Archive for the 'In Progress' Category

 

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.

Operation RESOLUTE BROWN: Vantruck Justice and Motorama 2018; Installing a Gear Vendors Overdrive

Feb 28, 2018 in Events, vantruck

I know I said I’d make this a lessons learned at Motorama 2018 post, but let’s go back to vans for a minute. Motorama 2018 would mark one year since the ill-fated Motorama 2017 trip which left Vantruck in a state of “de-shittification” for months, resulting in the post series OPERATION ENDURING BROWN .  Fortunately, for the past few months, it’s reached a stable plateau, even managing to go to a car show and on several large-object getting trips to New York…

 

(yes, it IS in fact in the middle of Upper Manhattan… who thought that was a good idea???)

…New Jersey, New Hampshire, and whatever else around here starts with New, as well as being the resident Bruh Can I Borrow Your truck, which has resulted in another two or so trips to New York State and New Jersey. Basically what I’m saying is, it’s been solely responsible for at least 0.0001C of global warming.

So I had to make Motorama 2018′s trip count. Now a year in the making, it was time to close the chapter of making Vantruck less shitty to begin on the journey of making it more gooder. Thus, we begin OPERATION RESOLUTE BROWN.

I decided the first major salvo would be getting it a fourth gear prior to Motorama. With only 3 speeds in the Ford C6 transmission and the top gear being 1:1 into a 4.10 ratio rear axle, getting the thing to go faster than 55mph was strenuous… not for lack of power, but just for sheer engine speed on the highway. Vantruck’s known repeatable gas mileage was a linear function of speed, more or less: 9 mpg at 55, decreasing to 8 mpg at 65mph and may Al Gore personally lobotomize you for trying to go 70mph consistently – the 7.5 liter V8 spun at 3,200 RPM or basically 80% of its redline just to keep up with the nearest Pumpkin Spice Lattemobile.

There were two major paths I worked with which people seemed to have done. One was swapping the transmission for a type E4OD 4-speed, which was used in Ford trucks in the later 80s and through the 1990s. That would have involved sourcing a functioning (or rebuilt) E4OD and also transplanting over the transmission controller or buying an aftermarket standalone controller. Beyond that, fitting the larger-cased E4OD would have involved moving and making new transmission mounting crossmembers. It seemed overall like the more correct but more involved route – it was not much of a stretch at that point to simply change engines with it by purchasing the entire running gear of a different truck. powerstroke swap

The other option was adding a discrete overdrive unit. Up until I started doing this research, I’ve never even heard of aftermarket bolt-on overdrive gears, but hey! They seemed much more common “back in the day” when less transmissions came with anything but 1:1 for the highest gear. They seem to generally work like large drill gearboxes driven in reverse, and are mostly of the deNormanville design, also called the Laycock (huehuehue) design:

Pretty nifty. It’s like an inside-out Roll Cake, for your transmission! The downside was that these things were quite pricy new – a full kit from Gear Vendors, the current manufacturer of these units, was going to run $3,000. My van salon estimated around $900 for installation including modification (cutting and rebalancing) the drive shaft. So in other words, both my options were going to be almost equally expensive with time economy, make-it or buy-it, and convenience tradeoffs.

We all know the real answer is “Tesla swap it” of course – if I had my own lift and garage, I’d probably have just machined my own overdrive box by running a PTO gearbox or some other kind of industrial dongle backwards with giant dog clutch and Overhaul’s old clamp actuator as a shifter. But I don’t – I have what I can do on the ground without a lift, often with snow cover.

After consulting with my vanstylists, I decided to pursue the external overdrive route. Convenience won out in the end, as the installation would be largely bolt-on with only modification of the driveshaft and moving one frame crossmember. I wouldn’t get the benefit of the locking torque converter of the E4OD, but would still see highway RPMs fall by 25% at least. It was going to be 80% of the results for a small fraction of the work of a whole transmission or powertrain swap. The only trick to making it really Econolinical was trying to find a used unit.

I set up traps on eBay and Craigslist and waited a few weeks, but it paid off in getting me a $1,200 unit removed from a truck the owner was parting out after a crash. This meant it must have been moving before the crash, which means it most likely works!

It was just very…. gooey. Obviously something was leaking, either it, or something onto it. Nothing I’m not familiar with! A few passes in the sink with degreaser and a small wire brush and it was as clean as I’d care to get it.

The unit came with the adapter spline, replacement tail housing for the transmission, and a whole bag of spaghetti that was the Gear Vendors auto-drive control system. I’m not going to use it. There’s all manners of lockouts and disables – primarily to keep the unit from activating in reverse gear or under 25-30mph when its internal oil pump would have a hard time keeping the clutches engaged. These sensor wires all end up in phone jacks in the control unit housing. Who picked that connector!?

Anyways, how about a switch and “don’t be a dumbass” for the time being?

 

For the first time, I’ve succumbed to the forces of practicality and paid someone for the installation of a major vehicle system. This is the beginning of the end :(

Well, as I said – the previous issues of having to work outside on the ground, in a below-freezing mostly snow-covered parking lot made installing this myself a serious impracticality, coupled with my much decreased time recently from tending to my secret whispers startup. I definitely contemplated trying to get everything except the driveshaft done, then only having my van salon do those modifications.

But for just under $1K, they put everything together (minus the control system installation, by my request) and in fact actually had an entirely new 2-piece driveshaft made, instead of cutting the old one. Okay, pay for nice things, get nice things… sigh.

Here’s a photo of that setup, including a new crossmember since the center hanger bearing had to be relocated. On the left: My own shoddy dirt floor chop job exhaust repair. <:(

 

I proceeded to wire the control solenoid up. All it needs is 12 volts to activate the shift valve!

The van salon did discover what had caused the unit to get so greasy: The sump gasket was loose and damaged. I ordered a new one right after the fact, but I haven’t been able to get under there to install it just yet. So for now, it dribbles small amounts of gear oil if I actually try to fill it up all the way. In the above photo, you can in fact see a drop forming.

What, one of my vans dribbling small amounts of oil constantly? Never!

One conundrum was swapping over the Ford speedometer cable drive end to the GM style threaded fitting that Gear Vendors uses. This was a problem to solve later! Road test NOW!

I grounded the solenoid nearby on the frame and ran a Little Red Wire all the way up the chassis wiring bundle which slinks between the frame and body, proceeding to wrap it the wrong way around the cruise control actuator in the process. It enters the cabin with the other aftermarket wiring.

