Curbside Classics: Chevrolet Astro Vans – Your Choice: Pampered Or Patina’d?

Around here at Curbside Classic, the Chevy Astro Van is considered a Cockroach Of The Road™. Though not widely beloved when new, it has earned respect due to its utility, reliability and simple refusal to go away. Even though they are now 15-35 years old, I still regularly see them on the road, usually in the form of well-used work vans, whether or not they started out as cargo versions or are passenger vans converted for work duty. Just recently, though, I came across two noteworthy passenger versions. See which one you like better!

The first is a 2005, representing the final year of the Astro’s and GMC Safari’s epic 21 year, single-generation run. This super clean example is about as mint as you’re likely to find. It clearly has led a charmed life, with the sun shining good fortune down on it, though probably within the pampered UV-free shelter of a garage.  Seeing it parked at Costco, it apparently is still living out its original role of suburban family hauler.

The interior looks just as nice as the exterior. I don’t know how many miles it has, but the seats look like they could do another 100k easily! The only flaw I see is the floor trim piece by the driver door is missing.

GM waited 10 model years before giving its trucky minivan a mid-cycle refresh for 1995, which makes it almost seem like they planned from the beginning for it to sell for 21 years. This is the extended-length version of the Astro Van, which actually all of them were for the van’s last 10 years.

The extended version first showed up for 1990, on the same wheelbase as the standard van but adding 10 inches of length, giving a welcome 19 more cubic feet of cargo space. They also added the trick Dutch Door/Liftgate rear doors seen here in 1992.

I think they should have added the extension even earlier, since it gave the Astro similar proportions to the full-size Chevy van and made it seem much less diminutive than the original.

That stubbier original version is represented by my second example, a 1987 model. It’s a COAL of sorts for me, since it belongs to a friend of mine, so I know its story. As you can see, the sun has shone on it much more literally, but even with all the UV rays it has led a charmed life in its own way.

I live in Texas now, but I used to live in Tempe, Arizona. We recently visited Arizona and I dropped by to see my old friend, Gordy. I was delighted to see that he still has his Astro Van, which I was involved in purchasing 15 years ago. The pinstripes in maroon and gold school colors reveal that the van’s first 18 years of life were in the service of Arizona State University (my alma mater), working as a shuttle van (notice the still-functional flashing yellow beacon on the roof). ASU has a Surplus Property Department with a large warehouse where the public can purchase just about any used item that would be found at a university, from athletic cloths, to computers, to furniture and sometimes even vehicles. I purchased my former 1994 Chevy Caprice wagon there, but that’s another story.

I would drop in to Surplus Property periodically to see what interesting stuff they had currently and one day they had this Astro Van. The odometer read only 85k miles, which was believable if its duties were confined mostly within the campus. It looked in pretty decent condition, except for the roof, which was missing most of its paint. Some of the primer was gone too, making an impressive spotty rust finish up there contrasting with the nice finish everywhere else. I didn’t have use for such a vehicle, but I thought of Gordy immediately because he did quite a bit of volunteering in youth ministry at our church and hauling around groups of teens was a frequent activity. I called him and he was totally down with putting in a bid for their sealed-bid auction. I took a stab at what would be a pretty cheap price but enough to possibly win. Apparently it was a good guess (unless I was the only bidder!), because my friend was soon the owner of GM’s best compact people mover for only $1,276, tax included. It did require about $1,200 in tires and shop work to get it fully roadworthy, but has had minimal repair needs in the 15 years and 30k miles since.

The interior is just as sun-baked as the exterior. It has the Grand Canyon of dashboard cracks and the front seat fabric is toast, but all things considered the interior hasn’t deteriorated too badly for 33 years of desert sun. The milkcrate storage bin/drink holder is my handiwork as I made it for my work vehicle at the time and when I left, I passed it on to fill the empty chasm between the Astro’s seats.

With comfortable seating for 8, it was the perfect vehicle for Gordy’s needs. He doesn’t do student ministry these days, however, the Astro has been reliable enough that he’s kept it around as a second vehicle and for those times when one needs to haul things.

The van has the virtue of being motivated by the 150hp/225lbft 4.3L V6 engine and automatic transmission. This reliable 3/4-of-a-Chevy-350 was a constant through the Astro’s history, but for the first five years, a 2.5L 4-cylinder with manual transmission was standard. One might expect a base model fleet vehicle planned for low speed, local use would not have the optional engine, but ASU wisely sprung for the good powertrain, probably making possible the van’s long life of service on campus and later off-campus.

I know some folks around here, including Paul, are big fans of “patina”, or as I call it, “surface rust.” I’m not a fan, but I can understand its appeal. For rust fetishists, they sadly don’t make patina like they used to. The old enamel paints deteriorated more evenly and, I dare say, more charmingly, whereas with the urethane finishes of the 80’s and beyond, the paint tends to come off in sheets and inconsistently on different parts of the body. The roof panel on Gordy’s Astro Van started losing paint far earlier than anywhere else on the body. The roof is now 100% rust, but primer has not given way to rust anywhere else so far. For some reason the paint on the right side has held up better than on the left side, which is unexpected since the right side faces south in its regular parking spot.

All the cars in this picture have been overcome by the Arizona sun. The PT Cruiser is actually losing its color pretty evenly and is working on its faded glory look. The final-generation Riviera in the background has gone way past faded glory into something beyond. That car has lived there since before I moved away 15 years ago. The house has lost some glory as well as it used to have grass and nicely trimmed bushes.

So which is better, the pampered creampuff that stubbornly refuses to show its age or the aged, grizzled veteran that stubbornly refuses to die? As much as I love well-preserved originals, I have to say I think I prefer Gordy’s van and its gobs of character.

2005 Astro Van photographed in Houston, TX, January 2020; 1987 Astro Van photographed in Tempe, Arizona, July 2020

Related articles:

The Astro has received one full Curbside Classic article (in 2011) and a good number of shorter features. Here are some highlights.

Curbside Classic: 1993 Chevrolet Astro – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan?

Astro Van: Inspiration For The Xb? Plus A Gallery Of Custom Astros impressive collection of eccentric Astros

CC Outtake: Chevrolet Astro With Bad ComplexionAstro with similar paint condition to Gordy’s