By on December 18, 2012

The last five years certainly have not been kind to Institutions throughout the world, especially in these United States. Whether they be people, places, commodities, companies, lifestyles or leisure activities, nothing seems to be immune to the force that is presently driving things along.

The automobile, and the whole infrastructure supporting it is experiencing a paradigm shift that has wrought some serious casualty: the bankruptcy and subsequent “bailout” and reorganization of GM and Chrysler (including all of the so-called “streamlining” of brand, product, and support network preceding these coups de grace), probably the most noteworthy of all of it—although there have been many other noteworthy events and proceedings, to be sure.

How about the construction of “tinker-proof” vehicles, complimenting the attitude of the mainstream car buying public that seems to have little interest in doing so. There is much more to be said about all of this, and indeed, I intend to do so in the foreseeable future.

Well, the future is now, and I can think of no better subject than the impending demise of the Ford Econoline nameplate—the 2013 model year being the swan song for the tried-and-true body-on-frame stalwart.

The reasons for this move seems to be twofold: ostensibly both a market and marketing-based decision. I can understand that the replacement unibody design is cheaper to produce, but what about those buyers who require more durability than such a design can offer? The part that’s really a puzzlement, though, is why kill the nameplate?

Considering that the economy here in the U.S.—and we’re talking that of the mainstream middle class—is in a world of hurt, it’s apparent that deporting oneself in an economical fashion is now considered to be a thing of virtue. Wouldn’t that place a product with an appropriately sympathetic name in a pretty solid position?

But corporations do move rather slowly, especially regarding such important changes. With the economic prosperity that existed before the onset of “hard reset”, dropping the “E” prefix from their efficient motorized boxes might have made more sense. At any rate, what they have done, they have done; and now we have decades of memories to reflect on. I’m going to bore you with a couple of mine, and I hope you can do the same for me, and all of the “Memoirs” readers.

I’ve climbed into countless examples of the E-van, for the purpose of performing maintenance, but inevitably, and really unavoidably, the experience proved to be insightful as to the owner’s personality—in ways that a typical passenger car will never be able to.

This is probably because people very rarely choose a van solely for transportation—even if it IS their sole means of motorized transport. Vans generally are work vehicles, to one degree or another; and the nature of the work my E-van customers did was always readily apparent by the interior appointments and general gear stash found within. Whether gardener, handyman, construction worker, telephone lineman, locksmith—or a litany of other professions (some even not considered blue-collar, like mountaineer, for instance)—it wasn’t hard to tell who did what.

Probably the most colorful professional use of an E-van I’ve personally experienced has got to be by that of one Mike Watt: electric bassist and bandleader known for his seminal work in the post-punk trio “The Minutemen”, and more recently, touring bassist with Iggy Pop’s reformed “Stooges”.

I initially got to know “Watt” through conversations before and after club gigs he was playing in and around the Los Angeles area, at the beginning of the Millennium. It wasn’t too long until he enlisted my services to prep his early-nineties extended-box E-250 for an upcoming “Hellride”: usually a whirlwind summer tour of the U.S. and Canada featuring much wheeling and many one or two-night stands on what could be loosely called the “Indie Club Circuit”. He’d cram his trio and accompanying gear on in, and off they’d go.

Watt was still “Jamming Econo”—a term coined and adopted by the Minutemen, back in the day, defined as living and operating on-the-cheap—for these tours; so the goal was for me to do just what was necessary to get him and his crew du jour there and back reliably and safely.

Not necessarily an easy thing to do when “The Boat”—an endearing term for the van, based on his background nautical—was nearing the 250K mark, and showing signs of structural fatigue. Nevertheless, we got through a couple more “Hellrides” before he retired that boat in favor of a later model E-unit.

No doubt, this change was a somewhat difficult one, as there was such a collection of tour memorabilia intrinsically tied to, and installed (in some cases, in a rather well-integrated fashion) all over the interior as to make it a sort of Rolling Indie Rock Shrine. The dashboard was a shrine in its own right, brimming with an eclectic, if not downright bizarre assortment of knick-knacks of all stripes—very few of them secured by anything, save for the usual and customary gravity and friction!

It made road tests interesting, to say the least; trying to balance the force required for me to be able to properly assess The Boat’s condition, without displacing all of that shrine-ness and permanently upsetting indie-rock’s Karmactic World in the process. Quite a responsibility!

You can actually see in-vehicle footage of Watt piloting that very same Boat (may it now rest in peace) around the streets of his hometown San Pedro, in the documentary “We Jam Econo—The Story of The Minutemen”. I highly recommend it.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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61 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: The end of the (Econo) Line – On Life Without the Venerable Van...”


