Metro-East News

He was a baby when the Wild Cherry van appeared in a ’70s movie. Now he wants to save it.

Restored Wild Cherry Van to cruise in California

Chris Carter talks about his plans to restore a 1975 Chevy van known as the "Wild Cherry" in this video from February of 2018.
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Chris Carter talks about his plans to restore a 1975 Chevy van known as the "Wild Cherry" in this video from February of 2018.

An Illinois man has become something of a folk hero to classic-car lovers all over the world for his rescue and restoration of an abandoned van made famous in a 1979 movie.

Well, “famous” may be a bit of an exaggeration, said Chris Carter, 39, of Bethalto. The Wild Cherry van was shown cruising only a few seconds in “Van Nuys Blvd.,” a B movie filmed in 18 days and geared toward teenage hot rodders.

What impresses people today is Carter’s perseverance in finding the 1975 red Chevy van with the name “Wild Cherry” painted on the sides. After seeing a Facebook photo of it — rusty, singed by a forest fire and smashed by a fallen tree — he did more than a year of research to determine its location. Then he drove 1,900 miles to pick it up on a mountain in the California wilderness.

“After I saw the picture, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” said Carter, who works at a Gillespie body shop. “To see that van abandoned with a tree on it, and to know its former glory, how nice that it looked, how it was in a movie ... I knew I had to do something.”

Van with tree
Chris Carter first became interested in the Wild Cherry van when he saw this photo, taken by a California man walking a dog, which made the rounds on Facebook in 2016. Provided Provided

Today, the half-restored van is sitting in Carter’s garage. He works on it almost every day, but he never feels alone. His Wild Cherry Van Facebook page has 3,128 followers. People from several countries have bought T-shirts or contributed to his GoFundMe account.

An Arizona man donated a vintage bubble-top sunroof to replace the original one destroyed by the tree. A Wisconsin man sent two porthole windows, and an Ohio man drove seven hours to deliver a new windshield.

Carter also gives credit to his wife, Wendy, for being so supportive when his interest became a project and the project became an obsession. “None of this would have been possible without her,” he said.

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California cruisin’

Van Nuys Blvd. is a 10-mile road in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was a wildly popular cruising strip for young people in hot rods, vans and classic cars.

The Wild Cherry van belonged to Nick Massalas, a teenage motorhead who bought it in 1977 when it was solid “candy apple” red. He was trying to think of a good name — everyone named their vans in those days — while waiting for his girlfriend after school one day.

“She came out carrying a can of Canada Dry wild cherry soda, and it hit me like a brick on the side of my head,” said Massalas, now 59 and living in San Diego, California. “I said, ‘That’s it! That’s it! That’s it! That’s going to be the name of the van.’”

Vintage soda can
Chris Carter’s grandmother, Vicki Carter, bought him a vintage can of Canada Dry wild cherry soda on eBay. That’s where the Wild Cherry van got its name. Teri Maddox

Massalas paid a man $75 to paint “Wild Cherry” on the sides and add fancy gold pinstriping. That artwork and the van’s newfangled tinted windows caught the eye of the crew filming “Van Nuys Blvd.” on a Friday night in 1979.

A producer waved down Massalas and asked him if he wanted to be in a movie. Cameras filmed the van cruising on Van Nuys and sitting at a stoplight while three girls crossed the street. Both clips are in the 2-minute trailer.

The movie was directed by William Sachs and released by Crown International Pictures. It starred Bill Adler and 1974 Playboy Playmate of the Year Cynthia Wood.

“A small-town kid hears about the wild nights of cruising the boulevard in Van Nuys, California,” reads the IMDb plot summary. “He drives out there to check it out, and gets involved with drag racers, topless dancers and bikers.”

Drive-in screening

Massalas saw the movie at Van Nuys Drive-In, where about 50 vans lined the back row to keep from blocking views of the cars up front. When the Wild Cherry hit the big screen, drivers started honking their horns and cheering.

Massalas and his friends cruised the strip until 1980, when police began cracking down on the youthful fun. He traded the van for a 1957 Chevy and $2,500 in cash and lost track of it for nearly four decades. Hunting Massalas down was part of Carter’s detective work last year. Now the two are friends.

“Chris is like the brother I just met,” said Massalas, an investment specialist. “He resurrected a legend in the vanning world. Forty years later, it’s taken on a whole new life.”

