Archive for the 'In Progress' Category

 

Operation ENDURING BROWN: The First Battle of Bunk Bed Hill

Jun 05, 2017 in vantruck

Alright! Welcome to another exciting episode of “Wait, when did this become a car blog? I thought it was about brushless motors!” Well, just like how I commit horrible abominations to the industry of mechanical engineering daily, here is an abomination for gearheads: If you ever wanted to mate a truck bed to a van frame, this is your moment. Because I’m about to do just that, and put it on record.

As soon as I got VANTRUCK running (even if a little off-tune), I called a convention of my somewhat automotive-minded friends. We’re like the Justice Friends of working on silly vans. Together, we will take on the challenges of…

 

Oh boy. This mess needs to be unstacked first, then we deal with everything else. This assemblage was referred to as “bunk beds”, lending the name to this glorious undertaking. In one work afternoon we planned to remove the old bed and at least inspect/plan for new bed install. It was known to not be a drop-on installation, at least not with our knowledge of the light truck universe. That is, someone who has worked with Ford products for years could probably have identified a shortcut or workaround by reading on… well too late, we already did it the stupidest possible way! Actual installation was to be another day, with a week in between (where people had real jobs to attend to) where I would pregame making the needed brackets and assembling hoisting tools.

Removing the F350 bed from the stack was a 4-person job that involved sliding it backwards off the old bed and standing it upright on a large sheet of cardboard. It was then slid out of the way on the cardboard. I’d estimate it weight around 300-350 pounds – we could all handle it, but not with much finesse and certainly not for long.

So here we go! The first task in removal was identifying and removing all of the bolts holding the old bed on. The rusted-in-place carriage bolts with nuts underneath hidden by fuel tanks, crossmembers, and suspension components.

Half of the 12 carriage bolts were simply cut off at the heads because well, am I gonna reuse this? No. and the other half came off with differing amounts of effort.

This adventure took up a full half of the afternoon alone, and made me swear off the use of any independent nuts in the new mounting scheme. I’d much rather tighten bolts into threads that are machined into or welded onto (via weld nuts or tapped spacers/plates) the new bed mounting cross-members, than ever deal with a rusty Ny-lock nut again.

 

Lacking any sort of crane or hoist, we improvised with shoulder-slung steel tubes. This worked okay and clearly let all of us see who was the manliest man to ever man. Hint: wasn’t me.

This custom bed probably weighs north of 400 pounds (and is enormous) and while we were able to remove it, it was not with any precision. We basically dragged it off over the wheels.

This cannot be the case for the new bed, because it would mean a lot of damage to the underside. It’s built with more heavy steel than the F350 bed; we all thought it would weigh less, but in my opinion it was actually substantially more. Probably because it was designed from the start as a 5th-wheel mounting point.

And here it is, I now have a Vant. We just removed the -ruck part. There’s a lot of interesting and absolutely terrific things going on under that bed. First thing to note is it’s all mounted to 10 rubber body-mount bushings, not directly attached to the frame in any way. I don’t know if that’s normal for truck beds in general.

 

These are what I call “Precision Van Spacers”. They were under every crossmember, in varying amounts. I don’t know if these were “factory” or if someone installed them “aftermarket”. A good laugh was had by all.

 

What made me wonder even more was this large 5th-wheel hitch mounting plate. While it had Precision Van Spacer mounts in the end crossmembers, it was also welded to the frame through the angle brackets, here seen cut through with a grinder. So was the bed floating or not!? Anyways, this contraption had to be totally removed. It looks like it was supposed to be bolted through drilled frame holes, but someone made some interesting van decisions. I’l likely grind the remaining tabs more flush later.

I took the bushings off and….. I should not have taken the bushings off.

I didn’t need to see this. 1980s mulleted chain-smoker Charles would not have bought one of these now that he has had a good look at the build quality and, umm, craftsmanship.

So that’s the conclusion to Day 1 / Week 1. I now had to measure out and plot how to make new crossmembers to take advantage of the existing ragged Glory Holes torch-cut into the frame. <:(

I knew what I wanted was all topside service (no one guy above the bed, another underside, with some combo of breaker bars and push-me-pull-you dances) and no nuts. The new crossmembers would be fewer in number, as the F350 bed only has 3 rows of mounting holes, and likely just a flat slab of thick steel so I can thread into it directly.

Hey, look what’s easy to reach now! I replaced the rear fuel pump assembly and gauged the condition of the tank. Verdict? The rear tank is in much better shape than the front. This means the front tank had been out of service potentially for a year or two, if not more, gauging from its interior condition and the state of the remnant gasoline I pulled out. The rear would have been in use and cycling fuel through, preventing a lot of corrosion. The rear fuel pump wasn’t bad either, but the fuel gauge resistor strip had worn through (that’s why it didn’t read properly).

In the intervening week, I decided to just buy a Harbor Freight engine crane. I’ve had reasons to want one before, but never pressing ones such as “The landlords are asking why I have truck parts strewn about all over the parking lot”. As I mentioned above, we were not going to be able to wrestle the new bed on with any degree of precision, at least not with the GAINZ we’d be able to pick up in only a week, so a hoisting device was needed to take the weight while we did maneuvering only.

I also researched how people manipulate truck beds. This video (mute the soundtrack -_- ) ended up being my example, since he used the Harbor Freight engine crane. I’ve also seen two-crane dances and gantry cranes; while I would love to have a portable gantry crane, it’s basically a rigging job to buy one on its own and I decided it was beyond scope for the time being.

There was only one problem. The 2-ton Harbor Freight crane wouldn’t have reached far enough into the bed to balance it, since the truck in that video has a short bed (6 foot) and I have a long bed (8 foot). We thought about a few ways to counterbalance it, but ultimately I decided on doing it My Way.

This is #OSHAcrane:

Look away, Harbor Freight lawyers.

That’s an extra-long piece of 2″ square, 1/4″-wall steel tubing I drilled and machined to accept the same mounting hardware in order to make an extended reach crane boom.  Not shown is a steel biscuit that fits under it to take up the height difference between the outer tube and new boom. Otherwise it would have tilted down significantly and stressed the outer tube a lot more.

In terms of dimensions, the Harbor Freight crane is made with metric (C H I NA ) steel tube as far as I can tell. The inner adjustable boom measured 2 3/8″, or right around 60mm. I couldn’t get 2.25″ tube locally in time, so opted for thick-wall 2″ tube. If I wanted to make this again more correctly (…) I’d try to order metric steel tube online.

#OSHAcrane has about 18″ more reach than the stock crane. Shown under it is the two steel slats I’ll be making the new crossmembers from! They’re 8″ wide, 42″ long, and 1/2″ thick.

They are not light. But neither is VANTRUCK an aircraft or drone* and it really does need more weight over the rear axle anyhow.

*yet.

I arrived upon this dimension of steel plate by measuring and laying out the known mounting dimensions of the van frame and truck bed. I then picked two sets of body bushings which were the closest, and basically wrapped a rectangle around them.

The rear set of bushings would need to be moved up a few inches to accommodate, but I found that 8″ wide steel bar was sufficient. Otherwise, if I chose to not move the rear set, I’d need a 12″ wide slab.

Good thing I just got a milling machine running, huh? Bridget proved to be indespensible. I’d hate to have done this with a drill press, also inb4 get a plasma cutter. how about no

 

This is a finished replacement crossmember. The big hole is 3/4″ to clear a 1/2″ bolt with Van Precision – these get installed and tightened into the body bushings first. Then the bed is dropped on top and bolted from the top into the 1/2″-13 threaded holes.

Here they are installed! I had to machine out a portion of the forward crossmember to fit over the fuel pump.

Now it’s Saturday again, and we are once again gathered to shift heavy steel things a few inches at a time until Charles is satisfied. The rigging begins in the same fashion that the Ford Lightning bed removal video showed, using 4 ratchet straps, one to each corner of the bed. You can see that #OSHAcrane reaches exactly to the middle of the bed as designed!

” DESIGNED “. I make myself sound so serious.

This worked extremely well. The bed was raised just enough to move around…

…and up and over it goes! Flawless. We did exactly what we set out to do – provide guidance force only, and hold hoses and wires out of the way.

A snag – the shock absorber towers in the rear line up with one of the stock F350 bed crossmembers exactly. Well give me a carbon fiber enema…… why don’t I just mount the bed to those?

A half-hour of awkward step-drilling was needed to buy it some clearance. I drilled a sufficiently large hole such that the shock studs fall into them on each side.

