Archive for the 'vantruck' Category

 

Operation RESTORING BROWN Part III: An Electric Interlude

Jul 26, 2019 in vantruck

Its time for another installment of “Charles’s Moving Bondo-Castle”!

You might think the worst of it was performing the roof rail welding, but really this thing is far far from the “Point of Maximum Entropy” where your project is the most taken-apart and hopelessly scrambled possible. It would be a waste to just spraybomb over the welds and shove it all back together now, so with most of the exterior Bondo Castle building wrapping up, and with the interior taken apart, I needed to dive even deeper into the loosely-bound fiberglass chasm to remedy the demons that haunt Vantruck called “Aftermarket RV company wiring”.

There are few horrors on this beautiful Earth which approach the level of cocaine-addled depravity that is a 1980s RV builder trying to put lights together.

Past episodes index so far:

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes

Let’s begin! Before anything else, there was more discovery to be done with the wiring.

Full disclaimer: A lot of these photos are put together as a narrative. Often times, while doing bodywork, I’m waiting for something to dry or cure before I can move on, and in that hold-state, I work on something else. In reality,  you see, these electronics operations were interleaved with sanding something or primering over something. I decided it was more clear to keep them separate events – as if I did a whole day only grinding old paint, then another whole day or so only doing wiring.  If you’re detail oriented, you might notice some things which are slightly out of order in the background!

 

I’ve never trusted the side handles on this thing enough to actually want to hang onto them for anything. That’s because I figured it was, like everything else, just put together with two #8 self-drilling sheet metal screws. But to prepare the cab for painting, they had to finally come off anyway.

The funny thing is, I’ve actually been here before. I previously used a small right-angle screwdriver-bit ratchet to get at the “Courtesy Lights” (as I now know what they’re called…. remember, they’re labeled “Hi I am a Van” Lights in my book) behind the handles.

Well now that I unsnap the decorative trim, I can see that they went to the effort of putting a rivet nut into the sheet metal. Wow, such high production value. It’s still thin body shell steel, but at least it’s a fully threaded 1/4-20 bolt!

My pleasant surprise was short-lived as I then discovered the Van Lights were “installed-in-place” . They ran the damn wire through a hole in the body and then added the light. It means I’d have to cut this off and start over later. Sigh, my disappointment curve takes another downward inflection.

The backing plate for the light was a chromed over piece of steel, but both were substantially rusted. I may just do the same treatment here as I did to the body steel, since it’s not like they do much useful reflecting – just rust conversion treatment, then primer, then maybe whatever Silver Metallic spraypaint is on the shelf.

 

Next up, I moved onto chopping off the “I am a over-80-inch-wide truck” DOT cab marker lights. I knew these held substantial rust underneath, and I ordered replacements since the lenses were all crazed and cloudy anyway.

With no interest in keeping these in good shape, I literally sliced through everything with the big 3D printer bed-scraping Instant Amputator 9000. I love these things, and own several – they do everything in my shop domain from opening packages to whizzing off stickers from surfaces to occasionally dividing up pizzas.

Yikes. I went through at some point last year and treated these areas, so they hadn’t grown much worse, but I definitely had to do something here.  Maybe a Most Correct Possible restoration will still cut out and replace this area, but I was just going to once again clean it up and Bondo Castle over it.

 

Wherever there was bubbled paint, I mass-erased it with a coarse flappy wheel, then “primed” the surface with a small amount of painted-on fiberglass resin, then laid out a layer of hairy Bondo.

I suppose it’s more of a Bondo Lawn. For durability, I purposefully left it a millimeter or so higher than the surrounding landscape post-sanding.

Same operation on the back. There used to be roof rails here at some point, beginning behind the visor and ending at the “endcap”, but they were removed many moons prior to me. I’d plugged the four holes with various forms of rubber stoppers, and I’ll do that again once things are cleaned up.

This is what the totality of the operation looks like, more or less. I was in the middle of addressing the airhorn fitting here. As the sections are cleaned up, I blast some primer over them.

Centurion’s MO with attaching anything was just fill the whole thing up with silicone  sealant and call it good. This probably works fine right up until the sealant dries up and cracks with age!

The airhorn is a Sparton branded one which seems to have some kind of standard fitting for that era – a single bolt front mount, and a combined rear air fitting plus mounting stud that I of course broke off the moment I tried to remove it. I ended up locating several similar ones on eBay, and ended up buying an identical-looking model.

For now, it’ll just get cleaned up and primered over like all of the other holes in the roof.

Moving on with fitting disassembly, this is the combined CB/FM antenna it came with. The CB part appears to be broken somewhere, and the FM part has never really worked. When I tried to unwind the nut, of course the whole thing just exploded on me. I had no particular desire to save this part, so ended up using a lot more force and just cranking the thing apart.

Of course, I dunno if the antenna wire was already broken/damaged or if I just blew it up completely. No matter, since I’m just going to plug this hole first and foremost.

There is a CB radio splitter device hidden under the dashboard which this cable runs to, via a wire grommet under the passenger side dashboard (it exits screen right and turns under). From there, it fans out to the head unit area as a standard FM antenna fitting, and the other branch was actually pulled up the A-pillar and ran to the console CB radio. There’s no reason for me to suspect that the latter two cables are bad, so I will be leaving them in place. In the undefined future, I’ll probably return to this and replace it with a modern NMO mounted antenna.

 

Having now traced all the wires I care to, I began the task of poking things with a multimeter and seeing what wires were hot or cold in what key positions, and back-tracing the remnants of the interior lighting wires and labelling them. My goal was to combine the original mess into two connectors – one inbound, providing vehicle power and dashboard buttons, and one outbound that sent this power to the lights and other hungry implements.

The overhead console got the complementary treatment. It was relatively easy to see what led where, so I focused more on integrating better wiring practices and replacing cheesy wiring jobs.

I had one rule going into this electrical refit:

NO. FUCKING. VAMPIRE CLIPS.

NONE.

NEVER.

 

I hate those things. Also called “quick splices” or similar, they just loosen up and corrode over time, and look like shit. They practically encourage shitty wiring practice, and one power line I yanked out had no less than four leeching off it.

A short evening of work and here it is.  It’s not well constrained, but just organized.

I also decided while doing this that the CB radio microphone will be hung on the console itself. Centurion made the questionable (hah) decision of routing a DIN microphone extension cable from the console, across the roof, down the A-pillar, then up under the dashboard to the meet the microphone which already has a 3 foot long springy-cord and whose mounting points I can’t even find any more.

