All-Vans Quality of Life Rollup – Mid 2018 to Now

Oct 14, 2018 by the chuxxor in mikuvan, vantruck

I’ve had a very unexpected life problem lately.

Namely, all of my vans work too well.

(Okay, I mean, they now do). But still, even before the Great Engine Rebuild (Oh, Shit, Again!?) adventure of 2018, there was, in practice, nothing really going on with Mikuvan besides the engine being worn out and consuming oil. Vantruck, too, always started (begrudgingly so) but really has never quit once running, and has repeatedly made its way to New Jersey and New Hampshire and other New states….as well as Pennsylvania again, but we’ll get to that. It’s probably solely responsible for around 0.00002 degrees Celsius of global warming by now.

This is, honestly, rather unprecedented. So what’s someone like me to do now that he has two vehicles which, at first order approximation, start and run without trouble?

Make problems for myself.

Well, I mean, make incremental facility improvements and try to head off future issues… but then again, I said that shortly before changing my timing belts in the dark.

This post covers the smaller potato work that I’ve done on Mikuvan and vantruck roughly between May (when the place finally unfroze) and, like, last week or something. There’s nothing very revolutionary (thankfully!) and the beginning of cold weather* now will see a decline in work again. I also moved house – on purpose close by the shop – specifically to cut my commute to just a few minutes of walking, hence relieving Mikuvan of having to be dailied. This has been unfortunately going on since I left MIT in 2015, so being able to park it for days at a time means opening up more opportunties to execute longer term work on it again.

*i define cold weather as anything under 65 degrees

mikuvan

 

Some time last fall, Mikuvan began developing a clicking sound from the driveline somewhere in the back. It was a classic sound of a degrading universal joint. I’d bought replacements a long time ago, but didn’t feel the need to replace them just yet. At that time, it hadn’t progressed into any noticeable vibration or binding, and without any long trips on the horizon, I decided to just try and see what happens! I mean, worst case, it r/JRITSses itself somewhat or I’d need to redneck tow it to the shop if it got really bad.

Fast forward to spring, and the clicking had evolved into a somewhat noticeable vibration. Finally, the tipping point came after the 2-and-some week Battlebots Season 3 filming – in that time, something finally bound up completely, maybe from corrosion, and the vibration became much more intense to the point which highway use was questionable.

Alright, alright, I get the point. Time to unbolt the driveshaft at the differential input flange and slide it out.

Huh. Well I’m no….mechanical engineer, or something?…. but I’m pretty sure a universal joint like that shouldn’t just stay rigid on its own. It turns out that vibration is straight up the whole thing flexing the suspension parts and transmission/engine mount!

I’d never replaced driveshaft parts up to this point, so I spent a while watching Youtube videos on how to do it correctly and incorrectly. I ended up deciding to do it incorrectly using the Two Sockets Method, a close relative of the Three Seashells, I am told. This just means receiving the lower U-joint cup with a large socket like an impact wrench socket, and pressing the top downwards with a smaller one, in the absence of a dedicated pressing tool.

The first step either way was releasing the years-old retaining rings which had long rusted shut. I decided to go for total war and simply rip them out however I could, since the new joint parts came with clips anyway.

The gore that presented itself I was just a little unprepared for. I’d say that’s a rather r/JRITS universal joint indeed! The rubber seals were completely fried, probably from the immense heat generated from grinding metal rods around.

Here’s where the joint seized up and bunched up the rollers.

Hold on – I said there were “no long trips on the horizon”, right? Nah, this thing went to Atlanta and back in January. Through the Smoky Mountains, even!

I reused the Two Sockets Method to install the new joints. The ends of the U-joints were ever so slightly not parallel, which made the initial press alignment difficult, but it was not enough to affect it once things got under way.

The new joints came with some semblance of grease of unknown vintage inside, but I slathered the entire assembly inside and out before putting it back together. Here I am about to do the second stage install on the differential flange end.

And all finished!

I had a replacement ready for the transmission-side joint too, but it didn’t exhibit any binding or backlash and the seals looked healthy. So I just gave it an external grease slathering and cleaning for now – no need to replace it for the time being, since even though the Two Sockets Method worked fine, it was still a little painful.

It’s late May coming into June now, so the weather’s been warming up (finally) and I haven’t blown the engine up yet. I decided to address something that has always been lurking since I bought the thing, but never presented a problem, nor is it of guaranteed benefit if I messed with it.

I meanwhat else is new, right!?