I committed abject electrical terrorism and jumpered it to the fuel pump circuit, which has already been jumpered to… something I can’t remember. Oh boy, this will get interesting when fuse blows.

The final connections were made using a spare random switch I had, reinstalled into the famous “What the hell did this switch go to?” hole!

Some people buy or make an elegant on-the-shifter button switch solution, but I found it just as easy to swipe at the dashboard. Did I mention ROAD TEST NOW?????

I used a phone GPS speedometer to get a direct speed reading in lieu of having the speedometer cable hooked up. Basically, get on the highway and flip the switch. The satisfying thunk indicates the unit has activated. At 55mph, the engine RPM fell to around 2,100. The absolutely fantastic thing is that 70mph engine speed is now the former 55mph speed, at around 2,650 RPM. It’s now disturbingly quiet, with only wind buffeting in the cabin. Far quieter than Mikuvan – with its higher wind noise and lesser sound insulation and my fake racevan muffler.

It was in fact now too easy with the torque overhead of the 460 to start going 75mph and up without noticing. This is also where I found out it has a resonant, likely tire-balance related, issue at between 71-75mph. Once you break through that, it’s like crossing the sound barrier. I ran out of testicular tenaciousness at around 82mph and decided to not explore further.

I only forgot to disable it after getting off the highway once – which caused it to fall out of overdrive mode. There’s a sprag clutch connecting the two shafts which forces 1:1 mode if it can’t shift for any reason, and it will pick up again as soon as the input shaft spins fast enough. From what I understand, this isn’t the end of the world, but also isn’t good for the cone clutch linings, so I’ll just have to Get Good at remembering to turn it off. (I didn’t mess up once during Motorama!)

A couple of days later, my speedometer parts came in the mail.

I bought a common 20″ GM style extension cable which has the 7/8″ threaded coupling on both sides. GV gives you a big bucket of hardware to adapt to like every possible speedometer situation, but the seller didn’t end up having to use the extension cable originally and so did not include it. I literally got a chunk of the speedometer cable of his truck, which, while well-meaning, was less than helpful.

The Ford speedometer gear comes off with a small clip and the fitting behind it gets shoved into the aluminum adapter provided by GV. There’s nothing holding these two together except the friction of two O-rings, which is fine I guess.

The GM male fitting tightens into the other side of the aluminum tube.

The female nut side of the GM cable then tightens onto the fitting on the GV unit. I just kept everything held up with a few cable ties after that, and we’re done here.

And to remind myself of my escapade…

Was it worth it? In terms of reducing the wear and stress on the engine just trying to puff along the highway, yes. Economically, with around $2,200 spent all up, it would at first glance take around 15-16,000 miles to pay off at around 2.69 a gallon average and around 9 MPG. But then I have to remember that 9 MPG is now at 70-75mph instead of 55… With more comprehensive testing, 60-65mph driving results in slightly over 10 MPG so I bet 55mph is going to see above 11.

However, I’m never going to bother going 55mph again. The gas mileage argument is really kind of moot to me also. It was just good to move at real-people speeds.

All of this happened in the 3 weeks before Motorama after I got back from CES and had a brief escapade to Atlanta. January was a crowded month. But I’m proud to say that Vantruck Justice was achieved!


huehue we touched butts

I met up with Alex Horne for DOUBLE VANTRUCK PARTY . Stay tuned for how Clocker did at the tournament, and how that affects my strategies and design paths for Overhaul!

All-Vans Quality of Life Patches for Fall and Winter; Going to the Jalopnik Car Show, and Infectious Vantruck Disease

Dec 12, 2017 in mikuvan, vantruck

Winter is literally coming. As time goes on, my ability to work on vans decreases greatly both for lack of daylight and lack of inside matters. In preparation for overwintering now two  vanbabies, I decided to make some repairs and mods that were becoming more necessary (or more necessary, if you get what I mean…). I like keeping my machinery in good functioning state, and Mikuvan was beginning to feel a little like a daily junker more and more. Meanwhile, Vantruck had some lingering bugs I wanted to address before my hands freeze off holding a wrench.

mikuvan

The most important thing was making sure Mikuvan could still pass its incipient Massachusetts state inspection. You see, since the day I got it running in 2013, the exhaust has been slowly shortening itself piece by piece. Recall that one of the earliest bits of mechanical work I did was to rebuild the catalytic converter flange. A year and some later, a part of the exhaust pipe broke apart, which I had a mechanic repair while it was on a lift already for a brake fluid change and rear drums inspection.

That was 2015. About a year to the day, before Dragon Con 2016, it breaks upstream of that repair. I threw together this patch in my classic weeaboo-redneck-engineer fashion

No beer cans here, only top quality RAMUNE BOTTLES. Three layers of them.

Several months later, that broke off, so I trashed the whole section from the bottle-hack back and replaced it with a 90-degree downwards bend with an exhaust tip on it, hanging on to the remaining muffler stub.

Well guess that, that broke the fuck off earlier this year, likely during the Detroit Maker Faire trip. I didn’t notice. I didn’t even care. It can rest in eternal pain and suffering somewhere on the side of the 401 in Ontario.

I just ran with the stumpy pipe out of the muffler which terminated well under the cabin, sounding vaguely like a ricer fart cannon but offering me nothing except exhaust slowly seeping into the cabin when I was at a stop or accelerated hard.

With the inspection date coming up, I had to do something.

Ah, good old New England Organic Loctite. It occurs naturally, regenerating from any exposed worthwhile metal in its vicinity. In the winter, it feeds off the gazillion tons of salt poured on the road and blossoms each spring.

I’d watched the catalytic converter slowly get smaller and smaller over time – even the new gasket I put on it quickly became one with the material. I actually dumped PB Blaster on this flange connection while it was still hot – that was quite exciting. It then took several seconds of impact wrench before I was able to free the converter bolts. Frankly, I was amazed they were removable at all.

Since Mikuvan is emissions-exempt in Massachusetts, I elected to not buy a new catalytic converter and just latch right onto the downpipe stub.

 

Time to measure up the exhaust path. I needed to clear the rear axle and end up at roughly the correct length to still put a muffler on. I decided to rear-mount the replacement muffler (which was also already rotted out at the bottom, so it wasn’t doing much muffling for a year or two at least) instead of mounting forward of the rear axle like it was before.

