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Wednesday, May 14, 2014


 "GO BIG OR STAY HOME"-- Coby Gewertz

FOR THOSE OF YOU NOT FAMILIAR WITH COBY GEWERTZ, we’ll start with what you probably do know: his ground-hugging 1963 Ford Econoline panel van known as Van Go. Yeah, it's entirely possible that you've happened upon Coby's four-wheeled design thesis in hot rod and custom car magazines, on automotive blogs, and anywhere else car guys tend to congregate.

Simply put, everyone knows Van Go. 
But here’s something you may not know. Despite its jaw-dropping ride height and pristine paint, Coby takes pride in driving his Econoline regularly. He isn't the least bit reluctant to haul merchandise for his brand, "Church, Cars Not Culture" around in it. In fact, one could argue that what Coby has really created is the ultimate divining rod for attracting people to his magazine and merchandise. 

With over 10,000 miles under its belt line, Van Go is probably the coolest company car you'll ever encounter. So cool in fact, that some of the finest hot rod artists of this generation have created their own interpretations of it.   

Art by Bomonster.
Art by Gewertz. 

Art by Allison.

Van Go has an uncanny knack for attracting all sorts. Surfers. 
Bikers. Highway patrol officers. Galpin Ford car salesmen. Skate punks. Hippies. Nuns. Old timers with memories to share. No matter where you park her, an impromptu crowd assembles. 

Which is ironic in retrospect, because Coby hid Van Go's build from most of his buddies. At the time, he didn't want to suffer relentless ribbing for choosing such an odd canvas to perpetrate a custom build.

Who’s laughing now?

So how does a fledgling van blog go about getting Coby Gewertz to divulge additional information about a custom that’s already received more media attention than Miley Cyrus’ giant foam finger?

We challenged ourselves to go a little deeper. Deeper into the nuts and bolts of  VanGo’s build. Deeper into the challenges that Coby and his crew faced. Deeper into what it takes to turn an ordinary 50-year-old industrial vehicle into the recipient of Chip Foose's “Award of Design Excellence” at the 2011 Grand National Roadster Show. Fasten your seat belts, fans. You're about to go deeper into the world of Van Go courtesy of the man behind it. Let's get this interrogation started.


QUESTION #1: It's nothing short of remarkable just how low Van Go rides. What frame modifications were performed to make its ride height possible?
It all began at KA Custom with this innocuous lil' stocker.

The FORD letters were removed from the nose and the blinkers.
KA also was responsible for building the mini bumpers.

COBY: KA Custom kicked up the rear rails and we went with a TCI Mustang II front end. That was a surefire way to eliminate bump steer, which is why I chose not to run the original straight axle in the first place. The TCI front end also allowed for disc brakes, rack and pinion steering, etc. -- that pretty much became the tipping point when Van Go became a “Go Big or Stay Home” type of build.

KA Custom installed the front end, Clear Steer steering unit and the Ididit column. Not to mention the drivetrain. 
Air bags, rear suspension and frame kick-up were also done by KA Custom.
QUESTION #2: Tim Conder seems like a mad genius. How was it working with him? Did the two of you plot that paint scheme together, or was the idea something that you already had in your head?

COBY: I have no qualms stating that Tim Conder is a genius. Every trip to his shop was an experience for the mind, whether he was throwing out automotive ideas or otherwise.

They said the seat backs couldn't be bent by hand. Then Tim did it. 
Welcome to Conder Customs. This is where the magic happens.
I studied colors for quite a while before arriving at the main color. Finding out what looked good in the sunlight, in the shade, how the color rolled over curves, where hot spots might cause problems, etc. Initially, it was my intent 
to have Tim work on the body and paint only. 

It didn't take me long to realize he was going to be much more influential than I ever imagined. He was, and is, someone I can bounce ideas off, and who throws his own ideas right back. Collaborating with Tim became a constant state of "what if". 

I'd say I had a pretty open mind, but there were a few self-imposed restraints that probably handcuffed Tim at times. He was definitely up for the challenge, though. Tim's a true artist, so I knew it was important to give him some creative freedom. My only stipulations were that I wanted subtle Watson-style panel paint and that the main color had to be green tea metallic.
and body mods, I didn't want to overpower them with crazy paint. 
Tim was less than thrilled with my color choice at first, and I can't say I blame him. To a painter, a van is a blank canvas, the perfect place to display their talents. Tim envisioned candy gold with every paint trick in the book. Flames, fish scales, tape fades, etc. It would have been epic, but it wouldn’t have been what I wanted. With all the subtleties 

I thought it might be interesting to send you a couple of my initial paint ideas to get an idea of where I was leaning back in the beginning, before Van Go was bagged.  

