A Big Brass Van!

(thanks Bill, for sharing this)

9/18/2009 11:46:00 AM
Brass Van, art car make local stop
By Ray Gudas

For The Herald-Argus
Brass Van in the Parade by Delta Niner.
Brass Van by Crimthann Fid-Nemed.
NEW BUFFALO – Go ahead and stare.

Hunter Mann, the guy behind the wheel of the “Brass Van,” as he calls it, knows you can’t help it. Heck, even he can’t help it, and he sees it every day.

Suffice it to say there isn’t another one like it. Anywhere.

“It’s what’s known as an ‘art car,’ which is an automobile – in this case, a van – that has been transformed into a work of art,” Mann explained during a recent pit stop in New Buffalo. The Arizona resident was in the middle of a cross-country trip to Washington, D.C., where he was taking the van, along with a second, music-themed art car, to display them at the city’s annual H Street Festival.

The trip itself also provided an opportunity to promote “Automorphosis,” a recently released 77-minute documentary that, as its cover copy phrases it, “looks into the minds and hearts of a delightful collection of eccentrics, visionaries and just plain folks who have transformed their autos into artworks.”

Folks like Mann’s late godfather, Ernie Steingold, who is featured in the film. It was he who created the Brass Van, which he preferred to call the “California Fantasy Van.” A vacuum-cleaner repairman by trade, the former Burbank, Calif., resident started riveting things to his 1975 GMC van during the 1980s and continued to do so until his death more than 20 years later.

As Steingold explains in the documentary, it all started with three brass elephants that he attached to his hood one day as an ornament. Then he got the idea to cover the van with coins, which he did – around $15,000 dollars’ worth by the time he finished. That’s when he started adding more brass objects.

“There are more than 5,000 pieces of brass on the van right now,” Mann said.

Many of us would go crazy if we were asked the same dozen questions 50 times a day, every day, but Mann seems to take it in stride, patiently answering every one.

“Yes, it’s brass alright … The weight? 10,000 pounds … Mileage? Terrible – you don’t want to know … ”

Mann said that one of the most memorable experiences he’s ever had while traveling with the van happened during his current trip.

“I stopped to visit a school for blind kids in Omaha,” he recalled. “They went crazy just running their hands over it.”

No only were many of the students able to “read” the letters that were stamped or otherwise emblazoned on many of the brass objects on the van, Mann said; some were also able to make observations that were far more impressive – for example, that an eagle figure was actually a bald eagle, and not a golden eagle, because of distinguishing features on the bird’s head.

“I was very impressed with them,” Mann said.

About the van
The van’s weight is so heavy that the tires have to be replaced every 4,000 miles.

When he’s on the road with the van, Mann gets pulled over by police approximately once every five days – usually to just ask him about it, or to take a photo.

Although it took 22 years to get the van to its current state, approximately 80 percent of the brass items were purchased from the same store; the rest came from flea markets and garage sales.

More often than not, the van is shipped (by truck, train and ship), rather than driven, over long distances. It’s been through the Panama Canal six times.

The van has been appraised at $350,000.

When it’s not on tour, you can find the Brass Van in Douglas, Ariz., at Art Car World, a museum dedicated to art cars (seeartcarworld.com).

Although the shell of the van is that of a 1975 GMC van, the weight of the van required that the original engine and transmission be replaced with modified (larger) versions.

The Brass Van has been featured in People magazine, on the Discovery Channel and in the opening scene of the Steve Martin movie, “L.A. Story.”