So you have a dream to put together the most famous van this side of the Scooby Doo van? But it’s just a rainy day fuzzy dream? Here’s the steps I took to put together the coolest van known to man, and don’t say different because Mr.T will find you and bust you up!
Well to start off, I wasn’t looking to own or make an A-team van! As founder and creator of starcarcentral.com I always have my eyes out for finished real or replica movie and TV cars at all the car events I attend, and I have discovered that it’s WAY cheaper and more fun to find a fan who has put in the detail work and money to get his or her dream movie car, than to try to own them all myself. Besides, if I did that, who would drive all the cars? So just like my Knight Rider KITT car that sort of fell into my lap (that’s another story!) the A-Team van sort of “found me” as my new project.
While looking for some cheap transportation for my son, I found myself at an auction looking at beat up Government cars. They were all going for too much money and I felt I had wasted a morning. But then I saw it. A 1983 GMC solid panel van! Well, being a star car fan, I knew my A-Team facts, and after finding out it was a LAUSD van that had been maintained unlike a privately owned delivery van, I knew I had a “deal”. $600 later and some fees to the auction house, and I had the keys to my new full-scale model kit!
As Star cars go, the A-Team is not the easiest one to put together, but it is not the hardest by a long shot! Any Batmobile is up at the top, then the back to the future Delorean and the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters would be next in line as some of the hardest, most expensive and detail oriented to recreate. The A-Team is a lot less complex than just the wiring of a Knight Rider car. It just needs time, money and attention to details – and not giving up! The first step in any star car build is research, and thanks to the internet, that is easier than ever. Having done a Batmobile at the dawning of the internet, if you are building something now, you have it SOOOOO EASY! After a lot of searching I finally found the guys I was looking for, A-team fans in England who had done a lot of the research all ready and were happy to help “educate” me. I was the pioneer in the bat world doing all the leg work, so this was nice to have some fans who knew their way around the A-Team van. (BTW A-team show? HUGE in England. Like Beatles/Rockstars … I don’t know why.)
After the van came home, and all the paperwork was done I started doing prep body work, banging out dents, drilling holes where I would need them, and filling in or marking holes that needed to go away. A long drive out to a van store got all the exterior pieces that needed to be bolted on, and I cleaned out two pepboys stores of their fog lights! 8 yes EIGHT fog lights in addition to the low and high beams on the front of the van! 4 white, 4 amber.
Now here’s were the “model kit” stuff comes in. The Fog lights were not quite right, so I had to modify all of them, cut off stone guards, and then find glass paint to make 4 of the lights yellow. I painted the inside of the glass as yellow lights are difficult to find and to get 8 matching lights in two colors even harder! Sometimes you have to improvise! Anyway, the biggest transformation was obviously the paint. I did my research, and explained to the paint shop what I wanted, and provided them with a pile of photos of the original van to use as a guide. They did great, and it came home all new and shiny!
In 20-20 hindsight, I should have had them paint the insides, but I was trying to keep this project cost as low as possible. I had to put in a lot of extra time and cans of paint but the end result was fine. The main difference between a “Oh, that’s supposed to be that van from the show” and “Oh my Gawd, is that the original A-Team van?” is really in the details. I could have slapped some cool wheels on it at this point and been done. But like most star car fans, the fun is getting the details right. “Is that handle chrome or grey?” “Are the wipers black or chrome?” Does the red stripe go into the door frames?” Details like that about 20 people in the world would care about or even know about. But I believe that people can tell something is just “off”, they don’t know what it is, but once all the parts are in place the over all effect is “WOW! IS that THE one Mr. T drove?”
Besides, just like scale modelers, you are doing the details your way, and you want them to be right for YOU, otherwise it’s just gonna bug you forever. But that’s later in the build!
So there are phases in every star car build, prep, exterior, interior. I was working on getting the exterior right first. One of the big elements of the A-Team van was the super big bull bar and brush guard combo on the front of the van that Mr.T’s character B.A. put on the van. Now, if you scroll up and look at the photo of the van without a bull bar, it looks like the van. Most people when I told them it was missing, said “it had a big bar on the front?” but for me to be happy, it needed that detail. Only one problem, the ones they used that were everywhere and in every catalog in 1983 are all gone and not for sale. After scouring Craigslist and eBay for months for the right bull bar I gave up and made my own.
I took a Craigslist suburban bull bar and tossed the center sections, then welded on a section to make them longer. Next I went to a muffler shop and had them bend the brush guards to my specifications. Then two pals helped with the welding and grinding. A little more money to the powder-coater and it was ready to go!
A long process but the bull bar finally is welded onto the front of the van!
Now there were lots of other details that I am skipping over, but mainly it went like this “Hey, I need a part for a 1983 GMC Vandura that looks like this!”
and the answer was “Oh yeah, those were everywhere in 1983, but I haven’t seen one in 20 years!” SO again I had to find it on eBay, or make one to keep the project moving ahead.
Throughout the build I was always searching for parts, but for the most part to the untrained eye, it’s was done. However I needed three different antennas for the roof, and more importantly specific 8 lug ribbed wheels and tires! I was also buying stuff for the interior, police scanners, reel to reel tape players, CB radios, and lots of guns but that all went into a box for when I got to the interior.
In every projects story, there comes a stumbling block and for me and my van it was the wheels. The series used all sizes of vanduras both 5 lug and the heavy duty 8 lug full ton vans. (They didn’t break as much when you jumped them through buildings!) but finding the original rims was a daunting task. I would find one rim, but it was in montana, and it was $300 to ship it. Would I find a set of three? pass. Found a set in Alaska, again, the shipping was prohibitive. Then a set of “almost right wheels” came up a few miles from my house. $200 for 4! So I grabbed them knowing that I would rather have “The exact ones” but knowing now after a years search that the perfect ones may never appear so these were better than nothing. So I got the only red paint designed for wheels, and started blasting and sanding and painting and masking all four over a few weeks. Once they were done they sat and sat as I finished the exterior and started on the interior.