  • avatar
    mikeg216

    The whole Internet is up in arms about the passing of this van! The one ton extended and cutaway will remain indefinitely. The contractor, up fitter rv companies and ambulance up fitters plus the box truck companies and the church group/migrant labor transport/Amish work crew contingent will buy nothing else. The hell else are you supposed to use to transport a large Amish work crew +their kids +tool+a 6k trailer

  • avatar
    mikeg216

    With? None of these new vans, sprinter or Ford, can haul AND tow.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      The Sprinter is rated for 5000 lbs of towing capacity (Transit is as of yet unknown). How much do most people really need to tow? A 6000 lb trailer is awfully big, I sure don’t see many LWB Econolines towing a massive trailer (not to say some people don’t use it for that).

      • 0 avatar
        jimf42

        6000 is not enough for an enclosed trailer and race car and associated parts. Even a 20-24 ft trailer and small race car pushes this limit.

      • 0 avatar
        mikeg216

        Here in ohio, where we have Amish instead of Mexican work crews, they cannot drive as it is dark sided debil work. So they must be brought up from farm country every morning with all their gear. On any north bound freeway any day but Sunday you can’t count them as they head into the greater cleveland area for work.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        Yes, Sprinter is not so good for towing a race car. But I suspect that’s a fairly small niche.

      • 0 avatar
        Brian P

        But even today, most of the people who haul a race vehicle in an enormous trailer, are doing the towing with a pickup truck … not an E-series van. If you’re shoving all your stuff into the huge trailer, you don’t need it to be in the van, and the seating in an extended-cab pickup is more comfortable than in a van.

        I’m involved with motorcycle roadracing, and another common setup is to stuff the bike IN the van and have either no trailer or only a small one. I daresay that a T-series medium-roof or high-roof diesel will be better for this than any E-series could be, due to it being easier to get the bike in through the back doors – and the high roof opens up the possibility of creating some shelves or what-not above the bike for additional storage space.

        I haven’t seen many people use a Sprinter for this application, but mostly because they’re too expensive.

        Even outside of roadracing, I don’t often see an E-series towing a trailer. Same situation … if you’re going to have a trailer, you might as well shove everything in the trailer and not have it in the tow vehicle, so the tow vehicle doesn’t need to be a van.

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        Thanks Brian P for talking about what happens in the real world.

        Nobody tows anything of actual weight with a van.

        MXers back in the day would stuff the bike in them, but once you got important enough, you had at least a p/u with a big trailer that a van couldn’t handle.

    • 0 avatar
      west-coaster

      I think the advantage of a van is that for the majority of the time that you’re not towing a trailer (which for most people is going to be most of the time), you have enclosed, secure space for large things, like a motorcycle or whatever.

      According to Ford’s website, the E250 and E350 are both rated to tow 7400 lbs “when properly equipped” (which I assume means the tow package, electric trailer brake controller, etc.). I’m guessing they’ll have to get the Transit to at least match that.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    “Tinker proof vehicles?” What vehicles are you referring to? People are modifying Hemi powered Chrysler vehicles and Gm LS powered vehicles and racing them every day, and the number of aftermarket parts for them grows by the day.

    • 0 avatar
      west-coaster

      I’m going to guess that he was referring to the average Joe being able to perform his own diagnosis and repairs.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      You’re referring to something I consider well beyond “tinkering”. With modern developments in CAD, many cool things are possible when it comes to modifying current vehicles–and some might consider this “tinkering”–but, it’s really on a different level than old-school hobbyist kind of stuff, isn’t it?

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        It’s on a ‘different level’ but so is anything else that we do from EFI to CFD to CAD/CAM.

        Old farts can’t deal and that’s their problem. If you are willing to keep learning, you’ll be able to keep up. Otherwise, they can enjoy the speed tales of their pathetic 409s and “muscle cars”.

      • 0 avatar
        Moparman426W

        I don’t consider it on a different level, like the old saying goes “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Mechanics just don’t want people to know that they can do their own work. I remember back in the 80′s when they were trying to tell everyone that the days of working on your own vehicle were over.

      • 0 avatar
        Power6

        Give me fuel injection and fault codes, Carbs and vacuum advance and all that are way too complex.

  • avatar
    celebrity208

    I run an ’88 G30 Passenger van and I love it. It’ ain’t the prettiest but it sure does get the job done and that job includes transporting a ton (literally) of stuff AND towing my 6500# boat/trailer. I’m not a ford guy and like the idea that the engine in my van and the engine in my boat are similar and thus require similar maintenance skills. So I hope the Express vans live on in body on frame with stout SB V8s under the hood.

