Anyone who spent time in the Burbank area between the late 1970s and the late 1990s might remember spotting a one-of-a-kind van on the road. Every inch encrusted in coins and brass ornaments, Ernie Steingold’s “California Fantasy Van” was guaranteed to turn heads wherever it went. Whether onlookers considered it a quirky local mascot or a gaudy eyesore, there was no denying it sparked curiosity. For all those who must have wondered over the years who would create such an elaborate spectacle, what would inspire someone to do so and how it must feel to ride around in it, Steingold’s daughter, Tracy Bouvier, is here to provide some answers and help preserve the memory of this unique slice of local history.
THE MAN WITH THE VAN
While he would later become known as a bit of an eccentric, Bouvier describes her father’s early life as conventional. Born in Detroit, Steingold worked as a salesman and repairman in his family’s store, served as a paratrooper in World War II, and loved bodybuilding and riding his Harley-Davidson. In 1963, he and his wife moved to Burbank, shortly before Bouvier was born. Steingold was a loving father to his three children and a hardworking business owner, providing service and repairs to customers at Dreese Vacuum on the Burbank Mall.
But then, “after my mom died when I was 7, my dad changed a lot,” Bouvier recalls. “It seemed like he had to occupy his mind with projects to cope with his loss. Many projects were extreme and artistic, like tiling almost every room in our house.”
In 1978, Steingold started adding decorations to the GMC van he drove to make pickups and deliveries for his vacuum business. “The van was another artistic outlet for my dad. He loved to put his own personal touches on things,” Bouvier explains. “At one point the van looked pretty cool and didn’t look entirely insane, and that could have been the end of it. But he couldn’t stop. Partly, it was a distraction from life and a way to cope for him.”
Steingold continued to add thousands of ornaments to the van over the next two decades, until his passing in 1998. Among the items highlighted in a 1994 L.A. Times article were “the 20-pound brass eagle with a 3-foot wingspan on the roof,” “the 100 brass unicorns and winged horses,” “the 30 life-size masks and 300 belt buckles” and “the $14,000 worth of coins” covering the vehicle. As Bouvier puts it, “The van was heavy with brass, coins, even bells. Opening and closing the passenger door took some extra ‘oomph!’ on my part. You could hear the bells ringing before he came around the corner.”
Even as the van became more elaborate, Steingold would still use it for his vacuum business, driving to customers’ homes across the Valley. But he also loved to display it at different locations around town, including the Friday night classic car shows at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. “My dad loved people,” Bouvier says. “The van gave him a chance to talk to all sorts of people. He was incredibly proud of his Fantasy Van. He drove it to Hollywood, Venice Beach and Las Vegas to show it off.” Steingold and his van were featured in a number of TV shows, a Kim Carnes music video and the movie L.A. Story.
A COMPLEX LEGACY
Not surprisingly, Bouvier says, wherever the van went, people stopped to stare. If it was parked, they’d gather around to inspect it. She even remembers security officers at Burbank Airport waving Steingold over to park his van in the red zone right outside the entrance so they could get a closer look. Most people admired his creation, but some found it ugly and weren’t shy with their insults; Steingold, however, would just smile and wave.
While he basked in the positive attention and shrugged off criticism, his daughter often found it difficult. “As a young teenager, I struggled a lot with the stares the van brought and my dad’s own eccentricity,” Bouvier shares. “The most traumatic was my first day of high school, when he dropped me off in the van and everyone in front of John Burroughs stared at me.” Beyond the embarrassment was the way her father directed so much of his attention toward the project. “I feel like the van often overshadowed everything and everyone else,” she says. “I was often an afterthought, so I had a ton of freedom growing up, which got me into trouble.”
Bouvier left Burbank after high school and worked hard to distance herself from her father and the van, but eventually, “I discovered I liked telling people about Dad and his crazy invention. I found a new sense of pride in it. Who else had a van like that? It was a great conversation piece and seemed to bring joy to people.” Ultimately, she began the eight-year process of writing a memoir that would not only chronicle the outlandish events of her unusual upbringing, but also come to terms with her father’s effect on her. “I think as a kid you want your parent to be there for you. But then as you age you realize they are just a person too,” she says. “We need to hang on to the moments our parents showed us love and came through for us. I knew my dad loved me.”
As Bouvier prepares to publish her book — entitled Drop Me Around the Corner, a reference to her mortification about riding in her father’s van as a teen — she hopes readers will be able to draw connections between her experiences and their own relationship struggles with their parents. She’s also proud to be able to tell the story of the Fantasy Van, which “still runs and still shines,” preserved at the Art Car World museum in Douglas, Arizona. And she’s happy to know her father is remembered, as well. “I still see people talk about the van and my dad on Facebook pages like ‘You know you’re from Burbank if….’” she notes. “I’ve seen hundreds of comments from people who have experienced my dad and his van. Many say he and the van are Burbank icons, and it seems like that is true.”