In October of 1973, the Arab Oil Embargo hit the United States like a tsunami. It all began with the surprise attack of October 6 on the nation of Israel; a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria had fired the opening salvo in the Yom Kippur War. By October 19, the White House under President Nixon approved $2.2 billion in emergency aid to Israel. The next day, Saudi Arabia—in conjunction with its OPEC allies—issued an oil embargo against the U.S., slashing production output and drastically raising prices. When you control roughly 80 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves and 40 percent of its production, you can do things like that. Folks who were around in those days remember rationing and long lines at the gas pumps. Odd-number license plates got gas on odd days, even license plates only on even-numbered days.
The Hemi Road Runner in the garage? That sucker was toast. The sudden scarcity of cheap fuel meant that, literally overnight, the world of American muscle was dead, with decades to pass before its rebirth. Manufacturers reacted as best they could by offering detuned models, but another trend stood ready as a placeholder of sorts: the van craze. If you loved cars but had no money or time to get gas, a shag wagon offered good times with none of the downsides of big-inch muscle. Once parked, a van’s occupants could enjoy a multitude of adult activities for hours or days at a time, usually accompanied by some good rock ‘n’ roll.
Such was certainly the case for the 1977 Dodge Street Van seen here, owned by Mark and Dorinda Coates of Blountville, Tennessee, but we’ll get to that story in a minute. First, some history.
Dodge B-Series Van History
Dodge B-series vans were made from 1971 to 2003, and, apart from two mild facelifts in 1979 and 1994, were mechanically identical, making the platform one of the longest running in history. The B-series first entered production with the passenger-oriented Sportsman and cargo Tradesman models. Then, in 1976, in response to increased demand from van lovers, Dodge created the YH3 Street Van package, a special stripped-down version of the Tradesman designed for customization by the van hippies. Along with the L’il Red Express and Warlock truck models, the YH3 Street Van was marketed, with era-appropriate Mopar impishness, as an “Adult Toy” in the sales material of the time. Despite all of this clever marketing, orders for factory-built YH3 Street Vans were rare, and the package was gone after 1981 (its lifetime spanning the B-series’ first facelift in 1979).
So what’s the deal with Mark Coates’ blue 1977 Street Van, seen here? That was exactly what Mark’s wife Dorinda wanted to know when he dragged his first van home 20 years ago (that’s right—there are two). In a refrain familiar to most hot rodders, Mark reports “My wife took one look at it and said, ‘what are you going to do with that?'” “I don’t know, it was a deal,” Mark reasoned, but Dorinda’s response—”Well, I’ll never ride in it,” —in effect closed the matter. Fortunately for Mark, after a couple of years had passed she softened on the project, saying, “you know, if you fix that van up, I think it’d be pretty cool.”
What we haven’t let on to you yet is that Coates is one the country’s top muscle car restoration experts. When he deep-dives the research on a restoration he becomes the authority on that particular model before turning a wrench in anger, a trait that has endeared him to many collectors. Naturally, when it came to his newfound fascination with Dodge Street Vans, he was just as rigorous. “Well this van was an orange Street Van, and we were dead set on having an orange shag interior, but you couldn’t find any orange shag carpet or orange velour to do the proper sleazy interior,” says Coates. That was in 2001, and today that first van in the Coates fleet is still awaiting its transmogrification.
Dodge Street Van for Sale
Then, about three years ago, Coates got to looking around again, his interest still piqued by the Dodge Street Van phenomenon, and found another diamond in the rough. Says Mark, “Checking on the internet and stuff, that [blue] van came up on Facebook marketplace for sale. $9,800 is what I paid for it. It was a good, solid, rust-free piece. Period. I mean it was a good place to start. I knew what I was looking at, I didn’t have to fix a bunch of rust, it wasn’t beat up and yada, yada, yada. It was a complete blank slate inside, never had the first interior piece in it, it had been a cargo van its whole life.” The blank slate is a reference to the Tradesman van’s unadorned cargo interior, a must-have as a starting point for a proper Street Van conversion.
The YH3-Code Dodge Street Van and Direct Connection
As it turns out, the rarity of the factory-optioned YH3 Street Van is less of an obstacle than one might think; Mopar’s Direct Connection catalog of the era had page upon page devoted to van accessories including auxiliary lighting, windows, hatches, trim, fender flares, wheels, sidepipes, and most importantly, a Street Van conversion kit, which acts as a Rosetta stone of sorts for intrepid buyers wanting to correctly convert their Dodge vans, and go the full monty. (Curious about the van craze, van culture, or shag wagon swag? Check out Rolling Heavy Magazine here. ) Coates, ever the perfectionist, is now one of the world’s foremost experts on both the Street Van kit and the Direct Connection catalog in general: “You could buy a Street Van that came with a kit, or you could pick up the Direct Connection catalog and buy the Street Van kit, and the flares, wheels, everything was available through the Direct Connection catalog.”