Much of my time spent driving this thing is in fact trying to keep the microphone from being tangled in the steering wheel. So I was going to strip all of that out and just have the short cord dangle on a “button” style mic hanger.

As I had zero intention of actually hooking up the antenna now, the CB radio will, remain a visual fixture to complete the 80s-retromod aesthetic.

After doing both ends with the highest-value connectors this thing will ever experience (MetriPack-150 series connectors used in all of my megawatt-scale vaping rigs at the company!), I clicked everything together to make sure everything still worked and I didn’t, in fact, wire the starter to one of these.

Next up was a tuck and clean on the harness itself.

At this point, I was beginning to get lighting products in the mail. First up are the Truck-Lite model 25 “I am a giant-ass truck” lights. I ordered five, of course, not realizing each order was for two. So now I have enough for Mikuvan also! Say, is it illegal to wear “I am a giant-ass truck” lights if you are not one?!

However, far more interesting in terms of lighting was the…

Miku Blue and Miku Magenta LED strips I found on eBay. Short of RGB mixing, the color I substitute for Miku Blue is generally marketed as “Ice Blue” which appears physically to be white LEDs with phosphors that really skew their color temperature towards blue. Like taking a cool-white LED and making it even cooler (or, I suppose, “hotter” from a physics perspective).

I had no agenda for these reels, actually. They were found in my quest for other forms of LED lighting. I bought enough to make full-length underglows on the side steps (of course), but they are not weatherproof so I’d need to enclose them in a LED strip channel extrusion first or something.

Whatever. Something even MORE cool came in the mail too!

This is another happy accident while I was investigating RGBW 5-pin LED strips. It’s a Chinesium ‘touchscreen’ controller, by which they mean ‘touch sensitive colorful pictures’. The reason I found this was because I was specifically looking for NOT wireless/IR remote types, instead focusing on wired controllers.  The IR kind is by far the most commoditized, but I didn’t like the idea of a remote hanging around inside since that’s what’s in there now, and I always drop it.

Let’s take a quick look inside!

There must have been some kind of miscommunication or severe competency shortage in the design department, because it’s got no mounting features anywhere on the backside . Instead, you have to carefully pry it open being mindful of the tiny ribbon cable that connects the touch buttons to the main body. It’s literally in the instructions to use a tiny screwdriver to push the ribbon cable latches out before separating the halves.

If you don’t read that far in the manual, or you apply just too much force, you’ll rip the ribbon cable or connector right off. I do wonder how many of these have actually been installed by real people in something.

Oh, it gets even better. After you install it using the hidden mounting holes, then you get to somehow maneuver the tiny ribbon cable back into the connector and use a tiny poker tool to re-seat the latch. This is all officially sanctioned in the instructions. I managed to execute it with my surface mount device handling tweezers. Both of them. At once.

Yeah, no. It’s getting a piece of Dual-Lock gender-neutral justice Velcro slammed right on the housing. No elegance from me whenever I actually decide to implement it!

The gear inside is otherwise a generic 4-channel RGB+W controller. Common anode, four pull-me-down low-side FETs.

It definitely Doesn’t Not Work, so if you can stand the absolutely nonsensical mounting needs, I do recommend playing with one. The color wheel really only has 16 or so positions, not that your LED strips have enough current-to-color mapping calibration precision to duplicate it.

I only have one complaint here for the physical UI, which is it’s too easy to fat-finger a color as you turn it on and off, so it often wakes up in the Brown position. I didn’t even know LEDs could emit brown light, but here we are in 2019.

Alright! Back to work. I created a secondary harness specifically for the roof cabin lights and five cab lights. These were all previously ad-hoc wired with vampire clips. I separated them into their own bus with only one connection to the feeder wire coming out of the roof harness.

I also went ahead and routed a length of 5-pin RGBW LED strip cable the full length of the cab to the former exit spot of the Sex Lights. So not only do I have an on/off supply-level connection for the not-yet-designed (but which will be GLORIOUS) Next Generation Sex Lights™, but the option of using this RGBW controller up front if needed.

It’s fished through the same wiring run as the other interior roof lights – see the displaced fiberglass batting to the right. That gets re-secured over the wiring run once I decide I’m satisfied.

Oh, yeah – all of the lights that are going back in received “real” connectors that I can in theory reconnect and disconnect – if I do come back in here, it’ll be possible without wanting to level entire cities as retribution.

 

And the front roof wiring is finished – the (not yet replaced/cut off) “van lights”, cab light connections, and interior roof lamps all work. At this point, I’ve basically done everything I care to in terms of wiring rehabilitation and could have put the interior panels back together. I decided to leave that exercise until after the painting process just in case I thought of some other intelligent modification or change I wanted to make.

 

Third Brake Light & Bed Light Mod

 

Speaking of which! Here’s another quick diversion from the main project besides laying the foundation to add tasteless LED strips to everything. So one of my long time low-level peeves has been the “Leave this light on to accidentally drain your battery” light, also known as a bed light or cargo light.

There’s just so much of everything  on Vantruck, so much bulk and space-occupying visual styling, so much dual-wheel enabled highway manspreading. Then you get to the back of the cab and there’s this teeny little bed light.

It’s like those Greco-Roman styled Renaissance statues of extremely chiseled men with microscopic penises.  Not only was this thing extremely puny and dim, having only a type 194 socket bulb inside, but the attachment was just two drywall-esque construction screws into the ~3mm thick fiberglass van endcap. Meaning? It’s always been stripped. Every screw I try to use in here strips. I drilled the holes out a long time ago for the next size of drywall-esque screw that’s larger, and that held on for a while before that also just stripped out.

It’s really only been hanging on by the grace of Robot Jesus.

As one of the last things I can do before I’m just flat out of excuses for painting, I decided to do some customization here. In keeping with the general “hello for i am giant truck abomination” aesthetic, I’ve been buying samples of various semi truck and commercial truck lighting products off the likes of Iowa80, Raneys, and random eBay and Amazon searches for the same. My goal with this add-on was to make this assembly huge and obtrusive like the entire vantruck – I wasn’t about to buy some puny plastic Jeff Bezos Special here. I used custom semi truck taillight housings and trailer light bars as a mental guide.

An additional desire of mine was the ability to add a center brake light. I’m not a fan of the North American-specific combined turn signal and brake lights, especially prevalent on trucks here, since it can often be ambiguous if you’re turning or stopping or both.  Light trucks weren’t required to have center brake lights until 1994 in the US, so this would be a wire I’d have to run from the brake lighting circuit.