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    Phil, as a mechanic, have you ever worked on one of the diesel variants of these vans?

    I say that, because I have, and can’t wait soon enough for these nightmares to be gone from our fleet. When that van was engineered, what late 60′s? There was never the intention to jam a engine as large as a power stroke into it. Dog house cover removal be damned in many cases.

    From the small fuel filter on top of the engine, to the batteries mounted in boxes up on the frame; their maintance nightmares compared to say, a Sprinter van. Actually last Friday I had to do a alternator on one, about a few hours worth or work.

    I can’t wait for the day that I never see another Powerstroked powered Econoline come through our shop door.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      To be fair, the hell experienced on a Powerstroke E-van isn’t really the fault of the van, but the International 6.0L Powerstroke. Such as it is, yes, they do suck.

      OTOH servicing the high pressure oil bits on the back of the motor is easier on the E than in an F.

      • 0 avatar
        AMC_CJ

        Yeah, not very impressed by that motor, or really the larger Internationals either.

        I like the Sprinter. I’ve had to remove the entire front end assembly on both a Econoline and Sprinter in the past. The Sprinter has one large plastic “structure” that runs between the fenders and everything bolts on to that. It sounds kind of cheap, but the whole assembly is only held on by a hand-full of large hardware. On the other hand, the Econoline is a more time consuming affair.

        Not to mention the Sprinter has far more room under an actual hood to work with. They’re not perfect, but so far everything from basic maintenance to more complicated work seems to take about half the time when done on a Sprinter vs. the E-Vans.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      While I’ve never messed with PS powered Econoline I can say that Sprinters are terrible. The fleet I used to maintain bought a bunch of them. The OE brakes and tires rarely made it past 12K and the rotors always were down to min thickness. The fuel filter is stupidly placed and expensive. We had a couple that lost their transmission very early the first under warranty and it was at the dealer for a month. The second failed just after warranty and the owner of the fleet thought that they might be able to get it covered for some stupid reason. A month and $13K later it was back on the road. The Jasper rep also calls on the local FedEx shop and he told us that they won’t fix anything major on them instead they take them straight to the scrap yard when a turbo or transmission fails.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      CJ, I absolutely agree with you. I wouldn’t have a diesel-powered E; and I avoided them during my days of “active duty”.

      • 0 avatar
        mikeg216

        Rust is not an issue but the poorly made transmissions front ends brakes rotors and tires are. Not to mention the HUGE price differential, 2 e series or one sprinter?

    • 0 avatar

      I have a 7.3 diesel E350. It’s an absurd vehicle, in every dimension. I cannot believe how big that engine is. It’s truly more van than I need, but I got it for a song, and I do love affordable overkill.

      Fortunately “I got a reasonably priced guy” to work on it–I’m not competent do do anything beyond checking the fluid levels.

  • avatar
    PenguinBoy

    I’m waiting for a “Junkyard Find” on the van described in this piece…

  • avatar
    Petra

    The end of the E-Series?

    I guess tonight’s the night…

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    “people very rarely choose a van solely for transportation

    That would be the case for us. We plan to buy a van for hauling a loaded, two horse trailer, as a camper on vactions (often with the horses), and hauling yard maintenance equipmnet to and from the repair shop. Transportation as its sole purpose will be limited to snow that is too deep for smaller vehicles.

    Specifications are all wheel drive, 5,000 lb towing capacity, diesel engine preferred, and large enough inside for camping and large enough inside for camping and the aforementioned equipment. A unit body minivan isn’t enough.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    Wha–? You keep Mike Watt’s van running? That is off the charts cool! I am in awe. Does he do Double Nickels on the Dime in his Econo?

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Yeah, he’s pretty careful behind the wheel. How do you think he could manage to keep all of that dash paraphernalia in place?!

      If you dig through his archived blog on http://www.hootpage.com, you should find a record of him mentioning my servicing “The Boat”, back during the period I described. He referred to me as “Harbor City Phil”.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    It’s pretty random sample, I know, but I saw a late model Econoline ahead of me in traffic, dog-tracking. This was a couple of weeks ago and I’ll admit my eyes are always scanning for things that are ‘off’ and didn’t think much of it. But then, a few minutes ago, I saw another. Hmmm.

    OK, the HAVC van could have had a lot history, but looked newer. But then the other, a utility co’s employee shuttle was brand new. No plates and the suspension and brake pieces were shiny and clean enough to eat off of.

