Car of the Week: 1974 Chevrolet custom van

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By Brian Earnest

Scott Kauffman is one of those rare guys that can use his vehicle as a verb. Not everybody can pull that off.

“Hey Hon, I’m just gonna Mustang down the store, do we need any milk?” or “Let’s Super 88 over to Bob’s house tonight,” just doesn’t work. But when you own a super-groovy, all-original, rolling motel room ’70s van like Kauffman does, you can speak your own language.

“Back in the ’70s, vanning was huge!” says Kauffman, a resident of York, Pa. “There were van clubs all over, especially in the Northeast where we live. There were van shows every weekend. There were four or five magazines that were all about the custom van hobby… People went camping and went to lots of shows. It was a really big thing.

“And vanning has never stopped, it’s just a lot smaller than it was back then.”

Kauffman was a child of the ’70s, so he grew up with his share of customized vans, most of them serving as daily transportation and weekend vacation machines long before minivans and SUVs took over. He dabbled with a variety of collector vehicles over the years and had some fun with a 1977 Chevrolet “shorty” custom van for a while, but nothing like the dazzling “Emerald Express” 1974 Chevrolet custom van that he discovered last year.

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1974-Chevy-Van-profile1

“I bought it off Craigslist,” he said. “I knew a little about the van. I had seen it before, and the gentleman who had it before me — he was the second owner — he had it at a show and I had seen a picture of it in a local newspaper.

“They were asking a lot more than I could afford to pay for it, I can tell you that. The van had been sitting outside for a couple of months since the second owner had passed away … It was sitting outside, it was dirty, it was July when I went to go look at it and it was hot, but the van was just so original! The tires were 20-plus years old. The [wheel] flairs had a few small chips and cracks. There were things that needed to be done. Nothing had been done to it in 20-plus years, but it was perfect because everything was there. It didn’t need anything. It had all been painted green up underneath and in the suspension. You could loosen every bolt on it … It was just an amazing example, especially for the Northeast.”

It took a little convincing and some negotiating, but Kauffman was finally able to pry loose the van and bring it home. “I said that if I can’t have it, that’s OK, but you need to do something with in it or you’re gonna destroy it,” he said. “If you just let it keep sitting outside like that, you are just going to ruin it. That paint and the lacing and everything, you can’t re-do that. If it all starts cracking and deteriorating, it would just be destroyed.”

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1974-Chevy-Van-middle-room

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A couple days later, Kauffman had his Emerald Express, becoming the proud third owner of the vehicle. That also meant delivering a bit of a shock to his wife, April. “I had told her about it, but when I brought it home and she first saw it sitting in the driveway, she said, ‘Good God, there are no words that could prepare me for that!’”

The Chevy had been ticketed to be a show van right from the start. It was ordered as a stripped-down 3/4-ton G-Series Model 20 panel van. It was the “shorty” version, meaning it rode on a 110-inch wheelbase chassis instead of the 125-inch chassis. It sported a two-tone Blarney Green and white paint job and featured power steering, tilt wheel, bucket seats in front, AM radio, an “appearance package” that included chrome bumpers and trim, and rally wheels. Under the hood is the original 350-cid V-8 fed through a four-barrel carburetor and mated to an automatic gear box.

After bringing it home, the original owner, Larry Warner of Biglerville, Pa., went to work turning the Chevy into a show pony — low on practicality, but long on fun. He framed and insulated the back half “like you would frame up a house,” Kauffman noted, mounting 12 speakers and then paneling and carpeting around them. The center of the van has several sets of cabinets, an ice box, TV and an upholstered “foot stool” that actually hides the spare tire. The ceiling is covered with a white vinyl-like material with gold ribbing on the seams. Heavy green shag carpet is everywhere, even up the sides of the custom-built console in front.

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And the crowning touch, of course, is the bed in back, complete with white faux fur bedspread, custom-made curtains, black light and black light pictures and a color organ light, which pulses and blinks to the music thumping from the 8-track player.

Every inch of the van’s interior and exterior was given the custom treatment, from the paneled front doors and dash, to the narrow aftermarket front seats, to the bar signs and liquor speed rail in back (no, the liquor bottles aren’t full – but they are about 40 years old and came with the sale).

The engine is “bone stock” according to Kauffman, aside from the Thrush side pipes that happily disturb the peace.

No self-respecting 1974 vanner would pass up the chance to spray some fancy paint, and Warner went all out with his Emerald Express. The van’s sides are sectioned off into panels along the originally white middle. The white was then dressed up with a fancy green lace spray design, with a darker green artwork above that and some intricate “Emerald Express” lettering and airbrushing running horizontally below the roofline. The four wheel flairs were all integrated into the paint job, as was the front chin spoiler. A huge CB antenna is secured in place on the driver’s side.