 

And two trips to Pep Boys later, I have all the ingredients! Several lengths of pipe, a flexible coupler, several rubber-mounting hanging straps, and a bunch of tubing adapters. All that is needed to get the right dimensions is an angle grinder!

What, you thought I was going to weld this shit together? Mandrel bends? Mitered joints? Nah. Clamps and impact wrench all the way.

It’s nighttime in this photo because I ran into issues with the downpipe stub – it was some odd metric size of course, and there was no adapter which fit cleanly either inside or outside. I ended up using a 1-7/8″ OD adapter slit and shoved into the downpipe stub, which had a matching slit to let it expand a little. It was then a dance to get the other end of that adapter (2″) adapted to 2.25″ for the remaining pipe. All of the new pipe is 2.25″.

Yeah, the slit is a built-in exhaust leak. Whatever, it’s past the oxygen sensor. Maybe if I feel enterprising I’ll TIG weld it shut (and ONLY it) later.

This section has a flexible coupling in it since the catalytic converter’s output also did, and I wanted to keep the same constraint architecture. The length of solid pipe from here back is hung at both ends while the flexible coupling goes from the adapter salad to it. Should I be required to reinstall a converter in the future, like moving to an emissions-strict area where they don’t just go by OBD-II diagnostics, I should be able to stuff one back in here.

Compared to the… exhausting… dance up front, doing the up-and-over was quite easy and enjoyable.

I decided to be cheeky and go for a SPORT MUFFLER instead of an OEM style one. What, you wanted to sound like a sports car all these year, Mikuvan. Here’s your chance.

This is a Cherry Bomb “Turbo” multi-chambered muffler, distinct from Cherry Bomb’s usual fiberglass packed ones. I don’t have a turbo. I don’t care. It was $28.99 on sale at Pep Boys, and a little of on-the-spot research told me that glass-packs would definitely bring out the ricer fart cannon sound, but would foul up quickly due to the engine consuming oil. Given that,  I was better off with a chambered type.

Anyways, this first attempt made it hang a little too low, so I had to cut the strap and bolt it in closer to the trailer hitch.

The final position. It’s not actually tilted much in real life, by the way – the perspective of this photo is a little strange, since Mikuvan’s rear lower quarter panels curve upwards and the trailer hitch is actually a little tilted upwards also.

So, how do I like the end result?

i regret everything in my life

Okay, the ricer sound was funny for about 24 hours. Between 1000-1500 rpm and 2500-3000 rpm, it seems to resonate the cabin, resulting in a constant mooing sound, a persistent droning. Guess which RPM bands get used the most during gentle city and highway cruising!?

Mikuvan sounds like it has 75 more horsepower than it actually does, which is a 75% improvement. It DOES have more low-end jumpiness, like the second after mashing it from a stoplight. Additionally, the power available past 3500 RPM improved noticeably – previously, trying to throttle past 4,000 didn’t do me much good, and it felt like the engine just hits a wall, but my gas mileage the week after took a complete dive as I was redlining everywhere all the time.

I think this is less due to a sport muffler than just installing the new system as 2.25″ pipe instead of the stock 1-7/8″ (50mm?) pipe for its majority length. I didn’t bother to check if the 0-60 changed. That’s not the point. The answer is still yes.

Realistically, I might toss an OEM style muffler on there after winter passes.  One Dragon Con and Franklin Institute with the Persistent Moo was fairly sufficient, thank you.

Anyways, let’s move onto the more important part of van maintenance: blinkenlights.  I replaced almost all of the small marker and dashboard lights with LEDs back in 2014. A few of them had begun dying, including somewhat important things like the previously chastised oil pressure warning light. That’s maybe a little important.

inexpensive chinese van lighting 3: the reckoning

I decided that enough time had passed to do a scan of the market again, so I hopped on good ol’ Amazon Prime. The market structure™ is very different now – in 2013 and 2014, a lot more of the LED widget vendors were China based. Nowadays, they (or their underlings) all have Prime fulfillment or US-based shipping.

 

 

What I noticed is a rise in these purely PCB-based LED units in small (T10, T5, 194, etc.) sizes. I originally bought several styles which were plastic former incandescent lamp shells containing discrete LEDs with formed leads. Those actually didn’t work very well in the end. The LEDs had no heat sinking and tended to burn out or dim quickly, and the formed leads pretending to be T-series shaped were flimsy.

Also, a lot of the LED clusters were unnecessarily bright, containing 5-10 devices. It’s a marker light, bruh, not a camera flash. The ones I found contained 3 or 4 little LED chips only and seemed to have a lot more PCB copper area relative to their size. An example captured from Amazon is bove.

I was curious about one more thing: Most of these products now claim to have “CANBUS error-free” features. After doing a little sleuthing, I discovered that it’s a New Car Problem (a.k.a I don’t care) of the LED bulbs drawing so little current that the ECU/Body control module will throw an error saying you have a bulb broken.

….so here is how the enterprising Chinese widget makers solve it. They drop a big power resistor across the input. To make it draw more current.

This is utter bullshit. Do not EVER buy a “CANBUS Error Free” LED bulb. If your car is new enough to complain, it’s new enough that you shouldn’t be putting questionable aftermarket glowy things on it anyway.  Get an old shitcan like these were meant for. Preferably a van. I like vans.

Here is what the typically 100-to-200 ohm power resistor does: It heats up.

It heats enough to some times desolder itself.

It’s also right next to the LEDs, so they heat up even more and even faster than if they were over-rated and over-driven. I burned one out on 14.0v after like 3 minutes of it just sitting on my desk. It was drawing 0.2 amps until the end – that’s 3 W of power heating up an object which weighs nothing. I think I know why so many of these products have bad Amazon reviews: sadly, people don’t know better.

I desoldered each and every “CANBUS resistor” on each and every one of the 50 white, miku blue, red, and amber LEDs I got. This did not take long, since I had a reflow cannon, but I was peeved to discover that my worst fears regarding inexpensive Chinese van accessories had come true again.

The white T10 units drew 0.05 amps after I was done. That’s more than enough.

The end result is real pretty though.

I changed the master illumination to the “ice blue” LEDs which is really clever marketing speak for my favorite color, Miku Blue.  I also restored all of the small indicators to pure white units so their original colors were back.

