Wild Cherry: A 1970s movie van is rescued, restored and … embroiled in charges of felony theft

A deep-red 1975 Chevy van with “Wild Cherry” painted in sparkling gold paint on its flanks became famous on the big screen when it appeared for a few brief moments in 1979 cult movie classic "Van Nuys Blvd." But a controversy over the past two years involving the van’s theft, restoration and eventual recovery has made Wild Cherry infamous on the internet in 2018.

IMDB.com says "Van Nuys Blvd." is a film about “a small-town kid who hears about the wild nights of cruising the boulevard in Van Nuys, California. He drives out there to check it out and gets involved with drag racers, topless dancers and bikers.” One of the film’s best-known stars was Cynthia Lynn Wood, who was Playboy Magazine’s 1974 Playmate of the Year.

The film’s plot is definitely thin and there’s plenty of cheesy acting. But the vehicles in the movie are cool. The entirety of Wild Cherry’s appearance can be seen in the trailer. Those few seconds it appears onscreen were enough to create a lasting memory for vanners across the country.

“I bought the Chevy on Van Nuys Boulevard one Friday night,” says Nick Massalas, who purchased Wild Cherry from its original owner in 1977. “Everybody was naming their vans at the time. I was into the band Sweet, so I thought of naming it Sweet Cherry. But my girlfriend was coming out of our high school with a can of Canada Dry Wild Cherry soda in her hand. I said, ‘That’s it, that’s the name of the van!’”

After having “Wild Cherry” painted on the van, Massalas added the wheel flares.

“I left them white because it was about $800 to get them painted,” Massalas said. “I was 19 years old and didn’t have the money.”

He was a part of the van scene of the late ’70s and had a great time in Wild Cherry.

“We’d cruise Van Nuys Boulevard, then go to Malibu and have a big bonfire there. We’d stay overnight — a big group of 30 or 40 of us from the Valley.”

Massalas was cruising one Saturday night on Van Nuys Boulevard when members of the "Van Nuys Blvd." movie crew asked if he wanted his van to appear in the film.

“It was only about three seconds of screen time, but it was fun,” said Massalas.

Eventually he traded Wild Cherry for a ’57 Chevy and $2,500 in the summer of 1980.

Massalas jokes, “My love life went down the tubes after I sold that van!”

Wild Cherry’s next owner soon sold the van again, this time to Laura and Steven Godin. The Godins loved the van, traveled with it and actually lived in Wild Cherry for a brief time, according to their son Andrew.

“I’m pretty sure either my brother or I was conceived in that van,” he says with a laugh.

The van didn’t fit into the Godins' busy family life and was parked on their remote mountain property near Lancaster, California. It sat there untouched for decades.

Over the last dozen or so years, vanning has seen a resurgence. Thousands of van fans are involved with the hobby. Old vans from back in the day are valued and preserved. Others are restored or built to look like they came from the 1970s using salvaged, new or rare NOS parts. And the community is active on Facebook pages dedicated to vanning in general, as well as small niches. Van meets are organized around the country by new and old van clubs, and there’s a magazine named Rolling Heavy that provides a hip retro take on the current culture.

The renewed interest in Wild Cherry began with a single photo taken by Mike Hitchens of Quartz Hill, California, in 2016.

“I’d seen it before because I walk dogs up there. But this time I had my camera. I took a few cool pictures that day, an old burned Joshua tree, stills of the valley — and the van,” says Hitchens. “I posted that van photo on my personal Facebook page, and it blew up. All of a sudden I had people asking me, ‘Do you know what that is?’”

The photo in question showed a van in rough shape sitting in the brush with an old tree crushing down on its roof. But one distinguishing characteristic was clearly visible: the “Wild Cherry” graphic on its side. And that’s when the internet fell in love with Wild Cherry. According to Hitchens, that photo was shared more than 2 million times.

Chris Carter, a body shop mechanic from Collinsville, Illinois, had never seen the movie "Van Nuys Blvd." before and, by his own admission, wasn’t really a vanner. But something about this old van resonated with him. He became obsessed with Wild Cherry.

