By on October 7, 2011

 

(courtesy: Jan London Band)

Hman writes:

Howdy,

Long time reader, first time emailer. (Except for two published Ur-Turns.) Anyway, I’m in a two-piece “rock” band and we are doing a 6-week tour in April and are shopping for a van. I’ve long been a Toyonda/Hondota fan, but alas, they make no full size cargo vans, so I’m forced to go domestic.

A prior band of mine used a Ford E250 to great effect, and I’ll admit I’m partial to the brand. Craigslist is chock full of Econolines of all trim and year. I’d like to solicit the advice of the B&B here at TTAC ASAP! I.E., years to avoid, brands to avoid, etc. All suggestions welcome.

Mr. Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist has $3-4 grand to spend, so lots of miles is expected. All told we will have three people, one drum kit w/trimmings, three vintage Fender tube amps (Hi, Jack!), two guitars, one bigass pedal board, t-shirts, cd’s, vinyl, and clothes.

This will be a coast-to-coast-and-then-some trip, so reliability is paramount.

Sajeev Answers:

Luckily this is a small(ish) band, so just about any full size, 15 passenger (i.e. long wheelbase) van should do the trick. Diesels aren’t necessary and are probably not worth the pricing and servicing premium, even with the amount of miles you’ll be driving. Having spent a lot of time behind an E-150 and a little with a Chevy Express, I’m pretty certain that the Ford is the way to go. The older GM G-series vans are just as good, maybe even better than a similar vintage Ford. But you probably can get a newer van with your budget, and I like the seating position/wheel arch design better in the Econoline versus the Express. This holds true for long periods behind the wheel, something that has been verified from a LeMons racer/HVAC tech that has experienced just about every van on the market.

Honestly, the Ford also looks better inside and out. I know some have spark plug thread problems (mostly from less-than-anal installation when installing new plugs) and transmissions are always a concern on vans of any shape and size. That said, if you find a clean Chevy for the same price as a ratty Ford, go ahead and pull the trigger. It will be condition and service records above all else.

There’s no wrong answer here, except the Freightliner/Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter. While some perform reliably and get good mileage, I’ve heard an overwhelming number of complaints about this vehicle’s difficult diagnostics, expensive parts, lack of parts, and overall poor value compared to the Ford or Chevy.

Steve Answers:

I will disagree here.

The best option for a band is a conversion van. How do I know? Those are the only young folks who ever bother to look at these glorified mastodons.

Get a 1996-1997 Chevy Conversion van with a 350 and low miles. With this generation you get the benefit of OBDII diagnostics along with a powertrain that will easily chug along for 200k+. It’s not a sin to get a small enclosed trailer should your needs expand. But if I were you guys, I would look at a few and see if they can handle all your gear. Some bands do remove the third seat for extra space. But you may want to keep that for other purposes.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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30 Comments on “New or Used: Dude, Where’s My Gig Van?...”


  • avatar

    I’d fine a ratty smaller RV or RV converted van myself. Usually they have lead easy lives with low highway miles on them. Gut the thing and you have yourself a nice vehicle.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    You’re traveling with three vintage Fender tube amps? I assume that’s because you need one to be working at all times.

    *rimshot*

    Could a long-wheelbase minivan towing a small trailer fit the bill?

    Everything you’ve mentioned, with the exception of the drum kit, also fits inside a Town Car. If I had a three-person cross-country gig I would probably just add a trailer to the Townie and still do much better, mileage-wise, than the van.

    Guitars, tube amps, and drums all hate the cold, so it can be an iffy move to have it all behind you in the winter months. On the other hand, taking them from a big van with the heater blasting, to the cold setup, to the hot gig, to the cold outside, to the cold van, to the heat-blasting van… I think that’s how Tom Murphy ages the Historic Les Pauls :)

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    Band van is probably the vehicle that lead the hardest life of them all. I heard on cartalk recently a question about band van. The band’s van was using a lot of oil due to periods of running without oil on a trip. No, they don’t want to fix it or replace it. They just want to know if there’s a way they can take it on a long trip! Cartalk’s advice is just keep putting in heavy grade oil and hope for the best!

  • avatar
    grzydj

    Go as heavy duty as possible. Vans are perpetually abused and if you can get an E-250 instead of a lighter weight 150, get the two fiddy with its stronger axles and suspension components.