 

I’m talking about Mikuvan’s secondary A/C condenser. It’s a little radiator that’s part of the dual air conditioning system – only equipped on the dual A/C models. It lives right in front of the passenger front tire, protected from all the spray and road grime and debris by….. like a 3″ tall mini-mudflap. This is to say it’s utterly useless and the whole thing is filled with rocks. The fan motor is long dead and bound up. I was in fact amazed it hadn’t rusted all away by now.

 

As long as I’ve had Mikuvan, the mini condenser fan has been loose and just jiggling under the motor. After cracking the assembly open, it fell right out. The hub was pretty mangled, but it was just a press-in steel insert and not bolted or splined or something.

I surmised that the first good rock that got flung into this thing probably jammed the fan and caused it to be broken off its hub, and from there, this condenser was basically useless. It’s positioned horizontally, so it really doesn’t even get any kind of directed airflow. Not without some kind of assisting duct or control surface, anyway.

The fan motor itself is a little cute 60W nameplate rated axial pancake motor, which seemed to have long ran out of life energy and could be barely turned by hand. Nevertheless, I kind of got the idea of what it has to be replaced by, so I went and did some shopping.

This is its replacement, a 10″ diameter miniature radiator fan from Amazon. I have to take a moment here to stop and praise the sheer ballsiness of Bezos’ magical elf workshop for making formerly very niche car products commoditized and straight up passing the Chinesium into the hands of consumers. This object is $40 and by my judgement quite well made with sharp mold lines (very sharp… ouch) and rigid feeling plastic with visible fiber-fill texture.

I was just going to pull the motor and fan rotor out and bolt it to the existing steel frame of the A/C condenser.

I was pleasantly surprised pulling the fan rotor off because I discovered that this motor was basically identical to the stock one, as in down to the mounting flange and everything. I take it this size-class of fan has just been a form factor staple for decades.

The mounting holes just lined up, but the new one is actually mirrored from the old one. The motor did need spacing off from its mounting bracket due to a different, more protruding rear bearing boss, so I used some spare Overhaul rubber shock mounts to give it that distance. It also gives the fan a little bit of flex so it isolates (what little it had) vibration.

Before mounting everything, I hit the fan mounting plate with a few coats of rust converter and then leftover clear-coat. This should keep it from dissolving away for a few years yet!

I spliced the connector from the old motor on and dropped everything in place. Really from the space available I could have well gone for a full 12″ fan, but this actually shouldn’t be drawing that much power anyway. It’s on a circuit that supported 4-5 amp draw to start with, so to try and stuff a 10+ amp full size blower motor on it might have other consequences in the electrical system.

When the A/C is turned on now, this fan runs with the system. It provided a noticeable improvement in the A/C system’s cooling ability at low speeds (in traffic/stopped) and in general on hotter days.

After Dragon Con this year, with the summer (a.k.a “the three or four weeks you can work on stuff outside”) coming to close and with no more long roadtrips on the horizon for real this time, I decided to address the ever-degrading paint work on the front. I now was in my new place nearby the shop, so I could leave stuff unfinished for multiple days without making one or the other white-collar millennial yuppie upset (I speak as if I’m not one at heart…)

The paint on the front of Mikuvan was ratty and rock-chipped when I bought it – and it sure hasn’t gotten better. It doesn’t help that the front is also nearly vertical, so it will take every piece of gravel (and every bug) head on.  I elected to go for just a repaint instead of also filling dents – it was more worth it to me to just protect the metal more than anything. That’s my general approach now with bodywork – make it not get shittier, and some day when (I’m sure) I sell the company for Bezos-class ca$h-out money, I’ll have everything done over correctly.

 

….right? Right?

I thought the front trim piece was double-sided taped on, but turns out it’s just held in by little snap rivets. I removed it and all of the headlight trim in order to inspect how much I’d have to do here. The plan is to mask off the black window highlights, give a fine sand over everything, use some high-build filler primer on select areas, and then blast the whole thing.

I didn’t invest in any color-matched paint or a spray gun or anything. This whole operation will be a rattlecan bomb with Dupli-Color Chrysler Bright White, the closest shade to what I assume it looked like new (and which has been on all my other questionable auto body endeavors).

Here we go! Masking was a job that took a while on its own, especially since I had to be very careful trimming the black highlights with a craft knife. I masked far enough around that I could go Banksy Overdrive.

I used some 180 grit sanding sponges and 220 grit sandpaper to roughen up the existing paint. Honestly, it’s so degraded that even 220 grit was very easily removing it to the OEM primer layer (as seen in a few spots). I cleaned everything during and afterwards with denatured alcohol.

It didn’t occur to me unti I was more than halfway through the filler primer job that….. it’s black colored. Oh boy, this will take quite a few coats of white to cover up now…. I mostly focused on blasting the extra-sanded areas and the deeper rock chips.