 

The foundation of the new bed light will be these triple trailer light brackets which accept a 6″ oval light that’s a standard size in the industry. You can get them either in old school incandescent or obnoxiously get-off-my-lawn bright LED! Guess which one I sprung for. Let’s say “bigger than in the picture” was my thought after getting these in and unboxed, despite the dimensions being clearly written in the item description.

Robots are always bigger in real life than in CAD, and to my chagrin and future degenerative eye disorders, circuit boards are always SMALLER.

Why did I get two? Well, they’re tail lights for your trailer, so they come in pairs, duh. This just means I can either have a backup or give one to Mikuvan too.

Quick in-place mockup to make sure it will definitely fit  and looks the way I think it will.  “Looks bigger in real life than in the product photo” often just leads to “Looks reasonably sized if not a bit smaller than expected” once the reference coordinate system changes, namely once placed next to Vantruck.

Hmm. Maybe I should have sprung for the 4″ round housing brackets.

TECHNOLOGY SPREAD TIME! I designed this 27″ wide spacer body in Autodesk Inventor to the profile of the stainless steel bracket, added mounting hole locations, and then split it into three dovetailed parts. They were knocked out on my Markfrog gallery and then epoxied together.

I decided to make this spacer instead of cutting a long slot into the van endcap to install the lights flush-style. It’s in my interest to modify and cut up the van endcap as little as I have to, I decided, since that’s not a part I can really replace. If I make any changes in the future, I’d have to patch over a 2 foot wide slot, the cutting of which would also introduce other unknown/don’t-wanna-known structural issues to that area.

Installing this setup with the spacer body would only necessitate drilling a few small holes. It might look just a little weirder than what I consider to be a smooth flush mounted setup.

 

The attachment method I decided to use here is known as a “well nut”, a rubber rivet nut, or as I’ll probably call it from now on, a wubbie-nut. They work like real rivet nuts, except you just tighten the fastening screw and the molded insert nut squishes out the rubber behind the panel being fastened. It’s a compliant, sealing, electrically insulating, and reversible method of attaching relatively light stuff to sheet metal. Since the fiberglass van cap is really only like 2.5 to 3mm thick, it won’t hold a thread at all, nor did I want to use any permanently installed rivet nuts or inserts.

This is what the assembly will look like. I actually don’t think it looks as off as I was anticipating.

The spacer body also allows all the wiring and connections to be done outside the endcap, so I only have to find space for three wires to exit the endcap at the location of the original bed light.

To make the brake light do what I want it to do, I had to tap the circuit upstream of where the brake light switch (which feeds power to the circuit when the pedal is depressed slightly) is connected to the turn signal interrupter (the blinky thing) since that’s where it splits up to the left and right sides. It turns out this wire was already tapped for the trailer brake controller, and I just had to do a bit of digging to locate the UGH, ANOTHER VAMPIRE CLIP they used to link up to said trailer brake controller.

I got peeved at the vampire clip, so I then spent an hour rewiring this area. My bonus brake light circuit got a proper twist and solder splice to this circuit, and I got rid of some more redundant wire, then wrapped the whole thing and constrained it. This photo is pretty much looking directly upwards from the driver floor.

So now we arrive at the week of July 4th, and I’ve exhausted almost everything I can do that’s not beginning to paint the damn thing. I’d seen this moment coming, and pregamed order a few samples of automotive paint systems and watching some videos on how to do it.

As usual, I’m about to try it in a way that is utterly moronic and advised against by pretty much everyone with actual knowledge of the subject matter, but since it’s just me fucking around in public and writing about it, the entertainment value takes precedence.

Welcome to the paintening.

Operation RESTORING BROWN: Romance of the Rusty Roof Rail Repair

Jul 05, 2019 in vantruck

Alright, here we go! The first meat and first potato of Operation RESTORING BROWN, the only thing which I technically set out to do and could in fact just rattlecan the whole thing brown right afterwards and be done with it. I’m going to keep an rolling index of previous posts here so by the end, everyone can read the whole thing and realize just how embarrassing it all was. We begin of course with…

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors

So, I’ve established that there wasn’t really anything too flammable in contact with the inside of the roof where I’d be making repairs, which means it will go pretty quickly once all the prep work is done. What is it exactly that I have to put back together? This:

Yikes. These spots were already present when I bought Vantruck in late 2016, but they were smaller in visual magnitude because I hadn’t explored them until maybe last year. By then, the two ends were “joining” in the middle causing the rust-colored stain in the roof paint in that area, and I spent a little whole doing some initial scratch-n-sniff with pulling up degenerated sealant beads and hitting the area with a wire brush. I also covered the area in rust converter (causing the dark color) and gave it a blast of clearcoat paint, which was able to preserve it until now.

There’s a little divot all the way to the right near the “van seam”, which was where I applied a grinding wheel to try and get a sense of how the roof was attached. I had done some research then on how I would make this repair, and feared the worst.

You see, Ford in all its wisdom decided that the best way to make a roof drip rail is to also use it as the rolled spot weld seam (pinch weld) to attach the roof to the side panels.  The spot welds are then coated with a bead of body sealant. Predictably, the sealant deteriorates and lets water into the crevices of the spot welds, upon which it rusts out and there is scant little you can do about it except some very expensive metal replacement therapies with harvested body panels (if you’re lucky to find one since they all rust in the same place!). If you just run an image search for “Ford drip rail rust” you can see many examples of this failure mode.  What I now fear is Mikuvan’s drip rails are made the same way, as it seems to be a popular method of making the roof panel back then. It doesn’t have any issues there, but it’s only a matter of time.

For me right now, it meant having to cut the entire section out and then…. not replace it with anything. My restoration, my rules – I was just going to cut the damaged sections out, bridge the gap with welded on strips, and just reseal the remaining. It’s going to be visible, ugly, and purposeful.

But before I could begin anything, I had to peel back the walls of the house of horrors even more, since the rust extended under the….

van seam. This was a rather cringeworthy and frustrating exercise. Frustrating, because I had to impact-drive out around 25 time-cured Phillips-head self-tapping sheet metal screws. Cringeworthy because really? Just driving irregularly spaced flat-head screws into stuff?

This aluminum trim strip originally had a large rubber seal clipped over it. The rubber seal deteriorated and crumbled away slowly, so I removed all of it about the same time last year I tried to arrest the roof rust.

