till she was 35 years old. It was a good truck. GM makes a good truck.”
Van Zant would often call her while she was at college. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m sleeping in the back of my truck.’ I said, ‘What are you sleeping in the back of your truck for?’ She said, ‘Because parking’s so hard to find over here at the school, I’ve got a class in two hours, so I figure I’ll take me a nap in the back of my truck.’ Hey, that’s commitment, though, that’s wanting to get an education. That’s the way I looked at her.”
He was understandably proud. “I said, ‘That sounds like something Dad would do.’ Rather than trying to find another parking spot, I’ll get on my computer and sit here and sleep or cop a nap,” he says, laughing.
Van Zant spoke to us from this GMC, on the way to one of the rental homes he owns. “I’ve got an extended ladder on the back of my truck, so I’m just driving real slow. So if you hear me going, ‘Whoop, it fell out!’ I’m trying to carry those big adjustable ladders to the place so the guy can paint. This is what I do whenever I’m at home. I mess with old vehicles and homes,” he says, laughing.
The GMC has a sunroof, ventilated and heated seats, and he lifted it. “It’s all jacked up, it’s beautiful black. I like it a lot,” he says. “Typical guy truck, except it’s a lot nicer. It’s got everything on it, it’s the top of the line.”
The reason he rates it an 8 on a scale of 10 is that there are no air conditioning vents in the back. “Living in Florida, I was actually surprised. I didn’t really look at the back. I have kids, a grandson, and they don’t have any air conditioning vents back there. I’m like, ‘Why in the heck wouldn’t they put air conditioning vents back there?’ So that I don’t like.”
Van Zant likes that the turn radius is pretty good, though. “I’ve had a GMC Sierra before, and turning, getting into parking spaces is not the most accommodating thing. But I like it,” he says. “It’s been a great truck for me.”
Although his wife’s Cadillac Escalade is new, Van Zant never buys new cars for himself, and that includes this GMC. “The reason why is as soon as you drive off the lot, you’re losing money, and if you can find something with low mileage on it, and a warranty, I say drive it,” he says.
Van Zant owned a Dodge Ram from 1995 to 2008. “I never did nothing except replace a fuel pump in that truck, and of course tires and changed the oil. That was a good truck, that was a really good truck. I’ve been truck guy. I’m a short guy, so I guess I’m in love with trucks. You feel taller,” he says, with a laugh.
Car he learned to drive in
Van Zant’s father was a truck driver, and he used to sit on his father’s lap before he could even reach the pedal, and go on trips with him. “He usually drove from Miami, with kosher beef, which hangs on a hook, all the way to New York. The rabbis would bless that beef down in Miami. And it had to be at a certain time so the rabbis could bless it again in New York City,” he says.
He got to steer the truck. “I wouldn’t shift the gears. Back then you had to shift gears, and of course I didn’t know how to shift the gears,” he says. “All of us went on the truck with my dad, my brother Ronnie, my brother Donnie.”
When they got older, the family had a Ford Galaxie that Van Zant learned to drive in. “We used to take road trips, and of course back then, hell, nobody used seat belts. I used to lay in the window in the back because it had an old window that leaned down. There was a place up there that you could lay in the back. Hell, I’d put a pillow up in there, and we’d go to the mountains or wherever we were going,” he recalls.
Van Zant was around 13 or 14 when his dad taught him to drive in the Galaxie around their neighborhood on the west side of Jacksonville.
“In our neighborhood, like my kids, we got golf carts and go-karts. I taught them all how to drive from that, took them out on the roads, because we live out in the country,” he says. “Back then, hell, you could take your kid out and let them drive on the roads, plus my dad knew all the police anyway.”
As his instructor, Van Zant recalls his dad being right on top of him for every little thing he did. “‘Put on your blinker,’ ‘You’re too close!’ ‘Move out of the way!’” he says, laughing. “He was a great driver. His favorite saying was, ‘Keep distance.’ ‘Distance is the key to safe driving,’ is what he used to say to us.”
The Galaxie was his mom’s car. “She was probably pretty scared about us driving her car and crashing,” he says, laughing. “But we had a good time. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but we were rich in family, so that was good. I’d rather that than all the money in the world.”
Van Zant got his first car when his older brother Ronnie was going to buy his parents a car. “They said, ‘Johnny’s of age. Why don’t you help us get him a car?’ So I had a little red Ford Maverick, with no air conditioning and no stereo,” he says. “But I loved that car, and I drove it all through high school.”
He had a lot of fun with his 1975 or 1976 Ford Maverick, especially when he added an 8-track player in it. “The back seat was full of 8-tracks,” he says, laughing. “That Maverick was probably where the heck I learned a lot about music, just driving around as a kid and in high school. I think I got my first kiss in it.”
First car bought
Van Zant ended up trading the Maverick for a used 1978 Ford Econoline van, because he was playing music and needed something to haul his gear in it. He had money from playing gigs, cutting grass, being a painter, and any odd job he could take.
“I could tell you it was built like a frickin’ tank, though. I had a lady hit me in the rear end—we’re talking about distance, tore the hell out of her Gran Torino, but my Ford van had a little scrape in the back,” he says, with a laugh.
Van Zant would haul equipment in the van to play homecomings and at bars around Jacksonville. It was his main vehicle. “We would cram that thing full of musical equipment, and here we’d go,” he says.
Favorite road trip
Van Zant’s favorite road trip is driving up to the Great Smoky Mountains in the Carolinas with his kids, a trip he plans to take again in December.
“I’ve been across this country a thousand times. As a child, we used to go to the Smoky Mountains in that old Galaxie. Those were fond memories,” Van Zant recalls. “As I grew up, I ventured out and had another van that was a pretty nice van. We pulled a U-Haul behind it. We went all over this country in that thing playing music.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour”
Lynyrd Skynyrd is currently on a long goodbye tour with stops around the country. Founding member Gary Rossington returned to join the band last week after heart surgery.
“We’re on our farewell tour, so we’re kind of retired,” he says. “We started out and said, ‘Let’s go hit every place we ever played and then go hit the places that we haven’t played.’ So we started out last year in West Palm, and we ended up in Biloxi, Mississippi. This year we’ve been up to Canada, we’ve been over to Europe. We hadn’t even finished Europe, and they were going, ‘Hey, we need you back!’ We just didn’t hit all the countries. We didn’t hit Norway, Finland, Italy, Spain, Greece, so we want to go back over.”
It seems they do want to retire at some point when this long tour wraps up. “We can’t beat it up like we’ve been beating it up. What we really want to do is finish up and then go, ‘OK, let’s do special things that we really want to do,” whether it’s for charity or for the military, just do special things, because we’re not all spring chickens anymore to be out here beating ourselves up doing 80, 90 shows a year,” Van Zant says. “And Gary Rossington, one of the last founding members of Skynyrd’s got some heart trouble, so it’s not good for him to do that health-wise. Gary has a saying: ‘The Beatles stopped touring and made seven more records after they stopped touring.’ Who knows.”
Van Zant said the band has cut a few tracks for a new album. And a new DVD, taped from their Jacksonville concert, will be offered.
“We did a show in front of 35,000 of our crazy fans. It was a great show, and we recorded it live, so that will be coming out before we do the studio thing. But the studio thing will probably be out next year,” Van Zant says.
Fans should be able to look forward to new music from the band even after they officially retire. “We like going in the studio and having fun. It’s guy time,” he says.
For more information about tour dates, visit LynyrdSkynyrd.com
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