Operation RESTORING BROWN Part 7: The Epilogue; or, Dragon Con 2019

Monday, November 25th, 2019 @ 3:48 | Dragon Con, vantruck

And here it is, the final chapter of a summer that was so full of content that it felt like an entire year; a summer that saw me dive deeper into silly van restoration than ever before, within a year that saw the company double in size, move to a new facility, and shift product lines. That’s a lot of things going on in just the past few months, and I often say that very few people can both profess to having such a life content density and tolerating it – but that’s for another Philosoraptor Charles Says post. This post will cover the continued little details from before and immediately after the Dragon Con 2019 trip, but mostly focus on the trip itself in a Vantruck-relevant way.

In the mean time, here is the full Book of Van:

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes
  3. Episode 3 – Wrapping up electrical loose ends, some times literally
  4. Episode 4 – Actually painting the cab… using a Harbor Freight paint cannon
  5. Episode 5 – Putting the van and truck halves back together
  6. Episode 6 – The finishing touches on the exterior, and working on the interior

So to start, I basically skipped all of my usual robot building that goes on in the summer months. There WAS a dumpsterbot, of course. That was put together literally the week beforehand, since I did end up getting itchy robot fingers, and had a convenient gift available to perform unethical experiments on. In a way, Vantruck was to be my Dragon Con 2019 entry, along with an extended (for me!) trip away from company affairs. Of all possible vehicles you can go vacation with…

 

One of the last changes I made was getting a stock, OEM tailgate. You may remember Vantruck having a white dented tailgate, then a black airflow/5th wheel style one. My van salon determined the white dented tailgate was probably not worth trying to repair and then paint, as it was bent enough to not close properly, whereas I could score a gently used one on Craigslist for around $100. And that’s what I did! One weekend prior, I journeyed down to the Cape (yet again) and got this very nice condition tailgate. It’s actually dark green, not black, but is so dark green that it’s only visible under bright sunlight. The plan was to have the bed and tailgate repainted together once I returned; my intention is to ditch the chrome panel (more space for anime stickers) afterwards.

And so it was that I set off bright and early when i woke up, so like noon on August 26th. I took my usual “New York Avoiding” corridor and encamped in Harrisonburg, VA at my favorite Motel 6 on Highway 33 – why the entire fuck do I have a favorite Motel 6 now – and continued onwards to North Carolina thereafter.

The goal was to hit up US 129 and other idyllic mountain roads in the Smokies, then descend towards Atlanta after crossing into Tennessee.

Somewhere on I-77 in Virginia as I began the descent down the Blue Ridge…

I encamped again just west of Asheville, NC and was well-poised the next day to begin #VansOnTheDragon.

 

But first, a van friend somewhere in Asheville’s further reaches!

I continued all the way into deep western NC on U.S. 74, then NC Highway 28, switching onto NC 143 to get to the Robbinsville area. The roads got incrementally narrower with each intersection!

Vans and the Dragon sculpture?!

Some say the place is oversold and overdone, but I personally would like to see more of this kind of thing across the country. Obviously there’s very few roads that would beget being this kind of attraction, since it would need to be sparsely traversed by locals and not have intensive development.

So how did it go? I ended up doing an outbound run and then back inbound. It was an entire different world from when I took Mikuvan in 2016 and then again over this past winter, which itself is an entire world away from doing it in a real sports car. Mikuvan is at least somewhat capable of performing agility-like behavior, what with its low mid-mounted engine, rear wheel drive, rack-and-pinion steering with independent front double wishbones, and 52/48 weight distribution (Look all of this up. I have an exotic 80s sports car and none of you get to contest this). I can predictably squeal all 4 wheels on the many turns, and I never felt like I was about to sail off a cliff.

This time, I was basically driving a moving truck. Let’s face it, as tarted up as Vantruck is, it’s fundamentally still a U-Haul. It’s exactly the width of the road more or less, and there’s no steering feedback. Every move needs several turns of the wheel to accomplish, and there were a lot of god damned turns. I called this the “yeet the steering wheel” effect since I basically was standing up in the seat throwing the steering wheel around.

It also has an unfortunate positive-feedback state that occurs in turns if the outside wheel hits a bump. There’s some element of the Ford double-crossed-T-rex-arms (not actual name) suspension that interacts with the tires and possibly some very stale shock absorbers where the outside wheel will begin bouncing up and down, taking a good second or so to oscillate out. Obviously this causes traction loss and instantaneous understeer until it corrects itself. Color me enthused when I discovered several of the banked outside turns could excite this “mode”. Luckily, I have experience with this on curly highway offramps; just tapping the brakes will typically end it. But those cliffs got mighty inviting looking!