That’s enough for silly lighting. It’s still the case that if you want actually reliable LED units, you should still stick with a retail brand name like Sylvania or Philips. They’re going to be pricier, but unless you also have a reflow heat gun and a night to burn and are at least a little obessive like me, just get them.

More recently, I tackled a more reasonable silly old van problem of a broken sensor wire. While doing the fall-to-winter oil change, I noticed a loose wire.

This used to go to the oil pressure sensor (what is with the oil pressure sensor and light as a recurring theme here…) which is located on the bottom of the engine. Heat and oil had stiffened the old PVC-insulated wire until it just broke off inside the connector.

This wasn’t too epic of a fix. I replaced the original wire with a length of silicone-insulated noodly robot wire, up to where it enters the harness and was still quite flexible. This shows the joint and repaired connector before I sleeved it over with heat-shrink tubing and tucked it back into the wiring loom.

Back in place we go!  Excuse the grunge. That is Mikuvan leaking the correct amount of oil my self-applying undercoating system.

I additionally performed some mercy maintenance on the left side. My original body repair on the left rocker panel corners fell off earlier this year. I was kind of expecting this, since I was never able to get the holes in the front (behind the front wheel) fixed and so that repair only trapped water, causing it to fail eventually.

I decided it was better to just leave the lower panel holes open but seal-coat them inside and out. This strategy had been working (and continues to work) for the two holes forward of each wheel, which I coated in Eastwood Goo back in 2014 thoroughly.

So out comes the wirebrushes, in wheel and tooth form. I wire-brushed off all outstanding surface rust first, and reached into the panel holes to manually wire brush off the loose rust inside. Additionally, while I had it up on ramps, I used my slide hammer to try and pull down the damaged lower rocker panel and pinch weld. If you buy a derpy Japanese van, chances are someone’s tried to jack it up by the pinch welds and completely fucked over the metal in the area, I guarantee it.  I only take Mikuvan to mechanics I have talked to and trust for this reason: I don’t trust anyone to know it can only be jacked by the frame. This area came rusty and bent upwards, and had only been deteriorating more. I couldn’t get it completely flat again, but it at least looks better than it was.

Prior to the application of Eastwood Goo, I touched up the paintwork right next to the fuel filler door and immediately in front of the rear wheel. The former had been slowly dissolving due to gasoline fumes and accidental overflows, and was turning the whole area dark and ratty looking as well as causing some of my original bodywork to start chipping off. If I had to point to one thing which crossed my “daily junker” threshold, it was this. I haven’t found a rattlecan product which can completely resist gasoline, so this area will only become ratty again until Mikuvan gets a real paint job.

After the color and clear coat were vaguely dry – as dry as they could get in 40-something degrees, I drew a big fat line with the Eastwood Goo both on the outside here as well as the opposite side, using the extendo-straw to go well into the interstitial space of the panels on both sides.

Essentially I’m just preserving this area from further deterioration. Should I decide that dropping several thousand dollars on a full restoration and repaint is worth it in the future, I will source this body panel either domestically from the southwest/California, or internationally since this generation of Mitsubishi van is still (somehow) in production in various developing countries. Otherwise, an experienced body shop would just strip it all to bare metal anyway. Should I embark on an electrification project, I’ll likely start anew with a donor van in better condition from the same areas (since I assume that if I’m going ahead with cutting up Teslas and Nissan Leafs, that I’m well off enough to have my own garage and lift!)

So that’s Mikuvan’s history for the past 2-3 months. Interspersed with all of this was of course the comparative 800-lb gorilla and relatively white elephant of….

vantruck

Oh god why do I still own this device. It’s been a year, yet it still feels new and interesting.

As I had sampled a pile of LEDs again, one of the things I did immediately was to retrofit Vantruck too. The incandescent bulbs it came with have long darkened and were sort of miserable looking. The dashboard was so dim it was almost impossible to see even at night.

 

Well that’s no way to live! Luckily, it uses type 194 bulbs EVERYWHERE. Even the idiot lights. I had to buy another pack of T10/194 type LEDs to satisfy it. (Vantruck is the undisputed king of the phrase “I had to ____ another ____ to satisfy it”)

Naturally, all of the dash illumination went Miku Blue. This was also taken before its 77777th mile party, celebrated by Dane on the road to a Power Racing Series race. Without him realizing it. Hurray, Dane!

By the way, my friends have put more miles on this thing than I have. Since the fuel injection retrofit, it has somehow registered no less than three trips to the New York / New Jersey area and one to southwestern Massachusetts, plus the odd DUDE BRO CAN I BORROW YOUR TRUCK BRO moving trip around town.

I don’t feel bad at all. Buying gas is punishment enough for them.

Along with the interior lights, I also redid the running board lights and forward exterior marker lamps. They were….. you guessed it. 194 type bulbs. I changed the “I am a van” lights by the door handles to Miku Blue since I’m Mr. Vain. It turns out that the bed marker lights are a sealed non-replaceable type, but I can get new ones which are all LED. I haven’t done that yet. I didn’t do the roof lights either – they are fastened from underneath, meaning I’d have to take off the roof liner to access them, which I was not inclined to do.

Notice something else cool? Vantruck now also has LED headlights. They are the same type of unit I got for Mikuvan, except in the H6054 size. They are available in all manners of Chinesium – here’s one example. Just search H6054 LED and don’t buy the 15,000-LED cluster bombss or the fake projector types.

After the LED switchover, I noticed a particularly Vantrucky bug becoming much worse – the lights were flickering hard. LEDs have no thermal mass unlike incandescent filaments. Something was causing all of my lights to flicker, including the dashboard. When this kind of thing happens, there is generally one culprit: a bad ground connection. I dunno whose amazing idea it was to chassis-ground automotive electrical systems, but it’s horrible.

In conducting a test to verify the problem, I connected one end of a voltmeter to the negative battery terminal, and through an alligator clip of sufficient length, to various “grounds” of the electrical system, such as the negative pole of a headlight, the body metal right next to the dashboard where a bunch of grounds for switches and knobs come together, and right next to the battery on the alternator. With the engine running, I captured an incredible 1.2 to 1.5v between battery ground and most things. The worst was, as expected, to the dashboard and interfacing with the body lighting harness in that area. (The correct expectation range I found is usually no more than 50-100 millivolts, and the lower the better just from my electrical engineering intuitions)

Holy crap. Well that explains why the FiTech ECU screen always tended to read my battery voltage as 12.something or 13.something. I verified that from the alternator output to itself I was getting a pretty consistent 14 volts.

