Operation MIKUVAN; Or, Why I Bought 3000 Pounds of Steel off Craigslist and Went to Pennsylvania to Pick It Up

Hello everyone. I just bought a van.


Okay, strictly speaking, it’s currently a “van shaped object”, since it doesn’t run. So, more accurately, I just bought another potentially never-ending project.

Before I reveal the details of what transpired this past weekend, I’d like to plug one of my MITERS compatriot’s robotic shindig coming up this weekend, Hexacon 2013 at MIT. Organized and hosted by Nancy of Orange Narwhals fame, this event will feature everything that has 6 legs (plus or minus a few) and is robotic (or can pretend to be so). If you’re in the Cambridge or MIT area, come on by. It’s being hosted about 50 feet from my desk nest midden in the International Design Center space.


Anyways, before everyone asks the obvious question of “How the hell did you pick this one, of all possible cars on the planet?”, let me explain the backstory a little. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen these things on the internet:

If you haven’t before, you’re welcome.

Basically what is going on here is a Japanese pokemon “vanning” show. While U.S. van culture appeared to have died out by the time the 1980s rolled around, the movement picked up speed in Japan in the 90s. The digimon vans above are all 90s model Toyota Hiaces, a vehicle not sold in the U.S. for using the driver as a crumple zone. I’m not in tune with the Japanese internet (only some parts of it, and not the automotive bits) enough to know whether or not this still happens, or like most things about Japan that get crossposted to the North American imageboard market, actually stopped 10 years ago and we’re just watching badly dubbed reruns. Whatever the case, even if these kinds of Flamboyantly Gay Decepticon mods have died out, “VIP style” and other less ostentatious mods are still common.

Many of these get pretty ridiculous and they’re often adorned with the images of singers, characters, or the odd politician or two.

Popular features tend to include fake Testarossa style side strakes, side hatches, extended front and rear lips, cowlings and visors, an enormous rear plume, and those weird antenna things sticking out the front that look like curb feelers for rooftops. I’m not even sure you could move 5 feet in that in Boston without being stuck in a pothole.

I was introduced to these things some time in high school while reading then still-embryonic car blogs, and as I tend to do to extraordinary mechanical things, immediately fell in love with them. Sadly, if you are looking for more, I can no longer help you. All of the gallery links I bookmarked in high school have disappeared from the Internet. Short of speaking Japanese yourself, searching for “バニング” on Google Images (it being the katakana syllabic representation of “vanning”) will probably lead to the most returns.

Anyways, the plan for my van is not to completely dress it out. It comes from before the era when CAD programs supported things like fillets and lofts and G3 continuity surfaces. I think it has to retain the somewhat Brutalist, built-on-the-fly aesthetic, maybe like of like melonscooter. As of right now, all of the electrical accessories work but the engine doesn’t start. It cranks, and seems to try really hard, but something is just not going puff. I’m not historically a “car guy”; the only car I’ve driven in the time before nearly-new rentals and shared-used cars was pretty tame and reliable, so I hope to use this to pick up a few skills and learn some new things (some of the gory debugging details are forthcoming). I would like to get it running, even if rudimentary and completely emissions-destroying.

The ultimate plan for it is going full electric.

Yep. I’m doing it. There’s no turning back now.

I’ve always thought that it would be fun to have an electric car, even if they are less practical than a fuel vehicle at the moment. I like EVs. For a long time now, I’ve been sort of halfheartedly wanting to do a conversion, but the price of parts has always been the killer to that ambition. Even for the most basic conversion with lead batteries and DC motors, you probably won’t get away with under $7-8,000 (if you bought all the parts), not including the vehicle, and it will be extremely stripped down. AC and lithium systems will easily cost 5 figures (if you bought all the parts).

Emphasis on if you bought all the parts. I’m lucky to be surrounded by some ne’er-do-well friends who bought out the remains of failed electric car companies or worked at battery companies designing lithium ion battery modules (and abandoned ship before they went full Titanic and now run nuclear reactors). Stationed in the next lab cluster down the hall is an electric vehicle club bored of full size cars and now totally into bicycles and motorcycles, with their attendant spare and unused parts. Downstairs is an auto shop with a 2-post auto lift (and 19″ giga-lathe among other toys). But most importantly, I now have a real parking spot in the basement garage of the apartment complex I currently reside in (and which I pay a fee for it in the rent anyway, so why not?). The alignment of circumstances means #yolo the time is right.

