Enter The Summer of Ven: Booting Up Murdervan and Digging Into the IDI 7.3L Diesel

Here it is, the last post I laid out some time in September before giving up on my “web van” for several months. I might be the only person I know who not only has terrible piles of vehicles in disrepair in his yard, but also terrible piles of websites in disrepair on his hosting account. I have yet to repair e0designs.com, and at this point I’m thinking of just incorporating it here as a “Store” page like way back in the halcyon days of 2011 or something. It’s not like I’m going to take off into full time consulting again any time soon.

So a preface before I dive in – the theme of my past couple of post-resurrection posts has been “I’ve been told by enough people that they have found instances where I fixed or took apart or modified some random contraption valuable that I should continue writing my site”. And this is totally true, both for you and me (as I seem to periodically require reminding). I’ve conversely stumbled upon instances just this year alone where I found that somebody else has deep dove into a contraption I just bought and wrote entire websites about it.

Relatively rarely do I follow someone else’s work so closely because I tend to do offbeat things as soon as I get an understanding of what’s going on. But I’d be way underselling the community contribution to Murdervan and Spool Bus alike if I didn’t give a shoutout to IDI Online, written by Nick Pisca. This guy vans. Like he’s taken his ven up to the Arctic Circle, while the only Circle I trust any of mine to get to is a Circle-K, and only then under duress.

After the “Oh shit, now I actually have to go get it” moment with Murdervan, I spent a long time reading just about every post on his site. I’m not out to modify anything right away, but I found it important to learn the ecosystem and get a big picture idea of what goes into one of these highway-worthy tractors. Also important was a group of friends who have owned, or currently own, older Ferd diesel trucks who gave me leader links and tips on a lot of resources and aftermarket parts such as Accurate Diesel and IDI Performance.

Social media, again, is nice and all for the Now, but I think this level of generational collaboration is not something it’s good at. I’m now taking care of these two abominations after first asking my friends where the distributor and ignition coil is located by accident (….oh, right). At some point, somebody might be crawling the expanses of the Internet for a weird problem with their tractor-van, and they’ll happen on this site, and the knowledge will live on. By no means am I a diesel mechanic, but after the next few posts I might be able to convince someone else!

So here we go! It’s the end of May, and I’ve woken up after a fever dream where I swore I bought a van, but it can’t possibly be real becau…

Oh GOD what have I done

Obviously the first mission was to get the thing running well, then I’ll start working on all the little bugs and generally making facility improvements. My philosophy of ven generally prioritizes Running Good, then Feeling Good, then finally Looking Good. That means after it’s able to run, drive, and at least pretend to stop, then I get to fixing all the annoying broken interior gauges and functions and whatnot.

Let’s get started. First off, it does crank, but it felt quite strained and slow for the two nearly-new size 65 batteries that Not Charles Manson threw in. I also noticed the two batteries were at different voltages. This suggested to me a grounding or charging issue that was throwing them off balance between each other, so I first began digging.

Well, that was simple. The auxiliary battery (on the driver’s side) looks like it’s had its ground cable sucked into the power steering pump.

I pulled the whole mess out and yeowch. You can see where it got pulled out of the ground lug (silver stub of wire on the right).  This obviously is going to need a total rework, but at least the first mystery is solved.

For starters (hee), I just linked the two batteries together using my largest jumper cables, and put them on charge overnight so they have a chance to equalize.

The way I have come to understand the IDI engine family is that they are generally extremely reliable, but there are several weaknesses that are just endemic to being an old all-mechanical diesel engine which, if you don’t pay attention and let maintenance slide after a while (or after it’s been through 8 owners)  can be troublesome to get to a good stable state again.

