On a bright and breezy day in October 2018, I found myself on a two-lane country road somewhere in the bucolic expanse of the Delmarva Peninsula. Well-trimmed fields being prepared for winter fallow were punctuated by leaning, creosote stained electric poles, and the occasional faded goldenrod crossing sign informed me of places known only to their generational denizens.
“Sassafras?” I snidely remarked at the passing visage at the side of U.S. Highway 301. “Where the fuck is THAT?”
It struck me as a fantastic dupe by the locals, a name you mutter about having pressing business therein when the unfamiliar out-of-towner violates your shallow interest in their affairs, like “Westchester County, New York”. I was a man whom Fate herself had drawn here this day, far out of his raucous urban mechanical sophistication. Never known for being well-traveled, it mystified many as to why I would abscond well before the morning light to a backwater which, well after the first glance, seems to have nothing to offer me.
But, as the trite phrase goes, I was a man on a mission.
I was here to buy a van, dammit.
Okay, enough with the Millennial Thoreau. This is really the story of how I stalked a van on Craigslist for over a year, drove a total of 18 hours to get it, and in the end sold it to a van-mongering stranger. Yet it existed in my life briefly as a sort of practice for well-scoping your automotive projects, which is something I touched on in previous posts.
This story really begins in the fall of 2017 when I first saw the Craigslist post for a 1988 Mitsubishi Van, in Still Pond, Maryland, for $1500. Allegedly, it was parked over 10 years ago with “rod knock”, and of course it Ran When Parked. Sadly, at the time I didn’t save the post since I never counted on this happening. As is par for my course, I offered $600. It was declined.
Every few months throughout the next year, I would periodically see it re-listed for incrementally lower prices. $1200.
Each time, I offered $600 with pickup the same week. Eventually, the seller simply stopped responding to me. But a few weeks after Dragon Con, in Mid-October, it came up again.
At this point, it was worth more to me in the parts I could pull off of it for Mikuvan, looking rather intact from the photos. Or maybe I’ll just try waking it up and seeing how roddy-knocking it actually was. This time, I called the seller so he wouldn’t associate my email again, and got an agreed upon pickup day! There wasn’t even any chance to offer $600 again, because it was now lower.
So a few friends and I rolled out of Boston at around 6 in the morning with Vantruck. We picked up a one-way U-haul car trailer on the way in Delaware and arrived at the agreed upon back yard in Still Pond by around 2 PM.
This thing has obviously been used (as expected) as the guy’s storage unit for those years. It was absolutely crammed full of unrelated car parts, building materials, and household goods. It also clearly suffered from the Delica Windshield Leak I wrote about, because “moldy” didn’t quite start to describe the interior, and the floor carpets especially were basically solid with some unspeakable sediment.
Whatever. Remember, I was here to cart it home no matter what at this point. So we began the 30-minute long process of removing all of the guy’s worldly belongings or whatever from the interior; while doing so I got a chance to appraise more of the interior condition. Downside? I didn’t come with a winch, which in retrospect should be in all van-retrieval crashkits, so the seller and his friend hoisted it up the trailer using a parallel truck and a hill, then gave it a bump with (of course) his rolling wreck of a forklift. I greatly enjoyed this double-truck operation.
And that is the background of this fantastic aesthetic van train. The ordeal was all done by 5pm, but it took us a good 10 hours to get back into Boston due to traveling slower with the trailer and avoiding the hell out of all of the Northeast’s toll roads and bridges for which I’d have lost another 20% of the purchase cost.
Honestly, the cost to acquire was greater than the cost of the van itself. Fuel alone was nearly $350 because 8.5 miles a gallon and the one-way trailer was $150 or so – maybe I should have gotten a round-trip trailer instead, but I just didn’t want to deal with the additional drama of a trailer if I didn’t have to. Add in the tolls I didn’t avoid on the way down, and incidental costs like food too.
Aaaand dropped off in the neglected back corner of the old shop parking lot. I stashed it here since it was most out of the way of the landlords should they visit, and also the most out of the way for parking lot use in general.
I gave it a real wash later on, and once the plant growths and grunge stains were removed, the paint was actually in remarkable shape. Certainly smoother than Mikuvan in many areas, even. The massive black snout plastic was more aged and faded, however. Likely because the work van trim leaves these unpainted.
And that’s how I ended up with a fleet of three.