As can be seen, I also had a little too much fun with exhausting the initial few old/stale paint shots. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about spraypaints, it’s never use the first couple of seconds of paint, especially not after it’s been sitting a long time.

 

After the primer had dried, I went back over it with sandpaper in parts where I let it hang out a little too long and it produced some noticeable runs and areas of unevenness.

Then I went ahead and applied the first couple of color coats. I continued this process even as the sun started setting – and had to clean out another Autozone of the color I needed before continuing. I think about 9 or 10 passes of paint total went into it. You can’t spray regular spraypaint too thick at once, since it will run down a vertical surface, so I had to take multiple very light passes.

I let the color coat dry overnight and bake some in the morning sun, then made a few passes of gloss clear coat. I actually used a clearcoat advertised as an engine paint which had ceramic particles (allegedly!) in it; this I got some time ago for another project and had used on other smaller van sections. This stuff, whatever it contains, actually isn’t entirely clear in thick coats – the magic unicorn dust gives it a very, very faint bronze tint. This actually had the effect of color-matching the Bright White with the more weathered white factory paint, so it was a happy coincidence – but just watch out if you actually use it for real things.

In the afternoon, I began peeling off all the masking.

A few tiny runs and undermining of the masking tape here or there, but I consider it all good.

I gave the paint about a week to dry and cure fully before installing the badges again. The “Mitsubishi” logo came off some time in 2016, and I hung onto it. I got a new diamond badge off eBay about the same time, so I finally dug them back out and cleaned everything up.

To align the diamond badge, I looked up some photos of where they were originally.  It seems to either have the centroid horizontally aligned with the top edge of the headlight trim, or the bottom edge of the badge aligned with the same. I’m sure it depended on the year and how drunk the assembly workers were.

I decided to go for the “center aligned” version, so I made a guide with a horizontal solid strip of masking tape. From the center of that tape strip, I tore off a section and applied it again, lowered by the height of the bottom two diamonds. Then I marked off with a pen the middle of the distance between the headlight trims at that height. This gave me local geometric alignment to smash it on with some VHB.

The Mitsubishi text badge was applied much more haphazardly in a location that I thought looked like that it belonged.

At this point, Mikuvan is in a very stable plateau, which I hope I can maintain for a while. I no longer need to daily, and the powertrain is in excellent shape post-rebuild. I do need to get around to re-brushing the front A/C blower motor (…again), but that’s a very minor kibble.

The only additional bodywork I’d like to do (besides everything) is revisit the rear hatch glass, which was the very first rust repair I ever did 5 years ago. It’s been slowly coming apart the past few months and is now bubbled up some in spots. However, without a heated garage, and with further detrioration less likely to advance since it’s mostly parked indoors, I’ll put this off until next spring or later.

Everything else that is/was rusty has been paved over in thick dosings of what I call “Eastwood Goo” – you’re supposed to fill body panels with that stuff, not use it externally. Believe me, I’ve considered making look intentional and doing both sides with a clear masking line.

And now, back to the only-partially white elephant  of….

vantruck

Sorry, did I say it was running well and had no problems and had never left me stranded?

I dunno what BattleBots did this year, but my vans weren’t much fans of me when I got back. Maybe it’s because they got jealous, or maybe all of my equipment actually talk to each other and know I failed at winning miserably, so they’re just all piling on now while I’m down. Either way, one day soon after my return, I went to pick up a few shipments.

All was great going in! Then, when I tried to leave…. nothing. I could hear the starter clicking, but it wasn’t doing much starting. After a classic “hammer on the starter” attempt, it gave maybe one half-assed crank, but it wasn’t enough.

Okay, okay, I get it. You guys really like riding on tow trucks and U-hauls. Vantruck got this habit from Mikuvan, who I’ve had to trailer home more times than I’d like to admit to my friends in order to avoid their judgemental Facebook comments. Something about older siblings being bad influences….

 

I figure the starter is original, since it looks like THAT.

After dealing with a snowflakey, rare Japanese van for ages, it was actually a relief to handle something American. Parts for domestic brands are SO. CHEAP. I’m guessing this is how old muscle car people survive – the lineage of parts for American makes is just so extensive. What do you mean Autozone had something just on the shelf? Such luxury! I had this job done the SAME DAY.

The starter is retained by only 2 bolts, so this job was very quick and painless. Quite possibly the ONLY part which is quick and painless to do on a 3rd-generation Econoline, as far as I can tell.

