Welcome to Operation IDIocracy: The Journey to Twin-Turbo Diesel Vantruck


This is it! After a year of hyping myself up with the likes of Murdervan and Spool Bus, and even longer hearing “Yo that thing needs to be diesel” with regards to Vantruck… it’s happening.

I’m never going to do an engine swap

-me, presumably way back when

With Vantruck’s Ford 460 big block increasingly sounding like it’s going to shed pistons into my lap or something, and me having absolutely zero desire to repair it properly (“If it’s coming out, it’s never going back in”… to hell with that damn thing), I figured it was time to get moving! This project will probably end up – by design – another long-running explorative journey like many of my past contraptions, just in a pretty new domain.

That’s been my M.O. for a long time now: Do just a little bit of preparation and research, then just send it and see what happens. If you know just enough to get yourself into trouble but barely not enough to get yourself out, well, that’s where interesting things happen.

Why twin turbo?

Well it’s because one isn’t enough, duh.

You’d think it would be easier to just add one turbocharger to the IDI diesel, which is legendarily slow without some kind of assistance. But that’s because you haven’t worked on the Ford VN chassis. I first learned this was a thing when I dug into Spool Bus and I’M SORRY, WHAT IN THE BRITISH WHITWORTH FUCK

Yeah. To keep commonality with the parts for the F-series trucks, aftermarket turbo kit makers kept the whole thing in the center of the V8, above the transmission. Fair enough. In the trucks, this setup would be against the cab firewall.

In the van, it’s your center passenger, and you can pet it while driving (Don’t do this, it gets hot). The Internet is rife with van addicts (Face it, if you like something this painful, you’re an addict, not an enthusiast) talking about heat shields and how hot it gets the interior lid. The interesting thing is, you can still buy a brad new IDI van turbo kit from Hypermax. If I wanted to spend money, I could make my problems go away pretty fast.

But first of all, that’s not why we’re here on this website. We’re here to watch me do everything wrong on purpose and complain why it doesn’t work, but in the process create something that amounts to a hot take, but with Arduinos and welding.

In messing with these vans over the past year or so (and working on Vantruck for longer), I know there are some unused pockets of space under the cab around the back of the engine. If you invoke the “Every part in a Ford Econoline is 0.25 inch away from every other part” design mantra of the original engineers, I therefore saw an opportunity to put two smaller turbochargers in these spaces instead of one larger one up top, and got curious. In asking around if that was an okay thing to do, I got the general answer “Yeah you just combine their outputs it’s fine”.

Second, I don’t really want to just saddle Vantruck with this setup if I can avoid it. It’s not really possible for me to demux the motivation from the first point, but my There is probably a better way sense is tingling. Spool Bus, despite the thick fiberglass batting on the doghouse cover and the heat shield on the turbine, really does suffer from “Warm Paperwork Pocket Syndrome”. I’ve legitimately left gas station corn dogs in the side pocket of the doghouse before to keep them hot on trips.

So, as long as I don’t have a pressing need to make something that works, I can take my time to entertain both myself and the Internet. Also, “twin turbo” anything just gets the automotive sphere up in a flurry of excitement, about as much as “15 horsepower electric shopping cart”.

Commence: Operation IDIocracy

And so I have my challenge laid out. The high-level mission is to get myself a turbodiesel Vantruck using the IDI engine family – both for period-correctness and for their general longevity and durability. Also, hehe funny snail noises.

However, if I can explore some new directions for the van nation, so much the better. If the “Two small turbos instead of one big one” approach is successful, it means a lot of engine hole space gets cleared up, which benefits serviceability (legendarily impossible otherwise) and airflow for cooling. Or, the available upstairs space will make increasing performance like adding intercooling easier.