Well, two and some I suppose, because it didn’t run at this point. We called it a variety of creative names like “shitvan” and “sadvan” and “the gray van”. I figured “shitvan” wasn’t the most public-friendly name, and come on, it wasn’t that shitty in the end! So I more referred to it as sadvan.
It was time to start digging in. Check out this triple van service day! Our goal was to get it at least to being able to start, or try to start, because I was wondering about the condition of the engine. Mikuvan’s engine rebuild saga wasn’t that long ago at this point, so if the engine were in remotely competent shape, I’d pull it to keep as a core. By this time, too, I was also no longer afraid of “rod knock” since I’d seen how to pull the crank and rod bearings. But first, a more thorough mechanical inspection was in order.
One of the niceties of the work van trim is that it basically doesn’t have interior body panels. It had some pieces of MDF which used push rivets to secure to some holes where the interior trim would otherwise be. The benefit to me was that I finally got to see how many of Mikuvan’s interior fittings work. I need to service my power lock actuators eventually, so it was good to see the lock mechanism and how its cables and pushrods route.
In fact, with the initial inspection I did of the sliding door (whose handle wasn’t engaging), I was also able to identify and lube up a cable which on Mikuvan was somewhat rust-seized, causing the sliding door handle to stick at times. I then back-propagated the fix here while I made the little pushrod adjustment which allowed the handle to disengage the latch all the way – it seemed to be just worn plastic parts from usage.
It does make me debate the merits of having multiple of one vehicle, especially with different psychological importance assignments so there is one you don’t feel bad experimenting on.
I did roll around on the ground a little in Maryland, but didn’t identify anything I was too concerned about. It’s below the Salt Belt of the northern states, so there was some Almost Rust but absolutely nothing concerning on the underside.
Look how empty it is! No A/C. No power steering. There is ONE accessory belt:
…and it only handles the alternator and water pump/fan. There’s not an A/C condenser and cruise control gear in front of the radiator. With this barebones honest work truck setup, this thing was perfectly serviceable!
I drained the radiator through its bottom fitting revealing some rusty water, then off-color coolant. At least it wasn’t chunky, and the fins on the inside of the filler cap did not look too corroded. The oil level was off-stick low, so I added most of it back in 10W-40 Walmart-special conventional oil. Hey, if it does have damaged engine bearings, at least it would get a fighting chance.
The exhaust parts had some rust, but nothing like the dissolution typically seen in anything which has spent time in the north. It actually seemed plausible to back out those catalytic converter bolts. The rear interior was fairly beat up from usage as a work van, and the hatch needed a little slamming to close, but otherwise all of the fittings therein were functional.
There was, however, the aftermath of what I warned about in the Delica Windshield Leak post.
I’m sure years of leaking down into the floor plus sloppy work boots is responsible for this, and you can see exactly where water splashing from the front wheels and water pooling from the Delica Windshield Leak took their toll. The driver’s side floor was, shall we say, transparent. This is the extent of the scab picking – I thundered through this area using an aggressive twisted wire brush wheel and steel body hammer. Quite a lot of barely-structural metal was removed. Luckily, the frame rails underneath were sound. I planned to think about what to do here, while we picked through the rest of the thing to get it to run.
The first step is to hook up a battery and see if it does anything. I’m happy to say that all the electrics appear to work fine, though the door open buzzer was initially unhappy. It even still had functional central locking. I don’t even have that any more.
Actually not bad. The idiot lights were all functional upon key-on, but the fuel gauge was stuck on full. Knowing this thing sat for indeterminate periods of time, and having previously experienced fuel system deterioration in vantruck, I knew that the fuel system was no matter what fuckered (that’s a technical term)and would require removal and possible complete replacement.
Cranking tests showed that nothing was making weird noises, and cold compression testing also returned high 90s PSI, which honestly was better than what Mikuvan started with. I inspected the timing belt through the upper cover, and it seemed to also be in decent shape. After a dozen or so cranking sessions, I drained some oil to check for metal particles – there were none.
Honestly, at this point there was nothing indicating to me there was anything wrong at all with the engine. I began to wonder if low oil caused the hydraulic valve lifters to begin ticking, or they began doing so due to being worn out, and the sound being located close to the driver with the engine located in the center was mis-diagnosed as “rod knock”.