Next snag! Ford, you assholes.

The rear set of mounting holes? 34″ apart, not 35″.  It was high enough up that I had a hard time getting a good visual alignment of the tape measure, and ended up making Certain Assumptions that “oh maybe they did a logical thing and made them the same so it’s easy”

Back to the mill I go….

After that fight was settled, the bolts were tightened down, and IT’S DONE! HOLY CRAP IT’S IN ONE PIECE AND IT RUNS AGAIN!

Here it is from the side. And you know what? i hate it.

Okay, not really, but now I am really thinking about a revision.

As we were drilling the two new holes for the rear crossmember, the thought suddenly occured to me that…. you know what, what if I just drilled new holes where they’re supposed to be, aligned with the truck bed crossmembers, so I didn’t have to use such wide steel slats?  I didn’t know how hard it would be to drill new holes (surprise: truck frames aren’t made of AR500 or anything, a step drill works too) so opted for the safe and quick solution of wrapping a rectangle around it. I was out to quickly get it back in one piece to not piss off the neighbors, over anything else, optimal solution be damned.

Second of all, I didn’t have a good way of determining the alignment vertically – the van frame curves up and down and was hard for me to get a datum off, especially in a beat up and unlevel parking lot. So this first pass at mounting it let me see what needs to move where.

I’d like the front edge of the bed to come upwards about 1″, and the whole thing should move forward about 1/2″ to close the epic cab-to-bed gap. I designed in the gap as a safety measure – would rather have too far than interfering – and now I’ve had a chance to see how it actually goes together, I can move them inwards for a more factory look…. not that the body lines meet or anything.

So there will be a Second Battle of Bunk Bed Hill. Especially that I know it’s super easy to lift the bed off with #OSHAcrane! I wouldn’t even need to lift everything, just one side at a time. I’m plotting the new crossmembers as 1.5″ x 3″ or 4″, 0.188 wall rectangular tube, and the new rear as 1/2″ thick x 3″ or 4″ wide steel strip. The tube would have machined 1/2″-13 coupling nuts welded through it to act as a tube boss (so the bolt isn’t just pulling on one wall of the tube) and the rear strip would be similar in construction to the current one.

With a significant source of stress lifted (heh) off my life by #OSHAcrane, I could now sleep easier and start picking at some of the smaller tasks. For instance, hooking up the new bed’s taillights. This first required some van spaghetti untangling:

Here’s all the factory, aftermarket, and after-aftermarket wiring extracted from the old bed. The F350 bed has all the lights terminating in a single connector, which is nice.

What’s not nice is not being about to find or source the matching connector. So I decided to improv and pulled out a 7-pin military surplus Amphenol connector from MITERS. Now I have even more America on this thing! Military-grade hardware!

Decoding the Ford connector was easy with a multimeter (and battery + suicide cable to see the lights turn on and off). All it then took was cutting off all of the van spaghetti and reaching back into the frame to grab the OEM wire harness and pulling it out. Here’s the terminated non-spaghetti lighting harness mated to the new bed.

The little green wire is a detail for later. That is supposed to be connected to the brake pedal switch directly, apparently so it can power a CHMSL. Vantruck does not have one, and I currently have no plans to install one (though if it will help keep texting idiots off my new bed…..) so I wrapped up this pin in the bundle for now.

All of the extraneous spaghetti removed, along with what sockets and bulbs I could salvage.

 

Something something about being lit, fam (shoot. me. now.)

The last major mechanical task is mounting the new step bumper, which has to be mounted on a long extension bracket to clear the bed. The Ford E-series step bumpers I bought do not have a cutout on the corners to fit around the bed like the F-series bumpers do, so I have to mount well behind the bed. I’m talking like a 8″+ extension bracket. This will be performed after I make adjustments to the bed position.

I will probably take a short break from Vantruck work, since it fundamentally is back in one piece, runs well, and is street legal lighting and fenders-wise.  At the least it can get out of its own way. Look for more work on Brushless Rage coming soon, because I want to push that damn thing to beta and to release this summer.

Operation ENDURING BROWN: Well, This Smells Familiar

May 31, 2017 in vantruck

Work on the beleaguered U.S.S. BROWN C. STENNIS has been continuing at a rapid pace! For what really is the first time with one of my projects, I called for extensive backup from friends willing to lend some elbow grease. First, because some of them are more “car people” than me, and second, because everything on this thing is heavy. It’s like the Chevy of trucks: cheap and heavy.

Wait…. Hang on.

This post recaps all the events of about 2 weeks ago following its return from my mechanic; I elected to take it back since it had not yet been consistently diagnosable (i.e. it was becoming a “throw parts at it” situation) and I didn’t want to keep running up labor charges. I ended up going through a series of cross-checks and inspections and discovered the problem was all too familiar, but obfuscated by a compounding issue. In the end, it was literally entirely my fault, so I’m very satisfied; unlike most people, I’m only happy if I caused the entire mess in the first place.

Let’s begin.

Prodding Ford Truck Bro forums and groups led a lot of Internet mechanics to suspect an ignition problem. The ignition coil on these things is tucked snugly into the valley between the two V8 cylinder banks (seen above) and its electronic control module can also succumb to temperature-related failure. As I described it, where the engine will start and run for only 10-20 minutes, it sounded like a temperature-dependent electrical issue.

I had my doubts, because it would only some times start and run for 10-20 minutes, and other times have a hard time starting at all. But seeing as these parts were all fairly cheap, I decided to outright replace them just in case.

 

That’s the Ur-ECU ignition control module. I like how it’s just bolted into the wheelwell stamping like a good ol’ retrofit system that got put into production. “Looks good here! Build ‘em like this!”

So this didn’t resolve anything. I started wondering about other electrical systems in the path of the fuel pumps. For some reason, there are a whole bunch, as illustrated by this handy diagram I drew in a fit of frustration:

I managed to locate and test the fuel pump cutoff relay but couldn’t find any trace of the fuel tank selector relay. Based on some more sleuthing, I deduced that the DPDT selector switch might have been wired directly to the fuel pumps. The object that says “NEW!!!!” all over it is this contraption:

Another one of those “Well why the hell did you do that?” parts on this thing is the fuel tank selector valve. It’s basically a small hydraulic solenoid valve that connects one circuit to two, but shittier and plastic. And it was the source of one of my troubles.

See, while bypassing the fuel pump power safety cutoffs, I did numerous impromptu fuel pump volume tests (because I wanted to see if it was pumping fuel with shortcut wiring). This led me to discover that some times, the fuel volume was low or nearly nonexistent. It would start off good, and then taper off. This actually corroborated a weird behavior I noticed where some times when the engine would start sputtering, I would wiggle the selector switch repeatedly for a few seconds and it would gain some run time. This was in fact one of the symptoms that made me think a power supply to the fuel pump problem.

Uh oh. Suspecting that this valve had been bad from the beginning despite me testing it on the bench  listening to it turn over, I performed another volume test upstream of the valve. Both pumps were giving the correct volume, so I scrambled back to Pep Boys and picked up a new valve and spliced it in. I don’t know exactly what kind of failure mode it is – maybe the mechanism inside is sufficiently worn or damaged such that it might travel fine, but can easily be pushed out of position by fuel pressure. Maybe that causes it to backflow into the un-powered tank, or maybe it just plugs up and sits there.

The recurring lesson I’ve been learning from VANTRUCK is “BTDMIW” :  But That Doesn’t Mean It Works. Just because I jiggled the component on the bench, or in isolation, doesn’t mean it actually is working correctly when installed.

But there was more! The fuel being pumped from the front tank, the one I personally serviced with a new pump and float  – was rather BROWN. It was darker than what I usually knew gasoline as. Even more telling was that there was sediment on the bottom of the jar.

I instantly knew what was happening. The next thing I did was run around to the front and start unscrewing the carburetor fuel inlet line:

…and I sheared it off in the process, because I untwisted the first big nut looking thing I saw, but it was really the nut that went into that nut. Brilliant!

I couldn’t even blow through that little metal sponge. It’s the “filter of last resort” for the carburetor, and it had trapped in it all of the rust slurry being pumped from the front tank. You can see some of the visible grunge on top.

Dedicated readers might recall that I also replumbed the fuel tanks in the same operation that I replaced the front fuel pump in. Even more dedicated (or observant) readers will also notice that I did not install an inline fuel filter on the front tank. Why? Who knows?! Maybe I’m just traumatized by fuel filters. Maybe I thought the fuel pump’s jizz sock thing was enough.