  • The fuel system is all mechanical, with a camshaft-driven diaphragm-style lift pump that slurps from the fuel tank (18 feet behind you)
  • The fuel delivery is all mechanical, with a Stanadyne DB2 rotary distributor (AHA, IT DOES HAVE A DISTRIBUTOR! Checkmate, friends) type high pressure injection pump
  • The fuel injectors are pressure-pulse actuated from the high-pressure injection pump. That means the pump punches the steel fuel line with a few thousand PSI, enough to pop the injector on the other side open for just a little bit, then it springs closed again. The strength of punch determines how much fuel is injected and subsequently how much motion you get.

What this implies is that if there is air anywhere in the system, it will cause numerous issues and you will be cranking and cranking forever to try and push through it. And of course there’s 17 miles of rubber hoses comprising the fuel feed and return lines, which leak as they age and harden and cause the system to lose prime.  In this case, the…

  • Fuel pump has to be working overtime to fill the injection pump back up
  • The injection pump has to prime itself and push air out of the injection side
  • Any trapped air bubbles in the fuel lines themselves act as cushions for the injection pressure and may cause the injection pulse to be dissipated and no injection to take place
  • And all this implies you’re holding down the starter forever
  • Because the starter has to generate a high engine speed to get the compression temperature and run the fuel and injection pump, electrical gremlins such as a weak/old battery and corroded grounds then come into play.

The starter sounds like it does a lot of work in this system, and you’ll find a lot of guides and how-to posts on forums basically telling you to crank through it which can take several cycles of 30 seconds on, a few minutes off. There’s also arcane procedures on how to bleed air out of the system, such as gently unscrewing the injector fittings, as well as pushing a little Schrader valve on the fuel filter mount. A lot of the aftermarket support for these engines seem to replace or upgrade some of these fuel delivery subsystems, and after experiencing Murdervan I definitely understand why. Old crispy rubber and corroded battery terminals are just things that happen, and they impact this engine family a lot due to its design.

Anyways, after a few hours of tinkering and consulting friends while running the batteries down again,  I elected to cheat and use some ether.

Now, you’re not supposed to ether a diesel engine at all for a multitude of Car Guy Advice reasons I won’t get too much into. What I was told is the primary concern is ether hitting hot glow plugs  and ruining your day (as well as the glow plugs), or damaging the piston rings due to the sudden uncontrolled combustion. These engines also feature pre-injection chambers (“precups”) which can be cracked by said combustion.

I’ll be honest, a lot of the advice on this front sounds like it’s preventing someone from just emptying an entire can of starting fluid at a time like a fidgety lawn mower. Yes, I can see that ending poorly.

Either way, I pressed a little bit and of course, there is recommended leeway if you had to ether a diesel: Use very small amounts at a time, and be cranking through it the whole time. The idea being you’re just feeding the engine air that is just a bit spicier than normal, helping it kick off, and no more. The glow plug circuit on Murdervan was also completely dead, so there was at least no risk of backfiring or blowing them up.

So here goes nothing. I carefully aimed the starting fluid can at the black hole, floored the throttle pedal, and gave it about a half second flick…

Jeez this thing is loud. Also, the vape cloud which slowly swallowed my entire block (You’re welcome, neighbors) was because of the sheer amount of fuel that I deposited in the exhaust from many unsuccessful starts. After it cooked off, it seemed to be a lot better. The initially very unsteady idle gradually settled out after (presumably) the system fully primed itself and all the injectors were air-free. Well, things are superficially working now!

I was therefore able to verify that it does indeed turn, go, and stop. Very well, in fact. I couldn’t get up to a useful speed in the yard without risking expanding my yard into another yard, but all of the motions were gone through.

Oh, and a quick aside: I feel like the 7.3 IDI is more serviceable in the van than the 460 big block. I can plausible reach my forearm into the gap between the exhaust manifold and engine cave seam! No spark plugs or wires or smog lines! There’s also not much going on up top since there’s no carburetor (The injection pump is up front).

After the thing warmed up A HALF HOUR LATER (I was warned that warming up these things is just heating up a 1,100 pound chunk of cast iron) I was able to get a few restarts in without any hesitation. Based on these conditions, my friends and I surmised that it was a fine and functional 7.3L IDI tractor engine, but likely just has old and aerating fuel fittings. Cold starts after sitting a while might be painful, but it should be trouble free.