The mission brief is therefore:

  • Explore twin low-mounted turbochargers for the 6.9/7.3 IDI vans using the space between the engine and transmission and frame rails
  • Design for “minimal invasiveness” installation. Most of the van turbo kits require surgery, like drilling holes in valve covers and valley pan gaskets, cutting this and moving that, etc. I think I’ve identified areas where I can improve on tapping into existing oil feeds/return spots, bolt holes, and so on.
  • Performance increase goals are going to be limited to “Be reasonable on a modern highway”. While twin turbos is always a way to get the BIGGER AIR for bigger gainz, I’m going to see how far I can take the OEM injection pump volume. Vantruck will never Fast, nor do I intend on towing an entire hotel, but it needs to do better than the now fuel-injected 460. Someone else can make a drag racing van.

The biggest takeaway here is that I have no idea what I’m doing and it’s funnier because of that. Gotta remember, all of my experience is not in the Car Universe. In fact, some of the hardest and most infuriating parts of this to date have been figuring out what Car People named a specific part that I otherwise know on McMaster-Carr as something else. Or vice versa i.e. I found a part on McMaster or Misumi by narrowing specifications and dimensions, spend good American-made money on it, and someone just goes “Oh yeah, that’s a Size 6 Inverted Johnson Fitting and you can buy it on eBay for $4.99″ and I’m just sitting here going nowhere on the packaging does this part say Johnson anything.

Operation IDIocracy will span 4-ish phases:

  1. Experiment on an existing diesel van component placements, routings, and escape paths. Ideally this van will be the transplant core as well.
  2. Take everything out and rebuild/send out as needed. I’ll probably do something similarly scoped to the Mikuvan Engine Rebuild Fiasco , and not go totally hard but enough to replace wear parts and things that leak, as well as put in some “Stage 1” bulletproofing mods.
  3. The most uncharted phase for me – removing the 460 and C6 transmission from Vantruck and preparing the wiring, fuel system, and suspension for the IDI. Then shoving everything in! The Internet leads me to believe that this part isn’t difficult, just very heavy.
  4. Taking care of loose ends and making sure things actually work well. I’d like to have a whole suite of diesel instrumentation that isn’t just round generic gauges bolted onto places. This is also where it will finally get dual exhaust stacks!

Speaking of the Inverted Johnson Fitting, there is a hidden agenda that will be thematic to this experiment, and if you know me, you know what it is: I’m going to purposefully buy the sketchiest Chinesium possible and see what happens. In exploring this realm, I got immensely curious if those $150 Chinese Choo-Choos are actually worth anything, and I’m eager to find out. Same for other scary cheap generic Chinese performance parts – the hell is it actually made of and will it Do The Thing?

As of this post, I’ve really only kind of gotten through #1. I anticipate being able to get to 2 and half of 3 (the “removing the 460” bit) by the time Motorama comes around. While I have a nominal goal of being able to van up to Motorama, this is not a standing requirement. Chances are it’ll be ongoing and I’ll keep picking at stuff as I figure out ways to improve it!

So in a way, consider this a new phase of the website. I’m sick of robots, drones are my work so I’m also sick of drones, and I have space now so no need to keep the projects small like scooters and go-karts. It’s time to embrace the ven.

Hey! What happened to Overhaul!?

Yeah, where I said “I’m only really through #1 in the list” I meant that Overhaul 3 and BattleBots 2021 really took up most of the year. I have all the build photos, videos, and documents per usual.

The thing is, I haven’t really been feeling the sport for a good few years at this point, because it’s not where I’d prefer it be to keep my interest. BattleBots as of late has felt more like just a money drain (Wow, I didn’t know I could keep up with a 5-figure-per-year hobby) for relatively little return; just more of the same patterns I see at other events, with Bigger Money.

Yes, spinners are (have been) ruining the sport and burning people out. There is no changing this view, and I’m not sorry. I have plenty of ways to explode my money, trust me. This is just my way of saying the vans are a better return on my investment in terms of energy spent versus amusement, instead of spinning a piece of steel real quick.

So, Overhaul 3 exists, and we went to BattleBots 2021. I can say I was highly satisfied with the bot’s performance this time around, as a lot of the things I was out to rectify from OH2 were demonstrated in the box. There will be interesting merchandise as well.