Testing the fuel pump terminals showed there was no continuity, so (again, from Vantruck’s front fuel tank adventure) the interiors were probably rusted apart. We spent a few hours pulling the fuel tank out, which was 4 bolts and several hose fittings on the top side
First off, it was heavy. Fearing the worst, we pulled off the filler neck first and drained the contents a little.
It was ＢＲＯＷＮ．This decision was immediately regretted, and the tank carefully removed with the filler hose attached at the base so no more would spill. About 8 gallons of ｂｒｏｗｎ were emptied into two buckets. Not knowing really what to do with this substance, I just let it hang out in the open air behind the building. That, plus the amount we spilled onto the parking lot, made the whole area smell like freshly-finished wood furniture for days.
Turning the tank upside down and shaking it out made clump after clump of ｂｒｏｗｎ fall out of the bottom. The fuel pump and sender unit, as expected, were basically rusty coral reefs. In my assessment, there was absolutely no value in trying to restore this tank. Over the next few days, I made a few calls using car-part.com as a reference to see who could possibly have a whole fuel tank unit from this obscure model of 80s van. A few turned out to be imaginary or were catalog mis-files.
However, in the end, Burlington Auto Parts came through again! I went to them a few years ago for a replacement headlight bezel. This time, I went in with a more determined attitude to try and score all of their Mitsubishi Van leftovers, and besides the fuel tank assembly, I walked out with a free pair of taillight modules! Allegedly, there were more interior parts and other fittings somewhere deep inside a warehouse off-site; maybe I’ll call back some time.
Hey, taillights are basically consumables around here. I’m quite giddy about any duplicate part for Mikuvan if I can get my hands on it!
In the duration of the few days it took to get a confirmed part hit for the fuel tank, I occasionally filled up the fuel injection rail (with fuel fitting removed) with various cleaning-oriented petrochemicals like Seafoam and straight acetone-based brake cleaner and would ‘crank through it’ i.e. have the injectors fire and cycle the solvents through some. My hope was this would tend to break up anything sticky that had formed in the fuel rail and injectors, and make the initial start and running more deterministic.
After we finished the fuel system fitup, it was time to install a more permanent battery, hold the key down and let nature take its course:
As you can see, the test was conclusive. After a few seconds of cranking, the new fuel system primed and off she went.
Again, I couldn’t hear a single thing wrong with it. I let it idle to full warmup (discovering that the temperature gauge wasn’t reading) to purge the cooling circuit, topped off the coolant thereafter, checked the oil level, and closed the lid. Then I ripped the inaugural burnout seen above, to great fanfare. The thunk at the end was the entire collection of tools and equipment left inside meeting me up front all at once.
That was the last time I touched the engine in any way for running condition purposes.
Over the next few days, I would think about what to do with Sadvan while casually improving small aspects of it, such as installing a new light bulb in the 3rd taillight, and replacing the temperature gauge sensor with a spare from Mikuvan (that was the only thing wrong).
I was going to rip everything out that I cared about and put the husk up for adoption or scrapping. Yet here I am again, with a now functional and running endangered species. Do you eat the whale or save the whale? Hell, I even began to consider having a 3rd member of the fleet.
Sadvan did have its shortcomings, such as no power steering or air conditioning, plus (as of then) a classic rat’s nest filled front heater blower, which I would later resolve quickly with pulling off a duct and jamming in a Shopvac nozzle. It also had “no weight over the rear wheels” syndrome where it, like many light trucks, would break the back end free at the slightest provocation. Hey, I actually liked that last one. Without an interior and power accessory drives to pull around, arguably it was even faster than Mikuvan by a fair margin!
Whatever – while thinking of either selling it as a whole to some other enthusiast or hanging on to it for later amusement, I kept moving towards improving the facilities. That’s my problem, really – give me some mediocre device or machine and I have a habit of making little improvements here and there as I think about whether or not I should be doing them in the first place and is it worth my time.
One of them was thoroughly cleaning the interior. Pretty much every plastic surface was covered in unknown organic grunge, and some of the surfaces were obviously moldy. The carpet was all-around disasterous. I invested in a few different auto detailing products like foaming carpet cleaners and interior cleaning solutions, after being declined by 2 local detail stops since they did not (rightfully!) want to handle the potential mold.
I guess they just want to polish BMWs all day long or something. Whatever, 3 of us had this thing fresh and shiny in one evening. The passenger-side floor did get wet regularly from the Delica Windshield Leak, however; in some of my inspections through the area, I tried to hammer on the baseplate here and chip at it from underneath to inspect for weak spots and rust holes. All told, I couldn’t find any here – it doesn’t mean there aren’t any critical rust spots, but that it was not a priority.