I liked them, but worried that over time they would become dated. Setting out to create a timeless design is easier said than done, and I guess only time will tell if we pulled it off. 

I was going to the shop at least every other weekend, and probably getting in the way more often than not. I soon discovered that I could gauge Tim’s frustrations by how many discarded Hostess fruit pie wrappers were on his desk. He would loosely draw something up in two or three minutes on a scrap of paper, never real tight. Just enough so I could visualize his thoughts.
One of Tim's preliminary sketches.
One of Tim's later ideas, once he realized I was serious about the green.
I went up there one weekend and the van was completely taped off. That was it. He’d nailed it! As you look at the driver and passenger sides, you'll see that they're not the same. That was one of the things that struck me as being so cool. I sure do admire Conder's mind. 

Given a big thumbs up by me, Tim moved ahead putting his trademark thick and thin outlines on the panels and really taking the van into Conderland. Tim rules!

Thick and thin line work is one of Tim's trademarks.
Notice the cleaned up headlight coves. Silver. 

Tim's metallic work has a ton of bling in it. 

Front bumperettes are early 70s Camaro RS pieces
The roof itself is a feast for the senses. 

Let me try and put Tim's task into perspective. We blasted the body so he had a clean slate. It had no rust, but the body was oil-canning pretty badly. Lots of bodywork on vans has to be done blindly because you just can't get to it from the inside. These vans were created to be light utility vehicles and certainly never intended to be customs when they rolled out the factory. 

QUESTION #3: Let’s talk about Van Go’s mid-century modern interior. It seems like you somehow managed to embrace the vibe of cheesy 70s paneling of old, but dragged Van Go's interior kicking and screaming into the Dwell-magazine era. It's stunning. How did the concept for the interior come about?

Well, my initial plan was to have the interior upholstered by Sean Johnstun, aka Fat Luckys, and to let him go nuts with the white button tuck. Unfortunately, by the time the van was ready for interior work Sean was embarking on an epic road trip with a buddy and wasn't taking on any work. Since we couldn't get our planets to align, I stepped back and decided to rethink the interior's direction. Tim and I began discussing what was popular back in early sixties outside of the automotive world. 

Tim was the one who mentioned the Eames Potato Chip chair, and just like that, we had a badass new direction: mid-century modern with lots of beautifully crafted wood. 

It was game on from there. Tim approached three different shops to get bids and two of them wisely tucked tail and ran in the opposite direction. The third company, a high-end furniture builder, was intrigued and took the job as a creative challenge. Unfortunately, the economy subsequently tanked, and their business was forced to fold. 

That's when Pablo Perez, who worked there, stepped in and offered to finish the job if we could provide a suitable work space. Tim Conder graciously offered up his space. Can you say sawdust? It turned out to be a huge advantage to have Tim oversee Pablo, seeing as the mid-mod concept originally came from him.

Reminds us of a life-size Revel model. 
Pablo at work. Notice Van Go is pre-graphics.

To say the least, the interior was a monumental effort. Pablo had to reconfigure the interior around a driveshaft that was running perpendicular down the center of the cargo area. We ended up raising the cargo area's floor to just over the height of the driveshaft and Pablo made use of the lost space on the passenger side by designing slide-out drawers. The frame's rear kick-up also posed a challenge, which Pablo used as yet another opportunity to display his woodworking chops. 

The wood curves gracefully over the frame's kick-up and flows back to reveal an access area at the rear for a flat file which comes in handy for displaying Church flat art. Access to the fuel cell is beneath it. 

Pablo also built magazine racks into the cargo doors so I could display my Church little books at car shows. 

The headliner’s rods are designed for hanging t-shirts.

The seats, where it all began, are actually quite comfortable and their low profile makes up for the inches lost to the relocated wheel wells. They're a good example of Pablo's woodworking mastery and Tim's metal-shaping skills. Even the armrests are little works of art. 

Like the rest of the van, thoughtful touches reveal themselves as as you soak in the details.

The fuel cell is accessed by lifting a hinged rear panel. 
Bravo, Pablo. 