Can’t really say I want more than that! The build reports will happen when they happen. This is more interesting to me for the time being.

Anyhow, we move onto…

Surrogate Airframe Testing: Meet Simpvan

Ever since I regretted everything about selling Murdervan last September, I’ve been regularly skulking the Facenet for another IDI van. This is a pretty narrow search box; while the IDI series made it all the way to 1994, technically spanning a Ford van body generation, I focused on the 3rd generation which Vantruck is, since I wanted (without further expertise and insider knowledge) as 1:1 representation as I could get.

As I’ve said before, these things command a premium over the gas engine models because of their reputation with apocalypse people. So I passed on several nice or clean ones ($$$$) and watched a few others escape due to distance; I wasn’t hurting THAT much to have more yard occupancy rates. The right combination of “Not running and don’t want to deal with it” and “Eh, close enough” had to come up.

One day in March, it did:

Okay, not only is the price great, but even more importantly it was only 20 minutes away. I mean, that’s literally worth a few hundred dollars in trailer rental and fuel anyway, not to mention spending 10 odd hours on the road each way!

Simpvan was the first meme mission I took Spool Bus on. So I’ve officially hit Tier 3 Memery here: A meme, retrieved by one of my memes, is now retrieving a meme itself.

Why is it named Simpvan? Well, the seller is an attractive tattooed young lady with a penchant for making embalmed animal part art and knife juggling. Consider this a one-time upfront payment in lieu of the Onlyfans subscription. Also, something about a down payment for a more useful car (The hell do I know about that?)

I made a critical mistake when trying to pull this thing back into the yard: I slowed down.

This was still the end of winter, really, and I hadn’t done a good job (read: a job at all) keeping the side year clear of leaves. With Spool Bus being light in the back and two wheel drive, it got stuck slipping on leaves pretty much instantly.

We dismantled the train, splattering vans everywhere on the street, and got my friend with his 4×4 Silverado to do the yard orbital insertion.

And here it is, resting wherever we glided it to.

Simpvan is a 1985 model E250 short body with the 6.9 liter IDI (the 7.3 liter occurred in 1988). It’s surprisingly low miles, and the interior is actually in great shape and every fitting and knob/button work, except the front blower motor which is worn out.

And…… there wasn’t anything wrong with it.

In my posts about Murdervan and Spool Bus, I noted that the IDI family of engines has a few “Marble sitting on top of a mountain” variables where if you let maintenance slide, they become a lot to handle quickly. Ventilating fuel lines requiring the mechanical fuel pump to re-prime the injection lines every time it sits for a while. Corroded or broken battery cables and lugs which reduce the very fast cranking speed needed to build compression. Dysfunctional glow plugs or controllers.

Simpvan had a mild combo of all three of those – the fuel lines aerating was probably the worst, as it would actually dribble diesel from the injector fittings. The battery terminals were “bodged” to say the least, so they couldn’t have been too healthy.

I had to remedy those battery terminals by cleaning them up and re-squashing them to make good contact again. I also inspected the bottom of the engine block where the grounding lugs attach, and cleaned those up. After that, it was just like 3 minutes of accumulated cranking to prime the fuel lines, and off we went.

And that was it, really. This was mid to late March now, and we’ve just gotten word that BattleBots was prepping the 2021 season. So I gradually transitioned off to getting Overhaul’s affairs in order. I had 1.0 robots and some spares, but the goal was to generate 2.0 full working bots.

Simpvan, meanwhile, existed as A Thing (Hurray, Spool Bus has a friend in the pile corner again!). What I did do was use it as an excuse to practice some of the surgeries that I would have to do.

I used “Well I should get straight front panels for it” as an excuse to dive into releasing the radiator center support which would need to be removed to extract the engine. It also let me see where things like the A/C condenser connect, as well as some year variations I’ll need to account for. I found out where all the hidden screws are for removing the fender and other parts (Hint: Some lie under the windshield wiper cowling and up behind the rolled wheelwell edge… Good luck and pray they’re not rusted shut)

The replacement panels came from a 1990 van that I found in one of the local you-yoink-it yards. I keep an occasional eye on these listings since I can always use more interior parts or body trim pieces specific to the ven. I of course also practiced more surgery on the junkyard van, like physically removing the A/C condenser, lines, and radiator, as shown here.