    I know that slight dog-tracking can be hard to detect from driving the vehicle unless you’re looking for it and you wouldn’t think LRA vehicles need 4 wheel alignments.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Are you sure it was dog tracking and you were seeing the side of the van while going down the road and weren’t thrown off by the fact that the rear track width is much narrower than the front track width? I know there are a few Sprinters running around here that seriously dog track and that is based on the fact that I can read the graphics on the side of the van while following it.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        No, I was definitely looking at the driver’s side of the van as I followed behind so I’m sure it wasn’t the track differences. Most 4X4 pickups have this as well as many cars. Mustangs, pre rear disks were pretty bad. Early Dusters?

        One thing I did read in a forum just now did get me thinking. It mentioned the E van bodies narrow from front to rear (creating an optical illusion). I don’t know if this is a fact as I couldn’t back that up with a search. But then if true, the rear cap (or left/right corners) would be different for every wheelbase, no? Hmmm…

      • 0 avatar
        markholli

        I’ve noticed this before on Econoline 15-passenger vans…in some cases nearly new or brand new ones that I’ve seen on the road. I came to the conclusion that the front track must be much wider than the rear…possibly because I didn’t want to accept that a brand new van could be built so poorly that it goes down the road sideways.

      • 0 avatar
        west-coaster

        Yep, those current-gen E-Series always look as though they’re dog-tracking when viewed from the driver’s seat of a following vehicle.

        My company has a pretty significant fleet of them, and the first time I drove behind one I thought, “Crap…that thing was in a bad rear-ender!”

        But then I started noticing that ALL of them look that way when I’m behind them, even the brand new ones.

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      The e series will dog track horribly if the tires are not balanced and aligned properly, since the e series has been the only one using the I beam front suspension since 1996, no one under 40 years old knows how to do it anymore, the tires will toe in up top like a knock kneed teenager. Also could be bad ball joints, any parts other then moog on the front end are crap, find an old alignment guy named scruffy or some such, he will set you straight.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    I’m confused. First the durability of BOF designs is made out to be magically “better” and then the author talks of all the wear and stress fatigue on an E250 with only 250K miles. Sure, E150/250s are for hauling the fam and the bass boat, or delivering flowers – they aren’t real ‘work vans’, but structural fatigue at 250K? Never maintained before, or used on logging roads all it’s life?

    Despite some folks’ Walter Mitty fantasies, nobody even semi-regularly tows anything of any consequence with a van. Because you simply can’t (ratings wise). Even with a Powerstroke (that you can’t get anymore) under the doghouse, they are only rated for 10K max. Current V10 gas engines are only 10K, and that’s with a 4.10 rear end. E250 with a V8? 6K pounds. Less than a current Sprinter.

    I’ve seen more Iso Rivolta Leles on the road than vans with even so much as a Bobcat on a trailer. Because they aren’t rated for it. If you have something actually heavy you get an F350 truck, rated for 16-21K.

    I’ve worked on a few E350s and they all were nearing the end of their life – at 350-450K+ miles. They’re stone-age oxcart simple, solid, and the parts are cheap. I’ve even owned a couple over the years. That said, amazingly enough the rest of the frakkin’ planet has done just fine with “them thar unibodies fall apart” vans for the last well, forever. I’ve seen plenty of Sprinters at 300K miles too, and they were quite solid. Oh, and you can actually stand up inside like a human and they have far more room for a tradesman’s tools.

    But the Luddites will still get their fix. GM will as always remain on the cutting edge of the stone-age, and sell the Savana to all 1200 people who still want one.

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      Well that’s like your opinion man, lol. But for realsies, im calling shenanigans on that. Having no idea what an iso riovolta lele is. I guess it must be a regional and thing, but here in the land of rocksalt and potholes bof rules the day, and it will remain so. Diesel is a dollar more per gallon and the only people still running a sprinter van are freight liner franchises using them as a parts runner. Here they rust away into dust in under 4 years. And on a per mile basis the e series still wins, you can buy two for the price of one sprinter and that’s all that matters in the fleet world, cost per mile.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        As I noted in a reply above the Sprinters that the fleet I used to maintain were very expensive to keep with annual maintence by far eating up the fuel savings vs the old gas power P series they replaced. Heck you can replace the 350 in the P series every 3 years and still come out ahead vs the Sprinter in it’s first 3 years of operation. Also as mentioned above the local FedEx got heavily into Sprinters early on and rather than make any major repairs on them they send them to the scrap yard.

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        An Iso Lele is a gorgeous little V8 powered 2+2 with a total production of under 300 over its 5 year run. Designed by Gandini at Bertone. More than vaguely similar to a Lambo Urraco of the same era.