So now I can move onto the next stage of things, which is making it less shitty. Vantruck went through a similar cycle: less shitty first, more gooder later.

I continued my focus on the starting-centric components because as one of my friends put it, “These engines take 1.21 gigawatts to start but will then run until the sun burns out” or something similar. I had some 2/0-sized battery cables (Good gracious) on order at the time to repair the destroyed battery ground, so in the mean time, let’s tinker with the glow plug circuit.

Pictured above is the only semiconductor in this entire van, and it doesn’t even matter. There is ONE technology in it. Just one.

It’s the glow plug controller, and it looks too new to be OEM – likely a recent reproduction, as I was told the original ones were electromechanical (i.e. relays, bimetallic strips, analog timers…). Either way, it’s dead. I pried the bottom off to access the circuit board, and there’s a burnt out MOSFET on it which I assume threw the big relay.

This glow plug controller appears to just be a timer for the most part – when you key ON (but not START), it throws the glow plug contactor until the current falls to a certain level, indicating the glow plugs have reached final temprature.

The large squiggly metal bus bar on the controller module is a current sensing resistor, and there is an amplifier chip on this board that reads it. It’ll then shut off the “Wait to start” light, and hopefully you’ll actually start the engine. As far as I can discern, it takes the second key-on as a sign to cycle the glow plug contactor every few seconds (to assist in the initial cold start and keep the pre-chamber warm).

A new one costs around $100-150. I decided to wait on buying a new complete unit for now, since I don’t even know if the plugs themselves were working or if they were burnt out, and I otherwise know your only job is to carefully touch the battery to a few little cartridge heaters. Come on. Even I can do that.

The glow plugs themselves are just that, little cartridge heaters that get red hot and then get fuel sprayed on them inside the cylinders. I tested the glow plugs by jumping a starting battery directly to the contactor and reading the current draw with my DC clamp meter. The circuit only pulled about 80 amps, which is far too low according to the specification for Motorcraft (Ferd OEM) glow plugs, which is 0.3 ohms per. That ought to give me an inrush draw of 300 amps assuming the batteries are solid. Whatever, I’m out to make improvements, so I ordered a set of DieselRX glow plugs from Lord Bezos.

See, in the pickup trucks and tractors, you can just look down at them from above by opening the hood. Here, in the Econolines, you are basically working blind in a space you can’t even fit your head into, much less tools of adequate leverage at helpful angles. To get to these, I had to outfit my lonest 1/4″-drive ratchet with a short 2 inch extension and universal joint, then a 3/8″ deep-well socket on the end. Most of them are more readily reached from the backside (inside the cab) after removing the air cleaner and some other odds and ends.

The front two are better reached from the front under the hood, but if you have an air conditioning compressor it’ll be in the way next to the engine-mounted fuel filter bracket so you can’t reach behind it – Murdervan does not have air conditioning, but Spool Bus did.

Yes, this frontmost on the driver’s side is particularly dumb to reach. So find a manlet with small arms to reach up from the driver’s seat.

I was told that if they are damaged, they could be difficult to remove because the tips tend to deform. In the worst case, they could break off inside the chamber, then you’re kind of boned. Tactics include gentle wiggling back and forth to either squeeze carbon build-up off the tip or to slowly forge it back into shape with the help of penetrating oil.

Luckily, all eight extricated fine, except one which required mild coercion. Also, the passenger-side front plug was cross-threaded, so somebody’s been in here before and just sent it.

Before I put the new ones back in, I thoroughly brake cleaner’d the area around the socket as they tend to get filthy, and then gave each plug thread some copper anti-seize grease

Current test time! With the circuit fully wired up, I was going to keep an eye on the inrush current and final settling current after 10 seconds. The “Pliers of Oh Crap” are there just in case, to cut the main battery feeder line.

The current began at around 280 amps and quickly settled to a steady state of 100. I think we’re successful here #ThatAintGoingAnywhere.