I’ve never taken those front quarter panels off Vantruck before, and in doing so for Simpvan, I found a few places that might need attention Vantruck when I get to it. Namely, the drains for the windshield cowling area were completely blocked, and accumulated dirt and leaves was starting to rust out the area. I suspect Vantruck has the same issue.

There was one shortcoming with Simpvan that made me keep my finger on the Craigslist button after BattleBots was over. It still has the C6 transmission, the same one as Vantruck. While this is fine and dandy (and desirable to some people, as the C6 is all mechanical and also legendary for being serviceable with a rock), I was interested in holding out for a later model year and the E4OD transmission, which would let me ditch the Gear Vendors appendage. The E4OD also has a locking torque converter and a better overdrive ratio than a Gear Vendors box. The 1988-1991 model years would also have the 7.3 liter variant, which has its own yearly improvements as well

Adding to the Household: Meet Snekvan

Soooooooo we know how this story ends.

After BattleBots, I got right back to my prowling, and found a perfect vandidate a few hours away in Kentucky.

Hard to argue againt a $700 starting price, explicit statements about IT DOESN’T RUN, and looking like it’s been sitting in the open forever. I jumped on this almost immediately after confirming that it does have the E4OD with the seller.

Off we go! I picked Vantruck for this 800-mile combined mission, despite [Angry 460 sounds] because I don’t think I can deal with Spool Bus for that long, given that none of the interior fittings are working. Besides, it’ll be a good (maybe?) final mission and sendoff for the 460. Was I going to make it back over the Cumberland Mountains pulling another 5500 pounds behind me? Who knows!?

10/10, item as described. This thing was propped up on jackstands when I got there, and the seller was trying to replace the front right wheel (flat, and dismounted from the wheel bead seat) with the spare tire (not any better, honestly, but at least it was round).

This thing was absolutely roached. Allegedly prior to this guy stashing it, it was a farm truck for a horse ranch for a while before being stashed under a tree for many years.

And it shows! The interior was absolutely covered in dirt, hay particles, junk, and proooobably manure. The underside was entirely caked in an unknown filth made of diesel, motor oil, and probably more manure.

At least that meant the frame wasn’t rusty.

If I thought nothing in Spool Bus worked, even less things worked in this. The ignition switch was broken off inside. Random wires ended in the middle of the cab. The bodies of dozens, if not hundreds of wasps filled the dashboard crevices.

It was perfect.

And, it kept spawning snake skins as I inspected everywhere. These were not small snake skins, there were several of them, and I kept wondering if I was going to imminently find the snake.

In celebration of this, Snekvan was named.

I ended up having to help out the seller beat and lever the front passenger side wheel off. The lug nuts were seized, and the wheel itself was “attached” to the brake rotor hub and the force of dropping the van onto the ground was needed to break that free – pull the jackstands, lift the jack all the way up, crank the steering wheel all the way to the left, twist the handle, and run.

We spent a good hour and a half on this, fending off live and very angry wasps, which were living in the fenders, using brake cleaner spray. For my troubles, I got $100 off the list price. Fair enough for some menial shop labor by two stooges!

The loadout was relatively painless, as the apartment driveway sloped downwards. It was largely a push and gravity load, and I used Vantruck’s everyday-carry pull-along tool to seat it onto the tow dolly.

I slowly tugged it to the nearest gas station where I also whipped out the EDC chains and chain binders. No way I was going to trust the tired and frayed looking wheel straps with this “1999 Mazda Miata”.

Furthermore, I bought and “installed” a can of Slime for each rear tire. They were fairly extensively dry-rotted, so I figure I’d buy myself a little bit of insurance in case they started letting go. Would tire goo have done anything against a tread separation or sidewall explosion? Probably not, but it made me feel better.