Operation MIKUVAN

This story starts a few weeks ago through a combination of peer pressure and realizing that the stars of electric hoonage were lining up. If you’ve ever had friends offer you narcotics or alcohol, it’s like that except 150kW induction motors, inverters and LiFePO4 battery modules. Don’t make my mistakes, kids.

My derpy Japanese van fandom took a back seat (…) to other interests in the intervening years between high school and now, but I always thought about it from time to time. Living in the extremely dense Cambridge-Boston area means I never need a car (and if I do, all sorts of rental car agencies abound). Hence, any car I buy would have to be worth driving to justify the expense of parking, insurance, fuel, etc. Did I say fuel? My grad student income at the time was also (of course) insufficient to take on any kind of project like this. These days, being a shop instructor pays better – not the most glorious job, of course, given the mixed income priorities of our current economy, but I like the environment and interacting with the students.

So recently, every once in a while, I’d breeze the local Craigslists to see if there were any easy catches nearby. I always passed them up since I couldn’t ever justify throwing down a thousand plus dollars. The last cab-over style vans imported into the U.S. were sold in 1989 and 1990, so anything I could get from the Northeast would probably be more rust than van. I also checked southern cars around Atlanta, ones I could potentially get and then immediately stuff in my mom’s garage in Atlanta. The most common models of these in the U.S. are the Toyota “Van” and the Mitsubishi “Van” and the Nissan “Van” (in that order). Such naming creativity. The Toyotas dominate by sheer numbers, and there is even a fan club dedicated to them.

Three weeks ago, I came upon this listing in the Harrisburg area Craigslist.

Hmm. I’m not even sure what that is, but it looks a little dinged up. The ad specifically said it wasn’t running. It was $1,000, but I figured I could leverage that fact to talk the seller down a bit. This was clearly where all the Equals Zero Designs revenue was gonna go (OH GOD EVERYONE, BUY MORE RAGEBRIDGES PLEASE)

A few back and forths with the seller about what the state the vehicle actually was in, and I became more confident that it could be a worthwhile effort.  A history report on the vehicle checked out clean, and further pictures from the seller showed that the body and interior were in good condition, save for some rust spots on the outer body panels typical of a 20+ year old northern car. I trusted the seller when he said there was basically no frame rust, and that it has just stopped running about a month ago. At the time, it sounded like an easy fix.

Fast forward until Saturday morning, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Team Mikuvan comprised myself, Dane (of Transistor-Man), Adam (of Flux Wonderland), and Cynthia (of Cynaesthetics). The plan was simple: Rent a local U-haul truck and trailer, and drop the thing at the nearest auto parts outlet and try to get it running in the parking lot, then (very carefully) driving it back to Boston. I would mention the best laid plans of mice and men, but these plans, best laid they were not.

This was actually my first time driving a trailer, especially a trailer I couldn’t see. I had to get used to getting into the next lane over to make a turn, and my simulated trucker skills were tested to the max on occasions.

On location and checking out the goods. I basically declare it “Item As Described”. Indeed, there were two rust holes in the bodywork – near the front wheelwell where it intersects with the boarding step by the front door, which seems like water could just have puddled in that area. Other than that, very minor patches on the body, and virtually none on the frame and underbody. For the price, I’m not going to be extremely picky.

Here’s what it looks like from the front.

Dat 5mph bumper.

And a rear quarter shot. The blacked out OEM paint in the front makes the greenhouse look bigger than it is, and it really imparts an 80s LEGO set spaceship kind of appearance. I approve.

Here’s a look inside. These types of vans have the engine compartment directly over the front axle, in a camel hump. The passenger essentially sits over the engine, and the driver over the battery and coolant bucket. To do most mechanical work, you have to drop the engine or get it on a lift. I kind of see why these things never took off. Plus, the later models tended to catch fire because the Japanese had to design bigger engines into them than was thermally prudent in order to keep up with American demands.