The culprit was right behind the alternator – that’s the engine block to battery negative ring lug. I don’t have before photos, but let’s call it “rather pitted and sad looking” and its attachment bolt entirely coated in rust.

My solution was just to epicly wire brush the bolt and the attachment face until they were shiny, and crimp a new terminal onto the 4-gauge cable which was still otherwise in reasonable shape. After retightening, I smeared dielectric grease around the entire setup.

I decided at this point to also give the thing new battery terminals which I had purchased a while back but not installed. I furthermore gave the body a dedicated 10-gauge wire running from the attachment point where (as far as I can tell) the headlight and turn signal harness is grounded.

So I’m not sure if this is an Old Van Problem or is still present in newer vehicles, but it seems strange to me to ground everything to the body and frame yet only give the battery a cable to the engine block. Is the return current supposed to find its way back through to the engine block, jumping through things like bolts and bearings and chains and driveshafts? That just seems extra bad.

I mean, it’s clear there is enough metal contact for it to work for most everyone. Even Mikuvan only has 1 epic ground wire going to the battery from an anchor point on the engine block and nothing else that I can see. Unless I’m missing something, it seems like a dedicated ground wire for the body is really beneficial. It could be that in both cases, there is an actual connection somewhere else on the block to the body, but it’s buried so far in there I have not been able to find it.

Anyways, the moral of this story is wow, I didn’t know all of these lights could be so bright. The ECU display now reads very steady and the correct voltage – 14.4v right after starting and 13.6-13.8v idling when warm. The dashboard is almost comically bright and I had to turn it down with the dimmer for once. Cranking is much faster and less arduous. I should probably go inspect the status of the ground lug on Mikuvan at some point.

By the way, after resolving this issue, I completely reset the FiTech ECU and had it ‘relearn’ the fuel maps by driving around a bunch in mixed regimes. The stable and higher voltage power supply probably helps with a lot of things, so I gave it a chance to re-adapt. Regardless of any other changes behind the scenes, it definitely idles more stably now, so I experimented with leaning out all of the air-fuel ratio targets so it wouldn’t chug gasoline as hard – maybe a few percent less.

Well, over a long distance, that sure matters, because I’m going to a CAR SHOW!!!

the Jalopnik Car Show for Great Justice or Whatever

Delayed once due to being rained out and with the full force of Internet irony behind it, the Jalopnik car show was held the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This would be the first road trip that I myself will get to take in my own vantruck. It would also be the first car show that I actually signed up for. I’ve been to others, including smaller local ones. Everyone has to remember that I am not actually a “car guy”, just a “this one particular silly van” guy.

It was going to be 4 hours on a Sunday in Newark (uhh), which alone is too short of a stay for me to want to drive 55mph the whole way there and back. So I turned the weekend into a general New York City excursion.

With this thing.

If there is some poetry in having a big-block V8-having 9-miles-a-gallon-getting emissions-exempted 21-foot long 65-tons of American Pride occupying a Tesla supercharger spot, I missed it for the funny photo opportunity.

The two Tesla drivers who came in and out while I was hanging around uploading this photo for peoples’ amusement didn’t say anything. Not to me, not out loud. They didn’t dare defy the embodiment of all that is America.

And here I am poking out of a parking spot in Flushing! I’m backed all the way up to the green wall. Actually, it’s pushing the green wall back a good 3 or 4 inches. I felt the contact, and kept shoving a little. Sorry, wall. Sorry, whatever was behind the wall.

So before getting here, I actually drove it straight into lower Manhattan and the Financial District/Battery Park area to try to find…. a location where I could take a photo of it with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

‘murica

Sadly, that part of Manhattan is too busy and blocked off for any of that to happen. Through friends, I was told that I’d have better luck in Jersey City or parts of Brooklyn. I decided that was out of scope for the day and retreated to Flushing to gorge myself on noodle products by performing a rolling Denial of Service attack on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Bright and early the next day! They said to show up early. I assumed people were going to start lining up an hour before it starts, so I hustled out of Queens and got into Newark around 10:30. It turns out the organizers had barely even gotten there, so whew.

Well, at least now I have one clean and recent photo of Vantruck before everyone else showed up.

 

Hey! I brought Chibi-Mikuvan along for the ride, and it was extremely popular. I did some promotion of Power Racing Series, but only when asked.

Originally, I wanted to trailer Mikuvan down, but decided it was simply too much of a production for a 1 day event, and dealing with a now 40-foot long assemblage of vehicles in New York City was a little excessive. If Jalopnik chooses to do a weekend festival of shitboxes or something, I’d happily organize a carrier battle group rollout.

The closer we got to noon, the more interesting things became.

 

It’s 12:30 now, and we’re starting to have serious traffic problems. Got it – so that’s what “show up early” means!

 

A Mitsubishi Pajero appears! This thing with a Mikuvan bolted to it is the international 4×4 Delica Star Wagon. They share a powertrain and running gear, whereas the 2WD Delicas (Mikuvan included) share more parts with the 2WD pickup truck.

 

This Pajero was indeed the turbo-diesel version, and a recent Japanese import. jdm

 

itp: hipsters

By 1PM, they had to commandeer the neighboring parking lot for all the Chad-come-latelys.

i have money watch me spend it

Okay, okay… that’s harsh. I am sure the owner of this McLaren 720S is a swell fellow. I think what I found endearing about the Jalopnik Car Show overall is that the variety was so not car show, by design.

I’ve been to ones which were Camaro-Mustang-Corvette-Lambo-Stance-Stance-Revolution where every entry was meticulously detailed and shiny and hardly looks like they’re driven. I don’t believe in trailer queens personally – despite keeping my machinery in good running order and generally sound cosmetic shape, they’re not perfect because I use them daily.

In the same vein, I’ll repair and upgrade but never restore Bridgett or Taki-chan, because you create a machine too clean and shiny to be used. Someone else can do that. I don’t want to be hit with regret every time I drop a piece of stock, much like I prefer to be fearless with Mikuvan and occasionally push dumpsters a few feet when the hauling company can’t be buggered to place it back such that it doesn’t block the loading dock.

tl;dr don’t hand me a nice thing

Hey, another truck-like thing! This Ford Bronco is of the first body generation, prior to Vantruck’s year range.  It was one out of only 4 or 5 SUVs/jeep-shaped objects, counting the Mitsubishi Pajero.