    If you’re going to be towing a trailer, make sure your tires are up to snuff and are at least 6 ply. Look for LT before the tire size and you should be good. Most Econoline 250 vans run 16 inch wheels, where there are plenty of heavy duty tires to be had on the cheap. LT265 70 16 is pretty common.

    The idea of an RV is a pretty novel concept that I hadn’t thought of. They’re pretty much ready to go and built for heavy loads and sleeping at least 5.

  • avatar
    pourspeller

    Back in the late ’90s I had a great personal experience with an $800 83 GMC propane conversion van that I used for gigs. Fit my drums and all my bandmates’ crap and was dead reliable. Bonus: propane was always less than half the price of gas.

    When the band broke up, in a fit of pique I decided to drive the beast across Canada. Took me from Vancouver to Newfoundland and was planning on heading to Florida when I crossed the border into the US and people looked at me funny when I asked where I could fill up. Ended up getting propane from home heating suppliers across the northeast and then, after befriending a doorman, lived out of the beast while parked in front of a tony flat on Manhattan’s upper east side.

    Eventually, I drove home, having spent nothing more on the van than propane and a couple of oil changes. I sold it to a friend for the same $800. It still drives just fine.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    (mostly from less-than-anal installation when installing new plugs)’

    Wow, I totally mis-read that sentence. Best laugh I’ve had all week…

  • avatar

    Keep the posts comin’, I need a similar vehicle. In my case it’s not a band, but mountain bikes, scuba gear, and other outdoor toys. The goal is to find a vehicle that is cheap, reliable, seats at least 2, and is easy to stuff with stuff. In my case it won’t be going cross-country, but on 30-120 mile round trips.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      Don’t forget about the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari vans which they made through 2005. You can get the long wheelbase version for more cargo capacity and AWD as well to get further up the trail with the mountain bikes.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      YOU need a Honda Element. :)

    • 0 avatar
      nickeled&dimed

      I’ve seen the first generation 4wd Mazda MPVs used for this very effectively. If you only need to seat 2, the interior space will still be cavernous, plus it’ll get you to that remote singletrack. Watch out for rust.

      Also, AWD Astro/Safari might do, but I don’t have experience with those.

    • 0 avatar

      Jack, I was about to say that an Element would surely be too expensive for a weekend warrior… but I took a quick look at used prices and it could be a contender. Cool.

      Nickled–thanks, that option wasn’t even on my radar.

      • 0 avatar
        strafer

        Just paid yesterday $950 for RF control arm bushing and both rear trailing arms/bushings on my 03 Element so look out for these if you get a used Element with 100k+ miles.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    My school district just auctioned an 80s GMC van for about $900 but I wouldn’t count on getting lucky like that.

  • avatar
    DenverInfidel

    I have to agree with Steve’s conversion van suggestion. Work/cargo vans just get beaten on. I’ve looked around on craigslist for a cheap van to use for road trips and I’m surprised at what you can get for < $5k.

    An older couple with a mid 90's conversion and grown kids is what you're looking for.

  • avatar
    carbiz

    The Astro/Safari would probably suffice. I’m not sure what they are selling for. I know a lot of tradespeople stocked up on them in ’05 when GM announced they were being discontinued. Depending on whether you drive it like you stole it or not, the 4.3 should afford slightly better fuel mileage than the V8 usually found in the bigger vans.
    One thing to keep in mind with respect to the Ford versus GM argument is that Ford cheaps out with their longer vans: they simply weld 20″ to the back overhang so a 10′ sheet of plywood or 2X4 will fit in the back with the doors closed. GM takes the safer (but more expensive route) actually adds the length to the wheelbase. This gives far better tracking when towing and makes heavy loads easier to handle. Look out for the teeter-totter effect in a Ford!

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I agree a conversion van is a good way to go. Get a unit with 4 captain’s chairs and remove the 4th and third row seat or bed and you should have plenty of room for your stuff. The big plus is it will be carpeted, insulated and upholstered every where to protect your equipment and make the trip quieter and more comfortable.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Short bus. Seriously. School districts auction these off regularly. They are heavy-duty chassis, and offer quite a bit more room than a regular van.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    get a small school bus, they’re well maintained and not abused.

    • 0 avatar
      MrWhopee

      But school buses are uncomfortable. They have that stiff, jiggly truck suspension that will surely be painful on a long trip. The band won’t be on their best when they got off the bus after a long trip.

      • 0 avatar
        JREwing

        That’s just par for the course. Aren’t starving bands supposed to rough it out for a while before making it big?