The engine did turn over, but did not fire. It burped once or twice to no avail, which was at least a good sign that it wasn’t seized or something. There was basically no coolant, and very little oil.

Scoping out the rest of the interior and checking out the electrical dongles. The seller let us temporarily install one of his batteries in the bay to make sure the lights, sounds, and spinning hubcaps all worked.

With the deal completed, it was time to attach it to the trailer. Because the engine wouldn’t generate horsepower, we resorted to manpower. I sat in the cab and steered (and pulled the e-brake).

We backed it up about 50 feet from the trailer and gave me a running start…

I was legitimately afraid of becoming a Youtube sensation, but it all worked out in the end. I stopped early the first time, since I forgot that this thing doesn’t have front wheels, it just has middle wheels.

Glory. After the physical loading, the seller and I went to a local tag office to transfer the title and for me to pick up a temporary plate (seeing as how at this point we were still sure that we could get it running in a few hours)

If I thought driving a trailer was fun, then driving a trailer with 3000 more pounds on it was even more fun.

We landed in south Harrisburg near a strip of road where there were a dozen garages and car parts places within 2 miles. During this trip, I learned that there were really only 2 ways to drive a trailer – either you are slow and gently moving, turn signals flashing all the time such that people are eyeing you and staying away…. or FUCK YOU, I’M BIGGER. Both seem to be legitimate.

I’m proud to say I only hopped one curb. Here’s the initial stating and plotting of the attack plan. We were going to just follow the “Engine won’t start” debugging chain in the shop manual I bought on eBay the week before.

Starting the intial teardown of the cab. We wanted to expose as much of the engine as possible, just in case the Thingiemadoobob needed to be removed to access the Widgetizing Sensor.


Trying to locate and figure out where various pipes, hoses, and wires go.

Mike, another friend skilled in automotive misadventures, lent me a timing light for the weekend, and we also had a compression checker. The first thing to check was spark and compression, just to verify the fact that yes, in fact the engine is still engine-like. Despite having the timing light, I don’t think we used it correctly, and ended up checking the sparks manually (taking one out at a time), which may not actually have told us anything about how it worked in-place. All 4 cylinders of the engine were verified good for compression.

I bought a new starting battery from Advance Auto Parts. The battery tray was full of random bits of styrofoam for some reason. Another interesting thing to note is that the coolant tank was missing. The seller claimed it worked fine and that he just needed to periodically top off from the radiator.


I also bought all new spark plugs. This is a picture of an old one – it’s pretty gross. The seller mentioned the engine did burn oil, and it looks like it has been doing so for a long time.

The afternoon is slowly turning into evening. We’ve moved onto checking the fuel system now – fuel pump, fuel filter, the injector rail, and finally the injectors themselves.

The trailer itself acted as a makeshift auto lift. The van is hollow enough underneath that we could sit up and work instead of lying on our backs. The first order of business was checking the fuel pump for functionality. We jumped 12 volts directly to it and heard it run (and felt it pressurize the fuel line), then verified that the plug going back to the rest of the vehicle was also giving it 12 volts when trying to start.

Two’s company. One person held the alligator clips and the other checked the fuel line pressure.

We did find a pen in the engine, but sadly it was not the cause of the problems.

The rest of the day before it got dark was spent failing to get at the injectors (it would have required significant disassembly of the throttle body, as far as I could tell), and using carb cleaner directly in the rail to try and clean the input side out. We didn’t try replacing the fuel filter or bypassing it. After it got too dark to work, we called it a day and checked into a local hotel.

Here I am quintuple-parking in the lot. I had Dane box me in using the rental car to ensure that nobody else does – I’ve seen someone else get boxed in by other cars, so that’s why I thought of it. It’s now Sunday morning.

With the U-Haul already late a day, we made the decision to get back to Boston before sundown. I rented local, so for the one-way trip back, we had to swap trailers. This involved some amusing e-brake offloading from the trailer, then subsequently reloading onto a new one. The U-Haul guys were grumpy at first that we were demanding a one-way rental at the end of the month on a walk-in reservation, but they came back out with towing chains and ratchet straps shortly thereafter and helped with loading up.