And another pickup truck, what a relief to see.

Overall, Vantruck was the only van/conversion van of any type (not counting CMV, of course) and one of only three trucks present, and literally only van-truck of course. Counting CMV, I also had the only van, only cab-over van, and only electric van.

Hell, it was the ONLY electric ANYTHING. If I had one thing to be disappointed about this show, it was the lack of electricity. Surely someone thought about coming with a Model S or a Chevy Bolt or something? Nope.

AAAAAANGRY HEADLIGHTS

My other takeaway from this show besides my aforementioned desire to never own a nice thing is that even show cars aren’t all perfect. Again, my only experience with car shows prior to this is ones where everything has an aura of perfection and polishedness along with a nose-in-the-air presentation vibe. So I had a skewed perception of “car people gatherings” as a bunch of perfectionist snobs. I had never wanted to bring Mikuvan to a show since it’s full of my mechanical cockups and bodges.

I think overall going to a show like this was a good confidence booster. Hell, even the Monkees replica car (1st photo, behind Vantruck) had clearly patched and painted over spots where the bodywork had cracked or deteriorated, and a lot of the more nicely finished modified/tuner cars had stuff just hanging off them and random dents and paint chips. However, again, that to me is more honest than a perfect display piece and ‘matching numbers’.

malignant vantruck syndrome

About two weeks ago, I was making my usual patrol rounds using my pre-generated Craigslist searches…

Yes, I have a couple of those in places I often go. Vantrucks show up not that uncommonly – I’d say once or twice a month. But generally they’re either extremely beat up & have sat outside for 20 years, or pretty severely overprived for the condition they are in (e.g. literally over $9000).

This one popped up, though, and it was in a near perfect combo of condition according to the seller whom I talked to on the phone, initial price, and closeness.

So naturally, I had to go and check it out. Portsmouth is but 50 minutes away, or an hour and 15 minutes in Vantruck speeds.

 

 

DOUBLE VANTRUCKS! The cause of global warming is right in front of you, ladies and gentlemen.

This one is indeed in very respectable condition. The owner is a retired engineer who has had four of these things throughout recent history. How do I know this? He had a dedicated photo album, each photo laminated and in a pocket, of all of the repairs and modifications he’s done to all of them. I want to say “wow, this guy is like me but with real life pictures” but the magnitude of things is so different I can’t begin to use myself as the reference point. It was, though, very inspirational to see how excited he was about all the ones he’s owned and the customization work he’s done.

Anyways, the best crusty old vehicles are usually owned by dedicated retired owners. This one had a slew of mechanical work and replaced components in the past 25,000 miles that I won’t bother listing here. I did some sleuthing underneath to determine the state of the frame and other bodywork. The interior is immaculate and all of the coachwork is original.

So you might think that I went ahead and expanded my aircraft carrier fleet. Well, kind of….

The trip was actually a scouting mission for a robot buddy, Alex of Wedge Industries, a long time northeastern robot competitor. In fact, me versus him was the Franklin Institute finals in the 30lb class. So now this thing is in the robot family… and Motorama 2018 is going to be certified dank.

I was going to Double Vantruck to go meet him for pickup, but the heavy snowfall on that day caused me to rethink that plan and I instead headed out with someone else who had 4×4 and a not 70/30 weight distribution. Here, Alex stops over in the shop after getting a trailer to tow his own car back with. Have fun with your 9 miles a gallon all the back to Pennsylvania :p

I now leave you with this.

 

Operation ENDURING BROWN: Second Battle of Bunkbed Hill; The Open Windows Policy of VANTRUCK

Aug 06, 2017 in vantruck

So I mentioned at the end of the first bed drop operation that I was definitely going to do a second one now that I had seen what went into it. As it turns out, drilling holes in a truck frame is not hard, and I had to do it once already, so why not again? I dunno what I thought they were made of – maybe all of those “Over 9000% more rigid” truck ads had subliminally convinced me that all trucks are made of AR500.

Part of the issue with the first set of bed mounts was the off-center mounting holes between the bed and frame being drilled into the same bracket. This meant that no matter what, there was flexing between the bed (made of stamped sheet metal) and the plates forming the brackets, amplified by the width of the brackets and the flexibility of the rubber bushings. The bed was on the whole very wobbly, and not something I would load with more than a few compact hundred pounds.

The new plan was to make brackets with in-line holes so there was no center distance induced flex, and take the opportunity to move the bed forward the inch or so I needed.

From the first install, I knew what heights the new brackets needed to be. This is the new rear bracket, a slat of 0.5″ thick x 3″ steel bar with a hole counterbored big enough to take a 1/2″ hex-head bolt and washer.  I bought the barstock already cut to 42″ and finished the holes on the newly commissioned Bridgett.

The front bracket was a little more involved since it had to be an inch taller. I chose to use some 3/16″ wall 3″ x 1.5″ rectangular steel tubing. One side has a large hole bored to take the washer and bolt head, and the other just has a 3/4″ clearance hole. To mount the bed, I planned on welding 1/2″ coupling nuts to the inside.

I drilled one side to 3/4″ diameter and the other to 5/8″ diameter, then machined down the coupling nut into a flanged shape so it dropped in, and welded around the edges.

…which, to my chagrin, didn’t quite work out due to the width of the bushings.

 

So I machined those nuts flat and flush-welded over the seam instead!

Here’s the front bracket after…. painting. Yep, let’s take a part which nobody will ever see again after it’s installed, and paint it Miku Blue! I mean, to be fair, the real reason was for rust prevention, and I was going to leave it black after primer, but…

We bust out #OSHACrane once more! Removing the bed is almost too easy now.

Ah, we meet again after a few weeks. You can think of this operation as moving the current set of frame mounting holes to where the bed mounting holes are, but forward about 1 more inch.

This was the bushing that was completely roasted in the Great Carburetor Meltdown of 2017. It was basically turned back into the bituminous goop it was made from – anything that touched it took a chunk of it off. Luckily, I have spares from the old bed.

Commencing with new hole drilling! The white line marks the centerline of the frame member, which is not where the holes need to be – they’re about 3/8″ further out on both sides.

 

New brackets installed in place. Notice now the rear set has a 5-degree (or so) tilt to it? That’s because the correct location was technically over where the suspension hump begins. There was no avoiding this one, so I had to perform an act of mechanical terrorism instead and take advantage of the immense amount of compliance SLOP afforded by the rubber bushings.