I patched this section of steel fuel line with some rubber hose and called it good.

Here it is installed behind the zinc-chrome part in the lower center. That is a “vapor separator valve”, or as I kept calling it, the vaping valve. It was bypassed earlier this photo series by a chunk of fuel hose. Unlike a modern fuel injection system where there’s a fuel pressure regulator bleeding off fuel into the return line, this is just a little pipe with a hole in it. Its nominal purpose is to prevent vapor lock by having fuel vapor escape through the little hole, along with small amount of fuel. Ford sells these in several hole sizes depending on how much you want your engine to vape and also to help modulate fuel pressure. What the hell? Almost every system on this vehicle in some way is analogous to touching a variable resistor to something. None of this is okay.

And you know what? It ran GREAT!  Rev for days! Piss of the neighbors!  A M E R I C A N  P R I D E. Oh crap, what’s that smell??

This is a giant puddle of BROWN  that was slowly increasing in magnitude as I was having too much fun firing gun-wielding Bald Eagles out of the exhaust. Which, by the way, was backfiring (afterfiring) like crazy. It was clear the thing was running super rich. I now had literally the opposite problem as before. Hurray!

A little research showed that all of this BROWN was coming out of the vapor canisters. So much fuel was getting into the carburetor that it was coming out of, and flushing, the vapor collector lines and washing out the canister. Great! It’s like clearing your sinuses!

(The parking lot is still BROWN and smells like a freshly coated gym floor there, to this day)

So what was the cause? I dug into the carburetor manual a little after observing it with the air cleaner removed. That’s where I discovered another “tighten the incorrect nut” problem.

I found a little nut on the carburetor that I thought was left loose by the mechanic; since, you know, I kind of bailed it out of their hands before they could put it back together. So I tightened it. All the way.

Well it turns out that’s the fuel level adjust screw and accompanying locking nut for the secondary throttle (which only opens after about 50% throttle travel or so). All the way down is all the fuel, all the time, forever and ever. I noticed the secondary throttle discharge was completely wet even while idling.

This screw was adjusted more correctly.

 

And off we go! I went on a “Lap of I-95″ test. On the whole, performance was excellent. I made a point to exit and then re-enter the freeway repeatedly to do full throttle pulls from ~25 to 70mph. It still tended to be a little backfire-y when letting off from high throttle demands. Given that the mechanic didn’t have a chance to properly tune and road test, I think something’s still a little whacky, but that is now an addressable problem.

Hello, Mr. Tesla. Get in my belly.

In the end, I concluded that there had to be a very specific series of events and misjudgements for the running condition to get this bad. Here is my assessment of what happened:

  • I replace the front fuel pump. Given that I had no lift and was working entirely on the ground without help, mostly in the dark, I didn’t drop the fuel tank fully and inspect it. I only lowered it enough on the straps to grab the fuel pump. Therefore, I didn’t see how much rust was inside.
  • When the front fuel pump went back in, I neglected to install an inline filter on the output side.
  • Filling of the fuel tank with new fuel, plus the force of the collision, likely washed a lot of loose debris into circulation, where it was picked up by the pump.
  • I specifically used the front tank around town and during the Motorama trip attempt to ensure the system was operational.
  • The carburetor began clogging with this rust slurry, causing me to abandon the Motorama trip as problems gently surfaced.
  • Gradually, with additional around-the-town usage, it became worse as more rust slurry blocked the caburetor inlet screen.
  • The particulate debris MAY have also affected the operation of the fuel tank selector valve – I am uncertain if it played a substantial role in the earlier problems.
  • The mechanic was able to test for proper fuel volume delivery because the valve problem was a some times thing, which incorrectly ruled out the fuel system as a source of trouble. The Ford official player’s guide makes you only time the delivery of 1 pint of fuel as the test. I was pumping into a 5-gallon gas can and was purposefully holding the pumps on for a while in case something caused them to lose power.
  • After the carburetor rebuild, I told him to continue testing using the front tank, because the rear tank was in an unknown state to me and had a non-functional fuel gauge sensor, whereas I said I had replaced the front fuel pump and fuel gauge sensor.
  • Furthermore, for debugging systems in isolation, they bypassed the fuel tank selector valve completely and directly piped the front fuel tank to the carburetor.
  • The carburetor began clogging with rust slurry again, leading to much the same symptoms and to the frustration of all involved.
  • This timed well with me electing to cut my expenses and asking them to stop work.

So there you have it. Once again, one of my vans is stymied by the uncertain nature of fuel delivery. You know what? Electrons don’t need fuel filters! What are you gonna catch, some neutrinos?

How bad is the front tank? Probably very. Before I turned anything on again post inspection, I went and bought the biggest clear inline filter Pep Boys had to sell and dropped it on the front fuel tank’s output line. That’s what it looked like afterwards. Delicious, delicious BROWN . I’m not likely to do any fancy fuel tank treatments to stop this. New replacements can be had for $100 or less, and as long as the bed has to come off, replacement will be easy. Plus, unlike Mikuvan’s filter, these two things are easy to reach, so I am likely just going to keep changing big plastic pubbles first and foremost.

Next time, the action starts for real:

 

Operation ENDURING BROWN: The Battle for VANTRUCK Rages On

May 16, 2017 in vantruck

Awww yeah, it’s getting warmer! Let’s go work on some vans! Aww, it’s raining. Okay, it’s dry now! Crap, I can’t lift this myself. WTF? Why is it 30 degrees tonight!?

-me for the past 2 months

After the skirmish with the insurance company, I spent several weeks scanning Ford Truck bro forums, Facebook groups, and Craigslists all up and down the east coast for 80s and 90s era F-350 dually long beds. This was a triple threat challenge. First, the year range meant the majority of them had long dissolved. Second, short bed trucks were (and are) more popular, so a long bed is already a harder find. And last, it had to be the dual rear wheel version with the built-in fender; while buying a single rear wheel bed and adding fenders was an option, I found that the fender flares were 1. about equally hard to find, and 2. about equally expensive.

I obviously passed up a whole bunch of really crappy ones; those which if I weren’t out to have something nice looking at the end, I would snap up in a hurry, weld patches over rust holes, and ship it. Other choices were simply too far away (i.e. rust-free desert states) to be economical to get. So I bided my time and reached out also to some of the area auto yards I went to previously. I even called one of the ones I frequented in high school back in Atlanta to ask them to keep an eye out in their network. If I’m not obsessive, at least I’m resourceful.

In the mean time, Vantruck’s runability problem worsened dramatically and for reasons I couldn’t easily determine at the time; I can’t be arsed to sit outside during the middle of winter at night and fix vans that often. While previously during the failed Motorama run it made it all the way past Framingham, MA (and back) with only minor hiccups, now it was beginning to fall asleep almost at random. Basically it felt like it would lose fuel feed, stall out, and then take a while to start back up again. Its confident usability radius was decreased to Home Depot runs and moving heavy objects to and from MITERS.

Well that’s no way to own a truckensteinian monster. In mid-March, I decided to send it to live with the same mechanic who performed the exhaust and fender repairs pre-accident, with the idea that he’d pick at it while I searched for a bed. I’d bring the bed to him afterwards and we’d carry on with the anticipated restoration. This plan almost worked:

Hurrrr

I made it about 3 miles out before it had trouble staying running. Being it was still several more to the mechanic, I decided to abandon the mission, turn around, and got maybe 1000 feet. No amount of sweet-talking or coercion could elicit more than a few seconds of running. Not wanting to dump the battery trying to start too often, I called for backup.

That’s one of my friends who has a diesel F-250 which at the time had half a lift kit installed (notice the front of the truck is higher than the back). And in between that truck and Vantruck is a yellow Harbor Freight tow strap. This unique assemblage slowly confused its way through four Boston-area towns. Now, if you guys have flat-towed your friend’s beater down the highway for the 5th time this year, this might not sound like a big deal. Here’s the path we had to take:

Several miles through ill-timed red lights, one-way tight (for something 21 feet long without power steering or power brakes) turns, and the occasional displeased taxi driver. Luckily, and somehow, no police. Needless to say this was a less-than-legal, literally fly-by-night operation!

Alright, well that was exciting. A week later, I got a lead on a great condition 1997 dually bed, which was awesome since it was the newest it could get. The seller was located in Kentucky, and the bed only had some surface rust and a dented tailgate. Among the ad photos was this gem:

 

Yeah, uhh, I’ll take that one. No, that one over in the middle. No, more middle!

