Raise your hand if you grew up riding a Schwinn Stingray bicycle. Yeah. Me too.
Art Soto restores classic Schwinns. He’s also restored a 1968 El Camino (which has been claimed by his 10 year old daughter Allison). And he’s in the final stages of restoring his 1991 Chevy G10 van – 70s style.
“I grew up in a van all through the 70s,” Art told me, “going to the beach to surf with my cousin Richard in his 77 Dodge.”
Art’s parents – who are 93 and 92 years old and will celebrate their 70th anniversary next spring – lived in Torrance. That’s where Art rode his Stingrays, converting them into BMX bikes before there even were BMX bikes, and idolizing Evil Kenevil.
When other kids were worried about making the high school football or basketball team, Art and his friends were surfing in the morning, and taking machine shop in the afternoon, and skating and BMXing after school.
He remembers first noticing Cragar mags on a Tonka dune buggy toy he had as a little kid. As he got older, he got into Volkswagen Bugs, then Mazdas and mini-trucks, and then American V8s, including the El Camino he restored in 1998.
But as family and work responsibilities grew, hot rodding started to take a back seat.
Fast forward to March, 2019. Art was going through some tough times personally and was ready for a distraction. He saw the G10, which appeared to be destined for the junkyard.
As a child of the 70s, Art’s got some strong beliefs about what a van should be. “It had to be a shorty,” he said. “Had to have no windows. And it had to be a Chevy. I bleed Chevy.” The G10 met most of those criteria.
“I gave the owner $200 for it,” Art told me, “and dragged it home on a rope. Literally on a rope. And I just dove into it.”
The van started out life as the delivery truck for the Calstar company. Calstar makes top of the line fishing rods. They used the G10 to deliver rods from their Gardena, CA factory. At some point, an electrical problem rendered the van inoperable, and it just sat.
“It had been neglected for five years,” Art recalled. “They parked it in the driveway facing west, and they just left it there. It was so bad that it had mold, moss, and algae growing on it.”
Rust usually isn’t a problem with Southern California cars, but because the van was facing west all those years, it wound up collecting the morning dew on the cowl area and the cowl was rotted from one side to the other. That was almost a deal breaker for Art.
But another $200 got Art an old conversion van to use for parts. The parts van donated its cowl and the necessary electrical components to get Art’s G10 up and running.
“I hooked up a battery,” he told me. “got power to the dash and fixed the electrical problems that had sidelined her. I turned the key and she fired up on the first kick. It blew out all the acorns that were in the exhaust and sat there and idled like a champ.”
That’s the G10’s 305 cubic inch small block Chevy that was idling like a champ. The small block was nearing the end of it’s 50 year run in the 90s, and Art’s plan was to replace it with an LS. But in 1991 the 305 had fuel injection and it was hooked up to an overdrive transmission.
“It piqued my curiosity,” Art said. “The more I started driving her, the better she started running. Sometimes a car has a soul, and this one told me she wanted to live. One year later and she’s my everyday transportation.”
Art decided to keep the 305, completing a full maintenance on it and a complete valve body service on the transmission. The G10 had 193,000 miles on the odometer when Art bought it. It’s already up to 209,000 because Art is driving it 200 miles or more every week.
The 305 is currently breathing through the stock single exhaust, but dual exhausts are coming, including side pipes. Let’s face it, you can’t recreate the 70s look for a van without side pipes. Art has a set of Patriot 53″ side pipes on order, although they will be for looks only. The exhaust will actually exit out the back through dual catalytic converters. “I want her to run as clean as possible,” Art said. “You can be a hot rodder and be a clean hot rodder.”
Another key aspect of that 70s van look is stance, and having the correct stance was very important to Art. “I picked the brains of 25 vanners on lowering the suspension,” he said, “and I got 25 different answers.”
He ended up using 3″ dropped spindles up front from DJM Suspension. Torrance Automotive helped with all the front end work, doing a complete rebuild that included the idler arm, steering box, tie rod ends, and the power steering box.
For the rear, Art relocated the leaf spring eyelets on the front perch about 2″ higher. He was shooting for – and achieved – having the same wheel gap front and rear.
Art also installed Monroe heavy duty coilover shocks in the front and will soon be installing a set of airbags up there as well. He’s got Gabriel HiJackers in the back (even though Gabriel did not send Art any HiJacker stickers). Both front and rear will be adjusted by an Air Lift compressor. The air adjustment is not meant to change the height of the van, just to adjust how it rides.
Although the goal is a 70s vibe for the G10, Art knows that not everything was groovy about vans in the 70s.
“The reason I chose a ‘91 van,” Art said, “was that I wanted the old look but I wanted overdrive, cruise control, tilt steering, intermittent wipers, power steering, power brakes, and power door locks. Believe it or not – I’ve got everything working on it. Even the AC started blowing cold the other day.”
GM helped Art out by running the same body style on their vans from 1971 to 1996. They made minor changes to the grill and one change to the taillights during all those years. That’s why this G10 fits into Art’s plans to back-date it, making it look like a 70s van, but with more current convenience and technology.
The G10 was originally a window van, which went against one of Art’s core beliefs. One of the first things he did was locate solid side doors to eliminate the side windows. He’s still got the windows in the back doors, and is undecided at this time if he’ll replace them. “It is a surf van,” he said. “and it makes a big difference when you vent those back windows.”