I only managed to destroy 2 screws while removing the upper half of the trim strip, which I had to drill out and grind away the remnants thereof. Honestly, I was expecting so much worse. What’s going to happen here is eventually I’ll remove the whole van seam trim strip and refinish the underside separately. They just screwed it on and painted over it, which means the underside has a lot of surface rust and built-up grunge.

Bonus points if you can spot the red Sharpie line they marked and followed to cut the van!  Yes, there is an actual red sharpie line on both sides.

We begin the actual demolition now, where I just arm up a cutoff wheel into a grinder and zip the remains of the drip rail off.

Quick note – just because I found “nothing flammable” on the inside of the roof, doesn’t mean I didn’t keep a fire extinguisher and a pressurized plant sprayer bottle full of water nearby. The interior was still questionably fire-resistant 1980s urethane foam, cloth, plywood, and carpet. This cutting operation created a lot of sparks, and I’m sure there will be even more to come.

Following up with the cutoff wheel, I used a flappy wheel to remove the paint in the area and explore how deep the rust pitting went i.e. what can still be reasonably salvaged. I’m not planning on removing every semblance of rust, especially as much of it has been hit with the conversion compound and should in the end be painted over.

It was time to arm up my limeboi here with a proper cart and C25 gas bottle. This is what you were designed for!

A long time ago, I bought a lot of aluminized steel strip and sheet in anticipation of eventually needing to make repairs to Mikuvan.

Making so many different repairs to Vantruck has, in a way, been practicing for that. While I’ve done a lot of mechanical only work to Mikuvan, I’ve not nearly been as comfortable digging deep into it because it’s a much better packaged and integrated experience, not to mention very difficult to find recourse if I mess something up badly due to its rarity in the U.S. market. I’ve already had to source some interior parts from Japan and Taiwan myself because parts are just no longer easily available here – the most recent adventure being securing a set of replacement windshield trim strips because the glass shop could not guarantee being able to get the old pieces off cleanly to replace the windshield. Not to mention, of course, the completely Chinesium cylinder head that’s currently living in it.

Vantruck’s primitiveness at the cusp of the changeover from the “Malaise Era” to the contemporary age of more computerized and polished automobiles, as touched upon in the dénouement of the Regular Car Reviews episode, has made every repair or upfit on it more approachable. I know I can generally transfer the experience if I needed to, even if the methods aren’t 1 to 1. More importantly, its ubiquity even in the modern day means if I completely botch something, it’s a more recoverable error.

In fact, on any day’s regional Craigslist search I can find at least 4 pre-1992 Econoline vans, usually 2 decrepit ones, one “okay” one, and one well-kept one


I’ve actually visited the blue one on the right, and man if I thought I had rust issues….

What I’m saying is, now having witnessed the result of making the sausage, I am not beyond buying an old conversion van and cutting 1/3rd of it off myself. They still sell endcaps for these. In all, these vantrucks are about the weirdest vehicles you can buy which still uses the most common ingredients – Ford truck parts – in their construction.

Enough of the van philosophy! Onto sheet metal repairs.

The plan was to use the area by the van seam as a test weld. If this went of well, the rest will go very quickly. If not, I can still Bondo Castle the whole thing!

I started the patch piece at a distance where it abuts the van seam trim strip, and the difference underneath will be made up by sealant (for someone else 25 year down the line to deal with, I suppose!)

Four little spot welds to hold it down, and I think I generally get the idea.

The mass deletion of a strip above the drip rail and the remains of the body side panel below it then commences. Remember where I said I still had a fire extinguisher and a water sprayer on standby? If there was one part I needed them, it was right here. I basically filled the interior up with sparks. What wasn’t being caught by the tangles of fiberglass insulation was, as I witnessed, shooting straight into the carpet, beyond the areas I pre-emptively wet down near the roof! Oh well.

For the upper slit line, I dug straight down with the cutoff wheel. To separate the gap, I actually approached from the bottom at a very shallow angle. The result was a strip of rusty steel, seen here.

This repair is extremely simple to execute because everything is straight. All I had to do was line up the welding magnets and blast away.

I used the “randomized point welds” approach where you never weld twice in adjacent places or make a single long bead, to minimize heat deformation of the sheet metal. So I’d anchor the strip by opposite corners, then basically switch corners every 3 or 4 trigger pulls.

 

And after another strip plus a finishing chunk, I’m done here. There’s already like 4x the original spot welds holding the roof on here. Notice the still-present drip rail over the door? That’s staying. I’m not going to shave the whole thing.

All that will happen now is I’ll grind these welds relatively flush and then apply a big Adaptive Fillet of body sealant down the length.

I test drove the process once again by where the van seam is. This was very quick and easy with an already broken-in flap disc which has a bit of an edge radius worn into it. I made sure not to grind enough that I started erasing the root of the weld blob.

Moving down the line. Basically, the area between the patch strip and where the body panel jogs inwards will be entirely filled with sealant. Same goes for the top half. I’m just going to use a popsicle stick as a squeegee / trowel to lay that bead down.

With this process having taken much less time than I figured, I decided to transition to some lookahead work. A lot of other exterior fittings had to come off anyway if I wanted to repaint it, so I was going to just piecemeal address every rust issue as they come up.  First up is the big “I am a classic van” visor. I know it’s hiding something underneath, but have never wanted to check. What I do know is that it some times rains from the upper left corner of the windshield if it either 1. rains too hard or 2. I try to wash it.

 

 

It’s held on by a total of 10 screws, two on each side, three in the middle, and three on a little support bracket underneath the …. front awning bit. Luckily, all the screws came out relatively easily despite being somewhat rusty.

Have I mentioned that the hardest part of doing CAR (especially truck-shaped things) is just fighting out what dumb names are given to certain things? And how many of those parts are just named after the guy who invented it?

Anyways, after all the screws are out, you just lift the thing up and……

 

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Yep, this project is getting out of scope fast.

Well that’s no good. A cursory inspection shows that this hole ran deep into the windshield frame, and had a through component on the interior sheet which led directly to an area over the sunvisors. Well that’s why it rains on the inside!

I decided to return to menially applying petrochemical compounds while I thought about what to do here.

Here’s the sealant compound in the “Deposit large blobs and pave over” stage. There’s a matching fillet gfor the bottom edge that didn’t exist yet in this photo. The plan was to let it all cure overnight, and then I just scrape the cured excess sealant off, leaving only the fillets I desire.

While the sealant lines were drying, I decided to  just take care of the rust patch over the driver’s door. There was enough steel left over here that I decided to just Hairy Bondo over the whole affair after cleaning the area up. This is just regular Bondo with short fiberglass strands already pre-baked into it, so it forms a stronger composite not unlike a crappy chopped strand mat.