I need to up my van game, man. This guy has me beat in a topological sense.

It so happened that the seller had a delivery to make in eastern Maryland in 2 weeks. I offered to meet him in Harrisburg PA (roughly halfway between us) and do the handoff, and he agreed! Well crap, now I had to figure out what to transport a 8 foot dually truck bed with! Gee, if only I had some kind of truck-like vehicle with an 8 foot bed and dual rear wheels. Now, at this time, the mechanic had yet to duplicate the same failure mode consistently, and I wasn’t about to risk rushed work to go 800 miles in its first mission. I’m only marginally smarter than that!

It was time to get Mikuvan a trailer hitch. So begins Operation ENDURING BROWN…

 

Fast forward a week, after I bothered the local U-Haul guys to call several of their hitch distributors, many of which responded with “What?” when presented with the year, make, and mode. I’m used to it. One of them said their computer system says they had one in stock, but he would have to wait until the following Monday to go verify because he’d “never recalled seeing it on that shelf”.

Well, good – Mikuvan itself, despite its local uniqueness, also hides in plain sight like that, since most people’s descriptions of it stop at “white van”. Your move, Cambridge police.

Fortunately, it was indeed in stock, and I had it rush delivered. The package exploded in a cloud of warehouse dust when I opened it up. Yes, I can tell you’ve never seen it on the shelf. It actually didn’t attach where I thought it would; Mikuvan has two structures at the end of the frame near the leaf spring shackles which I thought were tow hooks, but in fact this hitch mounted to them and not the more numerous thru-frame holes. Makes sense – they’re likely to be the single strongst parts of the frame.

U-Haul wouldn’t sell me a trailer without a lighting harness, so I had to pull out one of the tail lights to install one. The system they sell is quite well-packaged. It’s a little headcrab thing that splices into the turn signal, running light, and brake light circuits, derives power from any one of them, and at the same time senses which light is activated, piping this information to the trailer lights.  It took me about 45 minutes to install.

 

It’s a bright and early April! After making sure the seller wasn’t just a friend of a friend playing an elaborate April Fools joke, I set out with a 11′ U-Haul trailer. My, how the tables have turned.

They don’t have flatbed trailers, so I made sure the bed could fit over the roughly 4′ 6″ spaced side rails of their standard utility trailer. Worst case, I’ll throw some 2x4s on top of it.

This trailer weighed 900 pounds empty. I could feel that every bump when it would tug on the hitch and Mikuvan’s short wheelbase failed at not bobbing up and down. This was going to be exciting indeed. A couple of hours later, and I end up in….

 

….Upper Manhttan!? Wait, this isn’t Harrisburg!

I needed lifting (bro) help, and all of my friends are gainfully employed and couldn’t head out on short notice on a weekday for a mission with an unknown completion date (van missions NEVER have a competion date!)

I thus enlisted the help of Cassandra, fellow van connoisseur , with the only issue being I had to take that trailer into Manhattan to pick her up. I don’t know which was more painful, threading a trailer through 133rd St., or paying that much money to New York State for the privilege. (The observant would note that maybe I could have gotten a 1-way trailer from Harrisburg; this would have cost much more than a two-day local rental. There are no miles kept on trailers, and I also wanted to make sure I got a feel for it on the way down)

 

On site in our favorite Waffle House parking lot. This Waffle House is my gateway to the South; it’s been part of every Dragon Con trip so far, usually in both directions. Leaving the Harrisburg Waffle House is like exiting the Panama Canal, or rounding the Cape of Agulhas.

The seller showed up with the same red flatbed, just with less trucks on it. The transfer went quite smoothly – the U-haul trailer’s side rails were only a few inches taller than the flatbed, so less lifting than we both anticipated was needed, more sliding.

Here’s Cassandra and I posing for the glory shot.

Next, it was off to Lowes to pick up heavier-duty ratchet straps and a rubber floor mat to cut up and insert between the bed and the trailer’s side rails to prevent damaging the bed on the bottom.  I mostly rigged the bed straight down to hooks on the bottom of the trailer floor; this had the added advantage of looking like the bed is just hanging on for dear life to everyone else on the road, so hopefully they stay further away!

Not less than eleven hours later, I emerge on the other side of hyperspace in the warehouse parking lot. A typical Motorama return run takes 6.5 to maybe 7.

This was probably the single most stressful thing I’ve done in my life so far. The trailer itself was well behaved and did not wobble. Beyond that, I had zero rear vision. Day turned into night quickly after leaving Harrisburg, with a fucking rain front chasing me the whole way. Furthermore, the bed weighed a few hundred pounds on its own, and also presented a huge cross-section to the wind. It limited my speeds to generally 55-60mph just by being unable to power past it without hammering the engine the whole time, which put me square against all the 18-wheelers who wanted to go 75-80. And when they pass, the wind load would push the trailer a few inches sideways; Mikuvan of course lovingly and devotedly followed each time.

Then it came time to drop Cassandra off in Manhattan. So here I am, blindly driving a flying truck-ass through Manhattan and up the George Washington Bridge, at night, in the rain, with weeknight post-rush-hour traffic. People there don’t take kindly to that sort of thing. Are you fucking trying to kill both of us, or are you trying to make some kind of statement by buzzing me on the right? I have a flying truck-ass. You don’t.

I also couldn’t return through the Hutchinson and Merritt Parkways, which forbid trailers, so I had to fight it out on I-95 in Southern CT. By then, the rain had turned into sporadic mist and fog, so I was also working with reduced visibility; the only way I could tell there was an incoming semi was the soft yellow halo around the bed getting more intense, then getting shoved aside a foot. Let me tell you about when this happened on both sides at the same time as I was in the middle lane near Stamford.

Around 1AM east of Bridgeport, I decided to pull into a rest stop and regroup. Leaving there around 2AM, I got back into town at 4:30. I just sort of died mentally the day after. Sorry for not answering your calls about where your trailer is, U-Haul. You have my credit card info, now fuck off.

 

A day later, I drop the bed off at the mechanic’s! Things were gonna be AWESOME!

If only it were that simple. The next thing to hit me was tax season – let me tell you, the government is not pleased with me refusing to be a wage slave. Seriously, there’s not much love for the self-employed going on here. What it put me in was a situation where it was not adult-responsible to have a $6K project car build coming up. By the way, do you need something designed or prototyped? How about some Ragebridges?!

 

Not like they were having any more luck on their end. I asked them to prioritiz getting it running before any of the planned bodywork. After a carburetor rebuild did not resolve the sporadic running problem, I decided to cut my losses for the time being and asked them to stop work, and put it mostly back together so I could have it towed back to base. I didn’t want to run up more shop charges on something which hasn’t yet done anything consistently to diagnose. If it was going to become throwing parts at it, I’d rather take the time to do it myself.

 

I went over to help with the rigging of the replacement bed in preparation for a return tow. See, this is what I’d WANTED to do to get the bed in the place! Doing this at least made me feel better in one way: All the important exterior dimensions lined up. There might be some hope, then, that it is a drop-on replacement. Even if not, it 1. won’t be fugly, and 2. might only require some flat adapter plates.

The same night, I got a call from the truck driver that he was on the way over. I actually passed him going the other way:

Ah, nothing like watching your hopes and dreams pass by on a hook.

I spent the next few days pondering my priorities. Do I want a working vantruck, a white vantruck, or a Tesla-powered vantruck? These are almost 3 different goals. What if I just replaced each cylinder with a melon and a bevel gear?

I considered going to an aftermarket EFI conversion kit (like this!) first, as an intermediary step. You can’t begin to get me to trust carburetors, no matter what, even if it’s not the cause of the problem, which it looked increasingly like it wasn’t. At least that would bring it up to something in this millenium! However, I wanted to make sure I found the root of the problem before buying anything drastic.

Hell, I even considered the nuclear option of selling it as-is with the new bed attached (where-is?!). That would put me ahead financially and subtract a potential eternal project / rental liability from my life (as I’m not in a position or area where it’s easy to keep a non-running vehicle hanging around forever. Anyone have a front yard and some cinder blocks?)

but where is the fun in that

The great battle of the U.S.S. BROWN C. STENNIS continues. Stay tuned for more!