        Besides, yank out the kid seats and you can throw in some beat up sofas, bean bags, and the like. That more than makes up for a bouncy ride.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    There are a lot of ex-airport-to -the-rental-car-lot buses around, if you’re close to an airport anyway. No personal experience though, so I don’t know how long these are kept and used. But the windows all round could be a handicap.

  • avatar

    I’ve toured in Chevy, Ford and Mopar (but my favorite was a rental). Mopars were my other favorite, but that’s because I’d owned a ton of 60s Darts and had a rough idea of how to keep them running. The conversion van is a good idea. I toured in one of those too, but it leaked oil and burning oil filled up the inside pretty fast. Makes for a shitty time on tour.

    Make sure someone sleeps in the van every night because they get broken into. Try to back up against a wall when you park to make it a bit harder. Install locks on the doors so you can lock them with a nice heavy duty Master type of lock. Sure, they can be broken off but it’s like having a club on the steering wheel and encourages the thief to look elsewhere.

    Don’t cover the outside of the van with stickers from other bands. Put them inside the van. It helps keep cops away. Expect to be pulled over by cops anyway. Cover the windows with something neutral so people can sleep.

    If there’s room, bring along someone who’s not in the band. He or she will be who people will be venting with. If you’re lucky, he’ll keep his mouth shut and won’t squawk to the other band members. He’ll also be your roady to sell shirts (shirts are a good way of bringing in gas money). Don’t bring anyone’s girlfriend or boyfriend.

    Oh, and good luck! It’s amazingly fun (most of the time).

    • 0 avatar

      Damn, I should’ve paid more attention. There’s only 3 of you. That helps because you can go smaller which means better gas mileage. I’ve gone 7 in a large van and 6 in a normal full-sized van (the one with the oil leak).

      If you can borrow a minivan you can see if you can fit all your stuff inside. If you go big van then build a loft in the back. That’ll give you a place to sleep and it’ll keep your equipment mostly hidden. It also keeps your stuff from flying forwards if you crash.

      I’m sure you’ve seen other tour vans. It helps to figure out the set-up you want. Don’t be the Exploding Hearts. Try not to push the driver to stay awake when he needs sleep. Someone has to stay up with him to talk and keep him company.

  • avatar
    greaseyknight

    The only advice I have to offer is don’t buy one that has been used in as a work vehicle. The companies usually lease them new and drive them to 100k or so. The only maintenance they get is oil changes(sometimes) or when something breaks enough so it can’t go down the road. And they drive them hard, you ask me how I know this, my dad has been driving one for the last 10 years of so. Best bet is to look for a 12 passenger from a large family looking to go to a 15. Few miles, no hard driving, and lots of cracker crumbs.

  • avatar
    stuart

    I have a ’93, 15-passenger E-350. Bought it used in ’96. Mine has the OHV Windsor 351 (5.8L) engine.

    The original E4OD transmission started burning its fluid around 80K; I nursed it to 120K with regular fluid changes. I bought a replacement from Ford and installed it myself; transmission #2 lasted about a year, and Ford replaced it (including labor). Transmission #3 seems to be holding up O.K. I believe that a properly rebuilt E40D is more durable than the factory transmission.

    The engine oilpan gasket failed around 60K. ‘Twas a huge, gnarly job to replace. The engine sits directly underneath the dashboard, so it’s rather unpleasant to work on.

    Ford omitted exhaust manifold gaskets on the 5.8L engine; I believe this contributed to the failure of some exhaust manifold bolts, leading to some burnt exhaust valves around 170K. I bought another engine from Ford, installed it in the summer of ’10, and I’m still driving it. I fitted exhaust manifold gaskets. Also, the water pump on the 5.8L with the serpentine belt is unreasonably prone to leak.

    If you don’t load the vehicle up, brake linings last forever, but the ride is harsh. It doesn’t ride acceptably until laden. Alas, if it’s full with fifteen passengers (as designed), it becomes top-heavy, and NHTSA says they’re dangerously prone to rollovers ( http://www.nhtsa.gov/CA/10-14-2010 ). I haven’t rolled mine yet.

    If you buy one, make sure you get E-rated tires for it (about $1K for four Michelins at Costco). Normal light-truck tires won’t handle the same load the chassis was designed for. 50 PSI front, 80PSI rear.

    The A/C is powerful when it works. Ford A/C systems are cursed with the dreaded spring-lok(tm) connectors; don’t count on the A/C holding refrigerant very long. The heater isn’t terribly powerful either.

