The Summer of Ven: Spool Bus Rising

Picture this. You know how the story goes, you get a phone call weeks after an absolutely mind-blowing raging party where you retained zero knowledge of the priori and posteriori events and CONGRATULATIONS! She’s pregnant. Ah, fuck, commitment. How many decades (if not centuries?) of movies, books, records, TV shows, and other forms of male-catered media have intertexualized this classic trope?

See, I have a very quick turnaround time for this feeling, because all I have to do is look out the window the next day and go Ah fuck, commitment. Time to get dressed and return the U-Haul trailer before you get charged for another day. And worst of all, it has to get off the street and who knows how feasible that even is. Wouldn’t it be nice if you thought about the consequences of your actions every once in a while?

Luckily, as the preamble tale would tell you, Spoolbus was purchased running and driving (albeit not stopping), so it was able to get into the yard all on its own and only barely not plowing down the row of hedges that are definitely not mine to run over.

Let’s be upfront about it: This thing is a PILE. In fact, the worst I’ve ever dealt with, and after scraping mold out of Sadvan (as well as the intervening half dozen or so extractions of future project piles for friends) I do believe I have seen some piles. Shown above is just the start of what I have to deal with, mostly miles and miles of redneck coathanger wiring and niche species of fuses bypassed with bullets.

Spoolbus also had an unusual amount of rust on it, in places I haven’t seen before on the Econoline. My reasoning is that because it spent most of its working life in and around the Charleston, SC seacoast area, it’s just as bad as being around winter road salt up north.

But the rust hits differently: as opposed to a northern vehicle which starts rotting out where salt water hits the body/frame and builds up, such as the fenders and wheel wells as well as lower body seams, being around the ocean just causes it everywhere.

The miasma of salt is constantly there, so the less galvanized/coated metals start letting go first. Vantruck exhibited this with the rain gutters being completely nuked and some other portions of the body sheet metal needing patching work, and from its history of hanging around the Pacific Northwest and California beaches, it makes quite a lot of sense. The frame is pristine, of course.

As is the frame and driveline parts of Spoolbus. Then I pull the carpet up and get this bullshit:

I learned early on that this is a favorite place for this generation Ford van to rust out, as water tends to pool here by the doghouse seam – there’s a raised lip for the doghouse to seal against, and any water has to evaporate away. Add in a leaking windshield, or the windshield frame itself having a hole rusted through, plus or minus some sloppy work boots, and this area will never dry. Murdervan also had a transparent floor.

Luckily there are plenty of fixes for this very common issue, and now having deconstructed more than one of these, I’m no longer dreading the future, just disappointed while raking the area with a shopvac to at least get the crumbs out of the carpet.

Back to the wiring, though. LOOK AT THIS BEAUTIFUL WIRING.

I swear this is every r/JustRolledIntoTheShop redneck wiring trope all in one vehicle. You have things stuffed into fuse blocks, fuses made of wrapped up aluminum foil or literal coathanger wire, wires just shoved into each other, wire nuts, vampire clips… this arrangement made Vantruck’s wiring cancer seem like a new-age counseling session.

Honestly, being presented with this was not shocking or rage-inducing in any way. Why? Because I already know I’m not fixing it, I’m replacing it. When it comes time, I’m only going after it with flush cutters and not looking back. That makes it easy to compartmentalize and set aside for later.

So why does this thing have so many random wires? It first and foremost has a lot of aftermarket instrumentation, which I’d like to bring back online more controllably one day. It has (had?!) readouts for exhaust gas temperature, oil and transmission temperature, a tachometer which these vans never came with, and a boost gauge.

As it was a hotshot/delivery vehicle, it makes sense to have these monitors present as the stock diesel E-350 of the era would have come with precisely none of those. I mean, not that any of the gauges were working…

It even continues under the hood, which is where Centurion put most of their aftermarket power feeders. The best part of it is that everything was dragged through holes drilled in the firewall with zero bushings, loom, tape wrap, or anything.

Just wires, poked through 1/4″ holes blasted in with a regular drill that was probably dull (because the metal is still all there, just rearranged on the other side where you don’t have to look at it).

The interior is completely and utterly stripped. I don’t know when this happened, but the seller (and its previous owner before that, whose name is on the title still!) said it was already gutted when they had possession. The few panels that remain seem to be ‘There was an attempt” jobs at retaining some semblance of civility.