 

The Emotional Roller Coaster of Vantruck: Attack on the U.S.S. BROWN C.STENNIS, Motorama to Now

Mar 26, 2017 in vantruck

Now that the dust is settling and the cloud is condensing on the events of the past month and some, it’s time for me to recap what all happened before Motorama and after. By the sound of the title, you probably already know it doesn’t bode well, but it’s a great tell nevertheless!

We begin approximately two weeks prior to Motorama. Recall that I made it a soft goal to get everything in running order for the trip down to its natural habitat, the rural amateur racing event. Taking advantage of randomly-spaced unseasonably warm days where temperatures did get into the 40s and 50s range, I made a bunch of headway into repairing some of the interior lighting (very important, after all, because VAN) and fuel system.

 

It was easier for me to do interior work while it was cold outside, because the nice thing about working on vans is that some times you can sit inside and do things! I discovered one of the random cut wires was the power supply to the upfitter-installed CB radio on a console that’s ceiling-mounted. Well, that got fixed, but I’ve still got no reception. I didn’t take apart the thing enough to find where the antenna wire went, but given that there is not an obvious CB band antenna whip or rubber dongle, I suspect it was hacked off at some point.

The main radio antenna does not seem to go anywhere near the CB radio based on other dashboard crawling. This is a problem for later, as I did not intend to irritate truckers the whole way to Motorama.

I had to play a little puzzle hunt game to find out where the upper console buttons went. These ended up all being lighting features. The most obvious one was the rear cargo light … which is borderline useless, I might add, so it’ll get upgraded or changed to a CHMSL to free up a circuit for shenanigans, so I played around until I found the door lights (“Courtesy lights”) and the….

…sex lighting. There was a broken wire splice near the headliner where the wiring escapes into the body panel interstitials, and once that was reassembled, the old-school INCANDESCENT LED STRIP - think older incandescent Christmas lights – was working again.

Nobody gets to tell me this “mood lighting” was for any other purpose. Sorry, not buying it.

The “IDK relay” was traced to one of the wiring octopi under the hood. Since it was a relay that was connected to a small bank of intact 30A fuses that was connected to nothing much besides itself, I surmised it was some kind of forward lighting accessory. My guess is foglights, which would have been high-brightness halogen bulbs (I pulled a broken set off that had no wires attached) so it would demand a lot of current, necessitating a relay of its own. This was left intact for now, for future brodozer lighting mods or something.

So, that’s all for interior work. In one of these sessions, I also stuffed a new stereo head unit in place of the (also aftermarket) unit; it’s the same model as Mikuvans, so I can irritate general audiences in either vehicle with ease!

About a week before Motorama was when the next scheduled abnormally warm day was, but it was to be quickly followed by plunging temperatures and 12-18″ of snow. I, of course, in my wisdom, decided this was the best time to replumb the fuel system. If you recall, Vantruck has a dual fuel tank system with a switching valve between them. Only the rear tank was working when I received it – the front tank was disconnected completely and the valve was bypassed.

I’d decided the system was such an abject mess that I’d rather replumb everything from scratch so I knew where it all went. So I ordered 25 feet of 5/16″ and 3/8″ rubber fuel hosing the week before, as well as a new fuel pump and fuel level sender floaty-bob assembly for the rear tank (which had a non-functional sender, resulting in me never knowing how much fuel was in the tank).

I assumed at this point that the forward tank had been just sitting idle so probably still worked, hence I only ordered a rear pump. We will see that this didn’t quite go as planned.

Step 1: Just start hacking everything off. I knew based on the shop book where all the tubes were supposed to go, so I just undid every fitting I saw. I dropped the rear tank’s binding straps and it was……

…suspiciously heavy.

I ended up grabbing a transfer pump (which I’d bought with the fuel hoses as a JUST IN CASE measure…which turned out to be a lifesaver) and a gas can, and pumped no less than 10 gallons of varnishy-smelling gasoline out of the tank. Gasoline is a perishable product: it decomposes into a array of miscellaneous petrochemical substances, and gradually dries out to leave a sticky brown residue. If you know anyone who has a moped, you’ve heard them complain about it, trust me.

Luckily, the fuel wasn’t much discolored and just smelled a little funny. I split the goods 50/50 with Mikuvan, which was near empty at the time – half grunge-o-line, and half fresh premium. I may regret this later.

 

Here, I’m draining the rest of the fuel lines coming from the rear tank. Notice how it’s dark? It’s not actually late – the tank emptying began around 3PM (daylight) and by the time 5PM came around, it was dark.

After I emptied the forward tank to a manageable state, I decided to pull out the fuel pump to see how it’s doing.

 

It died in my hands. Check that rust out! The interior of the tank was “somewhat rusty” – clearly could use a good proper cleaning or replacement, but the Internet had shown me worse. (Due to not wanting to die in a fire, I did not take a photo of the inside of the tank)

Alright, now I have a situation. If I put everything together as-is, the front tank isn’t going to be hooked up anyway, and then I’d have to drop everything all over again later. I know the rear tank pump worked, just that the fuel gauge is inaccurate. So I decided to commandeer the new rear tank pump for the front.

Trouble is, the tubing was different lengths, as the two tanks are different dimensions.

No problem! I’m just going to unbend the rear tank pump tubing structure a bit. This made it sit nice and flush on the bottom of the front tank!

Cut forward a few hours, and here are the new hoses hooked up. I labeled everything with paint markers during the process so I could figure out where it’s all going later, uhh, down the road.

Additional labels and definitely-not-OEM-spec tubes on tubes splicing, but it worked!

Here is where I say the Ford truck dual-fuel system is simultaneously clever and WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU EVER DO THIS? designed. Both fuel pumps are powered through the valve, which seems to be a power door lock motor moving a little spool valve with electrical contacts attached to it. If this valve failed in any way – and it seems they do, quite often – you lose power to one or the other fuel pump, if not both.

People have bypassed it with both pumps being hardwired and pushing fuel through check valves (creating a flammable Diode-OR power supply!), wacky hacks with relays of their own, and so on. I had half a mind to do one of these things, but given that the valve seemed to toggle fine in an independent test, I was willing to give it a chance.

Everything seemed to work, though. I was able to blast around locally on either tank with no problems. A few pre-Motorama stuff-getting runs were made this way, to work the system in prior to leaving.

Alright, it’s time now for the big night! Now we go back to this spectacular, never to be topped epic load-out:

What’s in there? Sawblaze, Overhaul, the Doof Wagon (a Harbor Freight garden cart that several folks at MITERS motorized, because of course they did), Clocker, two lift table carts, several boxes and crates of parts, two suitcases, and a shipment of Nissan Leaf cells. And soon to be 5 people. No problem! Let’s get on the Mass Pike, YEEEEEEEEAH! Hair metal!

I get about 20 minutes out – just barely past Framingham, MA – when I suddenly start experiencing fuel feed loss symptoms, similar to the great misadventure of Mikuvan in 2014. Not knowing immediately what was the cause, we decided to not chance it in the middle of nowhere, at night, during winter. We announced to the other group leaving that we were turning back to swap vans.

I figure that since I never really had time to take the thing on the highway and flay it for an hour straight, that the higher fuel demand on the highway coupled with my one-shot smash service, had caused some systems to not play nice with each other. Nevertheless, we could still make it to Moto in time since we weren’t that far out.

Literally 1 block from the new shop, however, the night got much longer.

boop

Okay, right…. let’s see.

I just had the rear right quarter panel repaired to the tune of $900. I’m carrying probably close to 1000 pounds of equipment (two 240-250lb robots, another that in steel carts, 100lb of Leaf batteries, more robots, tools, and change) as well as 4 of my best friends onboard. I think we made out pretty well here, all things considered.

The gist of it is, I had slowed down to cut the tight one-lane right turn onto the street shown, when a black SUV wanked into the rear right corner most likely at speeds around 25-30mph.  The police report was quick, as the scene was fairly clear cut – the driver was distracted, and made no attempt to brake. The hit was on the bumper mostly (shown curled inwards)  and spun Vantruck with all of its load manifest around 30 degrees.

Now is, however, the perfect “You should actually see the other guy, though” moment:

That was a Nissan Rogue SUV, the front of which vaporized on contact, but whose crumple zones and airbags* worked perfectly.

We 100% had the mass of Vantruck and the robots on our side – I cannot imagine the level of damage and hurt that could have happened if Mikuvan were in its place. I would have had neither the mass advantage nor the 80s American Steel advantage, and probably would have had friends in the hospital and the entire loss of the ship. In the end, the driver and I walked it off a bit, made statements to the police, and exchanged information. The SUV was hoisted off by a tow truck, he called for a ride home, and I shuffled the < 1000ft remaining to the shop parking lot.