The same “Come At Me, Bro” run-up technique was used to load the van for the return trip.

All loaded up and ready. We broke convoy since there were two of us who were van bums and two with real jobs they needed to get back in town soon for. The drive back was like any, except slower and with a lot more staring at lane changes.

And tolls. My god, the tolls. I’m fairly certain they were counting axles on the van, too. The Tappan Zee bridge (my usual northeast gateway) suddenly became $25, from $5 for a single car.

Adam rode in the van all the way back.

No, not really, though we did want to troll drive-through fast food places by placing 2 orders from the same vehicle train.

The unloading procedure was only slightly shady. Basically, the entrance to the garage is on a long down-sloped road. The trailer was parked upstream, and I rolled down, whipped a quick turn to point into the garage, then was pushed over the curb cut and coasted most of the way to the spot. A final shove exploited the van’s 25-ish foot turn circle and I nosed into my spot.

Now, getting this thing back out is going to be incredibly adventurous.

My time in the next few days will be spent preparing for the Second Great Go-Kart Race, the finale of 2.00gokart. I want to get in a good debugging day on this thing in the coming week, at least to pinpoint what’s wrong. I really do want to get it running, but because of the overlying goal of going full electrons, I’m not going to spend a great deal of effort trying to get the gas engine going again. If the fix requires an engine drop, it’s staying dropped and going on eBay or Craigslist, and I am going all-in.

The current state of the engine:

  • Fuel pump: Functional
  • Fuel filter: Unknown, but feels fine
  • Fuel injectors: Unknown
  • Spark: All 4 plugs verified independently, not in-place
  • Compression: Yes
  • Timing: Unverified
  • Vacuum: Why the hell do cars have vacuum systems?
  • Crank sensor: Unverified
  • Fuel pressure sensor: Unverified

Most of the people I’ve talked to who know a thing or two seem to point to the injectors, but I’m really wondering if all 4 of them can clog or break at once. It seems like a small, single point of failure which is not mechanical is stopping the engine from working.

I’ve considered patching together a quick slow drive system that bolts into the rear bumper or underframe which will at least help with garage extraction and act as a push-assist. Nothing major, just big wheelchair motors or a spare ETEK motor or two and welded steel. The trip from garage to auto lift is basically 1 mile, but on city streets. I suspect much night-hoofing will be done and orange glowy triangles and emergency blinkers will be involved. I don’t anticipate starting the conversion until summer at the earliest, and am basically anticipating it being a multi-year project much like LOLrioKart, except much bigger and more complicated! Shenanigans shall commence.

So, why is  it called MIKUVAN?

No particular reason.

Just one of my usual random project nicknames.

I’ll probably end up naming it Derpyvan or something. However, this is definitely one form of decoration I would unironically drive.

8 thoughts on “Operation MIKUVAN; Or, Why I Bought 3000 Pounds of Steel off Craigslist and Went to Pennsylvania to Pick It Up”

  1. all of that sounds pretty much familiar :)
    i would checked crank sensor
    if not – then timing marks

    good luck with starting it:)

  2. You forgot the starting fluid! Spray an unhealthy amount into the air intake and crank away. You have spark, so if the timing is anywhere near correct it should start. Often that’s enough to blow out the cobwebs or whatever is keeping it from starting. If it only runs on starter fluid, you can pretty much bet on a fuel problem. If it doesn’t start at all, check timing/spark.

    You can confirm at least some fuel delivery by cranking it a bit, then pulling a spark plug. It should be wet or at least should smell like petrol. IME injectors are pretty robust. What usually goes wrong with them is that the plastic injector end (pintle?) cracks with age and instead of a nice spray you get dribbles of fuel. This can make for hard starting and rough running. But it won’t stop starting fluid from getting things running.

    The other thing to check: look for any air leaks between the air filter and the engine (unmetered air = lean = no start).