This is, again, a mixed blessing. This gives me the most “creative” control for reinstalling an interior for sure. But I DON’T WANT THIS CREATIVE CONTROL. The only thing I can really plan on right now is it’ll get the same rear utility frame I whipped up for vantruck to remount the seat bed. I’d need to figure out a way to correctly trace patterns to construct any new interior panels. This is something that I definitely have not put any firm thought into, but luckily I’ve made enough friends in the automotive sphere that I can likely find an upholstery or interiors person to consult with. I might even start with gutting another trashy conversion van.

Moving around to the back, the step-n-tow bumper was haphazardly welded to the frame and rear cross member through a network of C-channels and L-angle irons. One of those welds was broken, resulting in Ass Sag Syndrome seen above.

Luckily, the trailer hitch below it is a solid (….but still welded) piece. What I’m trying to say is, the entirety of the back of Spoolbus is a single weldment and technically impossible to repair or replace without cutting all of it off.

It’s in good enough shape overall, though, that I think I can just repair the broken weld, therefore relevelling the butt.

You can’t really see the scratches left over in the nameplate, but it says February 1st, 1984. The serial number though is indecypherable with conventional oblique-lighting and contrast adjustment approaches. There might be a better way to pull that put later, but I was more focused on….

“It should need a brake line”

Remember, all van ads are lies. If it says it has a little rust, expect the floor to be missing and bottom panels flapping in the wind. If it says it just needs a fuel pump, replace the tank, pump, lines, filters, and unicorn farter carburetor before trying to start it.

If it says anything about the brakes being bad, prepare for a COMPLETE SHITSHOW when you dive under. Remember, this was sold to me as “It should just need that front brake line redone” well guess what, the front brake lines were fine.

The caliper and pads though? Yikes. I’m starting to picture what happened now. Spoolbus likely went through a last Traumatic Braking Event before the owner/operator(s) decided it was too spent and beat up to repair. Then it was sold locally to the previous 2 owners as a project, whereupon nobody had the time (or lack of humility) like me to actually go through 30 years of fleet wear and tear to work on it.

There’s a possibly the left caliper was seized or sticky anyway, as the right side was ONLY metal on metal. You know, at least still looking like it didn’t reach the sintering temperature of the iron.

The left rotor itself was also cracked on one face, luckily not all the way through. These are rotors that weigh something like 25 pounds each. It definitely tried to stop something very large, for an extended period of time, then sat still at the bottom of the hill. That’s the only way I can see rotors of this magnitude cracking.

Anyways, as I mentioned in van posts past, my requirement is 1. Run good, then 2. Feel good, and only then 3. Look good. Therefore, I barely care if it can go, but I need it to stop. My first challenge was to rebuild the braking system, possibly up to and including the hubs and bearings also. Might as well inspect all of the suspension parts while I’m at it.

Getting a better look now in the daylight once the weekend rolled around. These calipers are strange – they’re from before a generation break in 1985 in which Ford switched to a different mounting system. They’re captured in these somewhat-precision ground right-angle dovetails on each end and kept in place by a key pin. It almost reminded me of a motorcycle or go-kart disc brake caliper.

Check out the little “landing pads” I made for jackstands out of spare workbench OSB – because Spoolbus has to live outside in the grass/dirt area next to the garage, there’s no good way to lift it up without something to distribute the ground pressure. At first I used some spare aluminum bars on hand, but after they bent and I realized I no longer had useful aluminum bars as a result, I decided to resort to Nature’s Carbon Fiber en masse.

The little key thing on the bottom (of each side) slides (hammers, chisels) out towards you. This took a lot of effort to release, so I expect that this caliper was well seized long before the Traumatic Braking Event anyhow.

Yeah, that’s not gonna a simple thing to just rebuild. I found you can get rebuild kits for these calipers that have new pistons and seals, but why?

My conundrum was therefore the following: Just get replacements of the pre-1985 calipers and rotors which seemed to be both equally more pricy, or consider swapping the front suspension out to something more modern. The “Twin I Beam” crossed dinosaur arm suspension was used without much changes all the way up to, uhh, today. Even something post-1985 would at least let me share parts with Vantruck, which was the ideal case.

So before I ordered parts, I decided to take a run down to the local you-yoink-it yards to inspect the underside of post-1992 E350 vans. I found that there was a compatibility break in 2008 with the Super Duty style refresh when the radius bushings changed from longitudinal pointing to more conventional looking swingarm links. Other than that, the fitment differences appeared to largely be hardware size.

It felt awfully plausible to just front suspension swap, so I decided to try taking said front suspension apart. After all, I’d want to learn how to do this anyhow. That’s the upside of having multiples of the same vehicle, you feel less bad turning one into a heap (that you can hopefully put back together…) in the interest of working on them all.

And so I began taking the thing apart. Next post will cover how this went and the final decision about the front brakes!