One of the hallmarks of a relationship rebound is that you try to do all the things you couldn’t do before with your new one. That’s definitely true for me, as one of the principal reasons I decided to finally get out of the Boston area was due to the near impossibility of finding van-sized workspace. I got a taste of it last summer when I had Big Chuck’s Auto Body long enough to bang off the Vantruck resto, and it was why I was hell-bent on finding a place like the Robot Trap House that let me have a combined private work and storage space.
So what am I gonna do when going from single rented parking spots to an entire fenced in, forested yard that nobody can look at? Well, if the last post was any indication, collect horrible piles of machinery. I can assure you that Crabmower was far from the only thing I fetched this summer! With that, here’s a welcome to…
The Summer of Ven
Ven is the plural of van. Fight me.
The story begins really years back with the original purchase of Vantruck, which was mostly at the behest of someone I’d say is a “diesel bro” friend. I have a handful of said friends all over the country, who operate all sorts of old diesel trucks, vans, and the like while being software engineers, VR/AR enthusiasts, and roboticists. There’s something about these old, usually all-mechanical, diesel engines attached to overbuilt but maybe not well-built coachworks, that appeals to the technocratic futurist. Maybe being on the forefront of changing and evolving technology constantly makes one seek a foil in the antiquated but static. You can always push an update over the cloud, but once the crankshaft is forged, changing any aspects of its manifestation is really hard. Maybe that’s what draws me to buy “vintage” equipment, tools, and lawn mowers too – the yearly newest and shiniest offering from Jeff Bezos’ magic book of tricks will always be there if I need it, so I’m going to have some fun first and keep something time-tested around.
What I’m saying is, everybody (and I wholly agree, by the way) has been saying that Vantruck absolutely needs an International IDI 7.3 or its successor, the Powerstroke 7.3L diesel. Something of its bulging Kazakhstani child-bearing hips presentation just screams it must rattle like a old tractor and smell like warm coals. There’s no social media peanut gallery about it without a number of people wistfully encouraging swapping out the Malaise-era 460. And again, I completely agree. Alas, work of that degree I considered out of scope for the facilities I had available – I know plenty of people have done parking lot engine swaps, but I just didn’t feel like dealing with it, and at the time didn’t have a cohort of Car People friends who wanted to speed the process along.
Well now, with a place I can stash something for an indeterminate period of time, I decided it was high time to take people up on their word and begin learning the ecosystem. My goal was to find a Ford van of Vantruck’s same generation which was built with the 6.9L and 7.3L IDI engine, implying a year range of 1984 to 1991. While I could have just as easily picked up a later 4th-generation model or an old ambulance or something, I decided to constrain the search for the time being to just those years to get as 1-to-1 of a parts correspondence as possible. Worse case, I figured ,it’ll be a vantruck surrogate.
I say “just as easily”, but the reality is the diesel vans (and F-series trucks) command a premium over the average clapped out yard ornament conversion or work van. They’re popular with the bugout and overlanding crowd because the engine and powertrain is legendary for being nearly indestructible and extremely customizable. I casually checked my usual orbiting van cruft clouds – Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace all up along the east coast BAMA corridor whose transit times and approach paths I know well – for a good three or so months, interleaving with the build of Overhaul and intenstifying as the prospect of an April BattleBots filming became bleaker.
You’d generally find them in two states. First was immaculate or intricately upgraded, commanding prices of $5000 and up. Otherwise, it was sunken into the earth and had hosted several dozen generations of small mammals and local reptiles inside. Since I wasn’t absolutely dying to adopt another project, I was looking for specifically something which was “Ran When Parked” but seemed plausible to unpark rather quickly. Kind of like another sadvan, but much heavier. Two hits I found were snatched up before I even got a response. While my guiding principle of van collecting is “Rare doesn’t mean valuable”, it seems like there are still some local maxima of value I didn’t know about.
Well one day in mid May, I finally happened upon a listing just hours after it was posted.
Richmond is a drive, but nothing I haven’t done before in a day. Having ran as recently as the last winter was a good sign also. I chatted with the seller some to get a few more details, and with consultation from my Diesel Bro Council, decided to go for it the following weekend. I made an offer of $1000 and he accepted. I decided to name this thing Murdervan because it really gave off the ol’ serial killer van vibe, and the seller reminded me a little of Charles Manson. I completely accepted the potential fate of ending up as a trophy in a basement, and just asked my friends to keep an eye out if Vantruck gets listed in an ad next.
And so, here we are on the
morning late afternoon of May 30th. I’m ready to set sail towards Richmond. I was planning on getting out at 8 in the morning and being in the vicinity in time to grab a hotel for the evening, but you how that goes with me. Instead, I left Atlanta around 4PM and took a rest stop nap from around 2am to 8am the next day, going directly to the burbs of Richmond after.
