Home / History/Torchtopian / Someone Help Me Identify This Chunk Of A Van Submerged In The LA River Before I Go Nuts

Someone Help Me Identify This Chunk Of A Van Submerged In The LA River Before I Go Nuts


There’s something about the challenge of identifying cars by tiny pieces that clamps onto my attention and holds, ferociously, like a Pomeranian on a dropped hot dog. Yesterday I was feeling pretty smug because I just identified four really obscure cars procured by our partner Beau (more on those soon!) from just taillight pictures, so I was pretty cocky when I encountered this challenge: identifying part of a van in a river. And it kicked my ass brutally, and I think with some glee. So now I want your help, Autopians. We can’t let river van win.

The van came to my attention via the Twitter account of my friend Emily (who is an absurdly talented tinkerer and builder of things, just so you know) who noticed the van-chunk as it was revealed in an unusually low LA river:

We don’t get to see much of the van at all; in fact, what’s not hidden by water appears to have been partially bisected by either human hands wielding a Sawzall or the bite of a terrifyingly large kaiju of some kind. So, we’re really only dealing with, like, 1/8th of a van here, at best. [Editor’s note: Looks like more than 1/8. Also “bisect” means split in half. I’m going with 1/3 of a van, here. -DT]

Still, that should be enough to identify this. As I said, I just identified several obscure cars based on about six square inches of area [Editor’s note: Enough with the bragging! How many days of this will I have to endure?! -DT]. This should be possible! And yet, it’s proving very difficult, mostly because of one key detail.

The detail is this stamping right there, as indicated by the arrow. It’s the place where a window would be punched out in passenger versions of this van, but as this seems to have been a cargo version, it wasn’t. It’s a common thing to see on panel vans. Here’s a similar one on a GMC Savana/Chevy Express:

Same idea, but not the same van, as you can see that one in the river there is a much smaller window-area stamping with a much larger corner radius. The sorta B-pillar area (well, where the pillar would be if the window was actually stamped out) is much thicker. So, it’s not one of these.

Could it be a low-roof Ford Transit Connect?

No, those don’t even have any window stamping area on the windowless versions.

It’s not the newer version, either.

RAM Promaster City? Nissan NV200?

Nope and nope. Wrong shape for that stamping. Maybe the bigger Nissan van, the one with the stupidly-long hood? The Nissan NV?

Hm. That’s a bit closer?

That’s close, but now I’m not sure about the slope of that A-pillar, which seems to have a steeper rake than the NV. That, and there seems to be a much more prominent rain gutter between the roof panel and the side, which the NV lacks. So I don’t think this is our answer.

What the hell else could this be? LA sometimes gets Mexican-market cars sneaking over. Could it maybe be a VW Caddy?

Eeeeh, close but still not it. Am I thinking too exotic? Could it be a ubiquitous Ford Econoline/E-Series?

Hm. Let’s enhance the window-stamp area and compare:

We’ve got the rain gutter, but that A-pillar isn’t right, and the shape of the window stamping isn’t either. Crap. Maybe that window stamping on the flooded van was hidden under an outer panel? But I don’t see any obvious mounting methods?

What other panel vans are out there? Why do none of these fit? Why is this so hard? What is that miserable, sunken half-van? What is its story, and what dark secrets did it take with it into the deep?

Someone help me out here. This is making me bonkers, and I know if anyone can help, it’s one of you crazy-ass Autopians, of which I bet there’s at least a few who fetishize panel vans and will recognize this as quickly as a photo of their own mom.

So, please, solve this and get it out of my head!

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69 Responses

        1. They’re not. And even if they were, that’s a solid contiguous B pillar. T4 does not have that; T4 has a separate style panel with two cuts even with the top and bottom of the window. No cuts like that here.
          And ultimately, it’s not in Lake Mead – it’s in the Los Angeles River (which is low due to Lake Mead.) Which means it would have had to be either an extremely rare 1993 short wheelbase or a 1999 VR6. It’s been there far more than 5 years, and you’re absolutely not getting a Canadian one past customs, forget CARB.

            1. The picture you linked shows exactly what rootwyrm is talking about. The Volkswagen has an additional horizontal embossed line tangent to the top of the “window” that cuts across the B-pillar.

  1. I think it is likely an Aerostar as others have already mentioned. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually is a GMC Savannah with the A pillar distorted from damage. The remaining structure got partially crushed by something.

  2. My first reaction was that the word “van” might be misleading, as the shape looks like it could just as easily be a truck, opening up many more possibilities. But then again, I don’t recall ever seeing windowless stamping on a truck. I also thought that there could be a glass window there, and that it just happened to be as dirty as the metal around it… but no, the way the cut line goes right through the “window” looks very much like it’s the same piece of metal. Well, so much for that idea, then. I’m convinced it’s a van now. Back to your regularly-scheduled speculation!