This is a 5 degree angled biscuit piece that I whipped up and 3D printed from Onyx. I unbolt the bracket slightly, shove this under its mating interface with the bushing, and tighten it back down. The rear lip forces it to be straight with respect to the bracket. There, instant -5 degree compensation… Actually it was slightly less due to the compression of the rubber, but it was straight enough that I could get the bolt started in the threaded hole easily, and it was straight once tightened.

The height of the biscuit was an estimate of what was needed to make the bed flat with respect to the side running boards. I discovered that the front bracket might have lined up the front edge, but the bed as a whole was then tilting very very gently to the back, almost indiscernable except to obsessives like me.

This is now how the front edge of the bed lines up. I’m much happier with it, and the rigidity of the whole thing has been greatly increased. Beyond the 4 mounting holes, though, at the very back of the bed, it’s still a bit flexible. However, now that it’s in final position, I can also make the rearmost bracket, most likely from one of the existing used slats machined down.

There’s a slight optical illusion which makes the bed still look like it tilts backwards, and that’s because the endcap of the van cab tilts slightly forward – its longer at the bottom than at the top. Whatever, at least I don’t have panel gaps like this guy any more.

Broken Windows? Open Windows? y not both

Observant readers might notice that every picture of this thing since  when I got it back has had the driver’s side window rolled halfway down. That’s because the day after correcting the carburetor mishap, the power window motor died.

I have heard of vehicular whack-a-mole before, but this is the first time I have gotten to experience it.

So since then, it’s mostly been hanging out with a trash bag covering the open portion of the window. And you know what? No matter what level of trashy it is a symbol of, I refuse to have an actual trash bag window. After the bed replacement and EFI swap, it had been running without mishap, and so I decided it was time to start making problems for myself fixing up the little leftover things beyond basic drivability. You know, the same old story.

I started by removing all the interior fixtures, but couldn’t find any fasteners for the door panel. That’s because in classic 80s American car company fashion, it’s all held in by plastic snap rivets. I had to very traumatically pry at the panel little by little to free the plastic caterpillar things, one of which died from old age while in my care. Just one, whew.

….and after my emotional trauma from all that, the facepalming begins.

I often telll friends that 1980s middle-aged successful chain-smoking family-man Charles would not have bought one of these new, with the knowledge that I have of it now. The build quality all around, to be honest, is atrocious. This panel is made of regular 1/4″ plywood with the leather/fuzzy upholstery stapled to it around the edges. The pocket on the inside is also a staple job. Maybe this looked okay when it was new? I dunno. The bottom edge had significant water damage and the wood was coming apart, so I knew I had to put that back together before reinstallation.

I almost want to find some junkyard doors from a regular unadorned 3rd-generation Econoline, with its square miles of plain plastic, than deal with this. Or, perhaps, just laser-cut or CNC-rout an ABS plastic flat panel in the correct shape.

Granted, I probably wouldn’t have torn down a brand new vehicle at the time to assess build quality, but I like to think that at least some of the shenanigans such as the aftermarket wiring installs and the abomination that was the 5th-wheel hitch plate could have been seen with a lookover.

And then behind that, we have…. fucking wax paper? This is called the “vapor barrier” in the official Ford strategy guide. I call it “not ok :(”

It’s clearly been reused a few times, since its own rubber adhesive outline was long gone. Someone’s been in here with duct tape – judging by the condition of the adhesive behind the tape once I peeled it off, it’s “not less than 5 but not greater than 10″ years old.

I peel back the wax paper a little and yes, indeed, someone’s been here before. I also am not sure how you were supposed to get to this power window motor without dismantling the whole door, but I see someone’s executed a community-supported hack.

Undo the three 8mm head head bolts and the window motor falls out like it came out of a vending machine!

 

So here we have it. 1985 date code and all! I suspect if it was precisely extracted in the past 10 years, it was a junkyard unit that itself is original to the date of manufacture (not a reman unit) as it did not have any sign of a rebuilders’ label or something indicating it has been opened.

Well then, I shall be the first! Yep, that’s a really well used motor. The first thing that fell out at me was a remaining chunk of brush, so I take it to mean that it just finally ran out of brushes worth using. Self-generating brushless motors are truly the future! It looks like it would just need some cleaning and new brushes.

Yeah, umm, back up. I noticed an interesting pattern on the commutator, and when I gently clean it off I found that it had been worn into a polygon. What? Okay, I’m not going to ask….

The challenging part was finding motor brushes I could swap in. My life has become so brushless that I had a hard time finding motors with replaceable brushes to scrap them out of, and trips to 2 local hardware stores revealed that they no longer had the little bin of motor brushes (because nobody rebuilds tools any more :’(((((((( ) I knew from years before when I didn’t need them!

Finally, I took apart the air horn compressor motor that I pulled out of the engine bay and… well, they’re wrongly sized in one dimension, but that’s what a belt sander is for!

 

I decided that as funny as a 11-sided commutator was, it was going to be bad for the new brushes, so I turned down the copper bars using Taki-chan and cleaned between the valleys with a knife blade afterwards. A quick gentle polish with some Scotch-brite and the motor was ready for service again.

The new motor back end after cleaning and re-arming the trimmed brushes. I put everything back together and ran the motor for 5 minutes on 6 volts to get all the new brushes and commutator comfortable with each other.

I then poured epoxy all into the door panel’s rotten bottom edge and clamped it together for a few hours. Sorry, no fancy interior customization here. I just want it to stay together until it gets replaced with some LED-backed smoked acrylic or something.

Back in we go! I carefully reapplied the lunch bag and taped more constently around the edges. The plastic caterpiller rivets were in general reused – I would have had to take off the fuzzy interior to replace them which is patently absurd so this door panel will be a little wiggly from here on.

 

And a pleasant test mission to Lake Chuggawuggadingdong, making 9.2 miles per gallon all the way there and back.

(๑◕︵◕๑)

Well, the mission wasn’t to see the attention-getting placename of a town that seems desperate for tourism dollars all around, but to visit a nearby salvage yard to pick up some interesting EV components with MITERS. It’s another hybrid battery, this time out of a Hyundai Sonata – a relatively tiny 1.5kWh, 72S lithium polymer unit from a car literally nobody cares about, so it was super cheap at $260. It could split up into several Power Racing Series batteries, much like what I did with the Ford Fusion battery for Chibi-Mikuvan.