Nestled in a quaint park-like neighborhood was the seller’s smol house and yard, with this thing squarely in the middle. Well, at least it’s van shaped and there are no visible mantraps, and the driveway slope made it a pretty reasonable gravity-assist push load onto a trailer.
Overall, Murdervan checked out as described in the ad. The interior was pretty messy and barren, and the driver’s side floor had a giant rust hole in it, but nothing insurmountable. After all, if I got it “running”, I wasn’t in it for the chassis except as a parts donor. It would crank, but not fire up. My friends said as long as it wasn’t seized, it will run. Guess I’ll find out soon how true that is??!
Whatever the case might be, it was loading time!
I had questions about whether an extended wheelbase van (138″) would even fit on a U-Haul car trailer. The Internet seemed convinced that the deck length of a U-Haul car trailer was 12 foot even – 144″. This was going to be a dice roll, since after accommodating for wheel size, it might barely not fit at all, and would hang over the end. I made a few contingency plans for this, and picked up two sets of chains and chain binders on the way at a Harbor Freight.
I had a local friend meet me there, so we had 3 people to help load. And believe me, we needed all three. These things are almost 6,000 pounds, by far the biggest catch I’ve tried bringing home. The “gravity feed” only got the front wheels onto the trailer, and various arrangements of come-alongs and Ass Force were used to pull the front wheels against the stop.
At that point, the rear wheel centers were still a good two inches or so on the wrong side of the edge. To improve this loading scenario, we deflated the front tires and pulled the come-along further to compress them.
The final alignment – just barely inboard. Those two chain binders were used to smash this thing down as tightly as possible, because utter hilarity would result otherwise!
And so, there you have it, Internet: A 138″ wheelbase Econoline Super Van will, with some effort, fit on a U-Haul auto transport. Do NOT let them see it. This is a 1999 Honda Civic.
I set out from Richmond after lunchtime with everyone to celebrate this feat. This trailer and van setup pulled quite well, I must say. With the combined load being about 8,000 pounds – therefore running around 14,000 gross weight – I could certainly entertain the thought of Murdervan and trailer being a comically large RV trailer, which vantrucks evolved to pull in their natural habitat.
There were a couple of times it tried to wiggle, more from “Top heavy and jiggly van” than weight distribution issues from my observation. Vantruck’s dually rear axle kept it so damped out that I didn’t even feel it the first time. The only sign was “Why is everyone keeping far away….”, looking in the rear view mirror , and seeing the thing sway side to side a few inches at steady state.
This was a riot pulling into rest stops and gas stations (MANY, MANY GAS STATIONS). By my estimate, I was getting high sevens for fuel economy, and this was trying to keep it under 65mph.
I overnighted outside of Greenville, SC in a hotel room since I didn’t get worthwhile sleep the night before (or really the night before that…), so I decided to force power down before something memeful happened on my behalf. I rolled back to the #RobotTrapHouse the next morning. Here began the fun of trying to stuff Murdervan into the yard.
I first tried to reverse up the gentle slope that leads from the street/driveway to the yard entrance. However, even having bypassed/locked out the surge brake that all these trailers come with (which largely prevent reversing, as the brakes will apply), Vantruck was just digging four trenches into the grass. So instead I decided to just head straight in, gathering steam on the street and driveway, and deal with whatever happened next. The whole van train just barely makes the entry turn to avoid the….
Yeah, nope – there was some Dynamic Landscaping involved to get the trailer to not catch on the chain link fence edge. Remember, I don’t own this place (…yet…), so I don’t just get to rip out trees and fences as I feel like to improve van access. The through-paved rear access road comes after the closing.
Unloading Murdervan was super simple. Just point the trailer vaguely where I wanted to land, release the chains and straps, and reinflate the front tires.
After the unload, we spent a good half hour trying to squeeze Vantruck and trailer out, and realized that the van train was simply too long to back out the same way. This should have theoretically worked out, but trees are largely one-way clutches when it comes to driving through them – I almost pulled one of the front fender flares off trying to position the way I came in. And so, we decided to swap trucks – my friend’s crew cab short bed truck was only a little shorter than Vantruck, but more importantly, it had more wheel cut and was not a dually, so it was narrower. Gentle massaging and a few retries later, we had the trailer backed out of the yard.
Lesson learned – don’t do that again, not with vantruck. Only after the fact did we go “Hmm, maybe Mikuvan could have been the yard shuttle…”
And here she sits in the initial dropoff location, featuring a cameo from one of the neighborhood cats. If you put a bowl of food and water out, cat instances will spawn from the cloud. If you present a new yard ornament, cats will sleep on top of it. I call them the “Cats-as-a-service”, and there are four regulars that come around.
