From Japan to Frankford to the great outdoors, local dealer finding niche market for quirky van

Lenny Bronfman, who is a co-owner in Mendel’s Garage, jumps out of a 1991 Delica that they have refurbished to sell in Philadelphia, it was bought from someone in Japan.

A plain old work van, a rolling white canvas that taggers love to spray paint, a car that makes you feel boring just looking at it, pulled up to a stop sign in Frankford on Thursday morning and idled.

When the driver opened the door, he had a tape measure clipped to his belt and a phone poised to take photos because, just like everyone else who sees a vintage Mitsubishi Delica, he wondered, “What the heck are those vans over there?”

The four vans, all at least 25 years old, were imports from Japan and were parked in a row by Gambrel Playground on Wakeling Street, but they’d soon leave Frankford for places far wilder, to ford rivers in Oregon or explore Canada’s vast boreal forest, with bizarre features like ice makers and power curtains. Inside the brick-faced garage across the street, Michael Shmulevich was fielding calls from Utah and Washington, the state, because these quirky vans are beloved by outdoors enthusiasts and have become the bulk of his business.

“One guy I sold to drove his to Panama to go surfing,” Shmulevich said. “Two of those outside are going to California. Most of my vehicles are going to the West Coast. I sold one that didn’t have air-conditioning to a guy in Texas. I said, ‘Good luck.'”

Lenny Bronfman, co-owner of Mendel’s Garage, opens the driver’s side door, on the left side, of this 1991 Delica bought from Japan.

Mitsubishi has been making the vans since 1986 for markets in Asia, Europe and Australia, with right-hand steering. Versions of the Delica were sold in North America but in small numbers and only for three years, from 1987 to 1990. Shmulevich was born in Georgia, the country, and grew up working on cars with his grandfather. He began importing and exporting vehicles when he moved to Israel at 16, and continued after college when he moved to the United States with his wife 20 years ago. In 2015, Shmulevich bought his first Delica from an online auction in Japan, shipped it over, and was surprised at all the response the van received.

“I get it. It’s like a minivan that eats rocks for breakfast,” he said.

Shmulevich sold that first van for $13,500. Now, nearly three years later, he has sold close to 100 Delicas ranging in price from $10,000 to $17,500, operating the Delica USA web site and an Instagram page.

Getting into some fun! 😜

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When they arrive from Japan, Shmulevich’s crew at Mendel’s Garage strips the Delicas down and nearly rebuilds them, adding some flair like larger tires and roof racks. He also services the vans and has quickly become an expert-of-sorts, even though he’s a “Porsche guy,” and he’s building a “show-worthy” Delica with a coat of orange paint for outdoors shows.

“Yesterday I was on the phone with a guy from Utah,” he said.

The vans look futuristic in a 1986 kind of way, a refrigerator on wheels with an angled front end. One version was called the “Star Wagon.” The Delica might make an Italian car designer look away in shame, but it’s got key features, Shmulevich said, that make outdoors enthusiasts drool: Most are four-wheel-drive, a rarity in any van, with small but reliable turbo diesel engines, and a mind-boggling arrangement of seating configurations that range from a bed for two to a party of seven.

Michael Shmulevich, a co-owner of Mendel’s Garage, pulls down the back seat of a 1989 Delica, acquired from Japan, to show how much interior room can be used to store equipment if you want to use the vehicle to go camping.

“I was immediately in love,” Joe Zito, a Gloucester City resident, said of his first Delica test drive at Shmulevich’s garage.

Zito, 38, wound up buying a Delica from an importer in Virginia and uses it on weekends to haul around other things he loves — his wife, Michelle, his dog, Max, and a vintage Triumph motorcycle he races on dirt trails.

“It’s fun to navigate a tough section, off-road, while watching the factory Mitsubishi window curtains sway back and forth,” Zito said.

The Delica is a part of the growing #vanlife community and not the only option out there for enthusiasts, but often, they’re a fraction of the price. Mercedes makes a four-wheel-drive van that starts at $53,000, and Volkswagen’s beloved Westfalia camper vans are prized by collectors but unreliable, Shmulevich said. The only issue for Delica buyers, he said, is the right-hand steering wheel.

“It’s actually not that bad, but I’m used to it,” he said.

For Shmulevich, the issue is getting more rust-free Delicas that are 25 years and older. Importing restrictions prohibit him from bringing in anything newer than a 1993 Delica this year. In 2019, he can import 1994 models, and so on.

Shmulevich, a father of three, lives in Bucks County and often takes Delicas up to a second home near Hunter Mountain in New York. People love to chat him up at gas stations and rest stops along they way, he said.

“It’s not like a Ferrari where people are thinking, ‘Hey, look at this jerk in a Ferrari,'” he said.  “People think they’re kind of cool. They want to climb inside.”

Michael Shmulevich, co-owner of Mendel’s Garage, explains that the engine and radiator access to the Delica are found underneath the front passenger seat, which swings up for access.