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

Sunday, March 26th, 2017 @ 6:51 | 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.

 

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

    1. Lee Says:

      Glad you are keeping this thing on the road. Great work as always!

    2. frankthecat Says:

      BROWN C. STENNIS SHALL SAIL AGAIN, FOR HELL OR HIGH WATER.

      in all seriousness, when the old bed gets pulled, make sure the frame didn’t get tweaked…. that’d blow through your nice budget real quick. :/

    3. Michael Robbins Says:

      You guys are the real automobile surgeons.