Custom Vans Revive the '70s at Food Lion AutoFair
If you long for the days of lime-green shag carpeting, bell-bottom pants and disco music, visit the custom van display during Charlotte Motor Speedway's Food Lion AutoFair, which takes place on a new date this year - Aug. 26-29.
The van-tastic gathering will accompany the world's only collection of street legal bumper cars, a 70th anniversary exhibit of 1940 Fords, and a visit from 92-year-old internet phenomenon Rachel Veitch and her 563,000-mile '64 Mercury Comet.
A Vanner for Life
As part of the custom van exhibit at the Food Lion AutoFair, J.R. Sammet, of Englewood, Fla., will display three of his decked-out show vans. Like thousands of young people in the 1970s, Sammet was swept into the custom van craze, in which bland boxes-on-wheels were transformed into colorful rock 'n' roll party palaces. He had just graduated from high school when he sold his Oldsmobile Cutlass to buy a nearly new 1975 Dodge van from his father's salvage yard in Ohio. The damaged blue Dodge had wrecked on a snow-covered road, making the price irresistibly low.
Borrowing from an Aerosmith song popular at the time, Sammet named his Dodge "Sweet Emotion" and outfitted the interior with a secluded sleeping nook, icebox, countertop with built-in stainless steel sink, mirrors and overhead lighting. Angel-hair and shag were the two most popular carpet types in the 1970s vanning world, and Sammet was not immune to their charm, covering everything but the ceiling in the red and blue synthetic fibers. Entertainment was provided by an eight-track tape deck and Citizens'
Vanners experimented with materials not commonly found in production cars. Sammet's Dodge, for example, has a steering wheel, dashboard, runningboards and table made of thick-grained wood with a medium stain.
Airbrushed murals with mythological or musical themes were common on any van worth owning in the '70s. Sammet adorned Sweet Emotion with images of flying horses, hot rod flames and breeze-blown clouds. Pinstripes of teal, pink and red weave in and out of the van, showing up in door jambs and under the hood.
Sammet wanted Sweet Emotion to stand out from the crowd at any van show or festival, so he bolted the grille, headlights and hood ornament from a 1975 Chrysler Cordoba passenger car to its front. It's an effect that still draws second glances. The van's tail and side marker light lenses are made of handcrafted stained glass and feature a crescent moon and five-pointed star.
Sammet's decision to install a hydraulic suspension gave him the ability to bounce the Dodge's front tires off the ground, which brought cheers and a lot of damaged components. Eventually, he retired the crazy springs but kept the dragster-like wheelie bars that prevented the rear bumper from scraping the ground should the front go too high.
In 1988, after displaying Sweet Emotion at many shows around the country, Sammet and his wife Glenda bought a very rough '73 Dodge Sportsman van whose roof had been lowered 11 inches by a previous owner. Sammet grafted a Dodge Monaco car grille with hideaway headlights onto the Sportsman's front end. He gave the body a wider, lower look by fabricating steel flares for the fenders. Because there was no factory windshield short enough to work with the lower roof, he built one from Plexiglas. Purple paint, accented with pink and teal graphics, covers the heavily modified exterior, which includes a radical side door that opens in a gullwing fashion.
The '73, named "Procrastownation," was customized with more of a 1990s style, which is why there is not a fiber of shag carpet to be found inside. Hot rod-style tweed, in complementary gray and eggplant colors, covers the interior, and a wraparound couch creates the all-important socializing area.
Procrastownation was much more radical than the Sammets' Sweet Emotion. It was built for competition, and it secured its first national trophy in 1995. The two vehicles were joined in 1997 by Glenda's black Ford Maxi van - a six-wheeled behemoth known as "Looney Twoney" with a black-and-white checkerboard interior and queen-size bed. Because it is the largest of the group, the Maxi has become their default camper.
The Sammets are happy with the trio of stylish party machines. They consider themselves lucky to have been involved in the close-knit vanning community for 35 years.
"Part of the attraction to vanning is the camping aspect," Sammet says, "but when I was fresh out of high school, having my own party wagon was pretty appealing.
"Basically, you were nobody in the 1970s without a van."
Food Lion AutoFair
Hours for the Aug. 26-29 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.