I put the batteries on charge and began reading up on debug and bootup procedures. Much of Murdervan’s “build reports”, so to speak, are largely going to feature diving into the IDI ecosystem, checking through things, and making repairs to improve functionality – the same steps that Vantruck went through which I called “deshittification”.
The story only really begins here.
Keep in mind, just because I got one van, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop browsing. I’m continually on the hunt, as even if I don’t get something for myself, someone else might be interested and I can assist with the poor life decision (There will be posts about this, too!). And so, not two weeks after the Murdervan mission, this absolute piece shows up in the Algorithm™:
Okay, back up a little here. This was one of the ads that I didn’t even get to hear back from before someone snatched it up, all the way back in early April. Between then and mid-June, it made its way to south Georgia, only about 3 hours away. The second listing is long gone, and only through some serendipitous use of the Save button by someone else were we even able to find this original listing again.
So why did it show back up? Did someone give up on it because it was just too horrible? Inquiring minds, mostly mine, wanted to know. The photos showed the aftermarket Banks turbocharger system hiding right under the dashboard (seriously? that’s where they decided to put it?) and the updated listing showed some more photos of the interior (stripped out and ratty) and under the hood.
Whatever, diesel or not, this was going to be a good one to add to the collection. Single rear wheel Centurion vantrucks were extremely rare themselves, and not only that, the OEM Centurion bed appeared to be whole and intact. Even Vantruck itself came with damaged fiberglass that had to be repaired (then replaced outright when it was rear-ended). And the 80s stripes!
I had only a few words with the new seller before just offering $1K again and pickup the same weekend. That’s my usual M.O. – if I think something’s worth getting, I’d wait until the middle of the week, throw in a not-that-lowball offer, and offer almost immediate turnaround. Most people who sell such decrepit piles just want them out of the way and don’t want to deal with hagglers and noncommitment. I just offer to make it disappear.
And so on another bright moist day in the middle of June, I’m driving an hour away from I-75 in the southerly extents of Warner Robins, on little two lane state roads. This thing had made it all the way to a placed called Abbeville, Georgia, where you passed the church and gas station on the corner and that was about it.
I have to say, this was the easiest load ever. It drove onto the tow dolly under its own ignition and power thereafter! It just couldn’t stop except for the parking brake. The seller indicated it might need a new master cylinder or repaired brake lines, and indeed, the pedal just goes to the floor. He just ran out of time and energy to deal with it after wanting to make the repairs, and was in the middle of selling a portion of his fourteen other trucks. I was offered a mid 1990s F-350 dumptruck on the spot for $500.
This time I went for the tow dolly, as the extended wheelbase on these things (158″ typically) was just too long for the car trailer, even with shoving. With the rear wheel on the ground, I just had to remove the driveshaft. But it seems like swishing a 4.10:1 gearset around in heavy oil adds immense drag the same, as my fuel economy making it back home was somehow even worse than towing Murdervan.
How often do you see this vantruck on vantruck towing action? HOW OFTEN?
Spoolbus was a very well contained one-day trip. I set out from the Atlanta area before lunchtime and was back around 9:30 PM, taking 3 hours to get there and 4 to get back, moving slower and hitting some traffic on the return.
And it even drove itself into the back yard! I had one hand on the steering wheel and another holding the parking brake release lever open, using my left foot to modulate the parking brake to not run my own garage down.
And suddenly, there were two.
Great, what a start to the summer. At the point in time of this picture, I’d already gotten Murdervan operational, so it was an excellent reference to compare and contrast the differences between the 1991 7.3 IDI and the 1984 6.9 with aftermarket shenanigans.
Based on talking to the sellers and getting vehicle history reports, I know that Murdervan was a company shuttle in western North Carolina doing forestry work for most of its 197,000 miles (!) before being sold to a private buyer in Virginia, who I actually linked up with on Instagram and Facebook. That seller sold it eastward to Richmond, where Not Quite Charles Manson took possession for a while before I ended up with it.
Spoolbus has a murkier history, but had one owner all the way up to 2005 when the last title action was taken around Columbia, SC. Based on talking to the original ad’s lister (not the guy I picked it up from in Georgia), the previous owner to him was the original owner, and it was used to deliver RVs and boats all up and down the southeastern seacoast, mostly centered in Charleston. That explains the hefty amount of rust on the body, completely uncharacteristic of southern vehicles. Vantruck itself was a west coast surfmobile/beach van and it had plenty of cab rust the same, though in both cases, the frames are pretty immaculate.
For the next couple of weeks, you can expect lots of posts about me being a makeshift diesel mechanic! Spoolbus is going to be the “build target” for the next round of improvements and restoration, as I want to return its electric lemony goodness to its former glory and have a single-wheel Centurion example. This is likely going to be a 2021 onwards project, with the rest of 2020 being casual mechanicking to deshittify the absolutely terrific aftermarket wiring and other systems.
I call this the Three Econoline Problem.