  3. you hit two out of three of the fuel+air+spark trio. try pulling the plugs and shooting a little squirt of ether, starting fluid, or even carb cleaner down the holes, put the plugs back in, and start it. if it fires up for a few rotations then you know you have a fuel delivery issue.

  4. 1. There isn’t a vacuum system per-se, not with a dedicated vacuum pump or anything anyways. When the engine is operating however a strong vacuum is created within the manifold when the throttle is at anything but wide open (even then there is slight vacuum due to intake restrictions like the air filter and ducting, but far less useful). This is leveraged to conveniently drive various things like the brake power-assist “booster” and various pneumatic actuators, the most important of which would be the fuel pressure regulator. The fuel pressure regulator is particularly elegantly served by the vacuum system as its duty is to maintain a rail pressure that is constant relative to the manifold pressure, as that’s the environment the injectors are squirting into, simplifying the task of fuel metering for the computer.

    2. You mention fuel rail and injectors, I don’t know about this particular vehicle but fuel injected vehicles from that era generally fall into two categories. The most common of which is a metered air system, where an air flow sensor is on the intake somewhere between the air filter and throttle body. It usually takes the appearance of a big chunky cylinder with a fairly wide electrical connector coming off it accommodating 3-6 wires. Another version would be the “flapper maf” or “afm” which has a cylindrical inlet and outlet but the visible exterior outline of a swept door’s volume. Both of these will be in-line and have inlets and outlets the diameter of the intake plumbing connected to them. If these devices are electrically disconnected, malfunctioning, or connected to an open post-meter intake circuit allowing unmetered air to enter the engine, fueling will be completely wrong and it won’t run.

    The other less common form is what’s known as speed/density, where a pressure sensor is connected to the intake manifold (the post-throttle intake circuit). This sensor tells the computer the instantaneous vacuum level in the manifold, which pretty well reflects the “load” on the engine (open throttle = low vacuum = heavy load, closed throttle = high vacuum = light load, partial throttle = medium vacuum = medium load) this combined with the engine speed (crank sensor) are used as offsets into a lookup table in the computer’s memory to find the injector duration and spark advance for the given load,rpm situation. The manufacturer will have programmed that lookup table as part of the development of the vehicle, its values approximately reflect the “volumetric efficiency” of the engine at the various engine speeds. These are much simpler to make run as they are relatively immune to intake leaks, the engine may idle high due to unregulated air getting past the throttle via some leak but it will still run fine, so it’s a simple matter of verifying the pressure sensor is connected and functioning.

    Both systems rely on the crank sensor for ignition trigger and timing. You’ve already verified the trigger part.

    If the car has an air flow meter of any sort, it’s very likely to be the culprit, based on my experiences. Either directly or indirectly due to significant vacuum leaks admitting unmetered air into the cylinders.

    Hope that helps, good luck!

  5. This might be a dumb question, but you did put gas in it, right?

    Now, for an old pre-OBD EFI setup (but new enough to be closed-loop,) there’s not much to diagnose for a no-start situation.

    It’ll probably have:
    -A mass airflow (MAF) meter on the air intake hose, most likely hot-wire type (which can fail if they’re thermally shocked by cool water vapor.)
    -A manifold absolute pressure meter (MAP.) This is usually directly on the intake manifold, or attached via a vacuum hose and mounted to the firewall.
    The engine would most likely run like crap in ‘limp’ mode if these were faulty.

    -A crank or cam angle sensor (used for timing, so if you’re getting spark, these should be working enough to start the engine.) I would double check the spark with a spark tester, which you can get from the parts store for 90PSI of compression on every cylinder
    …the engine should run (ideally at least.)

  6. These are all good bits of advice and many have also come from people I’ve talked to who have done their own car work. Right now, the thing I need to do is to drag it into the shop where I have more tools and equipment. I have a list of things to run through for when that day comes.

    Unfortunately I can’t just, you know, pick it up and run with it like a Chibikart.

  7. All good advice so far I’m sure. All I can add is – hunt down the long forgotten remote / immobilizer / thingie one of the previous owners installed and KILL IT WITH FIRE. I had a few “I suddenly don’t feel like running right now” episodes with mine before I promptly got rid of it…

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