It doesn’t sand easily due to the fiberglass content, so you use a thing that looks more like a file to get the major cutting done, and then fill in the low spots with regular pink mystery butter.

The final stage is what I call the “cancerous death” looking part, which is after sculpting and sanding down of the regular material. This is called glazing compound or “spot putty” and is intended to fill in very tiny pinholes that might exist because of trapped air from mixing the batch of shame you blobbed on. The juxtaposition of dark red and pink is just kind of gross to look at. This stuff sands very fast, so at this stage I’m using at most 220 grit or so sandpaper.

By the end of this exercise, I had formulated an attack plan for the windshield hole.

Observe, daylight! This is where water was getting in and causing the interior to rain. I was going to equally exploit it to close the hole up. This hole, and actually the empty space above it, meant I could reach tools around from the back.

I don’t have a good closeup photo of the trimming I did to the windshield hole,  so here’s a wide shot that sort of shows what is going on. (Nor it turns out did I take photos of the removal of the chrome windshield trim, which was “Many little broken plastic clips” which fortunately are still made because Ford Trucks Never Change)

I carved away with a Dremel until the metal was solid again, both interior and exterior layers. The black staining is from the same rust conversion treatment which I just sort of do as a matter of course now since I wasn’t going to, say, cut the A-pillar and the front of the roof off to excise it.

So what’s my grand master plan?

Bondo Castle.

Sorry, world. I formed a dam which was roughly the right shape of the windshield frame curvature from a piece of soda can (luckily, enough of it remained to use as a guide).

Then, I ‘primed’ the interior area with brushed on fiberglass resin (a component of Bondo filler) so it would ideally wet out better for more adhesion. Then, I added a Blob of Shame to the hole. However, since I can reach it reasonably with a small popsicle stick from the inside, I was able to create a dome which reached beyond the edges of the steel, again to try and gain area for adhesion.

If I couldn’t reach it from the inside, then this would be one of those Bondo Rocks of shoddy restoration legend, since it would have to be solid and “built up” from the deepest point.

The initial dome was reinforced on both sides with more Fiber-Filled Regret as it cured, gradually reaching the surface enough to level out. I then pulled the soda can barrier off and Dremeled/filed the curvature to shape.

 

Nobody will know.

Only I will carry this curse.

Okay, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I made it out to be. I think it will be fine, maybe except for getting beaned directly in this repair zone by a flying dumpster. And if that does happen, it will be on dashcam and it will be awesome.

 

With the entire left side more or less settled, I moved onto the right side. The destruction here luckily was far less extensive, and this was the only trouble spot. It was shallow enough that I just ground it smooth and wire brushed the area and could seal it directly. The sealant on the entire length forward from here was deteriorated, though, so I tore it all out (it wasn’t difficult, since after all it had failed to seal and was just nursing rust underneath) and wire wheeled the gutter. All that will happen to it is application of new sealant.

I decided to keep going and just replace all of the sealant on this side, so I ran all the way down the passenger side A-pillar with the wire wheel.

Technically, at this point, the drip rail operation was all done. But the fun really had just begun! Memorial Day weekend is over with now, and I would take the next few evenings to jump on the roof itself and start dismantling all of the lights and the dysfunctional airhorn, while patching up and priming troublesome areas.  All while plotting the interior rehabilitation and the Next Generation Sex Lights.

Operation: RESTORING BROWN: Vivisection of the Beast – the Summer of vantruck Begins;

Jun 24, 2019 in vantruck

With all of Vantruck’s major build phases being named cheekily after American military operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, (AMEEEEERICAAAAAAAAA), y’all knew this title was coming. ENDURING BROWN documented the struggle to get it back in running order after the Crash of Motorama 2017.  Later, RESOLUTE BROWN saw it become a staple of the Big Chuck’s Van Navy and move from “de-shittification” to “more-goodification” with addition of new fitments such as an overdrive, attending a few  (largely undocumented here) cAr ShOwS usually by just showing up and having everyone assume I belong, and even assuming the role of Company Truck™ in the critical pre-money months of yesteryear.

But, in all honesty, it was missing a lot. Cab rust issues were seriously affecting how I was viewing having it around – the roof became no longer rain-proof at the rusted weld seams (apparently a very Old Ford Truck Problem), making me wonder why I (at the time) had two non-waterproof vans. The paint was globally deteriorating to the point that every wash was turning my towels a light brown shade. And most shameful of all….. I never actually liked the brown-on-brown-on-BROWN paint job anyway. Sacrilege to my fans, I know.

And on top of that, the interior fittings were coming apart with increased use and mileage, reflecting their original cocaine-fueled construction pedigree. One fine day, I was minding my own business trying to get some tacos when the entire CB radio console fell onto my head in the middle of Route 16. I guess the last drywall screw holding the console to the 1/4″ plywood roof liner finally gave out. None of these are exaggerations. It only gets worse.

Yup, just like that, my decision was made. Big Chuck’s Auto Body Center was ready and waiting, and I was going to dive into the beast and cut it open, watching it bleed from every gash. And it’s gonna like it.

Perhaps the most insightful conclusion I’ve made in the past few months – really in the past year and a half after Season 3 of BattleBots …. which I only just now discovered I never actually did an event report for…. was just why a lot of people car as a hobby.

I do consider myself something like a creative person, and I thought that this creativity was generally bottomless and I’d generally be able to design and build things nonstop. It turns out this is more true if all of the things you build are on your terms – for me, that’s been robots, silly go-karts, scooters, and the like, up to and including the half dozen or so consulting jobs I had taken on in the area for friends’ startups and local companies.

When you pick and choose your battles, you tend to win them, creating the rush to fight more. It’s also why winning robot matches is a good thing! However, in the past (roughly) 2 years of the new company, it’s more been like all creativity, all the time, no matter if I think this is a good idea or not because it’s no longer my idea, only 35-45% mine depending on which paperwork we filed. That , like an artist who has to create boring but necessary marketing graphics all day, is what drains your WILL. TO. BE. 

When that happens, it’s difficult to open Autodesk Inventor again and work on Overhaul because I just spent 7 and a half hours trying to work on something else, and know that tomorrow is going to bring 9 hours of the same and 5 the next day with several meetings thrown in juuuust well spaced enough that I can think about something and get nothing actually completed. Then maybe I spent several hours more at home thinking, or late at night wrenching on the company products, metaphorically or literally, with nobody else around to bug me, which just makes me more tired and peeved at the #System.