With the help of Art’s friend Ronnie Griego, dents got fixed and the body prepped and it was off to the paint booth to be painted. Or not.
“We rented a paint booth,” Art said. “But our session got cancelled. We had no choice. We took it in the backyard and painted it under one of those Harbor Freight tents.”
The first paint job was with the original factory color. After spraying it on Art said, “it looked like a pink salmony color. It was unacceptable. So now I had $500 of this pink salmon paint and I went to Stevenson Paint and Supply in Carson and I let him do his magic.”
Stevenson changed pink salmon into a beautiful desert beige color. Future plans call for putting gold metal flake on the top of the beige. As much as Art likes the 70s, he says he’s not a mural kind of guy, so there won’t be any on the G10, but some traditional patterns and graphics might be added on later.
Ever since he had that Tonka dune buggy, Art knew what wheels he’d choose. There is a complete set of Cragar SS wheels and BF Goodrich TA radials on the G10. The Cragars are 15×10 in the rear, with 295/50 TAs. Up front Art’s running 15×8 and 225/50s. The front disk brake dust shields and the rear drums have been painted to match the body.
But let’s face it. A 1970s style van is defined by its interior, and the cockpit is very important to Art. The front captain’s chairs (of course they swivel) came out of that $200 parts van. Getting them reupholstered is next on Art’s agenda. The removable rear seat can fold down into a bed.
Art went to the junkyards to find as many interior parts as he could from Chevy’s Beauville line of passenger vans, which were very nicely finished inside, as compared to the bare bones cargo vans.
The dashboard came out of a 1995 G10. In his efforts to make his backdating even more authentic, Art used a 1970s-style light switch, and added a cigarette lighter and wood grain instrument panel to the dash.
The dashboard and the Beauville trim were painted with SEM vinyl dies, also custom mixed by Stevenson to create “greige – not grey, not beige”, as Art described it. (That’s a picture of the dashboard drying on Art’s bed. For three days. He slept on the couch.)
And are you ready for this? Art’s 92-year-old dad, Art Sr., made and installed the G10’s curtains. “He still sews as a hobby,” Art told me.
There’s another custom van in Torrance called Money Green, built by John Poeske (@53kustoms on Instagram). In addition to being inspired by how Money Green was built, Art got direct help from John when he dropped off the inside panels of his van for Art to use as templates for his G10. Art used those templates to make real wood paneling.
Two other inspirations for Art’s interior are the luxury ocean liner the Queen Mary, with its art deco and mahogany veneer, and the older Chris-Craft wooden boats. That’s why Art’s in the process of staining those wood panels with “good old fashioned shellack.”
The wood panels may be old fashioned, but the electronics around them are not. They include a back up camera and navigation system, an AM FM Bluetooth stereo, and a 24″ flat panel TV connected to a Pioneer in-dash DVD player. Art can also stream Netflix or HBO to the TV from his phone.
“In fact we were just testing it,” he told me, “by watching Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Song Remains the Same’ on YouTube while going down the freeway.”
And of course, Art has a Midland CB radio and 102″ stainless steel spring boogie whip antenna.
Art‘s built his van and his El Camino out of his garage, but he’s quick to point out how much help he’s gotten. The Southern California vanners have helped immensely: Money Green, Long White Socks, Disco Van, and No Tell Motel among others. Ronnie Griego was always there to help with paint and body work. And Curt Schaurker, a friend of Art’s for over 30 years, who Art described as his “motor guy, inspiration, and pain in the ass.”
Even vanning history has inspired Art’s G10. He’d like to find anyone who knows about the Primo Van Club or the California’s Finest club. If you do, please contact Art. He remembers those clubs and would like to honor the influence they had on him.
Art’s parents have always had a positive impact on him. “I could have never achieved any of my progress without the help of my father Art Sr.,” he told me. “He is my hero. My mom is still my best friend. Art Sr. and Maria are still bragging about the cool hot rods their kiddo builds to all their senior friends.”
Art’s biggest inspiration is his partner Nikki. “She loves the van,” Art told me. “Tonight we may go to the beach, pop the doors open, and have a cocktail.” When the family is around, Art and Nikki will pile the gang in the van and head to the beach. That includes Ryan (a.k.a. “Brother Larry”, 18 years old); Gavin (“Gman”, 9); Kylie (“Jroopy”, 12); Allison (“Boogs”, 10); and Joshua (“Josh”, 28).
When Art’s not busy vanning with the G10, or making sure the ElCo is in good shape for Allison, he restores classic Schwinn bicycles, specializing in factory original graphics. In fact, Allison currently cruises around town on a Stingray, one of over 40 Schwinns he’s restored.
While Art and I were reminiscing about the 70s, he told me about his experiences back then which seem applicable now. The car culture Art lived though included the surfer/stoners, the lowriders, and the inner city kids. You’d hear oldies, hard rock, surf music, and rap (but no disco) during the cruising nights.
No one cared about the differences. The only thing that mattered was the cars.
“America is the greatest country in the world,” Art said. “We’ve all got our opinions. Everyone’s got rights. Respect one another. We just have to love each other and get through it.”
Raise your hand if you agree with Art. Yeah. Me too.
Photos courtesy of Art Soto
Click here to see more photos of Art’s G10
You can follow Art on Instagram via @hwy1ratt