I took the old starter apart afterwards because curiousity got the better of me. Those are some very stumpy and worn brushes indeed. What didn’t make sense to me still was just how fast the cliff came – typically you can nurse a worn-out brushed motor for quite a while by hammering at it, which has the effect of making the brushes temporarily contact the commutator again. I got maybe another few rotations out of it, not enough to turn the engine over even once. Oh well…

And yes, I absolutely did return it to Autozone as a core in this condition. They took it.

Hey, it saves your rebuild house some labor time!

The interesting thing is, I used to have two of this kind of Ford truck starter. In early high school, when I went to a junkyard the first time to the utter horror of my parents who were desperately trying to keep me on the path of being a doctor or something, there were just two of them lying on the ground next to a bunch of other pre-pulled parts. I got them both for something stupid like $20. I didn’t know what they were at the time (only that they ended up not being good for robots), and eventually they were lost to the cruft seas of time and moving house, given away or left behind. The last positive memory I have of them was in 2006 or so when I finally had to reorganize my every-growing cruft stash.

This just confirms my belief that you shouldn’t ever throw anything away, ever. Because I could have REALLY used them just now.

Whatever, it starts again. Here’s a picture of the bottom pan of a Gear Vendors overdrive unit – I wanted to stop it from dribbling gear oil slowly since the gasket was damaged. I scraped off the existing one (the green junk) and put on a new one I ordered from GV directly. The only trick to this I encountered was the oil pickup tube didn’t want to stay in the upper half of the unit, not even with a new o-ring. So you kinda have to place it just right in the tray and wiggle it in as a pilot alignment feature before putting the oil pan bolts in. There’s no other retention for it I can see.

By now, it was late May, and Vantruck’s true calling of being an internet meme was well under way.

Yes, that is indeed Alex and myself at the first Regular Car Reviews double-review. If you haven’t seen it by now…

….don’t click on it unless you have headphones, have very understanding bosses, or own the damn company.

This was a cool experience. I’d been following RCR for a while now, and so to be on the show was an exciting opportunity. We presented the idea of Double Vantruck Party to him some time in April, after BattleBots was all done. The whole filming was a one-day affair – meet in the morning, take some sweet video, and then roll home in the evening. I’ll say that Mr. Regular really opens up personality-wise after a few beers. He’s otherwise a very unassuming person, someone you wouldn’t associate with the #1 source of brown on the Internet.

 

Some time in June, I was trying to change the alternator belt when I realized that there’s just way, way too much going on in the engine bay. A lot of the mess is the 1980s California smog package. It has two air injection pumps that run off the alternator belt, about 2 miles of random hoses and vacuum lines connected to a few check valves and delay valves and thermally-triggered valves and blah blah blah GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE

All of it. Out and away.

I wasn’t merely doing this for the purpose of easier belt changing, but also I wanted to get to the root of the Weird Idle issue that has plagued Vantruck since forever, at least since the installation of the EFI rig.

Basically what would happen is, upon reaching warm idle, the exhaust AFR becomes very rich on the order of 12.5 to 13, and the EFI unit tries to trim down as much as it can, but it’s not enough. Some times it feels like it’s missing a cylinder. It clears up if you rev at all, and it’s never misfired or exhibited bad behavior on the highway. It also doesn’t happen when it’s cold started or just warming up.

This led me to believe that there was a remnant temperature-triggered emissions device which, no longer needed or with its connected system removed, was now simply causing problems. I removed and plugged every single vacuum fitting I could find, and also plugged/capped the air injection manifolds.

Jokes about global warming aside, when it’s operating outside of the “Weird Idle”, the AFR is maintained very tightly. I strongly think the EFI retrofit makes the emissions more controlled than any analog vacuum cleaner contraption ever could.  They did the best with what they had, now it’s time for it to disappear.

I kept all of this gadgetry in a box – if you want it some some reason, let me know!

 

It’s actually reasonable in there now!  I always thought this engine bay was never designed to fit the big-block series engines and they just smashed them in there because marketing said they had to.

In the same session, I also retimed the distributor slightly. I figured that one of my Weird Idle causes could be too low initial timing – the FITech dashboard screen shows me the manifold vacuum, and it was always suspiciously low in the Weird Idle state, often on the cusp of around -15 to -16 inHg, whereas The Internet suggests that a higher (-18 to -20) value is more common.  So either way, I decided to double check.

By the way, if you’ve know me recently, you might have heard me say that “X or Y is the Distributor Wrench of Z”. This is because it took me THREE. HOURS. of dismantling things to get to a point where I can wrestle some abomination of a crows-foot wrench, a universal joint, some kind of socket extension, and a wobble-drive to get to the stupid bolt that locks the rotation of this thing.