Holy Grail: The Dodge Street Van Conversion Kit
The Street Van chrome emblem (or alternately the earlier decal version of the Street Van logo) was the primary prize in the inexpensive kit. The rest of it provided important guidance for a successful conversion, though, and the Direct Connection catalog provided the hard parts to finish it. Says Coates: “You could buy Cragars through Direct Connection but no, it wasn’t part of the kit. The kit was just the little box that had the interior templates, painting ideas, a few customizing ideas, and a little ‘do and don’t do’ book, a little helpful-hints thing. It had some keychains, some iron-on transfers, decals, just all kinds of neat little stuff in the kit. There was a free subscription to the Dodge Van Clan newsletter.”
Finished just before the pandemic began, Mark and Dorinda Coates have spent a lot of time in their Dodge Street Van, a vehicle that seems to be tailor-made for the world’s recent events. “We literally put two tanks of gas through it every weekend,” says Mark. “It comes with its own chauffeur. She’d just as soon sit over there in the passenger seat and enjoy the scenery. We take it to the lake. We’ve got a couple of nice lakes around the home and we head out early one morning and find a good spot, throw the doors open, and watch the boats go by.”
Do You Have to be a Van Hippie to Like a Street Van?
Despite the 53-year-old’s attraction to malaise-era Dodge Street Vans, Mark says he never was a van hippie. “I’m as far removed from that as anybody could be, but I always thought they were cool looking. I can remember guys driving to school when I was still too young to drive. The high-school kids, a couple of them had them and all. There was some really high-end custom vans in my area when I was growing up, and I always just thought they were cool and my wife thought they were cool. We kind of decided to put one together. She doesn’t care to drive it, but she loves to ride in it.”
Build Your Own Dodge Street Van
Following the van’s purchase three years ago, the conversion process from simple 1977 Dodge Tradesman to Street Van was accomplished in about 18 months. It was very simple, given the van’s excellent condition, and the vehicle remained drivable almost the entire time. “One of the cool things about it, through the entire process of restoring it—if you want to call it that—the car has never been killed,” says Coates. “Other than when it was taped-up in a paint booth, I could drive it back to the convenience store every day.” Speaking of the paint, Coates had something very specific in mind, which eventually led him to spray out 13 different color tests before settling on just the right custom hue: “It was originally a blue van, but this is my own custom mix. The original color is similar to B-5 blue, but I wanted to get rid of all the green shade that B-5 blue has. I did not want to look at it at all and go, ugh, that’s got green in it. And it needed to work with the rest of the interior colors and stuff that she had picked out.”
If you’re contemplating a Street Van conversion of your own, know that securing an authentic Street Van badge is important, and there are some nuances to learn. Says Coates: “They started using the [chrome] emblem in late 1977 through the end of the Street Van availability. In 1976 and early ’77, that emblem was a decal instead of being a piece of chrome. Then in late ’77 they changed over to a chrome emblem.” There are more variations in how Dodge Street Vans were otherwise equipped as well. “If you bought a Street Van that was a VIN’ed Street Van, it came with a set of chromed slot mags or wagon wheels; it had captain’s chairs, wood-grained steering wheel, and the higher-grade trim on the front, and that was pretty much it. It was sold as a do-it-yourself kit. The factory ones have the higher-grade trim around the grille, and I don’t like it, so I didn’t put it on this one.”
More Dodge Street Van Details
Even though Mark and Dorinda’s 1977 Dodge Tradesman isn’t a YH3-VIN’ed Street Van, it was very important that it exude a period-correct vibe throughout, and that meant heavy reliance on tips from the Street Van kit, which included many era-correct Mopar Direct Connection pieces: “Everything else on the interior is fully customized—you know, the door panels, everything’s hand-made—it’s got the steering wheel that was available through Direct Connection, it’s got a Tuff wheel in it, which even the VIN’ed Street Vans didn’t come with, but the Tuff wheel was available in the van section of the Direct Connection catalog.”
Score! Shag Carpeting on Clearance
Since Mark and Dorinda did all the work on the Street Van themselves, finding the right raw materials that weren’t Mopar items was a bit of a treasure hunt, especially the shag carpeting—a must for any era-correct shag wagon. “I found the carpet at Lowe’s on clearance and bought it all. There’s not any more out there,” says Coates with a laugh. “I bet they was glad to get rid of that stuff, whatn’t they?” As for the running gear, the Street Van has its original 114,000-mile 360ci small-block V8, which has been equipped with a Holley Sniper EFI and Hyperspark, the company’s distributor and timing-control set-up. Says Coates: “It drives just like a 30,000-mile Magnum 360 behind a pick-up truck. [Daniel] Boshears is working on a 408ci stroker motor for it. The engine’s black. It’s got a chrome air cleaner on it and stock valve covers and you can see a little bit of the fuel-injection stuff. None of that’s pretty.”
It’s More Than a Feeling
Nearly a half-century after the Arab Oil Embargo forced Americans to rethink their relationship with the automobile, we stand on the brink once again. Faced with negotiating the social-distancing needs of a world-wide pandemic as well as the existential question of the automobile’s future role, the Dodge Street Van and the turn-on-and-tune-out van culture points a potential way forward. Should Mark and Dorinda Coates and their Dodge Street Van find themselves in a world without any gasoline, and that may also insist additionally on their physical isolation, they can always jump in, close the door, and drift away. So if the van’s rockin’, don’t come knockin’! –Photos By: Mark Coates
Watch: HOT ROD Garage ’70s street machine van build
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