I love my van. But I’ve never been in love with the way it looks. With its plain-white paint job and ’90s-era green-and-teal Mark III factory graphics, it’s always looked more like Grandpa’s RV, and less like anything resembling a badass street machine.

So far, I’ve lived with the less-than-killer appearance, because everything else about it was just too good a deal to pass up.  But now that I’ve officially decided to make it a “project” van, I figured it was time to beef up the looks a little.

In my dreams.

In my dreams.

In a perfect world, I would rush out and have the van’s body professionally stripped, smoothed, and drenched in 15 coats of purple metal flake. But in reality, even if I had the $2,000 – $5,000 to spend on pro bodywork and paint, the fact remains that I park my van on the streets of Brooklyn each night. It’s not a bad neighborhood, and I’ve been fairly lucky so far. But that doesn’t mean that tomorrow some moron won’t lose control and skid right into the side of all my hopes and dreams. Whatever improvements I make to her, I still have to be ready to walk outside and expect the worst.

With all that in mind, I’ve decided on a compromise: I’m going to remove all the existing vinyl graphics and pinstriping, deal with any necessary body repairs, and then restore it to its original Glacier White paint job, using aerosol touch-up paint and clear coat. Once that’s done, I’ll think about installing some kind of new graphics— hopefully something more “classic car” and less “Days Inn bedspread”. It won’t be show quality, but if I take my time and do it right, I just may end up with a decent “20-footer”. (In other words, a paint job that looks great… from over 20 feet away.)

And as with all of my do-it-yourself van activities, the work will all have to be done curbside, on the streets of New York City. Just to keep things interesting.

The first, very big step was to get the vinyl graphics off. Luckily, 3M makes a tool specifically designed for that: the Stripe Off Wheel.

stripe-off_wheel

Stock photo. Totally not my van. Or my hands.

It’s basically a big, heavy rubber eraser that fits on the end of a power drill. In theory, it quickly rubs vinyl stripes and graphics right off, without doing any damage to the paint. In actual practice, it’s a tiny bit more complicated. While it technically didn’t take any paint off, there were quite a few areas where it left some distinctive yellow smudges on the finish. I’m not sure if that was residue from the wheel itself, or maybe a result of the clear coat being heated up. Either way, I highly recommend this wheel— as long as you understand that you may have to end up doing some further refinishing when it’s done.

On a gorgeous, sunny Saturday in May, I parked in front of my building,  ran a heavy-duty extension cord out my second-story window, and hooked up the drill. Six hours later, I had the van completely stripped. I then went back with some 1000-grit sandpaper and #0000 steel wool and scrubbed off all the residue where the graphics had been (a result, I’m guessing, of 18 years’ worth of subtle dirt against the vinyl). There were a couple areas near the bottom of my passenger-side doors where the paint was already pebbled and cracked (the same place, probably not coincidentally, where the rust seems to be worst), and some of it came up with the wheel. With my hands sore from a day of drill-handling, and the sun fading, I threw a pre-emptive coat of primer on the rough spots, and called it a day.

Before...

Before…

... and after.

… and after.

It’s gonna need a lot more fine-sanding, and possibly some bondo, before the body is 100% clean. But the graphics were a huge step toward the final goal. And I think that, without all the stripes in the way, the body lines actually look a lot more sleek.

Next step: Sandpaper… and a whole lot of patience.

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