“I lost sleep over that photo. Any time anyone would post a comment about that picture I’d message them and ask them if they knew anything about it.” says Carter. “Finally, this guy in New Zealand told me he knew who took the photo. Two years after I first saw the photo, I had the guy’s name. I sent him hundreds of messages. It took me three weeks to break Mike.”

To call Carter persistent would be an understatement. And eventually Hitchens provided him with the van’s location.

“He said, 'Just follow the trail, and you’ll find the van,'” says Carter.

Carter did just that. In fact, he drove 1,900 miles across the country with a buddy to California towing a trailer. He was determined to “rescue” Wild Cherry. Carter found the van thanks to the assistance of some local landowners.

“I showed up at these people’s property. They heard my story and said the van had been abandoned on an easement for the last 25 years. Then he called the sheriff that lived on the property too. I told him the story, and they both gave me their blessing,” said Carter. “They let me on their mountain. The rest is history.”

He loaded up Wild Cherry and hauled it home. That was in November 2017. Carter then began the restoration process. He set up a Wild Cherry Facebook page and posted detailed photos and videos of his every move.

Over the course of the 10-month build, he drew thousands of followers to his page who loved the idea of someone saving and restoring the old van. Through his posts and vlogs, Carter described his passion for the project, how he acquired the van and his plans for Wild Cherry.

Soon, fans of Wild Cherry began to donate parts as Carter restored the van. He set up a GoFundMe page and raised nearly $6,000.

“A lot was donated. The flares, the doors, the roof, the sunroof, the bubble windows, the wheels and tires, carpet — it came from all over the country,” said Carter.

Steve Dempsey, owner of the automotive aftermarket parts company MrTailLight.com, donated hundreds of items to Carter and even plans to have the van in his company’s booth at the 2018 SEMA show in Las Vegas.

“I’ve built many projects before and I knew what he was facing,” says Dempsey. “Building something on this level … it’s not something someone can do on a normal wage, so I chipped in to help. I contacted him myself. I even put that windshield in the back of my van and drove it to his front door.”

It seemed like vanners across the country had Wild Cherry fever, and Carter became a hero of sorts to some.

Eventually, Laura Godin learned that Wild Cherry had been removed from her property.

She filed a police report in June claiming the van was stolen. Her son Andrew said that despite the van’s neglect and tattered condition, his mom has an emotional connection to it and wants it back.

Carter says Godin’s older son had a different opinion when he first spoke to him.

“I looked up the previous owner on social media and I contacted her son Steven (Jr.),” says Carter. “He was stoked for me. He said, ‘Nobody in this family would have the means to do anything with it (the van).’ So that’s why it sat there for 30 years.”

Carter continued finishing the restoration and registered the van with the Illinois vanity plate “VANUYS.” He also started a business named Wild Cherry Customs. The van was completed in time for July’s 46th Van Nationals in Rensselaer, Indiana, where Carter made this video thanking some of his donors and showing off his handiwork.

Fans of Carter and Wild Cherry met to kick off a cross-country road trip called the Wild Cherry Van Run 2018 on Sept. 15. The goal? Make it to California and cruise Van Nuys Boulevard one more time in Wild Cherry. The run attracted a dozen or so fellow vanners who met up with Carter and his girlfriend, Liz Duncan. Carter documented the whole trip on the Wild Cherry Facebook page, and the group appeared to be having a great time on the road.

On Sept. 18, the day before the big cruise down the boulevard, the vanning community learned about Godin and her claim that Carter had stolen the van from her property.

Many believed Carter’s motives and intentions were pure and that Godin only wanted the van back because it had been restored. Others were convinced that in spite of the loving restoration of Wild Cherry, a piece of classic vanning history, he simply stole her van. Some wondered if the police, who were reportedly following his moves on social media, would make an arrest or impound the van once he arrived in California.

Carter and about two dozen vans arrived at the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys, California, on Sept. 19 for an afternoon van show before hitting Van Nuys Boulevard. Wild Cherry was clearly the focus for the 40 or so people who attended. Carter and Duncan (who wore a blue dress with cherries on it) sold “Wild Cherry” T-shirts and stickers and also raffled off a big basket of goodies to the crowd. Carter was confident he had done nothing wrong and was even dismissive of Godin’s claims.