If you’re interested in seeing a very slow and soothing (from the video) drive through the Dragon, you can check out my dashcam upload of the outbound and the inbound. It’s not very exciting to experience just as a video, I can say that much.

A few local photographers are usually set up on the most scenic hairpins, and so I now have a couple of nicely done “press shots”. Of these, I tend to patronize Killboy.com the most – consistently they seem to have the best composition. A couple I bought from another vendor had visible roadside grass in the foreground, for instance, and others were under-exposed (possibly too fast of a shutter to try and minimize motion blur) or I flat out didn’t like the angle. Here’s one of the wide ones – check out the suspension travel difference between the inside and outside.

In the middle of a #YeetTheSteeringWheel operation here. Observe the angle of inclination formed by the Miku keychain plushie in the center.

And lastly, one of the other good ones – I call this “Ford stance” because every Ford vehicle lineup photo.

(I owe the whole world an explanation of what Waifuworkz is – one of many explanations of many things this year I owe in due time)

 

Well, we’ve made it to the end…

I decided to only get a small sticker, since there was no need to announce to the world that you can be qualified to drive a school bus for rural Tennessee-North Carolina school districts.

From there, I headed southwestwards on US 74  all the way towards Chattanooga, TN. US 74 is a wide state highway until it begins following the Ocoee River, upon which it becomes another 2-lane road with uncomfortably close rock faces. This part is extremely scenic, more beautiful than technical, following the whitewater river for several miles.

The nice thing about taking state roads? You get to stare at everyone’s hoarded decrepit property in their front yards, a likely prospect for me in the future from the other side. Like, look at this gorgeous mobile shed:

That’s a “The Diplomat II” Class A motorhome. It seems like it would clean up quite well, honestly. I didn’t check if they were selling, however.

I rolled into town on Wednesday evening, and proceeded to spend that and Thursday taking some random landmark photos. For instance, the “Duluth Jesus Sign”:

This sign just says JESUS on both sides. There’s not a church or pastor or other evangelist figure advertised on it. It literally just says JESUS, abutting I-85 next to a few hotels.

 

Checking out the Big Chicken in Marietta!

 

…and causing traffic problems at the AirBnB house  I got for the convention with my vanspread.

 

Whoever you are, you have an excellent taste in off-road vehicles.

Here we are at the convention! The central lot between the Marriott and Sheration actually has “RV and bus parking” for the weekend, a rare find nearby. That also includes silly van parking. Quite a lot of folks seem to take advantage of this alternative to having to get one of the expensive hotel rooms. Behind the Class A on the left were several more RVs and trailers.

Vantruck isnt’ a good option for camping an entire weekend without having friends that have other facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. However, I can see how a truck bed camper could alleviate this if I were so inclined.

Found in the same parking lot a few rows away, though, was a van friend!

I couldn’t get in close enough for a photo since the lot was pretty full. This was a pretty cool custom “turtle top” style high roof E350 build with an observation deck up top.

It looks like this was made out of a gently modified school minibus. Overall, very tall and quite impressive. The utility bumper on it appears to be custom made, and a larger version is what I have on deck for my personal design.

For my local get-around needs without having to vanspread everywhere, I made extensive use of rent-a-scooters. I did this some last year, but the rent-a-scooter ecosystem is now fully entrenched and some argue it needs population control, deer hunting style. To be entirely fair, I do agree after seeing just how many get thrown around on the street and not arranged in any useful way. As for exactly how, well, that isn’t my business problem.

My favorite new contender? These things. Not even scooters, but silly shaped e-bikes. They had wheels (hhhue) that were big enough to actually traverse both road features and sidewalk seams/cracks, and most importantly the curb cuts between them. I’ve generally been lukewarm on the actually scooter-based transit options since I didn’t think making the handlebar higher (to prevent you from being catapulted) was better than upping the wheel size to prevent it in the first place.  They also packed more power, and with the better riding position, meant you can actually use it; there’s no point in putting 500+W into a compact scooter shape.  Trust me on this one, I’m an expert!

Sadly, they weren’t as prevalent and widespread as the flood of Bird and Lime scooters. By the middle of the weekend, I actually went to hunt these down and bring them nearby wherever I was, because I liked them immensely. On Saturday, the most crowded day, I left Vantruck at the AirBnB house instead of fighting for 2+ parking spots at the same time – and hit town with one of these things.

