bc-080425-terry-fox

Terry Fox is followed by the Econoline van during the Marathon of Hope in 1980. ((Canadian Press))

The Econoline van that was Terry Fox's home on the road for 143 days during his 1980 Marathon of Hope is being restored.

The van was left behind in Thunder Bay and his family lost track of it after Fox was forced to stop his run outside the northwestern Ontario city when his cancer returned. 

The 1980 Econoline van, which was loaned to him by the Ford Motor Co., was later sold to a family. It was eventually driven to British Columbia, where a heavy metal rock band from East Vancouver used it for years to tour across North America.

Darrell Fox, Terry's brother, said the van's whereabouts remained unknown to the family until Vancouver author Douglas Coupland was approached at a party in North Vancouver by somebody who had read his 25th anniversary book about the Marathon of Hope.

The guest told Coupland the van was in Vancouver.

"So Doug gave me a phone call later that day and the next day we were out on a mission to find the Marathon of Hope van," Fox, the national director of the Terry Fox Foundation, told CBC Radio on Friday morning.

Fox said he'll never forget the day in the fall of 2006 when he and Coupland rediscovered the rusted Econoline parked on a sidestreet in East Vancouver.

"As soon as I turned the corner ... I knew right away what I was looking at," said Fox. 

"Overwhelmed is probably an understatement in terms of how I was feeling. It is one thing to reflect and remember, but to actually see this object and go inside it…," said Fox. 

"It was quite surreal to have this immediate flashback to memories of being inside that van and seeing Terry in there because that was his home, that was his sanctuary and that's where he was protected from the madness when the Marathon of Hope really progressed in Ontario," said Fox.

Remarkably, the van was unaltered during it years on the road, although several Ontario winters left it with a serious rust problem.

"I'm a big believer in fate and for some reason that van wasn't supposed to change. There have been two owners since 1980 and they knew what they had and our thanks to them for keeping it as is. It was exactly as it was in 1980 — the carpet, cabinets, the upholstry, the shelves," said Fox.

"The owner said it had incredible karma. It never let them down. They always felt the van had Terry's presence. They could feel that he was there in that van," said Fox.

Now the Terry Fox Foundation has plans underway to fully restore the van, although it is not clear how the rust in the body will be dealt with. After the restoration, the van will once again be used to share Fox's goal of raising funds to fight cancer.

The legacy of Terry Fox and the Marathon of Hope

In 1977, Fox's right leg had been amputated above his knee after he was diagnosed at age 18 with bone cancer.

On April 12, 1980, Fox dipped his artificial foot in the Atlantic Ocean off St. John's, N.L., and began his Marathon of Hope to raise money for cancer research.

He ran about 42 kilometres each day no matter the weather — freezing rain, high winds, even snow, with the now-iconic van following him on the highway.

But on Sept. 1, chest pains and breathing problems forced him to stop running at a spot along the Trans-Canada Highway northeast of Thunder Bay.

After 143 days and 5,373 kilometres, he announced he would have to postpone the rest of the run, saying "I'm gonna do my very best. I'll fight, I promise I won't give up."

He was sent to a hospital in B.C. where doctors discovered the source of his chest pains: cancer had spread to his lungs.

In the months that followed, donations kept coming and $24.17 million was raised, surpassing his initial goal.

He died on June 28, 1981, but not before becoming the youngest person ever to be awarded the Order of Canada.