    The seats can be easily detached/re-attached from/to the van floor. They’re heavy and awkward to wrestle, but they can be removed or reinstalled by one muscular person.

    I’ve been warned that the Ford truck catalysts tend to plug suddenly, stranding you on the side of the road. Mine still has the original catalyst, although it probably needs replacing; it just barely passed its last smog test.

    The short wheelbase and long body make for an especially rough ride in the last seat when the van is unladen (but this is easily avoided). It’s also very challenging to back up a trailer with it, as the trailer-ball to axle distance is large.

    The E-350 chassis is a bit taller than the -150/-250 chassis; the view from the driver’s seat is pretty good.

    stuart

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    I’m going to be a contrarian here, but I’ve known a lot of people who’ve put a ton of reliable miles on the full-size Dodge vans. I think the last year they made them was around 2003-2004-ish. I would imagine the resale on them is poor, making it perfect for a vehicle you are going to run into the ground.

  • avatar
    TheShivers

    I’m going to help be contrarian with Wheeljack.

    I toured for years in my first few bands with a Ford Econoline E250 v6 extended (long wheelbase). My guitar player built a sleeping loft in the middle, and we stored all gear in the back in a cage, with the personal effects and merch under the loft. There were 7 of us (it was actually 2 bands touring together, sharing a bassist (me) and a drummer), so it was front seats only and then we all hung out on the loft while driving. It worked amazingly well! The cage didn’t begin until the back of the rear wheel wells, so the loft was BIG. Oksy, so that’s solution #1 – works great.

    For the last 10 years though, I toured with a smaller band (3-piece) AND MY 3 KIDS. This was awesome in the extreme, and still my favorite lifestyle. I could have done that forever. This is how we did it: We bought an RV – a Dodge Sportsman (the 440 V8 engine – best engine ever made, IMO) front-end with a 24-ft chassis/RV buildout. I think the company that built it was called Beaver, out of Oregon. The Beaver was awesome. It slept a gazillion (there’s a sleeping loft above the driver’s seats, for X’s sake!), and having our own kitchen/fridge/shower etc cut down on hotel bills like you wouldn’t believe – nicer too! We had zero mechanical trouble with this setup. We also added a 10-ft cargo trailer for our gear – it made things a lot nicer. Be sure you lock the ball and the trailer doors with everything you can think of. Nothing screams “valuable equipment” like a van with a trailer!

    That Dodge 440 engine was amazing, It was a 1984 engine, 10 years old with 160K miles at the time, and we drove it cross-country at least 14 times. Also, having roof AC is great because it takes the load off the engine. We had a propane genny, and that was great when no hookups were available, and even better if we wanted to play a gig out in the middle of nowhere, which happened a fair amount of the time, on an impromptu basis.

    Based on many stories shared about band vans with my peers (and with mobile mechanics dedicated to servicing band vans – these people actually exist, and are our saviours!) over the years, these two seem to be the best solutions. Stay away from the Chevy’s IMO – they seem to be much more prone to swaybacked suspensions and mechanical troubles. The only issue with the Dodge 440 is that I don’t know when or if Dodge stopped putting them in vans – they may be harder to come by.

    One thing is for sure – the Econoline is far and away the most popular van on the road, so finding parts and service while touring is going to be as easy as it gets, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when you’re stranded in Kansas (and it will be Kansas) in the middle of the night.

    We eventually sold the RV when our label dropped all their rock bands and went all hip-hop(!), and I took a break for a few years. I just bought another E250 (non-extended – I couldn’t find one for sale!). I paid $2,200 for it. It’s a 2003, and I’ve had it checked out by 3 mechanics at this point, while making little non-essential improvements in preparation for another tour. It has 200K miles and runs like a dream – the engine, transmission, brakes, all in perfect shape. It purrs like a cat. And it’s seen very light use, since a flower delivery service was the original and previous owner – the springs have had an easy time of it (until now, mua ha ha). As best I (and my mechanic friends) can tell, this is as good a bet as it gets. these friends say they regularly see 400K + miles on Econolines as long as they’ve been regularly serviced – one guy said he replaced the brakes on one that had 667K miles and was still running strong!

    The end of the story: buy a Ford Econoline or Dodge with a 440 engine, give your van a little love, and you should be good.

    Best of luck, and enjoy your time on the road – it’s a rare pleasure!


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