*Yes, I know. NOBODY is allowed to give me shit about my disdain for vehicles with crumple zones and airbags. Bugger off.

And so, around 4:45AM Friday, we set out again after having stuffed Mikuvan to the brim with robot gear and personal effects. I basically white-knuckled it all the way to Harrisburg. TRUST. NOBODY.

I had plenty of time on the way to reflect on the events. No matter how many Russian dashcam videos I watch before every road trip (a whole lot), and no matter how much of that actually translates into my daily defensive driving practice (a whole lot), it still caught me out of the blue. I passed the SUV in question more than 2 blocks prior at a recently-changed green light (the driver was stopped and I already carried speed) and didn’t even think about it.  It was quite a blow to my sense of immortality and penchant for determinism. I like to think I’m in charge of events when I’m driving, but this was a veritable slap in the ass that no man can account for all physical events.

Also, I carried no collision insurance for Vantruck, because why would I. I realized life was going to get very interesting when I returned.

It’s the Monday after Motorama, a nice and sunny and unseasonably warm day again. Let’s survey the damage.

 

Yup, shit’s fucked. Not only is the entire repair area ruined again, but the taillight housing was completely destroyed along with the mounting points.

The right one-piece fender is throughly cracked in multiple places.


As well as curled upwards – the bed side itself is curled slightly inwards at the corner, and the tailgate is significantly bowed (visible in photo prior to this).

So begins the most recent chapter of my life which has occurred steadily the past few weeks: Heading to picturesque, postcard-chic corners of New England…

…to stare at people’s ugly-ass, rusty, broken-down trucks….

So what was the battle plan? I joked around about replacing the made-by-Centurion bed with a real 80s-era Ford F350 dually bed. The Centurion bed is made in the image of one of those, with the squared-off fenders, but lower in height and with one-piece panels.  Like how Ford didn’t change the Econoline from 1979 through 1991, neither did they change the F-series from 1986 through 1997. Only minor cosmetic changes and other drivetrain changes happened – nothing generational like what seems to happen every 2 or 3 years nowadays. Through lots of reading and forum-hunting, I determined that a 8 foot dually bed from anywhere between 1980 and 1997 was going to be a reasonable transplant and shared the same critical dimension: Cab-to-Axle length. I’m pretty lucky that Centurion designed it with the same dimensions as an F-series bed, or there would either be some kind of unsightly gap or I’d just give up and weld my own flatbed or something.

With that said, do you know how many intact 80-97 F-350 long-bed dually trucks are left in New England? Negative three.

Pictured above: meh. If I were Full-Redneck repairing it on my own, with no help, I’d take it. It has some patchable rust holes, and a cracked right fender (What is it with old Ford trucks and breaking right fenders?) that was all there, so repairable. Rusted tailgate, missing lights. All liveable things, but I’m not yet this desperate.

Besides expanding my search radius for F350 long beds, I also had to find a 75-91 Econoline-compatible rear step bumper. Nobody has products for the 3rd-generation Econoline any more. Everything I could find new was for 1992 and up, when the frame changed (they’re not compatible without significant welding and fab work, to my knowldge. Please prove me wrong.)

Cue calling around to find junkyards which might still have products designed to be used up and thrown away 20 years ago, and visiting them during the MOST WRONGEST POSSIBLE SEASON TO GO TO A JUNKYARD:

I think there might be a car in here.

Scouring a regional yard (hint: Junkyards don’t exist in high property value locations, at least not in our postmodern Gig Economy world) for the last dregs of 3rd-gen Econolines. This one had a step bumper that was in the same mental filing cabinet with the F350 bed above: If I had nothing else to love in the world, maybe. I’d rather hunt on Craigslist or eBay.

A more complete Econoline 150 I considered robbing the front bumper from just to have in case (The fronts were the same through the year range).

I also came across gems like this:

This yard had a few Solectria Geo Metros! Ah, the smell of well-aged federal energy subsidies. No batteries or inverter in this one. The best part though?

It was named Harambe.

This tells me they were likely sitting in storage somewhere University of Massachusetts Lowell affiliated until the whole party finally got scrapped very recently, because why would anyone name anything Harambe before last year???

The interiors are actually in nice condition. It seems like if you wanted to, you could call Jack’s Used Auto Parts in Billerica and buy it off them, drop some batteries and a ~25kW induction motor driver in, and off you go. The whole fleet of 4 Solectrias I saw were in similar shape.

So where do I stand on this search as of now? Everything is closing in slowly – the coming week could see great successes or my continued descent into self-harm and substance abuse.

  • Vantruck is currently laid up at the van salon (c.f. my hair mechanic) with a fuel system & carburetor rehabilitation program in progress. “How old are you?” “28.” “Yeah you definitely wouldn’t know what carburetors are.” Yes, please fix my box of unicorns so I don’t ever have to think about it. Do they make carburetors for electrons?
  • I found exactly 1 website selling exactly 1 New Old Stock 75-91 Econoline Rear Chrome Step Bumper. I ordered it, my credit card was charged, and something appears to have been shipped. I will find out if it’s a bobcat.
  • I have 2 leads on beds – one from Kentucky, and one from southern Pennsylvania. Naturally, the farther one is in almost fabled condition based on seller-supplied photos, and the closer one is workable but would require body shop time. It seems like I might face the quandary of needing to get a truck to get parts for my truck later this week, unless everything gets put back together in time!

What an excellent adventure. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy – or maybe I would, provided they drive something old and obscure that is impossible to find easy parts for. This brings me to my concluding point, which is….

Some kind of massive insurance loophole exists for old but collectible vehicles.

At least in Massachusetts, and at least with our (the driver of the Nissan Rogue and my own) insurance companies. So here’s the deal: In Massachusetts, if your vehicle is over 10 years of age, you’re exempt from having a salvage-branded title, which would put the vehicle off the road potentially permanently unless you choose to repair it and have a special inspection performed. That means even if it IS written off, the title would not reflect it, and you could repair the vehicle at will and all it would have to do is pass a regular yearly inspection.

I had anticipated the driver’s insurance company trying to total me out, since it’s obvious that short of full-custom fiberglass layup, the bed will be very difficult to replace (and swapping bodies with some other vehicle is obviously not SOP for an insurance repair). In talks with my own insurance company, through whom I did NOT carry collision or comprehensive coverage (so basically: fuck off), I learned that being totaled out was possibly the best option for the reason stated above.

Through discussing this with my vanstylist, we also decided that this might as well be the path to push on – to get a fair value settlement that reflects what Vantruck is, which is a custom-built vehicle not made in great numbers. On its title, it’s a 1986 Ford Econoline cargo van. That’s worth like 3 cents nowdays, so we had to argue for the collectible/rare case, and hope to get enough to make reasonable repairs.

As expected, 2 weeks after the event, I received a detailed appraisal with the big red THIS VEHICLE IS A TOTAL LOSS stamp on it. Except there were some serious problems:

Now hang on just a minute. On top, you tell me the vehicle does not have parts available – which is true, short of finding an identical Centurion product in a yard already catalogged and ready – but on the bottom, there are several Ford Econoline body panels listed with hypothetical labor needed.

These body panels do not exist on Vantruck. Seriously, look up those Ford part numbers – they are literally the half of the van that is missing. So which one is it – parts not available, or parts are available? This appraisal was written by someone listed a bunch of irrelevant parts and tried to say it’s a writeoff.

I gave this spiel to the driver’s insurance company upon receiving it, and demanded that they at least total me out for a fair market value of a similar vehicle.  This ended up being the point of leverage used by my mechanic as well.

In response, I sent them archived eBay and Craiglist ads for what de jure is a “similar vehicle”: same year, same region, and same mileage. I was lucky that I was able to locate more of these things for sale for between 6-8K in good condition.

This is one example, and probably the one that pushed the case through. Same year, same mileage range (Vantruck has 76K), and very nearby. So basically, you’re buying me this if you decide to total me out, dammit!

In the end, through some more phone calls, they capitulated, and I received a nice Vantruck build fund as a result.