Then I found out they make a single-purpose U-shaped bent wrench, JUST for this purpose. It has no reason to exist besides compensating for shitty engineering and cost-cutting. It is, truly, the Distributor Wrench of distributor wrenches.

This is not okay. It’s the literal opposite of okay.

This was the first time I got to play with my own timing light and know what it meant. There was a timing light someone busted out when the initial exorcism of Mikuvan was happening, but my only conception of timing at that point was about stator flux and that motor sure didnt look very electric.

I verified that the base timing of the distributor was only 4 degrees – even lower than the 8 degrees indicated in the manual, and far lower than the 12-16 degrees The Internet™ claimed that Ford big-blocks liked. Feeling edgy, I set it to 16 degrees. Unfortunately, it had little to no apparent effect on the Weird Idle.

Whatever the root cause of the Weird Idle might be, it wasn’t causing any problems really besides making people judge me while in traffic – but I’m used to that anyway.

Among other adventures, I went on a van assist mission to work on Cassandra’s van in New York. We had a number of things to go over during the day, and I figured I’d bring Vantruck for its towing capacity juuuuuuuuuuuust in case.

This trip taught me that all American full-size vans are abominations of packaging and manufacturing, not just mine. They were never made to be serviced – you were supposed to buy them for your contractor business, drive them for like 40 or 50,000 miles, then get a new one. Problems wouldn’t really come up in that time interval, and when they do, you just junk it and start anew. This is how American van design hasn’t really changed since the 1970s. Even a modern final-generation E350 shares underpinnings with this generation, and GM has been making the same van now since what, 1994?

So what’s on the horizon for Vantruck now?

I’ve been doing some research on how you remedy Ford rain gutter rust, and the answer is “You Don’t”. Not without custom metal fab, and definitely not cutting these off because that apparently makes the whole roof just pop off, because the rain gutters double as the pinch-weld which attaches the roof to the sides. Gee, thanks Ford.

I have a few bright ideas about cutting them off just enough to weld on some strip patches, and have talked to two or three auto body places regarding it (and to have them on standby for when I inevitably fuck up).

This work is kind of indeterminately scheduled right now – I’d like to remedy this entirely before trying to paint it or make any additional restoration fixes.  For now, the rust is arrested with converter compound and clear-coated over, so this (along with 2 or 3 other patches on the roof) at least won’t get much worse. Realistically, the fleet is in good running condition day-to-day so I will likely back off on Van Stuff for the next few months.

However, I’ve decided that Vantruck will be my target for more extensive buildout in the future in terms of restoration and “enhancements”. It goes back to what I said earlier about Mikuvan being just too much of a snowflake; parts beyond powertrain are difficult to find if I mess something up, or expensive if I do find them since they often need to come from overseas where the platform is still being supported. Vantruck – while “special” in its own way, is still an older American truck built like a Lego set. 3rd-generation Econolines show up on Craigslist all the time for cheap. Parts are everywhere. I feel way less bad diving into it and modifying it for this reason.

As for what plans exactly, I’m not sure yet. I definitely want to repaint this thing fully white with black accents much like Mikuvan still; as much as the three-tone brown-on-Brown-on-b r o w n is endearing, I’d prefer a more consistent look – most people pay good money to have three-tone paint, but I get it for free! It’s brown, less brown, and white!

Recall the original Vantruck repaint concept I posted way back when:

I’d like to make some very mild changes to this based on inspiration I’ve seen from other trucks, but it will resemble this at a high level. It replicates the window blackout highlights that Mikuvan has, which I do like.

I’ve also been playing around in Solidworks with other “additions”:

That is a very idealistic mockup of what I call the “Bovine Interdiction System”, or a cowcatcher/bullbar setup. The inspiration was largely from semi-tractors with the broad chromed front bumpers, which I learned were called “Texas Square” bumpers. It also turns out that the elaborate marker light arrangements on some trucks and trailers are called “Chicken Lights“.

It would then seem, at first approximation, that truckers have as many meme-names for thing as I do. Because I sure as hell didn’t get any useful search results for “those lights that truckers put all over their running boards and trailer sides”.

Anyways, I’m highly unlikely to build that monstrosity, but its design will probably evolve. I would like front and rear upgrades to this thing eventually, and paying $1000+ for a commercial brodozer bumper is just unfathomable in my mind (Plus literally nobody makes them for 3rd-generation E-series vans, because why would you.)

In general, it gives an idea of the direction I want to pull this thing, which is “mildly brodozer” in aesthetic without sacrificing usability; I’m not inclined to lift it beyond the point of usefulness in towing the company’s equipment trailer, but a bed-mounted toolbox would be nice, for instance.