With glow plugs now active, Murdervan could achieve a cold start (well, “Cold” meaning 60 something degrees in the early summer morning) right around 10 seconds of huffing and puffing, after I manually connect the alligator clip for 10 seconds and let go. While not brand-new great, friends surmised now there was nothing wrong except an aerating fuel fitting somewhere, which is one of those things you can drag your feet on if you’re patient and pack a spare starter.

With that all said and done, I crammed everything back in, hung the alligator clips out of the doghouse, ripped the inaugural burnout in the street, and took it around the block.

The marks are still there as of this writing in 2021.

First impressions: This thing is slow. I was warned that the IDI, descended from the finest American tractors, is legendarily slow. I had no idea that Mikuvan could handily take this thing in a race. Once third gear in the C6 transmission is done and the engine’s now pretty much redlining, you’re going a healthy…. 60 or so. 65?

After the around-the-block run, I decided to, you know, put license plates on it before taking it any further. It wears the disguise as Vantruck quite well, because who is going to tell one crusty white Ford work van from another without reading the VIN off the door?

First fuel-up probably in a long time showed that the fuel gauge was functional and did read reasonably accurate. I then took it on the usual “Maiden Voyage of Collecting Your Own Parts”.

I will say that it’s rather empowering to have a vehicle that is practically indestructible and will be sold to sentient cockroaches to use as a sentient-cockroach-church bus after Trump [This joke is now outdated, but pretend it’s June] fires off all of our nukes at the same time for the 4th of July.

The upside of blazing down the interstate (… at 55mph?) is I got everything actually warmed up. When I say “warmed up” idling in the yard, I mean the temperature gauge just barely creaks off “C”. But after my roughly 35 mile parts-collecting, curb-jumping, burnout-doing adventure, it’s nice to see the temperature gauge right where it should be.

Besides little annoyances, then, it seems like Murdervan is in good running order now. There’s a favorite railroad crossing jump of mine several miles away that I decided to use as a “Shake It Off” test to see if anything was particularly loose or about to fall off. As nothing was left behind in the road, it’s time to continue on the quest of “less-shittification”.

One of the first operations? Replacing the damaged battery ground cable. By now, my 2/0 replacement cable had arrived. I decided to route it a little more sensibly, up close to the front radiator support and toward the front quarter panel. I made sure to clean up the old ground lug hole with a wire brush, then sealed this bolted connection with a good quantity of silicone dielectric grease.

While I was underneath, I gave the same treatment to the right-side (undamaged) ground lug, to make the connection more secure.

The new auxiliary battery’s ground cable snakes downwards right in front of the radiator support and makes the jump across away from any adventurous power steering belts.

In a “I already have my tools out” fix the same night, I reattached the parking brake assembly which had been limply hanging, causing the parking brake to not be useful.

I’m a evangelical parking brake user, as I grew up and learned to drive while living in a house on a steep hill, and the Trap House itself has a upward sloping driveway. So my instinct is parking brake every time, and I might have been the cause of a one or two seized parking brakes before from driving other people’s ambulatory piles who have never otherwise used the parking brake (heathens) and I mashed all the rusted and grimy parts into each other instantly.

Seems like some previous meathead stripped one of the mounting holes, so I drilled the hole out (under the dashboard, above the release pull here) and used some left over Vantruck giant 1/4″ thread-forming screws to secure the bracket.

The next day, I remembered that I removed the bumper from Vantruck after it got hit for the 197th time in March. The bumper itself wasn’t damaged except for curling on one corner, so I decided the best course of action was to mount it to Murdevan (directly, this time, without extension brackets!) and start hitting it with a 15 pound sledgehammer.

That’s straight enough. It’s as straight as the rest of the van, and I think the mild kinks and dents left blend in with the rest of the doomdriving aesthetic.

Honestly, there’s not too much to report left on Murdervan after this. I dove into the dashboard one more time to repair some annoying electrical faults, so stay tuned for that!