“She (Godin) contacted me once since then and I said, ‘Lady, I don’t even know you. Who are you?’ It was just all bullshit,’” said Carter. “She was never even the owner of the van. It was her husband, I think. I really don’t know, man.”

Carter admitted that law enforcement officials questioned him about Wild Cherry at around 10 that morning.

“They wanted to see the van. They looked at it, they looked at the VIN, and then they said, ‘OK, thanks, sorry to bother you,’” said Carter. “Three California sheriffs walked away this morning and left me here. I’m not in cuffs … I don’t have no ‘clinkers’ on my hands. My conscience is clean, man. When people see success and successful people doing things, they want a piece of it.”

The show that afternoon drew some celebrities within this circle. The affable director of "Van Nuys Blvd.," William Sachs, was there, as was the film’s music composer, Ron Wright.

“I wrote the script in seven days. There was three-four weeks of prep and then we shot for like 20 days,” said Sachs. “We edited it quickly, and it was in theaters in three months. They said, 'we need this right away before it (the cruising trend) dies out!'”

Sachs says he’s always been into cars.

“I used to drag-race down at Asbury Park, New Jersey. We used to race from light to light and hope we didn’t get caught,” says Sachs.

Some of the cars in the film were real hot rods, like a roadster owned by Dick Scritchfield, a founding father of the LA Roadster Club. But according to Sachs, the vans were more show than go.

“The vans weren’t really souped-up hot vans, but they certainly had the look. So I put a hot soundtrack to them,” says Sachs. “When it comes to the Wild Cherry van, I didn’t plan that. In fact, I don’t think I even noticed that van until we were in the editing room.”

He says the cruising scenes weren’t set up — they were real people driving their own cars on Van Nuys Boulevard.

“It was a quick, low-budget movie, so you just had to go for it,” says Sachs.

Massalas, who owned Wild Cherry at the time of the filming, was there, too. Late in the day, Carter presented him with a faded chunk of the van’s original door skin that had his name, Nick, painted on the side. The driver door is now emblazoned with "Chris." Massalas supports Carter but mentioned that he received a call that morning about Wild Cherry.

“I had a detective call me,” said Massalas. “And they’re looking into it. It sounds pretty serious.”

The convoy of vanners hit Van Nuys Boulevard around 6:30 that evening and cruised the strip. Wild Cherry looked great on the boulevard. Carter seemed to be having a blast. As the sun set, lowriders, hot-rodders and muscle cars made the scene look not completely unlike a scene from the movie. The vans all lined up near the location where many of the film’s street scenes were shot almost 40 years ago. The police presence was heavy, largely to keep pedestrians from standing on the center of the road to film the cruise with their phones. To the best of our knowledge, none of them hassled Carter or even stopped to look at the van.

That night, fans waited for updates to Carter’s Wild Cherry Facebook page — but none came. And that was odd, considering this Van Nuys Boulevard cruise was supposed to be the culmination of all Carter’s hard work. Wild Cherry was the center of his life for the past two years, and this was the van’s spiritual homecoming.

The next day, Chris Carter went dark.

The Wild Cherry Facebook page was taken down. And there were no further updates to his personal Facebook page (which was taken down five days later) or his Instagram account, which as of this writing remains active.

Dempsey, owner of MrTailight.com, says Carter called him on Thursday afternoon to thank him for participating in the run. But Dempsey says he tried to call Carter several times in the following days. His cellphone seemed to be turned off.

“It’s our plan to still have Wild Cherry at SEMA,” says Dempsey. “However, we have put a backup plan into effect. We have no choice. If he went dark, he went dark.”    

Vanners online began to speculate about the fate of Carter and Wild Cherry.

A new Wild Cherry Facebook page was created to provide an outlet for those looking to discuss the van. The page grew to over 800 members in a handful of days. And most of them seemed to be siding with Godin. Some hope, if she doesn’t want the van, that it will be donated to a charity auction.

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