Well, in that regime of operation, it’s nice to have a hobby where someone else already did all of that work and you have to exercise minimal thought. Just do. I’ve become more accepting recently of the “Guy who works on 1 motorcycle for 5 years”. Before, I always wondered how you can just sit there polishing one engine cover and not do anything else awesome to it. It’s because his day/entire career might be mind-numbingly repetitive or draining, not necessarily by choice, and all he wants to do is get the perfect polish on all of the chrome motorcycle parts I don’t know the word for before having to acknowledge the rest of the family he dubiously signed up for, that one night in his modified van. I hope I don’t keep this up – because at least unlike this hypothetical Gen-X career twilight strawman I’m talking about, I exercise a lot of control over the product and company direction….for better or worse.

(looks over at his modified vans)….. well shit

But I get it. I understand now. Some people car  because they enjoy the performance and tuning process (as I touched on in the bottom third of my accidental engine rebuild post, automobiles have basically every manufacturing process ever invented in them, often because of them) and exploring the often multivariate paths to their optimum solution. Or maybe they never find one and just go along for the ride. But other people car because it is an easy thing to pick up and put down in the limited time available between interpersonal obligations.

I have no interpersonal obligations to speak of, but I sure as damn have much less time to fiddle with finding the perfect hidden motor for my robots. So here I stand, with roughly the hours of 7-8PM to 11-midnight or thereabouts every night, and only about 50% of Saturdays – a.k.a the self-motivated postmodern Millennial with mutually induced career and success anxiety work schedule (what’s the Latin medical word for that?!). What can I get done in that kind of time? I never thought this would actually happen, but here I am with my first real “Project” “Car” so to speak, and another adventure into which I ran into headlong with just enough knowledge to get into trouble but likely not enough to get out of trouble. What will befall our incompletely Byronic Heroes in this episode!?

The events of the past few weeks will be the first in a few stages of this whole journey. It will include:

  • Stripping down the interior and discovering all of its dirty secrets, in preparation for
  • Recovering the rusted areas on the rolled/welded rain gutters and welding patches over them, then
  • Replacing or retromodding the interior fittings which I can’t (or won’t) save, and finally
  • Painting of the whole thing and addendum of dumb truck accessories

But first, let’s rewind a little to the closing days of Operation RESOLUTE BROWN.  Remember it was about making incremental improvements to make it less horrible? You know what’s horrible? Fuel filler necks that are held on by zip ties. Zip ties that break randomly with chassis-bed flexing and end up prolapsing the filler neck out the bottom of the fender.

I bought the interior fittings and (white, even!) doors from someone on Facebook last year, and never found the time to install them (remember self-motivated postmodern Millennial with mutually induced career and success anxiety – look, I ain’t saying it’s right or wrong, just giving the facts. We report, you decide.) until a few months ago. These things were…. let’s call them “Made to Print”. I get the impression the holes were just in-place drilled on the assembly line if it was vaguely aligned, because I could only get 3 of the 4 holes of the allegedly identical model-and-year filler neck fitting to line up – and one only after drilling out the embedded threaded insert nut completely and just using a loose nut on the back side.

Hey, whatever. It closes and doesn’t even look that bad!

The rear filler door and fitting were going to be a little more of a challenge, because…

To make the custom-length Centurion van-to-truck filler neck remotely reach the existing fuel door location, it had to bend and twist more than the hose could handle. This hose was already damaged when I got it, and rotating it upwards sure didn’t make it any better.  It would need to rotate even more to accommodate the fitting angle. I don’t know why Ford chose to put the fuel doors inside the dually fenders in those years.

With a lot of PB Blaster and some coercing with strap wrenches and prybars, I managed to “pre-compensate” for the twist needed to seat the filler neck such that the hose isn’t twist-kinked any more, just kinked. This should really be replaced for real some time – it hasn’t leaked, but I figure the reinforcement wires showing isn’t a good sign anyway.

The rear tank fitting aligned just as badly, again allowing me to use only three screws out of four.

And both fuel doors are now mounted. Instantly, looked at least a few percent better!  Man, the one-year anniversary of the Centurion RCR Episode (now approaching 400,000 views…. yikes) was coming up, and I really wish it could have been in a better state of De-Shittification back then.

If you’re detail oriented, you might have noticed a trivial change that magically appeared in the past few photos. Go ahead and look again at the past five photos!

Check these out. Around the time I signed on for Big Chuck’s Auto Body, I started more seriously shopping for truck accessories since I would have a less-frozen and less-seagull-dropping-covered place to install them. One of the issues that Vantruck has had, in my assessment, has been “Too Little Ass”.

What I mean is that the thing sits so high that it’s mostly tires looking at it from the back.  Just look at some of the drive-behind shots in the RCR episode.

The aftermarket step bumper I used to replaced the wrecked original is rather short in stature, and a conflict in its height versus having to access the existing van-frame trailer hitch for towing the company trailer meant I had to flip my mount and bring it up even higher. It just looked rather wrong, like not enough is going on, not truck shaped enough.

I plan to fix the bumper issue with a custom rear deep-drop step-and-tow style bumper (see: Stage 4 where I add horrible truck accessories that I haven’t gotten to), but in the mean time…

I am reminded of why I hate the idea of buying horrible truck accessories. Because they’re all overpriced and shitty for what they are. For the low ruble amount of $125 I got these rubber sheets that have the thinnest diamond-tread plate aluminum ever riveted to…. no, I HAD TO DO THE GOD DAMNED RIVETING. I could bend these sheets not just by hand, but between my fingers.

Dunno what I was expecting, really. If I still had 24/7 unfettered access to a “Milk my tuition back dollar by dollar” machine (also called an abrasive waterjet) I’d probably have made my own from 1/8″ or something. Nah, College Charles would have done 1/4″ for dramatic overkill.  But for now? Whatever, more money than time or sense.

Yeah, not to mention the braces were bare, uncoated steel. They’d melt away in one winter. So I did what I do best – paint them Miku Blue with leftover Overhaul paint.  Primer, base, and clear. These will last for a while yet!

Because it was actually still the middle of winter (what I call Winter begins in late September and runs until mid May), I had to give the paint some boost to dry and cure properly.

 

While snooping out the underside of the bed for where to drill the holes, I discovered a fun archeological fact about this bed I bought.

It had the exact model or a very similar model of mudflap.

The holes were already there. Both the underside and wheelwell one.  Well, now I understand what those holes were there for! I might start playing this game on purpose – try to “Guess the Accessory” based on the vestigial hole pattern!