I’m not doing anything with it, but pay attention to MITERS members’ websites and you might see something neat later I suppose.

Operation ENDURING BROWN: Modification of the FiTech Fuel Command Center

Jul 19, 2017 in vantruck

Hello kids, and welcome to another edition of Big Chuck’s Automotive Blog! By some amount of popular request and my documentation obession, this is another minipost on a single subject: modifying your nuclear reactor to not go Full Three-Mile Island, so you can get your Full Three-Mile Gallons instead. Basically, this is just presenting the information you’d get from a user community but in long-form with photos and having it be search-engine friendly.

To recap, the FiTech Fuel Chernobyl Command Center has a nasty habit of overheating due to its design: A high-pressure fuel pump located in a returnless sump that constantly circulates the same few quarts of gasoline supplied to it by (ideally) your car’s original low pressure mechanical or electric tank pump. It’s supposed to be an intermediary in the fuel-injection conversion and should in theory allow you to keep a completely unmodified fuel system from the carbureted engine.

So essentially, unless you’re running wide open throttle on a racetrack, it will sit there slowly heating up its little puddle of gasoline to OVER 200 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT often vapor-locking itself or damaging the pump from overheating. Let me bring that back: There is a half gallon or so of boiling, pressurized gasoline with a small electric motor angrily buzzing away inside it, next to your engine. Good thing they call that a firewall in front of you, huh? For me and my love of silly vans with the engine as a permanent front-seat passenger, that means the thing is basically next to my balls. This is patently unacceptable.

The community has come up with a solution which involves modifying the FCC housing to accept a conventional fuel-return line that runs back to the fuel tank, so the LP lift pump will just keep cycling fuel through the housing continuously. Here’s how to do it!

Alright! So here is your reactor core vessel. The whole unit is made of four threaded components, like pipe plugs – the top endcap with the wobbly needles and ports, the upper threaded portion (which I’ll call the bowl), the lower threaded portion (which I’ll call the cup), and the cup’s own lower threaded end cap.

The top cap is the one that needs to be removed. Both the top and bottom caps have spanner wrench slots. However, I couldn’t conjure up a spanner wrench that fit around the thing, so I resorted to bashing it into rotating with a brass dowel and mallet.

It took a lot of effort – this thing has an O-ring seal which is tighter than the FiTech tech pages let on, and I deformed some of the spanner wrench slots. After about 2 rotations with hitting the slots, it was loose enough to turn by hand.

Note that the cup and bowl WILL start unthreading from each other if you only grip it like I did above, by the cup. Ideally you’d use a strap wrench or something to grip the bowl.

Alright! The top cap has been removed and oh god it’s literally a bucket of gasoline help me

 

Here is a closeup of the structure inside the top cap. About now is when I realized that this thing was very overengineered. Notice how I didn’t say it was a good design – just that it’s overengineered. Trust me, I have a MIT degree in overengineering.

The aim in the common community mod is to remove the black float and the carburetor-style needle valve it actuates. So basically this float dictates the fuel level inside the container, just like a giant carburetor bowl – fuel too high, needle valve closes and does not admit fuel being fed in. This procedure can be done by removing the two Phillips-head screws holding the float on.

Some people then leave the needle valve in since it technically can supply the needed fuel flow anyway, but some choose to unscrew the needle valve and seal the hole with a plug. You have to remove one of the gauges to get at this needle valve, though, so I elected to not do so.

 

That’s because I found that you could bypass the two parts completely by taking out this screw to the side.

Doing this made me realize the top cap was a single piece machined manifold-like piece, and the fuel galleries were made by cross-drilling holes until they hit each other. I mentally counted over 2 dozen machining operations and at least 3 setups that had to be done on this piece (less if they instead have a really big and pricy 4-axis CNC lathe with live tooling…) plus the raw material cost of starting with a 8″ billet, plus I swear the bowl piece is machined from solid because of the internal flanges, O-ring grooves, and seeming lack of signs of a spinning operation.

What I’m saying is, some intern had a lot of fun muscle-flexing Manufacturing 101 with this thing. Nobody, however, saw 200+F PRESSURIZED GASOLINE BUCKET coming.

I removed the float anyway to reduce the number of parts inside, but elected to not remove the needle valve since I did not have a plug of the same thread size handy. It’s now bypassed completely.

The next step is to remove the outlet filter on the ‘VENT’ port. This is a very restrictive filter since it’s supposed to not let fuel through, only v a p o r s .

In older FCC designs, this was a little ball check valve. Either way, it has to go!

Okay, I couldn’t find a good way to remove that roll pin since it’s blocked from the side I would need to drive it outwards. So I did what any sensible engineer would do – drill it to hell. Some stirring with a 1/8″ drill bit and the sintered bronze particles all fell out!

All closed up! I greased the o-ring on the way back in so it rotated a lot more smoothly. The final tighten was by hand, and that’s all you really need.

What this turns the FCC into is just a tiny auxiliary fuel tank with a high pressure pump in it. The ‘VENT’ nozzle now becomes a fuel return line. Low pressure fuel enters as normal and what isn’t used will leave back to the fuel tank via ‘VENT’.

I took the opportunity to reroute some of the messier hose positions and made them exit all in one direction. Since I already had VENT hooked up to the former return line anyway, I didn’t have to do anything else.

Notice the vacuum line now attached to the formerly plugged fuel pressure regulator module in the center. This is a more recent service advisory by FiTech to stabilize fuel pressure – I read about it before the conversion, but ran out of vacuum hose so didn’t perform it right away. Connecting this FPR to the manifold vacuum caused the fuel output pressure to stabilize at about 45 PSI – previously, it rapidly vibrated between 40 and 50 PSI. The in-tank pumps now happily push a constant stable 3-4 psi around at the low pressure gauge.

Vantruck has been around nearly 300 miles since this modification was made and I haven’t poked anything under the hood a single time. I don’t have a IR thermometer reading of the reactor temperature on a hot day, but I’ll say that it’s actually cooler than the rest of the engine bay now. If you’re in Cambridge or Everett, you might hear it brodozing its way around from 2 blocks away because STRAIGHT PIPES.

I actually need to remedy that – I’ve already been compliment-warned by one police officer… Hey, nice truck! I know you don’t have a muffler on that thing, so don’t drive too fast around here or we might hear it….

Next challenge: Get more than 10 smiles per gallon. <:(