The circular rings on the dashboard are AC vents.
I couldn't think of two guys more perfectly suited to collaborate on Van Go's interior than Tim and Pablo. It's almost as if they raised each others games. Tim was as fastidious about the interior as he was about every other aspect of the build. In fact, he was even willing to put off his intricate panel painting while his shop became a giant sawdust snow globe. Sorry, amigo. 

In hindsight, the delay on the panel painting gave the base paint ample time to shrink, but I can't imagine the headaches it must have caused Tim. I doubt he'll ever do another van, especially one with a whittled wooden interior. What were we thinking?

Question #4: Van Go runs 14” wheels. In my opinion, those 14” wheels are one of those subtle touches that makes Van Go look so totally righteous. Were other wheels and sizes considered before you landed on the chrome reverses?

COBY: Being a  graphic designer, proportions are everything to me, and the size wheels I wanted to run was extremely important. Had I gone in a different direction with the style of the van, my wheel choice would likely have changed. I dig Astros and Cragars, but there was never any real consideration other than chrome reverse wheels. 

Jimmy and his cohorts at Rally America custom-made my rims and they did a stellar job. Considering that I’m running disc brakes up front, making these wheels fit was not easy. Plus, I wanted to hide the fact that I have disc brakes.

If I were ever going to swap out the wheels, my alternate choice would be a set of deep-dish Buick wires. Maybe some day. Anyone want to hook me up with a set?

Buick wire wheels on a 1965 Riviera. Period tasty. 

QUESTION #5: Van Go’s wheel wells had to be raised quite a bit in order to get Van Go to ride so low. That’s major surgery, right?

COBY: Yeah, it is. The wheel wells were raised just a tad less than 5" up front. Once the front wheel wells were raised, we needed to cut into the inner front doors to accommodate the revised wheel height, which created another challenge.

Suddenly, the windows wouldn’t roll all the way down. This eliminated the possibility of running one-piece glass. We contemplated adding an inch of doorsill along the base of the window, but it didn’t end up being that big a deal. As it turned out, it's actually the perfect height to rest my arm on while driving.

This was one of those times that being guinea pigs almost bit us. If we had taken any more metal out of the door, the glass wouldn’t have fit back in at all. We got really lucky, to put it plain and simple. There are a few other things to consider when raising the front wheel wells. The driver’s height is also a factor. Seeing as you sit on the inner front wheel wells in the early Econolines, every inch you raise the wells equals an inch of lost headroom.
 I’m 6-foot tall and all leg. I fit just fine, given the low profile seats and all, but taller drivers should take note. 

In fact, it was thinking about low-profile seating options that led to the idea of the Eames-style potato chip seats, which Tim and I both immediately loved. That simple solution was the inspiration that established the entire interior’s design direction.

QUESTION#6: Everyone seems to have an opinions about how to keep a first-gen van's temperature gauge happy. You drive Van Go all up and down the West coast on piping hot days and sit through those infamous So Cal traffic jams. How do you keep Van Go from doing a “China Syndrome”?

COBY: Keeping Van Go running cool is an ongoing process, but I think it’s most mostly due to the tight confines of the custom engine cover. We've got it pretty well licked, but we're still refining it. I've logged plenty of miles, but have yet to attempt tackling California’s dreaded Grapevine. It's my nemesis. (Grapevine is a notoriously long and steep grade on Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles that routinely stymies cooling systems.) 

Van Go has electric fans and an aluminum radiator. We also ran ducting to force air into the radiator. Realizing that cooling an early van can be an issue, it was incorporated into the design from day one. I think the main obstacle we’re trying to overcome now is a lack of airflow over and out of the engine compartment. Since the engine cover is a bit tight it’s not allowing airflow to easily exit. Making a new engine cover is an option, but I'd really rather not go there. Starlite Customs created a louvered belly pan that doesn’t give airflow the option of passing beneath the van and that’s been a big help. The louvers also allow heat to dissipate when it’s at a stand still. 

I've found that Van Go runs its coolest when it's at a dead stop in traffic. Probably in the ballpark of 180 degrees. At speed it's 195-ish. I'm not a happy camper when it creeps over 210, which it does on occasion. I've even tried lifting the engine cover while driving to let the heat out, but it doesn't do much. Overall, I'm pleased with how she runs and really can't complain. The last time it started to overheat was due to a faulty radiator cap. Sometimes it's the little things.