The truck this bed was on definitely used to have a Gooseneck type hitch, because of the, you know, 4 inch diameter hole drilled right in the middle. On my long-term agenda is to re-add such a hitch, even if I have nothing worthwhile to tow, because truck cred.

The convenience was short-lived, as I quickly discovered that the rubber was cut assuming the F-series truck frame dimensions (33″ wide) which are a good 9″ narrower than the van frame (42″ wide). It just meant I had to move the thru-holes about an inch or so over for them to clear the leaf springs.

And…. not bad. The Ass Factor has substantially increased, and with it, the Truck-Shaped Coefficient. The higher your TSC, the more truck-like your truck is. Get it? Good, because I’m not going over this material again; you’ll have to work with your TA in recitation before the exam on Tuesday which will consist of one question only: What color is BROWN?

I finished all of the previous installation work before Motorama this year since I wanted to use that as an excuse to finally make the thing presentable. Externally-imposed but still artificial deadlines, you say!

We can now move on to the true beginning of Operation: RESTORING BROWN.  I spent a day or so after being beaned by the radio console to kind of outline the scope of the whole project and reaffirm my motivations. In short,

  • The radio console falling off will be the triggering event of pulling apart the interior
  • This has to happen because the rain gutter rust had, in my opinion, reached almost irreparable levels on the left side in three locations – the rear near the stitch seam, the center over the double windows, and over the driver side door
  • Repairing it will necessitate hotwork (welding, grinding) and I definitely don’t want to set the interior pieces on fire; I had to take the all off to investigate what will be nearby the weld site
  • While the interior is apart, perform upgrades and make changes; at least lay the foundation for changes I want to make so it can be closed back up
  • Repair or address all remaining rust sites on the cab in the interest of a full repaint; leave stuff in primer or some spraybombing
  • Shop around for a repaint quote or stop being scared and do it myself.

During this process, I had to minimize the amount of “immovable object” downtime so I had to plan my moves carefully – just taking everything apart with reckless abandon is how you end up with a Craigslist pile. I bought my vans as Craigslist piles, I should know this.

I decided a good brainless task to start on was going ahead and dismantling the interior, since at the time I was waiting on my welder and also needed to do research and think about how to attack the rain gutter rust. Learning more about the interior might also inform future changes.

First operation was to begin unscrewing all of the interior fittings, like the sun visors, trim pieces, and the cabin lights.

At this point I had no idea how anything was attached, so I carefully marked and retained all of the screws I removed. The answer: 1″ long self-drilling sheet metal screws. Just power zipped in there.

I sighed, and pressed forward.

I removed the passenger-side B-pillar upper trim to release another section of Centurion-special upholstery and….

 

Uh oh.

 

Literally duct tape has been found as a construction material. This wasn’t recent duct tape by my investigation – it was rigid and crispy, the kind of duct tape that only could have gone into it from day one.

I signed, and pressed forward. I see how this is going to go.

The stained wood roof….arches? are how the individual panels are retained. Under them are some more edge screws that hold the interior panels to the OEM steel roof beams, most of which are flat-head and were “driven through” the fabric so I couldn’t see them. I had to carefully examine the surface with a flashlight and catch reflections of the screws.

Alright, down comes the front portion of the interior roof liner, and…. I see duct tape from here. Oh no.

Oh no.

You know the canned movie/cartoon scene where the hero opens a door, chest, box, or some other cavity-laden plot McGuffin, makes a face, and then looks away back at his consortium of misfits and goes “It’s worse than I thought” or “Don’t look in here”, and closes it again?

That.

Right, also, do you see what I mean by 1/4″ plywood? It’s literally just stapled “Sagging Headliner” material on 1/4″ regular-ass 1980s plywood. Probably made from cocaine trees. I’m going to keep making “80s cocaine” jokes, despite having nothing to do with either subject matter.

 

Yep. Okay, moving on. I anchored everything back by 1 screw so it would stay in place; I wanted to see how bad the rest of it was.

To remove the rear panels, I had to first guess what order Centurion fit everything in. The answer is the worst possible order, a.k.a how I’d have done it too.

The driver’s side double-window panel went in last. You can tell since it overlapped the edges of all the other panels on that side. This meant to release the (what i now call) #2 and #3 roof panels, I had to remove it first. To do that, I had to release a significant portion of the driver’s side B pillar including the seat belt anchor bolt and both conversion van window frames.

These window frames were, let’s say, clearly not intended for the Ford van, as they had a different curvature than the outside of the body. This was hidden by the fact that the outer sheet metal to interior drivers’s side wall panel distance was about 3 inches filled with fiberglass batting. The curvature was then forced by elastic averaging beasting it with 17 1″ long self-drilling sheet metal screws each.

If any of this is able to go back in after I was done, I am starting a van restoration shop for real.

By the way, I went full long sleeve and respirator for this op – because the first time I popped the roof down, a cloud of orange decaying urethane foam dust and fiberglass particles rained down.

So how did your co-founder die? Miner’s lung. How did he get that? Working on his van. We don’t talk about it. What a conversation for your Series A funding round party.

 

Investigating some of the artifacts, such as the rear cabin light module, was a source of entertainment also. A lot of companies made RV accessories in the 1970s and 1980s, and most of these companies (Centurion included, in the end) are no longer around. Well, I found out why one of these lights always kept falling off: Because the HOT GLUE JOINT retaining it had given up.

You know what, maybe ya’ll fucking deserved to go out of business.

With the driver’s side wall panel pulled apart, and all of the roof panel screws released, it was time to unveil more of the Fiberglass Flabberglast. The silver foil tape isn’t OEM – I had to add it, very fittingly of course since it’s designed for insulation panels, because the two rear pieces kept trying to fall down on me.

I had known that Vantruck was insulated for a long time, but didn’t know how good of a job they tried to do until now. The side walls and rear endcap wall are very well filled, but the roof just had these cut rectangular chunks. Better than nothing I suppose, and it made me want to install the rest inside the gaps once I was finished in here.

Gee, thanks. Just pull naked wires against exposed steel edges. Yup, who cares about strain relief?  Who cares if your product is a fire hazard if the company will go under soon anyway!?

The condition of the roof underside wasn’t that concerning – not as bad as these photos make it look. It looks like rust caused by temperature cycling and condensation, and was entirely surface. Will it become an issue one day? Probably. Do I care enough right now to rip out all of the fiberglass and try to clean/remedy it? Nah, I had much larger, browner fish to fry first.

