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

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!

Operation RESTORING BROWN Episode VI: Return of the Van Lights; the Conclusion

Yes, I avoided mucking up a Star Wars title in the way everyone wants me to. SHUT UP. Nobody asked for your opinion. Well, you probably have figured out what’s gonna be presented, so why not just read the other 5 parts first?

  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

 

So we begin this story the week after the Regular Car Reviews show, which was an absolutely fantastic time. I only really had a few things I wanted to take care of before Dragon Con. They were, in order of importance:

  • Re-mounting the rear sofa bed/bench seat
  • Bringing back the Next Generation Sex Lights as I mentioned before, and
  • Adding lighting to the running boards

Let’s begin! Chronologically speaking, the running board lights were first and the NGSL were last (days before I left), so we’ll go in that order. To be truthful, the story of the running board lights extends all the way back into late last year when I started doing some lighting investigations for custom bumper designs.

Fun truck-related trivia: Gratuitous amber marker lights are some times called “chicken lights” in trucker-speak. The origins of this are not too clear, but I mentally file it under the same generational oral tradition that gave us things like “Pitman arm” and “Schottky diode” – because someone called it that and it got popular.

The unit lighting products I decided to use, instead of drilling and mounting one billion tiny little lights, was called an “identification bar” – named for the mandatory “I am a big-ass truck of some sort” lights that are mounted to the rooflines of commercial trucks. The center three lights are often supplied as one unit for quick installation. I was going to just use a couple of them linked together.

Par with my usual shopping technique, I cross-compared eBay, Amazon, and a bunch of independent vendors to see who was offering the same Chinesium for lowest cost-to-me. Since the products are nominally fungible (e.g. at this point in history, there’s not gonna be that much difference between two LEDs of different pirate manufactueres), this is a good tactic, and I was able to get each bar for just over $12 each, so about $150 for both sides, on Ebay.

I spaced them out to look visually correct, then back-CADded them to get a regular pattern that I can start drilling into the boards.

(Excuse the camera-screenshot – I took this literally to message someone on my phone, in the truest possible Millennial way, then decided to keep it!)

Fast forward to the #VapeShop, and I’m marking out everything and drilling the holes after “work” one day, in accordance with my drawing. Wait… what am I doing at the company shop again, when I have Big Chuck’s Auto Body?

Sadly, I lost Big Chucks’ Auto Body at the end of July, when my lease expired. The first week after I got back from the RCR show was filled with moving my stuff out, into the “Cruft corner” of the #VapeShop.

I anticipated this happening one day soon, since it was unlikely that the property company would keep renewing a lease for a rando when they have legitimate businesses they could rent to instead, so all of my goods that were heavy or unwieldy were on wheels. It took one truckload to get my shelves and toolboxes and stuff out – the workbench you see was left behind, since we got better ones! Yay!

May my mis-sprayed paint forever stain the ground!

 

The power hookup for each light was pretty simple, as they were frame-grounded, so I had to just wire all the modules together. I’m not too much a fan of frame-grounding, so I ended up making a separate “ground wire” that was really just bolted to one of the mounting holes as a ring terminal, terminating in a 2-pin connector (which naturally I scavenged from a product part bin).

And then onwards we go! An hour of surgery one night to add the corresponding 2-pin connector to the existing lines I ran downwards from the front marker lights to the area right behind the front wheelwells, and the fried chicken lights as I termed them were all set to go.

Next up was putting the rear seat back on. I had this idea in my head for a while, once again, so it was merely execution. I wanted the rear seat to potentially be modular and removable for any other attachment I had in mind in the future. The factory method was just driving some bolts through the floor and using what basically were just pipe clamps to hold the whole damn thing down. In fact, it jiggled natively.

My solution was one that I actually saw at the Van Nationals show in some camper/vanlife style builds, and only heard of in passing before: L-track. Also called “airline track”, it’s an aluminum rail profile with standardized hole patterns and anchors that you can use to attach “stuff” with. The idea is that an anchor fits into the round cavities and is locked in place by a retaining bolt, typically taking the shape of another anchor.

So I ordered some off Amazon.  In measuring out the remnants of the seat mount, a 24″ section was actually a perfect fit, and you could get it in 24″ lengths with a sack of questionable anchors! LUXURY!

To mount the L-track, I wasn’t just going to zip it into the floor, but build a frame to adapt the haphazard holes drilled by Centurion to something vaguely standard. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to WHERE the holes were drilled – some lay on the slopes of the floor stiffening stampings, others on the bottom of the valleys of the same. The front set of holes was more 41.75″ apart than 42″ (a standard width in the van world, as I found out, for seat mounts) and the offset from the rear cab wall also varied.

In other words, this rigid frame had to compensate for all of the absolute bullshitt they got up to and turn it into something vaguely square and regular. I made it with some spare 1x1x0.075 wall steel tubing at the shop, and pretty much freeballed all of the measurements after making confirmations.

The result was then MIG welded together.

Test fit of the frame to double check all of the planned offsets, shifts, and transforms lined up!

Indeed they did, so I naturally painted everything my favorite color before mounting it all up. The steel frame is bolted through the floor using a number of steel and rubber washers as spacers – steel for height offset, and rubber for conformation to the varying hole placement angles. The L-track is then screwed in from the top into the steel tubing using each rail’s five 1/4-20 countersunk clearance holes.

 

Next up was the seat mount itself. What you see are split clamp shaft collars with the bottom halves drilled radially downward, for the threaded anchors of each L-track stud. These bottom halves are permanently threadlocked together with the L-track studs. I used a 1″ diameter piece of tubing (the same diameter as the seat rails) as a template to get them to the right alignment. When these are mounted, the shaft collar clamp screws and upper halves will then be tightened in permanently with the same threadlocker. They don’t come off ever again – to remove the seat, I would then release the four hex nuts that hold the anchors to the L-track.

This is the assembly fully mounted and tightened. Again, the shaft collars are considered part of the seat now. If I wanted to shift the seat forward or backwards, I’d release the L-track hex nuts and do so; same for complete removal.

(At least until I buy the new van sofa bed with the same mounting dimensions, that is!)

Everything still folds down! A side effect of my mounting setup, though, is that the seat is now a good 2.5″ higher than it was before. Not the end of the world, I suppose.  The companies making van sofa beds still are all made-to-order outfits, so I might be able to convince them to shorten the height of any future one I get. It does get awkward to sit in if you’re short, however, since you no longer reach the ground…. like me.

Either way, I consider this far more improved than what were basically fucking P-clamps for pipes.

Now we move onto the final and most glorious step, the one which I went extra out-of-the-way weeks before to ensure can happen: the Next Generation Sex Lights.

From Episode III, the touch-me LED controller makes a return! I decided to go ahead with its installation since to do any light install in the cabin would have required basically the same amount of work.

I measured up the rectangular body of it and cut an accordingly rectangular hole into the center console.

This was when, on closer inspection, I (re?)discovered the mounting holes were exactly aligned with an edge of the rectangular body.

What in the actual fuck is your product design division doing, mysterious Chinese company who made this?? Nobody at all thought about how this would be installed, huh? First we had the teeny tiny ribbon cable connecting two snap-fit parts requiring a lot of force to actually un-snap…. and now the mounting hole which, if you cut the indicated panel size out, would actually sit right on the edge of said cutout and not off to the side.

I don’t get it. There’s NO way anybody has installed this product the way the originators wanted.

And I’m not going to either! The touch-sensitive bits, after inspecting with a strong flashlight shining through the whole assembly, are really just restrained to the touch-button area. I was afraid of bringing too much metal close to the buttons just in case.

So you know what? Forget your actually-mounting holes. I’m just going to drive four screws through the corners and move on with my life.

If you choose to do this (for some reason…if you buy one), I used the ‘triple point’ where the edge chamfers meet the main flat face.

Here’s the backside of that installation – locknuts that are gently torqued will hopefully not crush the whole thing!

The lights themselves are the RGB+W strips I bought mounted in “corner” LED housing. You can buy this extrusion by the foot/meter and it comes in several shapes to accommodate different LED strip widths. I merely cut them to length, shoved the strips in, and soldered a small length of the 5-pin RGBW cable to each end, sealing the ends in hot glue. The plastic cover is a bit tacky to snap on, but with some extra coercion it stays on fine.

And here we have it. Six mounting brackets screw into the interior walls, and the LED rails snap right in. I made a splitter that interfaced with the original cable drop to fan it out to both of the LED rails. I really like these more lower-profile light bars compared to the “behind the curtains” style that came with it. It’s a sleeker, more modern look to contrast the antiquated American luxury this thing represents. The camera exposure makes them look more obnoxious than they really are, by the way. Along with the adjustability of the LED controller, they are actually quite tame to be in a direct line of sight scenario.

Meanwhile, on a fortuitous trip to New Hampshire, I had scored this gull-wing toolbox off Facebook Marketplace. I’d been actually looking for a gull-wing box in particular, because I preferred the accessibility from the sides. They tended to be more expensive than the usual one-lid, rear access ones, so I never went to the effort of buying one. Instead, I guess it took being in the right place (Manchester, NH area) at the right time to see a relatively fresh post, and divert course while calling the seller and confirming location and price.

These toolboxes typically call for drilling the truck bed and bolting them in to the side rails via the skinny parts at the sides, but it seems like this one was set up for a “no drill” style clamp mount that latched to the underside of said bed rails.

Absent buying the matching kit, I just stopped by a Tractor Supply (my favorite chain store now after Harbor Freight) and bought these J-hook bolts.  To avoid munging up and denting the bed, I added the fine touch of a strip of heat-shrink tubing and a vacuum line plug to each one before throwing them in.

And so now, without further ado, to conclude this #VantruckSummer….

That’s all! It was a crazy adventure that I really couldn’t have hoped for going any better. Any one of many possible delays could have pushed me into having to reassemble everything as-is and call it quits, or at least forced me to delay everything beyond having the mental tolerance for.

What’s next for vantruck? From a physical appearance perspective, nothing really urgent. I’ll get the bed finish-painted soon, and beyond that, who knows!? My short list include a small amount of bringup on the interior, such as repairing/replacing the crystalline 1980s acrylic cupholder. New seating is on the docket, but it’s expensive and non-urgent (It would cost around $1900 to get two brand new captain’s chairs and a sofa bed). The near-term expenses would probably be a few hundred to get the bed finished.

In total, the restoration to this point has cost me about $1500 out of pocket not counting capital equipment and tools such as #Limewelder, the paint cannon, and some sanding tools – if you count all that it’s more $2000. Still, this is far less than what any “professional” restoration would have cost, especially one which would perform similar levels of craftsmanship for future-proofing (I do emphasize a LOT on future-proofing versus just making it look nice, to be fair!).  I’m not gonna count “labor equivalent” time at all since this is still just a personal project of mine and I can’t expect someone else to do it to the same creative mandates.  The biggest single line item was the paint – which was about 2 gallons total for about $400, and otherwise a lot of small things that add up such as hardware, new-old lighting products, wiring and connectors, and so on.

I’ll probably leave this thing alone for a while to focus on getting back into gear for BattleBots next year ….. there IS a season 5, right guys? Right!?

But the most important part is what y’all were waiting for:

Vantrucks on the Dragon.