QUESTION #7: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that vans possess the drag coefficient of a massive brick. That said, how does Van Go run, handle and brake given its updated V8 power, rack and pinion steering, front disc brakes, etc.? Is there anything you’d pass along to other vanners looking to build daily drivers capable of today’s highway speeds?

COBY: Van Go handles like a champ and I absolutely LOVE driving it. I drive it with the air suspension set pretty low, and clench my teeth when I see the car in front of me hit a dip. That scraping sound is murder on my ears, but tends to sound worse than it is. I've driven it to Santa Maria and back three times now. That's about a 4-hour haul each way. I did a 1000-mile round trip to San Jose and back via the 101 and it performed great. I’ve driven to Pomona a bunch of times, San Diego, and all over Los Angeles. And I just got back from a big road trip to Austin for the Lone Star Round Up. I logged 54-hours round-trip and it ran great. In regards to Van Go’s performance, everyone who owns a van and has ridden in Van Go is surprised by its handling abilities and performance. In fact, I got pulled over by a cop in Wichita Falls, Texas for doing 90mph in a 75mph zone en route to Austin. Luckily, the officer really dug the van and let me slide with a warning. I hit 100 miles per hour on a few of those long empty stretches that were straight as an arrow. In terms of advice for those wanting to build early vans to use as their drivers, I’m a big fan of my overdrive transmission. It definitely makes highway cruising more enjoyable.

QUESTION #8: What was the single biggest challenge of Van Go’s build?

COBY:Getting it low was one thing, but the trickiest part was the steering setup. There just wasn't much room to reverse the steering once we swapped out the front end. There's probably a more affordable solution, but we went with a company called Steer Clear. It's a chain-driven assembly with minimal proportions and they custom made the unit for us. 

I initially didn't want a tilt column, but it helps to slide my legs under the wheel. It's an Ididit unit. I asked Kevin if he wanted to make a dozen or so kits we could sell because I had a hunch we were going to change peoples’ perceptions of vans. We were both too busy and I think we probably missed a golden opportunity.

Even the horn cap is custom. The wheel is from an early Corvette.

QUESTION #9: You’re running a 290-hp V8 with an overdrive tranny. How is it having the overdrive? What kind of gas mileage are you puling down? Does it chirp? And how does it stop given the V8’s power and weight?

COBY: I have no complaints with the 200R4 overdrive transmission. I'm running highway gears in the ass end so no smokey burnouts. As far as gas mileage, I'd venture to guess I'm getting about ten miles per gallon. It only chirps when I highside on an apexed driveway and the drive wheel comes off the ground. Does that count as a chirp? Hahaha. I've had it up to 100mph several times. It doesn't feel like you're going that fast until you get on the binders. If somebody cuts me off and I have to brake hard, the weight shifts forward and lightens the rear end and you're in for a real white-knuckled skid.

QUESTION #10: Do you take any crap for running a small block Chevy? Would you use the same motor again if you had a do-over?

COBY: The majority of people seem to know the van for two reasons. One, its altitude adjustment, and two, the wooden interior. Not many people call me out on having Chevy power, although it does happen occasionally.

The small block Chevy runs real nice. My first choice was putting a Ford in a Ford. It just wasn't as cost effective. Yeah, I know, and the woodwork was, right? I figured parts availability and it being stashed under a cover were good enough reasons for me. A while back my friend Dan Stoner sent pictures of Van Go to someone pretty high up at Ford Design and that was their first question. I had Dan inform them that if they wanted to send me a complimentary Roush mill, we'd change the motor mounts pronto. Nothing came in the mail, so I guess it wasn't all that big of a deal to them, either. The offer still stands, though. If it was something REALLY cool, I might even consider reconfiguring the engine cover with plexiglass so you can see it. Any takers?

Question #11: I think it's safe to say that Van Go has reset the bar for vintage van customization. When you look back at all the mods and the fabrication and the restless nights spent imagining Van Go, what hurdles caused the Excedrin headaches? And if you had the chance to do over again, would you have done anything differently?

COBY: Looking back, I'm sure Van Go was like a lot of builds, with unexpected obstacles to overcome along the way. Let me start by saying I don’t call myself the van's builder. Being a graphic designer, I was really more of the Creative Director on the project. I assembled a kickass team that poured blood, sweat and tears into the build. Kevin and Steve at KA Customs installed the drivetrain and fabricated the suspension. Tim Conder handled the body mods and laid down the paint. The guys at Starlite Customs were also key, and continue to help me refine it. And Pablo Perez was the master craftsman responsible for the woodwork.