Replaced side panel
Chris Carter cut out a badly damaged section of side panel and roof on the Wild Cherry van and replaced it with a section from a 1976 Chevy donor van. Provided

Carter was only 7 weeks old when “Van Nuys Blvd.” was released. He’s a Belleville East graduate with a trademark long goatee and a passion for hot rods, motorcycles and vans that goes back to childhood. His grandfather ran a Swansea body shop.

Carter’s Wild Cherry adventure began in 2016, when he saw a Facebook post from Europe with two images: the recent photo of the dilapidated van with a tree on it and its screen shot from “Van Nuys Blvd.” The man who shared the post didn’t take the photo, so Carter set out to find out who did.

After months of Internet research and hundreds of Facebook pleas for information, Carter reached Mike Hutchings, a California man who had snapped the photo while walking dogs for an animal-rescue organization near Lake Hughes. Hutchings gave Carter enough clues to narrow down the location on Google maps.

“I stared at the satellite picture for about three days, and I just knew it was the van,” Carter said, speaking of a tiny rectangle in the grainy image. But it looked brown instead of red, and it didn’t have a tree on it. Neighbors had cut up the tree for firewood.

Risky road trip

Carter and his wife have a blended family with three children. Wendy, 43, is an accounts payable specialist in St. Louis.

When Carter brought up the seemingly crazy idea of driving to California to see if the brown rectangle on the satellite map was the Wild Cherry van, Wendy encouraged him to go for it.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” she said last week. “I wasn’t going to stop his dream. But he was nervous. He said, ‘What if I drive all that way ... What if I drive cross country and it’s not there?’ And I said, ‘You’re going on a road trip. You’re treasure hunting. And maybe you’ll find something.’”

Carter called his friend, Bob McDonald, in Effingham and asked if he’d go along and help with driving. McDonald thought the trek sounded interesting, and he already had time off from work at a printing plant due to a shoulder injury.

Bob, Mike and Chris
Bob McDonald, Mike Hutchings and Chris Carter pose with the Wild Cherry van. Hutchings took the photo that first got Carter interested in it. Provided

The two men rented a trailer on Nov. 29 and drove 29 hours straight to reach the “eagle’s nest,” as they called their destination. A locked gate and “no trespassing” signs caused a moment of despair, but they persuaded a landowner that they were on a noble mission. The landowner called the sheriff, and the sheriff gave his blessing.

Perhaps the scariest part for Carter and McDonald was pulling the trailer up the mountain on a narrow dirt road, but the sight of the Wild Cherry van made it all worthwhile. Carter admits that he cried.

“It just really didn’t sink in for me,” said McDonald, 39. “I just thought, ‘We’ve got to get this thing on a trailer.’ It was in pretty bad shape. It only had two wheels. A tree had fallen on it, and it had survived a fire.”

Nostalgic comeback

Neighbors told Carter that the van was last owned by a man who died in 2005 with no apparent family, and that somehow it had survived a massive forest fire.

Carter and McDonald paid a visit to Hutchings before heading back east. They stopped at the Grand Canyon and a couple of other tourist spots, getting plenty of double-takes from motorists on the interstate.

“I still feel anxiety, just thinking about driving 1,900 miles in 29 hours, just to see if this van even existed,” Carter said recently. “It was such an epic event. I was all in at that point. I was either going to hit the jackpot or suffer a big loss.”

Carter has been using a 1976 “donor van” to replace parts of the Wild Cherry that were damaged beyond repair. He wants to finish restoration by July so he can take it to the Van Nationals in Rensselaer, Indiana, meeting up with Massalas and other members of his new brotherhood.

Key chain gift
An out-of-state admirer sent Chris Carter a letter and handmade leather key chain shaped like a van and branded with the words “Wild Cherry.” Provided

In September, Carter plans to lead a caravan from St. Louis to Los Angeles and drive the van down Van Nuys Boulevard for a evening of hot rodding nostalgia. He’s calling it the Wild Cherry Van Run.

Carter’s wife gave him a movie DVD of “Van Nuys Blvd.,” and his grandmother, Vicki Carter, bought him a vintage can of Canada Dry wild cherry soda on eBay. He has received letters from admirers, including a man who made him a van-shaped leather keychain, branded with the words “Wild Cherry.”

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Where’s my husband?’” Wendy said. “But he’s not gallivanting around town or hanging out in bars. He’s working on the van. It’s his dream.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter