The Belated Motorama 2023 Recap: Return of the Susquehanna Boxcar

Somehow in the midst of the most unscoped, sprawling big-integration project I’ve ever found myself in, I managed to pop out yet another dumb robot! Last² year for Motorama, I spawned the Susquehanna Boxcar, which was a quick-build 30lb Sadbot using pretty much only on-hand components (I mean…. I allowed myself a trip to the hardware store and some random bolts from McMaster). So, for 2023, as I was seeking to distract myself from constantly wrenching on the ven, I decided to bring the bot back. In terms of actual timeline, this build occurred some time between The Stuffening’s conclusion and The Driveshaftening.

While the original build was conceptually sound and drove alright, the mild-wound brushed 550 motors with the spur gearing ended up being prone to burning out. Even with the RageBridge current limiting set rather low, the windings were fine enough that prolonged pushing (or binding in the drive side) would begin cooking them. By the end of the event and in the rumbles, it could barely move.

The easier way out was to just go brushless. This is a statement that, about 10-something years ago on this very website, was almost an absurdity to hear… but that’s the march of technological progress and Chinese meme manufacturing! I had a large stash of SimonK-flashed AfroESCs left over from those days, as well as a few other random SimonK/BLHeli enabled controllers. Nowadays, the new hotness is AM32 which is very promising so far for a couple of builders, but I don’t own any of that hardware yet. This build of Susquehanna Boxcar will help me draw down my existing stash of parts and equipment even further, so it’ll make sense to take the jump to something more modern later on.

The plan was pretty much the same as the first build. Just four motors with a single open spur gear stage to the wheel. The motors I picked were some NTM Propdrive 2836s from HobbyKing, probably destined originally for some kind of Roll Cake or Colsonbot. I had three of the same motors, so I decided to get an extra few from another builder. Next, to give these motors even more of a leg up on the world, I specified 6 tooth pinions, to be custom-made from cold-drawn “pinion wire” (gear on a stick) to be purchased from SDP-SI.

Yes, within the first half hour, I’d already broken my “No spending money” rule. It’s now… No Spending Money™

The smaller pinions allowed a total reduction of 10:1 to the 60 tooth drive gears. This thing will be quick, but I had no doubt it would drive well.

One of the issues (of many) that plagued Susquehanna Boxcar last time was that the four motors were independent from each other. To do this effectively in a 4WD chassis, each motor really needs a lot of torque and power overhead in case you get tilted up (which WILL happen) by an opponent or engage in a pushing match which tends to load the back set of wheels. The little mild-wound 550s….. did not have this.

In lieu of figuring out how to re-engineer a chain or belt drive onto the thing, I decided to just plop a giant bull gear in the middle. With some geometric massaging, I found that I could fit a 73 tooth gear in between the two wheel gears, offset slightly, while keeping the motor pinions from barely touching it.

Oh, yeah, the other constraint was that I wanted the motors as far inboard, towards the center of the bot, as possible. This was to make them less obvious targets as well as to let me have more volume for electronics and batteries. So, all together, this design path ended up working out quite well.

The construction method will be the exact same as version 1, using literally the same bars of UHMW. This is the generated left frame rail. Like before, I’ll be using a 3D printed template/pattern to spot the holes before drilling them, in lieu of having a milling machine with a readout or doing it High School Charles style with all-manual layout.

The drill gearbox for the Multifunction Poking Implement is mounted identically, but pushed forward a little more. There were two reasons here. One, to give me more space for electronics, as the motors are spread farther apart than before and so the contiguous space at the very back has changed in shape. And two, because I wanted to be able to run a larger sprocket on the poker hub. Having the motor directly underneath limited the sprocket selection significantly.

The poker hub this time uses a #35 sprocket instead of a #25 for greater durability. I wrote off using this #35 sprocket (from my big basket of random sprockets) last year because it was larger than the #25 I ended up going with. But now, with the motor moved, it can fit.

I went ahead and modeled the bull gear that bridges the front and rear drive wheels. It’ll spin on two FR6 type ball bearings and be unceremoniously suspected on a single shoulder bolt with a locknut. I’ll have to see if I can even make the tolerance stackup of manually drilling these holes work with it!

I generated the template that is to be used for the frame rails, and made sure to design it so it’s as hard to look at as possible. There’s no real reason for the many unrelated holes, just an aesthetic choice. If anything, it made the print process longer and made it less rigid.

The template aligns with the UHMW stock using three dowel pins. Two on the bottom side for the parallelism, and one touching the upper corner.

The Makening

The first step is to take apart the old and salvage what I can for the new! It wasn’t that much, sadly. The only things I could really reuse from this chassis is the outer steel frame itself which left the event mostly intact, and the four axle bolts.

Using the template to pilot drill the holes did work well enough, but I still needed to use the Benchmaster, Master of Benches for a counterboring operation to make pockets for the drive motors. I didn’t have a good means of ensuring that a Forstner bit (to make the flat-bottomed hole) started aligned with the pilot hole if I did this on a drill press, so I just sucked it up and spent a few hours counting dial revolutions. Still, this was more of a “close enough” operation, as the motor’s mounting axis is determined more by their countersunk mounting screws. As long as they didn’t touch the side of the pockets…

All the parts are labeled with their orientations because I will definitely mess up making the correct side otherwise!

Going back to construction methods I haven’t really utilized in a bunch of years, really dating back to my pre-machining era. These frame rails were just squared up and clamped together, with the holes laid out by hand.

In a day and age where most people default to 3D printing frames, and it’s common for newbies to think you have to have a 3D printer to get started building, I still think there is value to a frame banged together from UHMW blocks. It’s workable with almost all tools, and is a solid contiguous mass for you to zip things together wherever you want (versus 3D printed hollow infills… reminds me of drilling into drywall trying to mount something at the house)

I expect this mod to go very poorly.

That’s a 35mm class outrunner motor which shares a bolt pattern with the RS-550 sized drill motor. I was going to cram this into the drill gearbox after boring the pinion out to 5mm. Putting something like 3-4x the power of the drill motor through that gearbox is most likely going to make it very angry. My guess is the output stage pins will shear or I’ll start blowing gear teeth.

I went ahead and prepared both of the 3536 motors I had for drill gearboxes. It’s easy to keep making parts in the same sitting once you get rolling and all the tools are already out and set up.

Test fitting the bull gear here. “Shoulder bolt” decayed very quickly into “well, i’m too lazy to remove this cap screw and nut”. I found that I had the tiniest amount of axis position adjustment because the threads on the screw are a very slightly smaller diameter than the hole.

To my utter surprise, the gear mates all worked! Only a small amount of backlash was present and the bull gear didn’t really need any special treatment, like forcing off to one side of the tolerance/slop distance. Now, I used to do 32-pitch gear mates by hand on the drill press back in high school, so if I can’t even manage 24-pitch nowadays that would be quite the blunder.

Moving onto the Multifunction Poking Implement, it’s put together the same as last time: Just a square tube, appropriately drilled through, welded to the sprocket

As I touched upon before, I started with a #35 sprocket this time and turned it down (very painfully – this was a lot of sitting there cranking Tinylathe 0.5mm of feed at a time) to the thickness I needed. Then I just apply some quick blasts with Limewelder using a steel tube as a locating dowel in the center.

Now, for the drill gearbox sprockets, I had to get a bit creative. The smallest #35 sprockets I owned were these 8-toothers… but they already had a bore of 3/8″. The drill gearboxes have a 3/8″-24 threaded output shaft. There’s too little meat on the hubs to bore it out and sleeve it (I’d basically cut the sprocket bit off the hub if I tried boring it out).

The solution: Well, the welder is already out and warmed up. I just filled the hole up with Weld™. It’s like a Direct Edit button, but for real life.

Next, I chucked the sprocket up and treated it like I would any other! Drilling a center hole, then successively larger holes (the weld alloy is harder than whatever this is made of), then finally running the 3/8″-24 tap through it.

That worked amazingly. So that’s pretty much all the mechanical work going into this bot. Conceptually very simple, using techniques I’ve second-natured for years now, and not much to go wrong. Perfect zero-brain-cells-left build for a time I was mostly preoccupied with planning the L.E.W.D.

I even went and purchased a new Harbor Freight Multishovel to complement the slightly beat up (but serviceable) one from last year. All I do to these is remove the handle and stuff the stump into the adapter sleeve that sits in the hub tube. The folding telescoping sleeve thing still works. Unless destroyed, I can transform it back into a Multishovel.

Top and bottom lids for the rear section are once again made from 1/8″ G-10 grade Garolite laminate, a pleasant and multipurpose material. Pleasant, except the part where it slowly consumes your HSS/carbon steel tools from abrasiveness and also leaves little fiberglass splinters everywhere. The top and bottom screws got an upgrade to 3/8″ lag bolts. No particular reason here besides unifying the tools needed to fix this thing.

Between then and now, I grew a reel of TPU filament that was only used a little. I decided to expend more of it making the electronics cave for this thing. It’s just sandwiched in place between the top and bottom plates, then retained on one side by the steel box frame and on the other by the protruding axle bolt heads.

It’s designed to fit a 4S 1.8Ah battery, compared with the 7S flat battery last time. Nothing wrong with that battery per se, but I was using the smaller AfroESCs which weren’t rated for that voltage input. Keeping the voltage lower also kept the bot’s calculated top speed from being comically high (like 30+mph, unrealistic to achieve in the box) and makes blowing everything up much less likely.

The power “switch” and power distribution was kept simple with a single gigantic squid assembly. The big solder joint in the middle brings together four 18 gauge drive motor controller wires, a single XT-60 on 14 gauge for the poker, and an auxiliary JST-RCY (literally “a JST Connector” when left unspecified, by the way… not many people know the actual product line name) for whatever else I want, like gaudy LEDs.

This was not fun to solder together, but I was in no mood to design some kind of bus bar or power distribution terminal block system.

After some more massaging and fineries, here is the Susquehanna Boxcar for 2023! I was highly pleased with how this bot drove, actually. The four SimonK-based drive ESCs were put into reversible mode with non-synchronous PWM (they can both add power, but not regenerate from each other – no fighting through the gears) but idle-throttle braking enabled. That way the bot still stopped quickly when I centered the transmitter stick and didn’t keep coasting.

The Motoramming of 2023

For the Motorama, I was in charge of making the trophies once again using asslaser69. I got creative this time and changed the design to use a lighted base, which we liked and so the organizers commissioned a boatload of them from Amazon. This was an cute little change from the rushed-together laser cut trophies of 2022 which were made because AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH WE DIDN’T DO IT

And so, once again, we deal with the consequences of having me be in charge of something. IYKYK, IYDK,DGI.

I elected to do a “clean trip” this time. Vantruck was obviously not available for the job like it was in 2022. Plus, at this point, I was beginning to cull my random van buying and breakdown related expenses, appraising my resources in preparation for the New Robot Trap House. So, the soulless-but-least-likely-to-explode van it is.

My first (and only) real tournament match was against EVA (stream archive link), which used a pushy configuration for the match. Right around halfway through, I lost a motor on the left side, and later on the mutual pounding also (like I suspected) sheared off the planet gears inside the ol’ crusty drill gearbox that had been brushless-swapped. It was trapped upside-down :(

I was slated for two fights that day, and taking the thing apart to get at the motor and the drill gearbox took longer than I counted on. It turns out the extension cable I made to get to the ESC had pulled out of a connector joint I thought was well-taped, but I had to take the bot apart enough to get to that point to find out. The drill gearbox and motor just needed outright replacement.

You’re only guaranteed 20 minutes turnaround at most of these events, Motorama included, and that can come to haunt you really quickly if the matches ahead of you move fast due to knockouts, or if people forfeit fights. The usual 2-ish hours I was hoping to have turned into only 45 minutes or so. So with my time having come and gone, I decided to just prepare Boxcar for a series of really funny rumbles.

And no Susquehanna Boxcar moment would be complete without a comically sized vegetable hanging off the end of it. Behold, the Papaya of Redemption. As I promised, I headed out to the only Asian grocery within like 50 miles or something and picked up a couple of dumb… uhh, end effectors.

Here’s the stream link for that rumble! It didn’t do that much during the rumble because the Papaya of Redemption almost immediately broke the spare drill gearbox, and then became stuck against the frame.

Once that was very rudely and inconsiderately removed by Phenomenon, I guess it ripped something completely apart inside with the toss from its weapon (maybe turning a stripped gear or two into powder), and I had some vestigial function left on the Multifunctional Poking Implement. Upon which I got promptly stuck sideways on the wall.

I also agreed to a grudge fight afterwards against Big Cookie, which is a bristlebot using the purposefully unbalanced shell to wiggle around on a series of tilted wire brushes. It demonstrates translational movement like behavior under some circumstances, but hits crazy hard because it’s basically entirely weapon.

For this fight, the Danger Potato made a return, because… why not.

I assembled a composite drill motor out of the wreckage of the two I brought, so I can swing the Danger Potato. This was 100 percent not a good idea, just as I suspected. And I think I understand why I usually spend money on robot parts.

By the end, both of the robots were thoroughly painted in taro starch. Here’s the stream archive time link so the erotic taro-grinding action can be witnessed!

I said Cookie hits hard. Look at the frame on this thing. It’s turned completely into a parallelogram!

Well then… that basically retires this Susquehanna Boxcar because I’ll need to remake the frame entirely to get it back in working order. So, if I bring it back again, I might be forced to… you know, spend money on it or something. Maybe I can use one of the leftover P61 gearboxes I have from 30Haul. Sadly, the days of competitive bots being made from power tool particles is mostly done for except the local back yard stuff, like my very own near-and-dear Robot Battles at Dragon Con. There’s just better gearboxes to handle the power of brushless and lithium.

Boxcar basically lives in a pile of its own wreckage in a tote to this day, because immediately after returning from Motorama, I went into Operation IDIocracy rescue mode. I scrapped the parallelogram along with about 700 pounds of other random metal detritus before the big move. Now that the New Robot Trap House is functional, I am certainly considering bringing it back for said Dragon Con this year!

Operation IDIocracy: The Mega-Post; Overview, Conclusion, and Where Are They Now?

That’s it. This post will wrap up and ship what is certainly the longest, most complex, and multifaceted project integration I have done to date.

Vantruck in front of the destination of its first serious road trial: McMaster-Carr

It spanned almost two years with the contributing knowledge dating even longer, and arguably across three prototypes. It was in a domain which I had only superficial knowledge of even three years ago. All I had to run on was my built-up adjacent experience in designing and making mechanical doodads and dingles. All the specific information I needed, I had to go find out, research, or just try and see what happened (some times the latter in spite of the two former). I like to believe that in solving the problem in the most bizarre and contorted way possible, that I also contributed to the knowledge base of the 7 people who care very much about a specific model of terrible van.

This is Operation: IDIocracy, the most adventure I have ever gotten out of succumbing to peer pressure.

So what the hell is going on?!

Many moons ago, my 1986 Centurion Ford E-350 “Cruiser III” vantruck was saddled with an analog emissions laden, low compression, post smog Malaise Era Ford 460 big block gas engine, which I believed to be dying the moment it left Lorain, Ohio. It really began dying some time after utterly failing to contribute to my big move down south, and by 2021 it was getting kind of embarrassing with how much it was pretending to be a 2-stroke, belching blue smoke everywhere and acting like it was running on 6 out of 8 cylinders, which it probably was.

I vowed to never put that engine back in if i had to take it out for any reason.

Vantruck at the July 2023 “Caffeine and Octane”, a monthly car show in the Atlanta area that I endearingly call Cars n’ Cocaine or Automobiles and Adderall

From basically day one, onlookers of all stripes have always asked if it was diesel, bro. That got a 7.3, bro? Put a Powerstroke in it, bro. You should Cummins swap it bro. They were right. Something of its magnitude deserved to sound like a paint shaker full of garden stones and smell like the nascent Pennsylvanian oil industry of the 1800s. The towering and menacing, bulky presence (the van cabs are by nature almost 1 foot taller than the F-series truck cabs) demanded the romanticized simulacrum of the commercial backbone of America behind it.

The fully assembled 7.3 IDI installed and ready for closing up

Because let’s be real: To swap to a diesel engine for this thing is at most a side-grade and most likely a downgrade.

Modern diesel is more expensive, has more to go wrong, and the payback period for commercial use has been slowly growing with emissions burdens leading maintenance expenses. Ancient diesel is slow, smoky, loud, and shaky, and much like me, does not like waking up when it’s cold.

I’m not a hot-shot trucker. I’m not even a warm shot anything. There is no reason for me to do all the work to swap it, and it doesn’t do any work in return. It’s purely for my shits and giggles.

Vantruck at a local weekly night meetup some time in August 2023

Luckily, that is where I excel.

I’ve always liked my little niche interests in these personal endeavors. For instance, only a specific type of individual will build a van-shaped go-kart using a large R/C boat motor connected to a cut-up angle grinder, all to be powered by batteries ripped out of a hybrid Ford Fusion and riding on Harbor Freight pink handcart wheels. And then race it with other people who have built similarly silly conglomerates of industrial detritus.

There’s almost too many things I’ve done which are in that vein to list (many of them on the left sidebar) and now my interests are squarely in “How do I make my van more terrible than it always has been?”

Vantruck being suspiciously domestic and useful, buying appliances for the New Robot Trap House, some time in September 2023. Surprisingly, it didn’t break down.

The initial inspiration for IDIocracy came from buying a distant cousin of Vantruck which featured what I called the Dashboard Turbo, because that was the only place you could sensibly install the turbocharger without too much extra pain.

In short, I found this Banks turbo setup patently unacceptable and wondered if there was a better way, and if not a better way, a funnier way. That’s how IDIocracy was born: Creating a problem for myself and then solving it while avoiding the practical, straightforward solution, all while 5 people who have similar problem watch and take notes.

I put them on the bottom instead. When I started IDIocracy, I kind of set out to accomplish two things.

First was straightforward – explore using two smaller turbos in place of a single larger one up above the engine, using the leftover volume the van chassis had between the frame rails. I wanted to keep the top side of the engine bay as clear as possible for maintenance access (the van chassis is notorious for requiring broken arms and elbows to work on) and for future expansion work like intercooling.

Second, try to design the system to install without a lot of intrusive surgery, which seemed to be the case with the old commercially available turbo kits for the van. All of them featured things like drilling holes in the valve covers, cutting and modifying the glow plug wire harness, and so on. Nick Pisca, the pre-eminent Internet Terrible Diesel Van Expert, has a great writeup on these options (And was one of my principal resources on getting schooled on this platform!). I believed at the time I had identified spots where one could hook into existing ports, covers, and feeds, or build them externally instead.

Vantruck at night somewhere in the industrial crotch of west Atlanta, October 2023

I had some other minor goals I wanted to achieve, mostly focused on cleaning up the extremely tight engine bay of the Ford van chassis. For instance, I wanted to change to a single large battery in lieu of the dual battery OEM diesel setup. I wanted to keep the exterior relatively stock looking, avoiding cutting holes for hood stacks or going bosozoku style and hanging turbos and oil coolers everywhere. That’s a look, but not for me.

A front-end shot showing the single large battery conversion and my custom engine bay wiring harness, really the centerpiece of the project.

I’m pretty satisfied that all of these goals were achieved. There were plenty of moments that I was scared that the project had to be closed up as-is or I had to backtrack and start cutting features. I believe I poured every milligram of my project management skills into this.

I had to play a mini-maxing game of not drawing it out too long while juggling a house buying search. Not having a tight group of wrenchy friends, I could only call for help periodically from my largely married/settled down, busy family man coworkers and friends who were for the most part robot nerds and not “car people”. Having done plenty of other exercises in scope limiting and resource management really helped, because I know that project cars often get hung up in burnout purgatory.

Vantruck being…. somewhere… back in July 2023. I’m actually not sure where, besides it being a QuikTrip stop.

Enough poetry and philosophy! Let’s go on a tour of all of the subsystems. I’ll include relevant links to the build posts if they come up, which is where ALL of the really gory details hide.

The Top

Basically the entire driving motivation for Operation IDIocracy to begin with, the most prominent changes over an aftermarket single turbo setup here is the accessibility for service. All the glow plugs and injectors are readily accessible. If I had to loosen the injector line nuts for a full system prime (which I did for the first start), there’s nothing really in the way any more. A clear visual path exists from here to the hoodline.

The topside integration is pretty visually striking in my opinion with the half-assed Miku Blue painted valve covers on a rusty block, welded intake adapter, and contrasting bright orange charge air ducting.

Yes… some people might know that material as “brake duct hose”. When I started planning this, I was trying to source a flexible reinforced hose that could carry the charge air… basically hot air at slightly more than ambient pressure maybe with a few errant oil drops mixed in. This led me to a substance McMaster-Carr calls “High-Temperature Flexible Duct Hose for Fumes”. Up to 500F and 25 PSI? Sign me up!

“Bro why are you using brake duct hose for boost?”


That was what I call an Inverted Johnson Fitting moment, where I didn’t know that the car part is a derivative of the industrial part. Either way, damn straight I’m using brake ducting for boost. I can see why one wouldn’t want to, because this stuff does “inflate” slightly between the ribs, and anything short of a small train could experience it as turbo lag.

Instrumentation living here include the boost gauges, EGT probes, and coolant temperature aftermarket gauge sensor, all running through the small blue wire loom through an OEM bushing hole, then up under the dashboard.

The PCV valve (or CDR in the case of diesel) usually is pointed right into the intake manifold through a rubber bushing, but I made a mount which turns it around and replaces it with a GM CDR valve, part number CV916, that has an outlet fitting. The CDR valve exits into a hose which joins the left turbo at its compressor inlet.

On the bottom of the valve, the OEM standoff tube (long rotted away for everybody by this point) was replaced by a segment of 7/8″ ID fuel/oil hose and a 1-3/8″ ID Nitrile rubber panel bushing. This isn’t a 1000 PSI seal here, just enough to corral oil vapors.

I put together a small electric solenoid valve assembly that I called the “Dongle of Diesel Distribution”, and mounted it on a raised bracket so it was the highest point in the fuel system. This connects to a button on the dashboard that can open or close the solenoid valve, and it lets me do an air purge of most of the fuel system (needed if I change a filter or service something else) without having to push on a Schrader valve under the engine cave, or twist a knob or something.

Finally, the glow plug controller which usually sits at the back of the intake manifold is relocated gently to a bracket that hangs down a little lower over the transmission. No cutting the wiring is needed, just flipping it around.

The Bottom

The fun part lives right next to the oil filter (on the left) and transmission (on the right). The two turbos are secured with custom downpipes from either manifold as well as hung by their output flanges to tie rod mounts coming from above, made from angle and tube steel.

The Turbos

The turbos I used are nothing special. They’re just a pair of MaXpeedingRods (god, even writing that name makes me cringe) generic T3 turbine, T04E compressor housing eBay specials. 0.63 A/R turbine housing with a 74 trim turbine wheel, and 0.5 A/R compressor housing with a 48 trim wheel. Literally the first result that comes up for eBay Beijing Boosty Bois.

While crunching the numbers during the very earliest stages of the project, I found that according to their nominal specifications, they’d be slightly underworked each handling 1/2 of the engine airflow. Under-rating a mysterious Chinese component is part of the magic of getting them to work, and I can’t say they don’t work.

Longevity might be another issue, of course, but this is where the whole If you break the Harbor Freight wrench, you know you use it enough to warrant a real one adage comes in*. Maybe once I burn through these things through no fault of my own (I lost one due to an oil starvation problem – oops) I’ll replace them with something well-regarded.

The Tsingtao Tranny Twisters were clocked (inlet and outlets rotated) to where I needed them and then a custom wastegate actuator bracket made which kept the wastegate cans very close to the compressor body, to conserve precious van chassis volume.

Each Hong Kong Hair Dryer gets a little itchy blanket to protect against natural arena hazards like standing water – cold water hitting the hot turbine housing will more than likely crack it. This also helps the transmission pan and oil filter not melt (but hey, oil pre-heating system anyone?).

*I have nothing against Harbor Freight. Basically all the tools I buy for myself on purpose are Harbor Freight. This is purely a sentiment I’ve seen expressed on the greater carnet which I think these days is without merit as the vast, vast majority of hand tools are made out of soup can steel in China and just oversold to you in varying degrees by legacy megacorps wielding zombie brands that once meant something. Cr-V just means it’s made of recycled Honda CR-Vs.

The Oiling System

The pair of Shanghai Singing Snails are fitted with AN-4 sized oil fittings, which are a genericized part. I used some COTS AN-4 lines to attach them to the oil feed tap location, originally located at the lower left side of the block (the main oil gallery cross-drill plug). Later, after some thought, I moved the oil feed tap to where the oil pressure sensor usually lives:

The oil pressure sensor gets moved off sideways using a tee fitting. The oil feed lines then attach using a NPT to AN-4 tee fitting.

This approach made the oil feed paths symmetric and prevented one from being forced fed by gravity. I discovered that after power-down, the engine’s oil galleries tended to drain through the left turbo, occasionally causing it to flood on startup and shoot out some smoke.

On the bottom, the return pumps are Facet 40185 fuel pumps being pressed into service for which they weren’t designed. These turbos need sump pumps because of how low they’re mounted – lower than the oil pan level, so they cannot naturally drain.

This is one of the point of complications which is a negative on my design, since it adds parts that can fail (and have done so). I chose these Facet solenoid pumps initially because they seemed to offer enough flow and drew very low power compared to a motorized pump.

However, what I found is that they’re very much designed to pump fuel and not the maple syrup that 15W-40 diesel engine oil becomes in winter. These guys can’t keep up until Vantruck fully warms up, which in winter time, could be 20-30 minutes of idling heating up that 1,000 pound block of cast iron. Before that, if I get throttle happy, the turbos will flood and it will blow smoke.

I plan on respinning the sump pump system to use a motorized pump at some point, which offers so much overhead capacity that they should be able to drain regardless of oil viscosity. It’s almost like people sell those big bronze gear pumps as turbo oil pumps for a reason??

The return oil goes to a bulkhead fitting drilled into the injection pump timing gear cover, which is small and removable to do the deed.

Besides the aforementioned maple syrup issue, this sump pump system has been relatively dependable. Not long after the road tests started, I had one burn out (sorry for spraying everyone behind me) because as it turns out, attaching them to the transmission bell housing which gets as hot as the engine block, then having it pump even hotter oil, isn’t a good choice. They were both replaced as a precaution, and attached to the frame rail nearby.

The Intake

One of my prouder moments on this project was serendipitous. There wasn’t a good place to put an air intake inside the engine bay, as it would either breathe hot air, get in the way of everything on the top side (as I was trying to avoid), or both. While appraising my single battery conversion (from the OEM dual-battery system), I recognized that I could put a canister air filter under the battery tray next to the headlight. The same volume was available next to the radiator overflow bottle on the driver’s side.

As a result, the intakes are well-hidden by the grille but have full access to cold incoming air. No need for hood scoops (though having one would keep the whole mess cooler too), tractor-style body mounted cans, or the underbody intake of the surrogate test van.

A custom 3D printed duct and mount connects each air filter to the body through a cutout, and then another 3D printed piece converts the duct mount into a circular profile to use a COTS intake slinky duct.

From there, each intake slinky duct runs to the turbos. You can’t really tell anything is going on from the outside unless you’re specifically looking!

The Exhaust

It’s my opinion that straight-piped IDI engines sound like garbage, having witnessed this firsthand with Snekvan and Econocrane alike. I used two AP Exhaust 3806 generic round mufflers, 3 inch inlet and outlet, and 3 inch pipe all downstream of the turbos. These things were way bigger than I thought they’d be – not sure why, when the measurements were clearly on RockAuto. But they were bigger in real life!

The exhaust path was very cobbled together because I decided installing my “vertical Corvette side pipes” was out of scope for the time being. Of this system, only the muffiers and rough positioning of the final turndowns is settled. The turn to cross under the frame is roughly where I’d be turning upwards to join the future exhaust stacks. On the other side, the turbo flange is welded to a section of rigid exhaust pipe which is used as a rear support on each side with hangers. Then it goes to a flexible section, then to the mufflers.

I definitely didn’t do something right on this because it has a tendency to rattle under heavy acceleration making me think initially that the driveshaft was whipping or transmission was slipping. Both pipes also traverse fairly close to the transmission mounting crossmember, which is where I think it’s rattling against I think it has to do with the way I rigid-mounted one end of the muffler. Either way, this is a future patch to push.

I’m currently pleased with the sound. The very large mufflers help amplify the throatiness of a large, low-revving V8, but it’s very quiet (on the back side, anyway, not the clack side which needs 5 layers of Dynamat). I’m not out to make a bro exhaust. After driving the prototypes, I wanted this thing to shut up!

The Suspension

I changed much of the front suspension out to ambulance and RV spec parts to accommodate the much heavier engine and other gear. This picture of the shock absorbers and springs actually shows a nice side view of the entire intake piping setup as well:

The springs were changed to Husky Spring RV860HD backed by Monroe 𝐌 𝐀 𝐆 𝐍 𝐔 𝐌 𝐑𝐕 shocks. Note I have no particular brand loyalty, just that these parts were a combination of “Ships from location already in cart” and “heavy duty/towing and increased handling” categories on RockAuto. I know some people use the Moog CC860 as well.

The steering tie rod was also upgraded to a new-design thicker one with dual adjustable end links (the OEM 1986 one for some reason only let you adjust 1 end link?? Were you supposed to just drive with a crooked steering wheel?) and new sway bar links were installed as well. I did not install a steering damper like some people do – I think this comes into play only if you lift it and put bigger wheels on or if for some reason I’m insane enough to do a 4×4 solid front axle swap. Neither of things are impossible, but not. right. now.

I’ll say that despite the additional 250-300 pounds over the front axle, Vantruck rides level and no longer boats around after hitting a bump. That must mean these things worked… right? I’ve been tempted to put a 1/2″ thick biscuit under the springs to raise the front a hair, but I don’t want to mess up the already horrible Ford steering geometry even more.

The Single Battery Swap

The Ford IDI factory setup used a dual Group 65 battery system. This basically took up 109% of the available underhood space in the van chassis, with one battery on the left and one on the right, connected by a massive 1/0 gauge bridge cable that spanned the engine bay. I believe this was a necessity back then when batteries were shit.

F-series owners have switched to a single frame-mounted large-format battery or made a larger battery tray. I’ve found out that the van chassis can indeed fit up to a Group 31 size battery, a humongous thing, if the primary (passenger side) battery tray is removed and replaced with one slid a few inches over.

The battery sits on an elevated COTS Group 27/31 tray which conveniently hides the right side air intake underneath:

I redid the power wiring using 2/0 gauge flexible welding cables all around, with real big copper lugs and brass battery clamps.

It doesn’t get too cold in Georgia, but so far this setup has not given me issues on 30-degree days. Vantruck boots right up, sounds extremely unhappy about it for several minutes, and then mellows out some!

The Wiring Harness

To join a 1991 E4OD powertrain with a 1986 carbureted 460 and hydraulic/vacuum C6 truck, I had to invent a ginormous wire bundle that carried the transmission harness to the control module, which also took several other vehicle feedback sensors that I had to bridge across. This resulted in what I call the L.E.W.D – the Legacy Electrical Wiring Distribution harness. It’s the big blue series of wire looms at the beginning.

It took a few weeks of studying factory wiring diagrams and testing individual circuits before I was brave enough to start cutting things up, knowing how much of a catastrophe it would be if I bungled it.

I defined my own connector numbers and pin/circuit numbers and am slowly formalizing it into a document I can refer to when I forget what the hell I did 6 weeks from now.

The final product is something I take pride in as being “Nearly OEM Flavored” instead of the slapdash wiring found in many project cars and engine swaps. The whole assembly features a few 3D printed TPU body bushings/firewall passthroughs and weatherproof connectors throughout. All this is less to flex (though… *bulges self*) than to make sure even I know what to do if something goes wrong, forget anyone else!

Okay, fine. It’s nicely done up except this. The transmission control module just gets bolted to the lid of the A/C blower motor with a set of 3D printed endcap brackets.

Where’s Vantruck Now?

It currently exists at the New Robot Trap house as the same white elephant it’s always been.

My two white elephants some time in December 2023
(Spool Bus is white underneath too, behind the door jambs)
Third also-white elephant is in the hangar.

So far, as of March 2024, the system has been together for a combined ~2500 miles, basically all of it in and around the metro area. I have yet to gather the courage to sail the high seas, and it hasn’t completed the final commissioning sea trial I expect of all members of my meme fleet: a return to the Tail of the Dragon. This was more influenced than anything by my constantly imminent house purchase during the summer – I definitely did not want to tie up resources in cooking some kind of emergency bodge up in the mountains or a tow home.

Vantruck at the local big mall, because it’s a great idea to drive your portable fusion reactor without working air conditioning when it’s sunny and 95 degrees out in August.

I initially kept things to around 10 PSI when the engine was still breaking in, but have since turned it up to 15 PSI. With the engine having been built with Grade 9 equivalent, 180,000 PSI head bolts and more rigid valve springs, I should either be able to run at this forever reliably or get edgy and bring it closer to 20 PSI. It currently wastegates almost immediately if I open the full can of beans, so there is definitely more to give. I’ve yet to bring it to a chassis dyno. But it feels faster! Now that the New Robot Trap Shop has been slowly coalescing, I’ve been braver with it and more willing to push the limits and go hard. Come Spring, I’ll definitely take it on more adventures.

Known Bugs & Unaddressed Issues

Given the accelerated timeline I pushed this project through, it has some aspects that I’d like to go back to revisit or which I knowingly didn’t do “right”. I’m proud to have at least gotten it to a state where it’s driveable and whippable-outable without second thoughts, though. That wasn’t a guarantee in the closing stages at all!

  • The turbo oil bilge pumps need to be moved to the ACC/RUN circuit. It was easy to hook into the START/RUN power feeder behind the instrument panel, but the downside is that I have to key-on to bilge the turbos out after getting somewhere. This resulted in some failed glow plugs as they were cycled way more often. Putting this circuit on ACC/RUN means I can run the oil pump without powering all of the engine circuitry, and would also facilitate…
  • Timer relay installation for the turbo oil bulge pump. I’d like to fully automate the bilge process, and have bought one of those turbo timer relays but haven’t cracked the dashboard open again. Right now, I just key off, back on, count to 15 seconds or so, then off again.
  • The E4OD brake light switch sense circuit might be incorrectly wired. I’ve been getting conflicted information on what the proper behavior of the E4OD in diesel tune is supposed to do, and I suspect I may have attached the brake light switch sense to the wrong side of the switch. I believe this is messing with how the transmission control module is handling torque converter lockup. That said….
  • The E4OD is really holding this thing back. I knowingly put a transmission that could possibly have over 170,000 miles straight in. It’s more likely that it’s been replaced at some point, but still… high 5 figure mileage on it is plausible and 80s automatic transmissions aren’t known for lasting too long. The shift pattern goes something like 1 – 1.5??? – 2 – 3 – 4????, and the shift point speeds change depending on if it’s cloudy that day or if I had Pizza Rolls for breakfast.
  • The exhaust rattles like crazy at low speeds and high throttle. Yeah, whatever, it was banged together in an afternoon. It seems to smack itself on the transmission crossmember periodically, so launching hard is actually kind of embarrassing as a hollow metallic rattle overcomes everything else. Now that I know where things need to go, I can properly weld up a new one. I’m not going to do it, though, before finishing the dual stacks.
  • The PCV system needs to be reworked. It emits blow-by and oil fume from somewhere near the “tuna can” PCV valve. This isn’t in significant enough quantities to matter so much, but it’s noticeable at night when it looks like it’s smoking from under the hood, through the grille. I’ll have to take this system apart again and see where I might have not sealed something right or connected the arm bone to the spleen bone.
  • I really have to reinstall or remake the cupholder console. I have a bad habit of buying large fountain drinks and then realizing there is literally nowhere to put the cup.

This is probably the last I’ll write about this thing for a minute or two because man am I tired of looking at it. Operation IDIocracy and its adjuncts have occupied my time for much of the last two years give or take. I think for this year I’ll just focus on taking it to events and on trips, and spare with the major changes except the bugfixes previously mentioned. It was a great and fun and some times very stressful adventure that exercised almost all of my current slate of skills. And it’s even cost substantially less than one BattleBots season!

In wrenching on my own finances for the New Robot Trap House, something I’ve been trying to lean more into is enjoying what I have instead of always collecting new things. It’s not like I have run out of things to work on – Spool Bus has never let me down and yet I’ve basically ignored it since 2021, and there’s ALWAYS something going on with Mikuvan. Not to mention the likely dozens of robots I can spawn just from my massive trove of parts alone. I think Vantruck was my last “capital project” for a while yet – something that involves a massive project management and scoping effort, 4 to 5 figures of expenses, and hundreds of me-hours to push through. It’s time to just shit out some beetleweights.