Even Van Go's Show Car Sign is a total custom.
In the beginning, I guess the main hurdle was finding information online. There just weren’t any heavily slammed first-gen vans driving around that we could draw inspiration from. Sure, there was a yellow one that was in the weeds, but it wasn’t a drivable vehicle. Then I happened upon E-dog's van. His Econoline was close to what I had in mind, but it was still not as low as I wanted to go.

E-dog's lowered Econoline. 
E-dog's van really started my gears spinning, and he was one of the few guys I kept informed on Van Go's progress. He’s super talented, a real cool guy, and provided us valuable insight for our build.

In terms of what  I’d do differently, a few things come to mind:

I: THE SHAVED DOOR HINGES -- This should have been done before the Mustang II front end was grafted in. I was dead set on eliminating all external hinges. It's probably my very favorite mod, yet it seems to go practically unnoticed. 

Given that the van's shape is surprisingly round, and the way the doors operate is kind of tricky, it was a difficult mod. I only wish I had "before" and "after" shots of Tim's dome to demonstrate the amount of hair loss he experienced during the course of this particular modification.

II: A JACK PROVISION -- Having suffered a popped air bag and melted fuses that prevented the suspension’s compressors from operating, I found out the hard way that we hadn’t solved for getting a jack under the van when its aired down. Oops. We're presently working on a back up plan for that now.

III: THE ENGINE COVER -- It has 3 aluminum layers, with 2 layers of Dynamat sandwiched in between.  For cooling purposes, it's probably a bit too snug for the engine. A little more breathing room might have helped VanGo run a bit cooler.

IV: THE BLIND SPOT --  I chose to eliminate the big mirrors for purely aesthetic reasons. I now have a healthy blind spot. I definitely work around it whenever I’m passing or changing lanes. 

12. Being that Vinvanco owns of a ‘61 Econoline and we’re determined to drop it, what advice would you give us knowing that we’re on a budget? Also, it’s gotta be able to haul merch all over hell’s creation without showering sparks all over that state trooper behind us.
This is Poochie in wishful thinking, mock-up mode.
COBY: I think straight axles are cool, but there's a guaranteed sacrifice you'll make if you intend to really dump your Econoline and keep its straight axle: bump steer. Unless you’re willing to embark on a massive undertaking, I would consider visual ways to make you van appear lower rather than doing a severe drop. Dump it a bit if you can, and you might be able to find an extra inch here and there. With Van Go’s ride height, I occasionally find myself needing to air up getting into some driveways and in preparation for making U-turns due to wheel rub, which might influence your decision on the amount of static drop you go with. If you run a shorter tire or side pipes, it visually contributes to the illusion of being lowered a couple of additional inches. Look at how E-dog set up his Econoline’s front end. What he did was really cool.

By flipping a Chevy passenger car’s bumper up front and extending the sides, his van appears closer to mother earth. It really adds some balls to the overall look.

So my advice is to think outside the box, and your wallet will thank you. Bear in mind, though, some of my favorite vans are raked and not slammed. Just sayin'.


In closing, I’d like to thank Coby for providing us with in-depth answers and insights, and for allowing me to ask twice as many questions and call it twelve. 

If there’s one thing that distinguishes Coby in my mind, it’s that everything he does, he does with a deep level of craft, the skill of an accomplished designer, and the heart of a custom car aficionado. The man is a class act.

That said, if you’re a fan of class acts, great graphic design, automotive photography, custom cars and/or traditional hot rods, get your mitts on a copy of Coby’s magazine, Church, Cars Not CultureAnd while you're at it look at his other goodies, too.

And if you're interested in helping support Vinvanco's mission to return to the era when vans ruled the Earth, feel free to check out Vinvanco's exclusive vintage van merchandise

There are more editions of "Twelve Questions" coming, so keep your eyes peeled or better yet subscribe to this blog so you don't miss a thing. By now, you're probably wondering when this damn thing is going to be over.

How about right now? Amen. 



PLEASE NOTE: The photography used in this blog was liberated from numerous and varied sources on the worldwide web. We'd like to thank each photographer for their pics and acknowledge every one of them individually, but are unable to since many pictures were uncredited. We have, however, included all credits when listed. Thanks. 


Here's a handful of Van Go extras and other sources where you can see more about Van Go:

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