What I learned through that week was the following:

  1. If your vehicle is just old, but common – like a Toyota Camry or something – you’ll get boned because the vehicle will be very low value to begin with.
  2. If your vehicle is just weird, no matter what, parts will be expensive or impossible to find, and you’ll get boned because there is no easy comparable to appraise, or because it’s a custom kit car, or something. (In cases like these, I understand people some times carry declared-value coverage, where you set your own payout).
  3. If your vehicle is old and weird, you seemingly can find an exploitable niche where the vehicle is highly valuable in a limited circle, giving you ammunition for demonstrating comparable values. On top of that, someone correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like you can get the vehicle written off multiple times with no effect on title or registration provided it’s adequately repairable. Probably also can’t pull the same trick twice with the same insurance company.

So in a strange twist of fate, getting beaned by a Nissan Rogue might have been the best thing that’s happened to Vantruck in its recent operating life. With the settlement (it’s not for $6.5K – salvage value deductions and total-out thresholds come into play) I intend to fund the bed purchase as well as a full repaint.

Here is one of the concepts (generated by Cynthia!) that I’m considering.

Yup! I quite like the same window blackout treatment that Mikuvan has, so I’m going to match the two. I have another idea in mind which leaves the hood white, but there is not an easy body crease or line to follow near the windshield – this blackout job just follows and overwrites the 80s geometric brown-on-brown paint line. It helps that the candidate beds I’ve found have been white to begin with, meaning they will not need extensive recoating ($$$ and time) to hide another color.

Another idea lurking in the back of my mind is black on black on black… on black. It appeals to me through its simplicity and DIY-ability (as I’m prioritizing the payout for getting a bed in the first place and addressing running issues). However, I’m actually not that much a fan of blacked out cars, and think Vantruck would seriously be too much black, a rolling wall of black. It would be a visual black hole, like reality glitching when you look past it. Granted, the idea of a completely black out vehicle creeping silently on electric power is also appealing.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. Mission critical is getting a new bed and putting it on – modifications will be needed, maybe even some custom mounting brackets, as the E-series cutaway and F-series truck frames are seemingly not the same spacing between rails. In a few days I’ll know if I need to be journeying into DEEP TRUMP COUNTRY to get parts for my TRUMPMOBILE.

The Chronicles of Vantruck 2: Not-Yet-Electric Boogaloo

Jan 12, 2017 in mikuvan, vantruck

sigh

It’s a new year, and somehow I’m outside, in the middle of winter in Massachusetts, at night, fixing a van.

Again.

As I’ve said before, imagine if I ever exert this much effort doing something socially beneficial or self-improving.

I’ve been sparse lately, though, due to a similar kind of exertion that is called “working for yourself”. When you’re me and you take contracting work, you begin to adopt everyone else’s malformed, premature project embryos as your own, and raise them until they can walk on their own, often into a wall. The upside is that I can pick my battles and choose my projects, but the caveat is that I was never good at time management anyway, so it’s sort of easy for me to get lost in work. Overhaul has been living under a table and Clocker 4 hasn’t been repaired from Franklin Institute yet. Please make #season3 happen ):

I am, however, signed up for Motorama again, and you know what this means:


WE MEET AGAIN

 

This time, I will be unstoppable. I will be a worthy opponent!

But first, to get to that point, Vantruck has to be legal to operate in the state of Massachusetts, among other things. So time to get to work!

I have a habit of buying something and then doing research on what it is I just bought. This is why targeted internet advertising never works on me, because it’s too late to show me Ford truck ads now, guys.

To this end, I went ahead and picked up a copy of both the Chilton’s and Haynes service manuals, as well as copy of the Official Ford E/F-150-350 + Bronco Player’s Guide on CD, since I like information. Also, I’ve otherwise never owned a vehicle that had been worth writing an aftermarket service manual over. When one book can cover almost 30 years of one model, or SEVEN MODELS AT ONCE, that’s when you know that 1. it’s good, and 2. it’s why we need globalized diverified economies.

Okay, I’ll take number 1 back. These manuals suck. They’re definitely very “old school car guy” centric, but perhaps it’s just the ones written for old vehicles. The section on how to rebuild your carburetor or adjust the bands in the automatic transmission? Awesome! Checking all engine bearing, cam, and valve clearances? HUGE!

Electrical?

YES, THERE ARE WIRES (1978 F-150 W/ 6-302 ENGINE SHOWN; OTHER MODELS SIMILAR)

I’ll be up front, the only thing I know about carburetors is that a unicorn lives in each barrel and it decides how much fuel to mix with the incoming air. Vantruck’s Ford 460 engine has a 4-barrel carburetor, meaning it has 4 unicorn-power. At least 1 of those unicorns is slacking off when it gets below about 30 degrees, since it will only hold idle with a little bit of throttle application for a minute or so until it warms up. I am told the unicorn has to be choked to whip it back into shape, and the mechanism that does this might be sticky.

Whatever. I don’t care about carburetors. Maybe one day in the future I’ll write the Haynes manual on how to rebalance your future solar-powered bubblecopter’s main lift motors in excruiciating detail and some young hotshot will tell me that nobody uses electric motors any more and that all new bubblecopters manipulate the electroweak force to spontaneously decompose atoms in front of where you want the propellers to be.

So let’s see what I’m dealing with here…. Remember, the goal is to get turn signals and reversing lights working again!

Alright, so the circuit I’m interested in is protected by Fuse 10. I confirmed that yes, no matter how big a fuse I put in, it immediately blows on any turn of the key, so it’s a hard short to ground somewhere. Referring to the wiring diagrams in the manuals (which all say the same thing in slightly different line widths and wiring label mnemonics), I see that there is a combination switch on the transmission that directly controls the reversing lights.

Given that the hazard flasher still works, and the turn signals do flash with them, I suspected a hard short somewhere along the body harness for the reversing lights. The turn signals are on a different path and therefore not affected by the short, but it will blow the fuse and cause power loss to both.

Interesting fact: No matter how large the nose on a full-size American van, there is still an access port for the engine on the inside, and it’s the same for Chevy/GMC and Dodge too. This thing really has less lateral legroom than Mikuvan does, and it’s because the engine is slightly ahead of you, not slightly behind. You’re still basically sitting on top of it.

Why can’t you be a 1960s Econoline instead? They even made pre-truckified versions!

Here I am popping the doghouse off to inspect the wiring harness going to the transmission switch.

 

And I find the culprit immediately: A very fried and rotted wiring connector and harness that was touching the engine block. It seems to have been routed in the valley of the engine next to one of the cylinder heads – so I can only surmise that it’s gotten very hot, accelerating the decay of the legendary 80s US-made plastics. This connector shell basically turned to dust when I tried to open it, and the wiring insulation flaked off in large pieces.

 

Yeah, I picked the scab for a few minutes and separated the wires where they were exposed in order to make sure nothing was shorting,  I cut the harness wrap another few inches in both directions to look for additional shorted locations, but this was the only one.

And here we go – turn signals are back!

However, there were still no reversing lights. I metered the circuits and discovered the transmission switch’s reverse position had failed open – perhaps due to the shorted harness. So that’s a few bucks on eBay for another transmission switch!

Meanwhile, I moved onto excavating other wiring artifacts, playing such games as “Where the hell does this bare-ass connector go?”

I couldn’t find any mating end for this bare terminal; it’s on the same circuit as the power supplied to the transmission switch and is allegedly part of the ignition interlock (for no starting in-gear), but I can find no mention of it anywhere in the manuals – probably an aftermarket mod that was later removed. I taped it off for the time being.

Then we have this rare example of an American Wiring Kudzu:

Someone please tell me this is not OEM. Compared to Mikuvan’s “all in one extravaganza” wiring experience, this is borderline unreal.

I couldn’t identify what the leftmost and uppermost components (with rusty terminals) were, but one of the right hand side relays seemed to be a headlight relay and the other one a horn relay. If you know what those other things are, please let ME know. I just wire-brushed and dielectric-greased the terminals and called it a day.

Following the horn relay caused me to discover a very long-dead airhorn compressor buried near the front radiator supports. Since the plumbing seems to be in place, maybe I’ll try hooking up a new airhorn compressor at some point…

Flash forward a week and the new transmission switch has arrived. This is a photo of removing the old one – it was a very straightforward procedure, and I actually did it “by the book” as recommended.

Interesting fact: The orange tube seen in the first ‘doghouse’ photo is actually a linkage that connects the throttle body to a small lever on the transmission selector valve. Its termination is shown here. Not only is it actually a linkage, but it’s actually the connecting link in a 3-dimenional 4-bar linkage and moves in a circular arc centered somewhere inside the engine. It’s the transmission kickdown linkage, and when you hit the gas pedal hard enough, it moves outwards at the throttle body, translating through that circular motion into a downward motion at the switch here.