I figured “Hey, when I have some cash for tires, I will run down to the tire store and get my BF Goodrich tires and slap them on the van!”
Well that day came, and after telling the clerk the tires I wanted and asked how much his reply was “You can’t buy those size tires anymore, they stopped making them in 2005.” WHAT!!!!@#$@!@ Back to Craigslist, to find 31 inch BF Goodrich tires that will fit on my 16.5 (yes, point 5!) rims.
Weeks later I had a set of 6 tires from two sources, shipped two, drove for 2 hours for the other 4, and took my rims and tires to the tire shop to finally get some rims on my van! Well sort of!
So I got my 6 tires, and 4 rims. I thought I was good to go, but the rims needed special hard to find lug nuts! So back to eBay and I return with the lug nuts. I GET TWO ON THE BACK! Yeah!!! Then as they try mounting the front tires, we find out the tires will rub and are too big. Grr. I know they are too big, but that is the smallest 16.5 tire they made!!!! 31,35,37 for all the big trucks. So I have to cut the front flares to get them to fit. I take my other two tires home. I also notice, that the red doesn’t match the red stripe on the van. It starts to bug me and I know I will have to repaint them.
- Blacking out rear windows -frames – tail light frames – handle and keyhole and a few bullet holes for style!
I planned to cut the wheel wells and mount the other two front tires, but in the morning one of my tires has a sidewall leak. I will have to go to the tire shop to swap tires now, so no way of me getting them on at home. I give up on the tires for now and decide to start work on the interior of the van.
As most modelers and fanboys realize, no one other than the other super fans know or care about the details like they do. No one will notice or even care after you point it out that you put in so much research time and freeze framed every episode and discussed on fan chat boards what that thing is in the corner or what brand Reel to Reel tape machine is that behind Mr. T. Again, that’s the fun part! SO knowing full well that even I didn’t know what the interior of the A-team van looked like I had to do the work. That ment scouring the show for glimpses of interior shots and noticing changes over the seasons and picking the interior that I wanted to emulate. (For Knight Rider owners this can be down to an Episode as the interior dash details changed from show to show!)
Once the research was done, it was time to BUILD!
Behind the back set of seats in the van were two sort of matching cabinets. One was well seen on screen and used in several episodes. It had a reel to reel tape recorder and a police scanner in it, so they could listen in on the bad guys they had bugged. Correct scanner and tape recorder found (gotta love eBay!) and measurements taken, so the first cabinet came together pretty quickly.
In the back was an ammo box where they kept their guns and ammo. Sometimes the back row bench seat was in the van, often it wasn’t so they could jump out or carry stuff. My thought was the van was changed based on the mission, so things could change around just like it did on the show. My ammo box got an “A-Team” logo that was not on the show, but just for some flash and name recognition. I also added speakers for the reel to reel so I could make it all work and build those into the sides of the cabinet. Correct details and actual function often collide, and you have to decide what is more important to you. I like electronics and gadgets to be operational, even if they never did work in the “reel” world! An example of funciton vs screen correct is on the screen used vans they had tiny little side custom mirrors and after driving this monster in traffic I opted to use larger mirrors and custom paint them. When it comes to safety or accuracy for a starcar you want to drive, choose safety!
Once they cabinets and ammo box were finished and painted, interior installation was next. All along small details are being improved or corrected, and parts and bits are being searched for and tossed in a box so that I have them when I get to that point of the build. I tried to get “MR.T” for the licence, but someone all ready had it! There are companies that make fake licence plates and for display often star car owners will take off their plates and put on the “show correct” ones. The A-Team van had several blue and gold California plates that changed depending on which version of the van they used on the show that week!
The final interior upgrades, carpet, upholstery etc. should always be saved until the end, so you don’t damage it, and you are free to climb all over the car and set tools etc. without worrying about leaving a mark. I just painted the floor black and grey as a temporary look, while all the work was being done. Plus, you have to take into account your bank book and sometimes projects have to sit for a while until funds are available!
Well after months of putting off the wheel and tire situation, I got more lug nuts, and found a better set of rims for cheap, cheap enough to make me buy a second set and sell off the first set that didn’t have enough “ribs”. I figured I was going to repaint anyway, so if I was going to re do all that work, I would rather use more accurate rims! So several Craigslist ads of buying and selling and trading, along with taking a saws-all to the underside of the van’s front wheel wells, I finally got 4 tires and rims on the van! Also it’s hard to see in this photo, but there are three antenna along the top, a CB radio, Car phone antenna, and police scanner antenna.
Is it done? Well one thing that any custom car owner will tell you, is that it’s never done! There are always details to do and I am continuing to tweak, replace and improve items when I feel the urge to do some more upgrades. Final upholstery, DVD player for the roof, finding old style “square” speaker covers, running boards with fake exhausts ports – upgrading the walls to the “correct” coin top gray rubber are all on the list. But now Star Car Central.com has an A-team van for appearances for charity events, and more importantly a place to get out of the elements and haul stuff to events in style! As Hannibal always said, “I love it when a VAN comes together!”
Great stunt with a replica van, but you won’t see me doing this EVER!!!!
The A-Team was the original Wild boys in the 80’s! Why was it popular? Comedy, action, car crashes, blowing stuff up and shooting guns! What’s not to like?
Now I have to go tear around in my van and look for a damsel in distress who needs to hire…. THE A-TEAM!