The June Back to the Fifties Weekend car show in St. Paul, Minnesota featured thousands of classic street rods, most displaying dazzling paint jobs. But none more elaborate than a 1964 Chevrolet Biscayne Wagon belonging to John Tretten of nearby Edina.
“I named it the Spanish Caravan,” says John. “Which is the name of a Doors song that has nothing to do with this car.” Rather, the wagon body with its cavernous space and room for hordes of people and things made John think of a Caravan. The Spanish part comes from the paintwork.
When John bought the Biscayne in 1994, it was quite literally a blank canvas. “It was in black primer,” he says. Two days later, he drove it to a custom car show on the East Coast. By 1996, he was ready to make the car stand out.
Over the next few years, John kept adding layer after layer to the car. “The first part was the middle, where I did candy red over black lace. Everybody loved it, they thought it was the wildest thing I could dream of,” he exclaims. “Then I just kept going, more and more and more.”
John would spend months drawing out patterns and designs on paper. He’d tape the drawings to the car to see if they’d work. Sometimes they did, and sometimes John would go back to the drawing board. The car slowly transformed from dull black to a more and more elaborately dazzling, eye catching work of art. Never finished. Never satisfied. Seemingly every candy hue from House of Kolor can be found somewhere on the car, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.
“Sometimes I actually did paint the car, only to sand it off and redo it, so some of the ideas went to the wayside.” The hood’s been stripped and repainted 3 different times. The body’s been through countless revisions. Every couple of years, John adds to the design, always seeking to make it stand out just a little more. “The tailgate I just did in 2019,” he enthuses. “It’s candy pink and candy purple, which is a blue purple. And then the lower part in candy yellow, candy red over black lace.”
And it’s not just colors. Design elements both vivid and faint festoon the wagon, many holding special meaning. “The flowers in the middle of the tailgate and the two flowers on each quarter panel fender skirt are basically an homage to the car Gypsy Rose, the most famous lowrider in America.”
The flowers are easy to see from afar, but it takes a close inspection to see hand-drawn stars, lace, and other fine detail forming a dizzying array of impressions that leave an observer almost struggling to make sense of it all.
“The roof has 188 coats of paint. It’s all lacquer, the entire car,” John says. Most folks with priceless paintwork would turn their car into a trailer queen, terrified of the damage road grit can do. Not John. “I’ve driven it 3 times to Arizona to visit my aunt. I’ve driven it basically everywhere.” He even made the long haul to the 750-entrant Socios Car Club’s lowrider show in Sacramento, where he not only got the long-distance award having driven more than 2,000 miles to get there, but also placed 2nd in the wagon category. Not bad for a guy from Minnesota.
Running your eyes over this one-of-a-kind wagon, you start to wonder why you haven’t seen more examples of his work. Where, you ask, are his clients’ cars? The answer’s simple, if surprising. John is not a professional painter.
“I just taught myself,” he says.* “I did winter beaters. I had a Grenada, a ‘73 Chevelle, and a ‘79 Caprice, and I painted the roofs, the hoods and the trunks to get practice. I used expensive paints, all House of Kolor paints. I kinda trained myself on these beaters.”* After learning the craft on the beaters, John un-sentimentally sent them all to the scrapyard, their purpose complete.
John’s amateur status isn’t likely to change, either. “I don’t think that I could do anybody’s car for a living,” he says. “As nice as my car is, to do somebody else’s, they would always want it to look like that.” But that, takes time.* “A lot of people think, did I just start on it? I started it in 1996. Here it is 2021. I finished some of the work in 2019.”* John, probably correctly, suspects customers might not be willing to wait a quarter-century to get their cars back.
He did use his considerable homegrown painting skill to help out a friend, however, painting the roof of his ‘59 Chevy wagon car with his signature style. John didn’t even charge him for supplies. “I didn’t make a lot of money and I just thought the car would really look cool with some kind of a design.” But as a rule, John sticks to painting his own cars.
You’d think after 25 years and countless layers of paint, John would be just about done with his wagon. But you’d be wrong. At Back to the Fifties, John enthused about his future plans. “I’m gonna continue to add some ribbon paint to the backs of the doors, maybe to the fender skirts. I want it to be a little bit more wild.”
While the paint job is the unquestioned star attraction to this car, it’s not the only thing to which John turned his keen eye for detail. He’s replaced the original 283 engine with a 350. It got a new, improved transmission and disc brakes all around, along with a bevy of new parts to improve its drivability. “It’s a very decent driver,” John says - a good thing, since he thinks nothing of driving it on road trips for many thousands of miles.
He’s even added a nod to the lowriders of the dry west and southwest by adding a rare swamp cooler air conditioner. The tube-shaped device clips in to the passenger window. Inside, a pad moistened by a reservoir of water intercepts air flowing in the front, cooling it via evaporation, then ducting it inside the car. It’s a simple, low-cost way to cool a car that was a regular sight before refrigerant-based air conditioners became common in cars. These car coolers are hard to find these days, especially in non-desert states like Minnesota. But John knew he had to have one, and started the search.
He found his swamp cooler several years ago for $500 and, of course, had to strip the original black paint and make it his own, at least for now. There’s always room for improvement. “I’d like to change the design, ‘cause it’s been on there for 6 summers now. But paint is expensive and I’m probably not gonna change it for awhile”
John’s used to having to tell people what the strange tube hanging off his passenger door is, but this year was a surprise delight. “This show, I have never seen so many people that either knew about it, or explained to their kids, their brothers, their uncles, their wives what it’s all about.” Still, the swamp cooler makes for a good conversation starter, just in case the paint job isn’t enough of one.
John even turned his hand to the interior of the car. Feeling the headliner needed some sprucing up, John spent two days making and installing his own ball fringe. “I hand-sewed all of those. And I don’t even know how many there are. There’s probably 40 on each side, and then there’s two sets below the tailgate window.”
This wagon, plus two others he’s painted but didn’t bring to the show, are not just cars; they’re vehicles for John’s hobbyist passion. “Really, I like painting. All of that is a lot of work. When I did everything below the chrome, I laid on the floor for six hours without getting up.” Despite the long hours and sore muscles, John just doesn’t want to stop. “It’s hard work but it’s fun, because I enjoy doing it. The masking takes a long time, your arms are tired at the end of the day but, I dunno, it’s something I just love to do.”
After a long day’s painting, no rest for John. He’d immediately go into the house and start drawing more ideas, wondering if people would notice all the detail on his one-of-a-kind Biscayne. But he’s philosophical about the answer. “If they do see it, great. If they don’t, I usually point it out to ‘em.”