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The van was apparently a big hit on the show circuit in the mid-to-late ’70s, and Kauffman inherited plenty of plaques and hardware to prove it. The plaques show the van appeared at places such as the Susquehanna Valley Van Show, Baltimore World of Wheels, Hershey World of Wheels and others. “He only showed it in East Coast stuff, but back then there were van shows every weekend somewhere,” Kauffman said. “I’ve literally got a van full of trophies for it back in the day.”

Eventually, the van “ran its course” as a show vehicle, Kauffman said, and Warner pretty much parked it for good about 1981. The fancy Chevy rarely moved for many years and was eventually sold to a second owner four or five years ago. “He had always loved the van, but Larry wouldn’t sell it to him,” Kaufmann added. “So when he got it, he used it and enjoyed. He drove it, which is what you’re supposed to do with it.”

By the time he found the van, Kauffman was finding that such all-original custom creations were becoming hard to find. Not many fancy show vans from the golden age of ’70s vanning were kindly preserved — a fact that made the Emerald Express even more appealing.

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“Most of the ones you see today that survived have that custom company look. They all look kind of the same, just maybe in different colors,” he noted. “They were done by conversion companies, most of them, but this is one of a kind. There is not another one like it.”

It’s the kind of van Kauffman might have created for himself back in the 1970s. The longer he has the van, however, the more Kauffman’s respect grows for the skill and time invested by those who could trick out a van by themselves. “You had to be a painter, a woodworker and upholsterer, and you don’t normally find that today,” he said. “I go to a lot of hot rod and custom car shows … and I get a lot of those guys come up to me and talking about how when things were slow in the ’70s, they made a living doing custom vans. A lot of custom car builders did vans back then to make ends meet and pay the bills. Vans were huge.”

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The Emerald Express currently has 50,000-plus miles on its clock and Kauffman won’t be shy about adding more. He expects to show it off as often as he can at van and truck shows and old car shows. It’s doubtful he will be taking off on any cross-country trips, however. The van is tons of fun to drive — but only to a certain point. “I love driving it as much as I can and it’s great, other than it doesn’t have air and it’s a hot sweaty shag box in the summertime,” he said. “But I’m not going to put air in it. I’m not going to change it …

“I’d love to take it to California and go to some of the car shows and van shows, but the trip would be too hard I think on the van, plus with no overdrive and no A/C… And with those sidepipes on it, it’s very loud. You have the windows down on the highway, it’s loud! All that noise and wind noise makes you tired.”

So far, Kauffman hasn’t had to do much to keep his van looking and running good. He’s rebuilt the carburetor and fuel pump and done some other routine maintenance. A few nicks in the chin spoiler and fender flairs have been touched up with GM factory green paint. “I’m lucky all that lace is OK,” he noted. “I could never match that.”

Kauffman figures he’s the perfect owner for such a wild and crazy machine. He had been looking for something fun and different, and something he could relate to. The Emerald Express has certainly been that.

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“Even though I’m probably more of a ’50s and ’60s car guy, if you grow up with that [’70s] stuff, you kind of gravitate to it,” he said. “As much as I love the stuff from the ’50s and ’60s — cars and hots rods — I always wanted something with a name, and this is the Emerald Express. Plus, I never had the guts to paint any of my cars a wild paint scheme like this. This has just kind of solved a lot of things for me!”

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7 thoughts on “Car of the Week: 1974 Chevrolet custom van

  1. Dee Reilly

    Shag carpet on the dashboard is just brutal reminder of the wretched excess of the 1970’s.12 speakers and all you’ve got is an 8 track player.But I will say the carpentry work is outstanding.Wonder how long it took him to build it.

  2. Forest

    I have had 7 vans so far. I also grew up in the van era. Their was some wild and cool ones out their and this one is right up their with the best of them. It realy shows the year when shag carpet was the way to go, what were we thinking. I would love to be the owner of this fine peice of history. I would have liked to know what he was able to get this one for. After seeing this I have rememberd where a 1973 van is sitting so I think I will stop by because it has not moved in over 4 years. Thanks for the walk down van lane as it were.

  3. Allan N. Conard Sr.

    Those where the days my friend.Booze,Bongs & Babes.I had many such vans,form a milk van to a old Snap-on van,Lots of good rememories.Just sold my last one last summer.(I’m 60yrs young)

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