As a final step in this adventure, I decided to just rip the scab off and reveal the full Lovecraftian wirebomination that is the #1 roof panel.  I knew it was going to be bad, since all of the five “I am a large truck please thank you” DOT lights on the roof are wired in here, as well as two internal cabin lights and all of the CB radio and console buttons.

Up your nose, here we go…

 

Boy howdy did this get out of scope fast. I haven’t even touched any rust yet! In the coming days, I would switch mental gears and just grind and sand stuff while thinking of what I could possibly do to make this any worse.

 

Operation RESOLUTE BROWN: Conquest of That Weird Idle Problem

Apr 20, 2019 in vantruck

And now we return to another chapter of Big Chuck’s Auto Body Center! This time, I’m happy to announce the eradication of something which has plagued Vantruck since not long after I installed the FITech fuel injection system: That Weird Idle Problem.

For almost a year and a half now, Vantruck has never idled correctly. The air-fuel ratio would sink to as low as 10 or 11:1 almost as soon as the engine was started. This meant it stank of unburned fuel, adding to its absurd reputation. Hot starts were strenuous, needing foot-to-the-floor and gentle nursing afterwards (oh, but it would start with one key bump on the 10-20 degree winter mornings!). When it idling, it always sounded like it was missing one or two cylinders. Yet on the highway, or even anything-but-idling, it was great! It really behaved like a carburetor flooding issue, and my friends would quip about how it still acts carbureted, even after conversion to fuel injection. You will never truly take the brown out of the vantruck.

I did numerous dives in to try and figure out what was happening. Theories from people abounded, like a localized vacuum leak of some sort affecting combustion only in 1 or 2 cylinders, or some component of the California smog package still being active (which was the real motivation for its epic dismantling a few months ago). I also replaced the spark plugs (let me tell you about THAT some time), the distributor consumables, and the plug cables. Hell, someone even guessed one (and only one) of the distributor electronic ignition points (the reluctor wheel) was just far enough out of spec to not trigger the ignition module. What are the chances of that? Who knows!?

Honestly, through all the Car Guy Advice, it was clear  to me something was overfueling, so I even did things as dumb as turning down the engine displacement parameter in the ECU. None of these attempts had a first-order impact on the behavior, so I surmised it had to be something very fundamental; something as drastic as tricking the ECU into thinking the thing was only 250 cubic inches and not 460 should have at least had a palpable effect.

One of the hallmarks of a strong debugging heuristic is obtaining a mental model for how sensitive the system is to certain changes; but the other is… well, if something is in the last place you looked, check that you didn’t step over it in the first place, right!?

So I stuck a camera, finally, down the bore of the throttle body. I had a vague idea of what it should look like, and hoped that I would be able to tell if something just looked wrong.  Why didn’t I do this before? Well, you can’t exactly stare down the barrels in these damn vans by putting your head over it. I have to either put an inspection camera inside the engine closet, or in this case, hold my phone inside and try to crank it. Great!

So here we are right after the key is turned to the ON but not Start position. Looks okay so far – barrel 1 (is it called 1? I’m calling it 1) looks a little moist, so maybe we are getting somewhere. The others are pretty starkly dry.

….and immediately on cranking and starting. Oh, my.

Well that’s no good. The injector handling this barrel is basically stuck open, so the thing was getting fuel for 1/4 throttle while idling. How it ran at all, then, was a complete mystery. I attribute it to the 460 being so stupid it didn’t know any better.

So why didn’t I home in on the injectors initially? Well, honestly, I didn’t even know they could leak!

In principle? Yeah I could see that happening. Never dealt with it, though, and a forum full of carburetor bros is surely not going to say “Fuel Injector”. After some research, I found that this generation of FITech head unit was from shortly after changing injector suppliers, so they experienced quality problems. It was covered under warranty and they would send you a new set of injectors.

But I was impatient.

 

So out it comes! The nice thing about these throttle body injection units is you just unplug a few things  and out pops the whole head unit. So if you route your hoses and cables carefully, the installation can be under 5 minutes, really.

Come here, you problem child. My plan was simply to plug up the leaking injector and throw this thing right back in.

To dismantle the FITech unit’s pressurized fuel rails, there are two large 1/4-20 socket head cap screws on either side that need to be released, and then the things pop up upwards at a 45 degree angle. Not straight back or straight upwards. O-rings towards the front and back of the unit get squished into grooves in order to seal the fuel rails; these look like they should be replaced every time you do this, but I elected not to for now.

On the throttle linkage side, the throttle lever cam itself has to be removed to clear the fuel rail half.

To plug the leaking injector, or at least head off its flow to a point where it didn’t really contribute, I resorted to abject terrorism and shoved a cut-off piece of vacuum fitting cap into it. I don’t care if this thing swells or distorts with gasoline contact – so long as it sufficiently reduced the fuel flow!

And the truth reveals itself after a full ECU reset to clear any memory of the incident – now, the idle is far smoother and more stable, and the AFR ratio is very tightly managed. Hurray!

Sadly I didn’t have the foresight to also swap one of the secondary injectors with the blocked primary injector, since it pretty much only uses the primary barrels for low throttle. That means it was missing half of its injection capacity, so stepping on the pedal quickly would overwhelm the other injector and cause it to lean out and stumble. But if I kept it gentle, I was even able to highway drive reasonably well since the secondary barrels kicked in the difference.

Nevertheless, it seems like the issue was resolved. It was now time to call FiTech up and ask for a new set of injectors.

Fast forward a week and so and I’ve dug the thing out again to replace all four injectors with the newest revision parts, replacing the fuel rail O-rings in the process while I was at it. The new injectors get a small smear of grease to facilitate installation, and then the whole mess was unceremoniously stuffed back in. And it worked! My goal was to get this surgery done before Motorama 2019, and I put it together a few days beforehand.

So did the gas mileage get any better!? Well, not really. See, the leaking injector would only really manifest itself at low throttles. On the highway, it’s basically running in that state constantly anyhow. If the ‘city’ mileage improved, I sure as hell haven’t noticed. But at least now it starts quickly, idles less asphyxiatingly (more long-term lung cancer now, I suppose), and responds much more crisply.

With Vantruck now driving competently, I can now turn my attention to the next steps in making it more gooder. One added bonus?

I managed to secure a garage space across the street from the (now previous) shop. You know what? A garage is a garage. It’s enclosed, heated, and has a modicum of power and lighting. And even a mini functional bathroom. You’ll be seeing more and more of the now-real Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse and Auto Body Center in the future.

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

Oct 14, 2018 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.