 

 

I have a suspicion that everyone thinks I look just like this guy when I cruise around with Vantruck.

Anyways, one final Van Friend on the way back up:

 

This guy was doing whole #vanlyfe thing and the van was kitted out with a generator and lots of, uhh, rooftop storage.

I ended up staying the rest of the week to do some more Atlanta Things, setting back north that weekend, and getting back into town Monday morning. I’m very proud to say that Vantruck did not make a peep the entire ~2700 mile trip. I suppose the “van tax” that’s normally reserved for the Autozone parking lot or a U-haul trailer was just directly subsidizing the Houston, TX economy instead: The end-to-end gas mileage for the return trip was an incredible 10.1 mpg. Hey, double digits!

(I didn’t do a calculation for the trip down since it was indirect and involved a lot of fumbling around mountain roads).

Would I do this again? Probably, but only once a year. I have better ways of lighting money on fire for fun, such as robots.

While the “couching down the highway” effect is very relaxing, I’m really too small for the driving position it was designed for and it gets unergonomic after hour #6 or so. The seat is literally too deep for me to fill up, so I either have to slouch a lot (then I don’t see over the dashboard!) or kind of sit more on the edge, which isn’t conducive to back comfort. This is on my list of issues to address, namely getting rid of the couch-like front seats and replacing them with something a bit more modern.

The last remaining kibbles

The only thing I left unfinished due to time constraints before Dragon Con and not desiring to commit the money yet was painting the bed. I had it sanded by friends the day we commenced on cab painting, but didn’t follow through, so the bed was a slightly different texture and color than the cab for the trip.  You can’t really tell in the photos though, much like the tailgate looks black enough.

After I got back, I decided to just have Maaco blast the thing. I had, at that point, talked to enough friends and people who had worked with them that my pre-conceptions about the company, springing mostly from Reddit horror stories, was more dialed back. I figured, too, the bed was a limited scope thing that (much like I did) was easy to handle independently, so I wouldn’t even be too mad if they did a me-quality paint job. Remember, I only go to mechanics and hire services when I’ve dug myself too deep. Yes, I’m one of those people – but I also like to think I know when to throw in the towel before things get horrifically tragic.

 

So I did a little of #BigChucksAutoBody and smoothed over some of the cracked areas and larger dimples that were primarily in the fiberglass fenders. No use painting over cracks and dents! Then I submitted it for consideration to a local Maaco branch.

A few days later… well, they definitely did the thing. Far better quality than I could have ever pulled off. They of course took the opportunity to let me know I can stop back any time to have them redo the cab properly!

 

The hot tub then goes back in, and the toolbox on top of that — I didn’t take a picture of it since plenty of photos exist with the toolbox.

With this, I’m declaring the end of Operation RESTORING BROWN! There’s no near-term changes I am aiming to make at this point except more anime stickers.  I’ll sum it up this way: It costs way less than robots would. As I mentioned last post, the end to end restoration cost was around $2000, and with the bed paint job and some small incidentals, we’re up to more $3000, which is still like 1/3rd of an Overhaul. Even counting the entire expenditure of Dragon Con including the far-exceeding-plane-ticket fuel bill!

But personally, I still found it not as enjoyable as robotting for a summer, at least with the fleeting facilities I have. I don’t have the capability right now of putting down infrastructure, so it’s working with what time and space I can get. It’s a lot messier and grungier, whereas at least a robot mess is usually just metal chips, not being covered in mysterious substances of varying carcinogenic rating.

The upside? It’s still a utility and a tool I can keep using, but now it’s nicer. I’d say it’s more akin to restoration work on a machine tool in that regard, such as the work I’ve done bringing Bridget and Taki-chan back up. I’m sure my assessment would be a lot different with a fixed workspace that I can embed into as hard as I’ve done with MIT/company facilities and with building robots. Vans are just simultaneously portable and very not-portable.

There are, of course, things I definitely want to do in the future. For instance, I still have the designs for the rear custom tow bumper and cow-destroying chin of power, but I’m going to shelve them and return to robotting – after all, the fall is really just preparation for #Season5. I’d like to focus on the interior next year, possible finally getting those new seats and having the floor re-upholstered in something that’s not (in the words of an auto upholsterer I visited) actually house carpeting. STAINED HOUSE CARPETING.

But in the mean time, I have plenty of market-fresh robot content to come!

 

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    One Response to “Operation RESTORING BROWN Part 7: The Epilogue; or, Dragon Con 2019”

    1. Karl Says:

      It seems likely that the aftermarket could find you a less vague steering rack for not a huge amount of money.

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