It doesn’t stop there; EVERYTHING IS LINKAGES. The throttle itself is a linkage, and the main gear shift selection lever also toggles the leftmost brown bar as a linkage. The parking brake linkage seems to move on the same set of pins this whole clusterfuck moves on, connected to the frame.  AND EVERY ONE OF THESE LINKAGES IS SLOPPY.

I legitimately don’t know if I should be horrified that someone thought this was a good idea, or amazed at the ingenuity that went into packaging everything.

Whatever. You’re all leaving for a sack of electrons in the next few years. I cleaned up the area and regreased all the pins and clevises for now. I should just pack everything with JB-weld so it fills the slop!

As the first wiring repair a few days later, I started with the most critical issue, the transmission harness. Here it is repaired with a few more inches to spare ; this extra length will let me route it up and over the hot part of the engine, over the air cleaner lid, and back down towards the transmission.

Alright, with my turn signals back on and the reversing light circuit showing continuity, I still had no reversing lights. Well, time to go see what other wires could be broken. The wire emerging from the transmission switch which allegedly goes straight backwards to the reversing lamps did not show continuity to ground, meaning it was broken somewhere along the way. First, I checked the light modules themselves, which meant starting at the back…

Bad mistake.

Judging by the aging of the various nylon splice connectors AND A WIRE NUT. WHO THE HELL USES WIRE NUTS HERE I think at least 2 jackasses have been here before me, making me the third ass. Several aftermarket trailer devices have probably lived and died here, and there were not only stubs of wires (some of which I might need) but splices like this rare Shadtree Wiring Octopus living in the back bumper area.

Speaking of trailer accessories, here’s a quick side story.

Since the beginning, Vantruck has had a magic switch installed on the underside of the dashboard. Neither the seller nor I nor my truck-buddy Dan who I blame for this whole thing could tell what it did, or where it led.  This magic switch had a yellow and a brown wire coming off it, with the yellow going directly to 12 volts at the fuse box. The brown wire, though, disappeared into the abyss.

As long as I had the dash and other panels off hunting for the transmission switch wiring, I decided to follow the brown wire.

From the switch, it runs downwards and follows the rest of the body harness out to the front driver’s side of the engine compartment. It’s definitely aftermarket, since it’s just stuffed into the bushing there, not part of any wrapped bundles.

Inside the engine compartment by the front left wheelwell, it makes a U-turn and dives under the frame. It runs allllllll the way back to just ahead of the rear axle, upon which it terminates in….

 

NOTHING

That was….. anticlimactic.

Oh well. I ripped this wire all the way out, along with the entire magic switch, and some of the wiring stock ended up making it back in the form of taillights.

At this point, I looked up and discovered this creative arrangement of fuel lines and seemingly a vestigial fuel-system switching valve. The seller had made it clear that the dual tank system doesn’t work. There is another switching valve to the right, a few feet closer to the front driver’s side, which is about equally disconnected.

Since it’s silly to have such a huge truck with less range than a Tesla Model S, this fuel system will be the focus of my next adventures. I’m just going to replumb everything from scratch – I don’t even care to detangle this right now. More importantly though, the fuel gauge sensor is faulty in the rear tank (left) and of unknown vintage on the front tank (right), so they are a higher priority than being able to cause 2 forms of global warming at the flick of a switch.

 

By the way, the yellow end of the magic switch ended in a wire nut by the fuse panel, which has a connection via a 30 amp fuse to….

…a wrapped bundle somewhere in the body harness again.

You know what, fuck it, I quit. I just removed all of the splices, trimmed the unknown broken wires, and put it back together.  Currently, power windows only work if I alligator clip the door harness to 12V, so I’m pretty sure one of these things actually went to them, in defiance of the manual telling me what color wires are supposed to do what. I’ll address this later…

Since I had to get access to the rear wiring anyway for the lights, and it hadn’t gotten that cold out yet, I decided to rust-treat the rear bumper’s inside cavities while it was off.

This thing was unexpectedly heavy. It’s made of mostly 1/8″ and 3/16″ steel with stamped brackets holding it to the frame with 5/8″ bolts.  I keep forgetting that I am working in a realm where everything was designed by and for much larger and manlier men than myself.  This is good – it keeps me on my toes, and makes it even weirder to everyone else around when I pop out of it at Motorama.

The treatment consisted of a wire brushing and air-blasting the rust powder off, then treating the remnant surface rust with converter, and a few layers of clearcoat over it once it dried. Probably overkill for surface rust on the stern of the Titanic, but hey, it’s iceberg season and I had work to do while the substances dried.

Getting it back on again was an even more hilarious adventure. dem gainz

Long story short, I basically rebuilt the rear harness using the shop books as a guide. I removed several ill-conceived marker lights, seen as shadows above the wiring loop. Clown #1 or #2 had just drilled a tiny hole through the sheet metal and shoved the wire through, un-bushed and liable to being torn on any one of those holes. I’ll do my own marker lights later if I feel like adding to the already gargantuan collection of LOOK AT ME I’M A TRUCK lights present.

Finally, after shaving most of the yaks living in this region, I pulled out the taillight modules and began playing hunt the wire. Here is another Shadetree Wiring Octopus habitat. The sheer number of splices on this length alone are mind-boggling, and make me suspect the taillights are not original.  I played a game of alligator clips trying to find out what was supposed to go to where – at this point, none of the colors lined up with the shop book, so I only had intuition to help along.

And an hour or so later, the corrected harness with rebuilt areas and 99% less splices emerges.

Luckily, the other side was actually in good shape, but this was the master side where the brake light, turn signal, and reversing light body harness came in, so it was the side which mattered. Everything was e-taped together, bundled, and shoved back in.

And there we go!

Those are some bright taillights… In fact, they’re the same ones I use on Mikuvan, the so-called 10W LED “buttheadlights”.

I discovered that beyond just hacking up the wiring, Clowns #1 or #2 had in fact installed the entire wrong bulb into the right side reversing light. They somehow stuffed a type 1157 dual-filament bulb into the socket for an 1156. Nothing made contact, and so that light didn’t work initially.

Not having direct replacements for the type 1156, I suddenly remembered I bought like 3 packs of those LED things and decided to just switch over right now to LEDs. I did not have 1157s for the taillights in LED, though, so that will come another day.

These are the “buttheadlights” in question, and I can vouch for their niceness.

Buttoned back up!

The story doesn’t end there, however. As long as there was a gaping hole in the fender, I couldn’t get an inspection sticker to be fully road-legal. At this point, I had plotted and schemed for 3 weeks on how to fix the hole, but the weather no longer permitted any outdoor work that involved curing or drying anything – and I did not have any place left to pull it indoors.  I finally decided to throw it in and took Vantruck to Richie’s Automotive in Waltham, a shop highly recommended by Dan which dealt a lot with trucks. This timed well with a spontaneous New Years trip to Atlanta, so I was able to leave it there and ask for the Have At It treatment.

And here we go! After I returned from driving vans for 3,000 miles, I was totally done with vans, so Dan got the privilege of piloting the battleship back to port. The fender patch is backed with sheet metal and all the damaged brackets were also repaired; I also had them go ahead and replace the exhaust system from the Y-pipe back since it had substantial rust holes in the muffler and other spots.

So that’s why it was so loud. I thought large American V8s just sounded like that all the time.

Finally, they threw in repairing all of the marker and trim lights, including all the little ones in the running boards which were out and I didn’t care enough to do with the other wiring, as well as the ones eviscerated from the fender. It’s great to have a shop well-connected to the industry, since I am definitely not knowledgeable on Giant American Truck things.

The current outlook is to replace the malfunctioning fuel gauge in the rear tank, which reads half when full and empty when about 5 gallons down out of 22, so it’s not helpful at all. I’m perfectly content having only about 250 miles of range on one tank, since that places it on the same refueling interval as Mikuvan. I’m therefore not inclined to actually repair the fuel tank switching valve system, but maybe just join the two tanks at the bottom with a hose or a transfer pump so I have use of both tanks, just not alternately.

After all, if I make it too good, I might be inclined to keep everything running…

In other exciting van news, however, this latest trip to Atlanta did result in Mikuvan rolling the grand ol’ 200K, in the most unromantic possible location: A few hundred feet from the entrance of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut.

Hopefully I’ll captain this Space Battlevan-ship for many more parsecs to come. I’m eager for the weather to improve again so I can continue preparing it for the inevitable decals.