  3. Torch, you seem to be focusing on modern vans. Is it possible this thing has been in the river for more than 40 years? Look at the slope of the A pillar on a ’65 Chevy van, the side doesn’t have that window relief, but I feel it might be closer

  4. I think your first guess was right on. Early Chevy Express/GMC Savana has the correct curvature to the side panel aft of the door opening, and I think the corner radius on the window stamping looks larger than it actually is in that photo. I found a pic of one with the driver’s door open, and the door jamb stamping matches, too.

    1. The offset between the panel curve and the roof rail looks larger than it is because we don’t have much context for it. When you look at the size of the door opening and realize how narrow that opening would actually be, it’s easier to imagine. I think you got it!

  5. It’s absolutely the Chev/GMC you posted first. The lack of reference points for the size of the van has thrown you off. The relief is the same shame and the cabin size and windscreen angle also match. You nailed it straight away and then spent the rest of the article doubting it.

  6. I enjoy how a question of ‘what US market van is this’, which could be anywhere between 5 and 45 years old, is basically boils down to only a choice between 6 vehicles, with body styles seemingly unchanged for decades.

    Based on images provided I’d say it’s a Chevy Express, not that I knew what one of those was until 15mins ago! It’s certainly not the VW Transporter one poster is very insistent on.

  7. Torch,
    Have Emily return to the same spot in 4 months. After this hot summer in Southern California, the LA river will be completely dry. Then we could see the whole (front half at least) van and probably the bones of the bodies with concrete blocks shackled to the floor (or something like this).

  8. https://www.kbb.com/chevrolet/express-2500-cargo/2018/

    Jason, image 5 of the gallery here suggests you were right with the Express/Savana. Something of a rain gutter directly above the door jamb with no gap; indents in the door jamb exactly matching where the rubber is on KBB’s picture; gently-sloping A-pillar.

    I’m less keen on relying on the B-pillar thickness visual difference, only because the angle/lighting/scale etc. in the Twitter pic might be obfuscating or distorting it to some degree.

  9. “the dismembered remains of a car have appeared, much like the body in a barrel recently revealed by the drought in Lake Mead, though less gruesome.”

    If you ever needed a reason to filter your water….

  10. “Also ‘bisect’ means split in half.”

    Etymologically it means “cut into two” and although this often is used in the sense of two equal parts, particularly in mathematics, it does not necessarily mean this and in many contexts can be appropriately employed even when referring to two unequal parts, so its use in describing the exposed part of the van seems apt.

  11. I love the earnest passion and expertise of this place that I come here way late and am still the first one to point this out:

    In LA of all places, shouldn’t they know you’re supposed to park the van down BY the river?

  12. It’s not a Chrysler. 1st gen and AS had narrow pillars, and fritted side glass (their party trick was opening windows.) NS generation had flush full-side glass above the bodyline.

    It’s not a Ford E-series. The passenger version has flush-fit fritted glass.

    It’s a GMC Savanna, specifically a conversion which appears to have had the front glass replaced with sheet metal. The passenger version Savanna has flush-fit fritted glass (opening windows.) Only the conversion got that style of weather-strip mounting. The panel-side conversion van has large indentations where the weather strip would go.

    Replacing the non-opening d/s with sheet was not uncommon with some R/V and wheelchair conversions. In R/Vs, that’s often where the cabinetry or heating would go. In a wheelchair conversion, they’re all double-barn-doors with the lift installed on the passenger side. I would guess between the two options, this is a late-90’s Braun conversion.
    Or could just be the glass cut ridiculously clean. But I’m betting that’s not the case (obviously.)

  13. I love this article. It is one of the many reasons that I come to The Autopian. Do y’all have any good insider information on the new VW Scout? … as for the van in the article, I’m hoping it is an older van, because that’s more intriguing.

    1. It makes a lot of sense, but the window stamping on the waterlogged one looks a lot deeper and more defined. Could be visual deception of comparing a clean van photographed from a 90 degree angle with a dirty one photographed at an off-square angle.

  14. While I cannot nail down the exact year, it does look like a Chevy/Ford full size.

    As for: [Editor’s note: Enough with the bragging! How many days of this will I have to endure?! -DT].

    All the days, David, all the days.

  15. I am firmly in the 1996-present Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana camp; to narrow the year range we would need to see badges, grille, taillights, etc. I attached pictures in my response on Twitter comparing it to the other most common candidate, the Ford Econoline: https://twitter.com/Kinto_M/status/1524511825135644672

    The “window” is embossed with a thick, gutter-like border, not just a simple ridge; the rain gutter starts to curve downward at the A-pillar; and the driver’s door appears to have wrapped around the A-pillar all the way to the windshield.

    I tried to find a picture of an Express/Savana with the driver’s door open from the right angle to compare sheetmetal stampings (the little tab at the upper rear corner could be very distinctive) but didn’t have enough luck.

    1. I agree; Jason’s first guess was exactly right, and Express/Savana was my first thought, too.

      I had some time after knocking off work yesterday, DID find a pic of a Chevy Express with the door open, and have posted a Torchian 8×10 glossy photograph (actually 11×11 PDF) with circles and lines and paragraphs on the back:


      The photo with the door open is at a lower angle, but the relevant elements are visible.

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