Over 7 hours of taking it easy later, we’re back in the zone. Besides constantly sounding like it was about to explode, the trip was uneventful. There were numerous areas where I went “Hmm, this is going to hurt coming back the other way”. Hurt it did, but I suppose a Ford 460 will run like garbage forever, if any of the plumber and landscaping vans around here are to be believed by their sound.

The next morning, I finally got to take a detailed look at what the hell I just bought again.

Yeah, this thing is completely bodged in every way. I have no idea what anyone was trying to accomplish, but I had to tape off numerous bare connections in the battery trays and wrap up disintegrating insulation. It looked like at one point it had a large power inverter in the back, because an 8 gauge 3-conductor power cord ran all the way from this driver’s side battery bay along the frame rail. That was no more, though, along with seemingly a lot of the other wiring. No headlights at all, no running lights, no horn, wipers, or much else.

I spent most of the day doing “The usual tricks” to fire it up, but the wiring was too far gone and it was barely responding to ether. At the end of the day, with the aid of some friends, we shoved it up the driveway using Spool Bus as a pusher and my Random Yard Tire strapped to its front as a force transmission medium. This one was going to need some more extensive surgery and digging over the course of the week.

I ended up completely bypassing and replacing the existing heavy-gauge battery cables. Because I didn’t have a single run of 2/0 cable, I doubled up some of this old 2 AWG audio cable I had. Good enough for now, and better smaller cable with clean connections than a large cable with burnt out ends. I have a little collection of battery terminals, so I rigged some new ones on also.

There was some… unique attachment methods involved. To clean up the existing starter cable end, I separated the strands and hacked at it with a stainless steel wire brush. That was actually able to scrape off most of the oxidation, leaving me some shiny copper to clamp down.

Because the ignition switch was destroyed, I rigged up a start button. The blue switch interlocks the injection pump fuel shutoff solenoid, which has to be powered to allow fuel to charge the high pressure side.

After much ado, it seems like the problem was just bad wiring and “Everything inside the engine is covered in goo”. Eventually, I got it to light off and behave.

That start on video was one of the last ones the starter it came with managed to pull off. It burnt out the day after as I was re-priming the fuel system trying to boot it up again!

Once I got it running and warmed up, I could start checking out other systems. Power steering? Leaks from every orifice, seal, hose connection, and fitting. Vacuum pump? Maybe. Brakes? What are brakes?

I did make sure that the transmission had all 4 gears and that it shifted quickly with no slippage. So it seems like the transmission is in decent, rebuildable shape, which was a positive.

What was a problem though was the cooling system. There was a bunch of congealed oil goop in the radiator, in the overflow tank, and everywhere. This thing has clearly run (and sat) a long time with a leaking oil cooler:

The IDI oil cooler is this pipe bomb looking thing on the drive’s side under the exhaust manifold. It’s more a of a time bomb, though – it’s just two header blocks shoved onto a tube bundle with 2 O-rings to keep your high-pressure oil from mixing with low-pressure coolant. Guess what wins as soon as the O-rings age and crack?

The manifestation of this is oil appearing in the coolant when you pull the radiator cap, but with no other accompanying signs of head gasket failure. Coolant doesn’t appear in the oil since that circuit operates at a lower pressure.

And for Snekvan, this appears to have been happening for years. I’ve never dove into this repair before since Simpvan and Spool Bus are not affected…. yet. But now’s the chance to go on an oily fun adventure.

Next up on Operation: IDIocracy, I’ll basically be following Nick Pisca’s directions on doing this service as a few choice components arrive.

Oh, and before anybody asks…

This is the family photo. Bite me.

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Operation IDIocracy: The Journey to Twin-Turbo Diesel Vantruck”

  1. When you first started turning wrenches on the Mitsubishi, I knew that this is where it would inevitably end up. And yet you’ve gone even further. I salute you!

  2. “So in a way, consider this a new phase of the website. […] It’s time to embrace the ven.”

    To be fair, they were always what I came here for, even back when they were mere electric carts – so I guess it’s xmas come early for me… :)

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