The driver’s side Transparent Floor though, was more pressing. If I were to adopt and register it, this wouldn’t even begin to pass the state inspection. I at least wanted to arrest the rust development until one or the other path (sale, repair, part-out) became reasonable. So I approached with my usual formula of rust converter compound followed by top-coating with something disgusting and goopy. I gave the area another wire brushing to expose as much remaining surface rust as I could, then emptied most of the can of rust converter shown onto it.
Once that cured (turns dark brown/black and the clearcoat-ish component dried, I followed up with my preferred Eastwood Goop. This stuff dries to a waxy consistency and is supposed to be easily removable by solvents later should you want to return to the area to do things, like, correctly. If not, well, this substance comprises a substantial portion of Mikuvan’s underside in the same fender areas!
I masked up pretty high since there was a substantial amount of material to cover.
In the midst of several coats layered both top and bottom here. I also painted manually in the edges where the body is made of multiple sheets together. At least for now this part won’t get any worse!
I still had to cover the gaping hole with something, though, and in the same vein as a lot of the work on this thing, I wanted to pilot something for Mikuvan on a clone that I didn’t have as much paranoia digging into.
Because of the water intrusion, the carpet is pretty deteriorated in both of them, and I had wanted to completely de-carpet the front of Mikuvan. However, what would I replace it with? One day while at Home Depot, I noticed they had big reels of thick particle rubber mats – think certain gym floors and playgrounds which are covered in that chunky rubber stuff, usually made of shredded tires and other rubber detritus. It’s like the Spam of rubber, sold in sheet form – if only they sold mystery sausage meat in large sheets and spools!
This stuff was both flexible enough to bend around but cut with (okay, heavy duty) scissors. What if I just made a giant, epic floormat that covered all of the shortcomings? Mikuvan could also use something similar albeit less epic.
So I got a spool of the material and got to work making a pattern to cut it out of. To do this, I cut up the carpet on the driver’s side of Sadvan and traced its general shape onto some wax paper (I later got real tracing paper from an art supply shop).
As you can see, it took a few revisions to get the shape to line up. My plan was to just cover most of the area I gooped over, including the Flintstone Hole.
Each tracing paper implement improved the fitment until I was confident the last tweak could be committed to rubber.
And here it is! This is how it looks just shoved in place without any fastening. Not bad! I was planning to later put a few screws through it to conform to the wheelwell better. This looks plausible enough that at least now my usual favored inspection guys would at least just sigh. Contrary to popular belief, none of my regular fleet have ever had to fib a state inspection in any way, so out of respect I would try to not pass anything too absurd along to them.
At this point, Sadvan had actually been wearing Mikuvan’s license plates for a few days and I had been casually using it for grocery and lunch runs. What!? WHO’S GOING TO KNOW? I saw it as quasi-destructive testing: If there were any engine problems, surely me being able to continue a one-tire fire into 2nd gear and revving everywhere gratuitously would reveal them. But nothing indicated any kind of imminent failure. At around 100 miles, I did an oil change – this time back to my preferred Rotella 5W-40, and once again tried to inspect the drain pan and oil filter for chunks of rod bearings or whatever, and still could find none.
Really, all that my friends and I did after all this was just bleed the brakes since they felt a little soft, but not dysfunctional. Sadvan was otherwise about as good as it ever would have been.
At this point, we made the mental decision to just put it up on Craigslist and Facebook and see what happens. If we were able to turn a profit, we’d split it and put it towards the next van some day. If not, it would join the fleet.
Here was just one of the few glory photos of the sales post. We picked up a set of cheap hubcaps to clean up the slightly rusty gray steel wheel look. Not bad if I do say so myself.
Alas, the wholesome story of Sadvan ends with Jonathan here, from Rhode Island, who is a motoring enthusiast and all-around van bro. So if you ever see a small gray Mitsubishi van running around the vicinity of Providence, Rhode Island, you will know its humble origins. He’s since built it out to be a ski- and motorcycle-hauling machine with lights, racks, knobby tires, the works; and has gone on adventures as far as North Carolina. What’s the automotive equivalent of a Cinderella story? A #RanWhenParkedIKnowWhatIHave story? That doesn’t roll off the tongue very well…