        Anyway, I’m not going to argue against a Sprinter having higher running costs – an uncompetitive market will do that. New US built Transit will even that up in a hurry. I’m not sure where you live that still uses rock salt on public roads, but they seem to hold up just fine here in the Midwest with calchlor. Yes, the early ones had rust issues. Not claiming they are perfect. But my top 20 ADI FEDEX folks still run them and are buying new ones even today, 12 years after they started running them. As well as amoured car guys, local delivery guys, tradesman who still have work…

        But even with higher direct per mile costs, they carry so much more (volume wise) than an E-series and are so much more efficient for the driver to get in and out of quickly, that extra cost is more than negated on a busy route. Which is far more important than some marginal increase in per mile costs if the place is run by guys who actually do the math. Saving even 1 minute per delivery adds up quick.

        Sure there’s a case to be made for a primitive vehicle that has had most of it’s dev cost amortized 20 years ago. But Ford wasn’t able to make it. If people convert to Savanas to get that pile up to 30% of the van market, then one could argue Ford was wrong.

        But I see enough of the marginally useful Connects to know that the market is begging for a Sprinter competitor.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      We’ll see if a uni-body design can even come close to the mileage Watt put on that E-250, considering what it was called on to do.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Weren’t the Ram Vans unibody? did they do a lot worse than the Fords?

      • 0 avatar
        west-coaster

        I know that SuperShuttle used to use Ram Vans almost exclusively until they were discontinued, and that company puts crazy-high miles on their vehicles. (They’re almost all run 24/7.)

      • 0 avatar
        mikeg216

        The dodges were horrible compared to the Ford or Chevy except for the engine and transmission, a 360 or 440 big block mopar backed up by a 727 torque flight is about as reliable as it gets, though they had the structural rigidity of wet cardboard.

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        Phil they’ve proven that decades ago in Europe. Not to mention Africa where everything would kill those “trail rated” Jeep junk products.

        There’s a reason that Africans drive Nissan Patrols and Toyo Himaxes instead of Ahmurican junk like Chebbys and Ferds.

      • 0 avatar
        Moparman426W

        Mikeg, you have it backwards. A unibody is much stiffer than a BOF design, the BOF design is the one with the structural rigidity of a rubber band. Ford vans were also unibody designs until 75, and GM vans were unibody until they came out with the current generation.
        Unibody vehicles can also tow like a BOF design, for example my 78 New Yorker has a tow rating of 7,000lbs. with the towing package, as did all C body Mopars of the 70′s. GM’s fullsized cars of the 70′s had 6,000lb. rating, both the 71-76 and the 77-up downsized models.

      • 0 avatar
        friedclams

        Don’t forget Chevy Astros, they are unibody too. For all their sins, they still can rack up the high miles. There’s one for sale here on Craigslist with 330K!

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Well the guys that ran these routes complained and if they could get a good old P30 step van they would take it over the new Sprinter since the P-30 was significantly easier to get in and out of. One guy who is paid on commission told be that the Sprinter added about 2 hrs to his day and since he wasn’t paying for the purchase, fuel and maintenance that made zero difference to him. All he cared was the length of his day.

      • 0 avatar
        porschespeed

        True, effectively having no doors is a bit faster and there are still some step-vans in service, though I don’t believe any of them are P30s in my neck of the woods.

        I’m sure there are routes where they are the appropriate vehicle. But my points were about ‘Euro’-vans v. BoF E-series vans.

  • avatar
    Mr. K

    I guess no one has looked at the NV from Nissan? Ok, no diesel as of yet…

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      I just heard the first radio commercial for the NV cargo today. It sure was stupid. Guy #1 “My Uncle used to have one of these…..a van, where is the hump?” Guy #2″That was those old flat faced vans they moved the engine up front, that is why it has a hood” Guy #1 “so no hump…huh?” I mean honestly it has been a couple of decades since the last full-size cargo vans had “the hump” for the engine.

      • 0 avatar
        Mr. K

        Still there, just not so large – and must be revoved to do a lot of engine work…but that is for sure a suckful advertisement!

        http://www.chevrolet.com/content/chevrolet/northamerica/usa/nscwebsite/en/index/trucks-and-vans/2013-express/photos-and-videos/interior/_jcr_content/mm_gal_c2/thumbnailArea/mm_gal_item_c2_2.img_resize.img_stage._3.jpg

        http://www.chevrolet.com/content/chevrolet/northamerica/usa/nscwebsite/en/index/trucks-and-vans/2013-express/photos-and-videos/interior/_jcr_content/mm_gal_c2/thumbnailArea/mm_gal_item_c2_10.img_resize.img_stage._3.jpg

        Fgord has just one shot in this series it shows the cup holders, but look at the drivers side footwell to get an idea of the area…

        http://www.ford.com/trucks/eseries/gallery/photos/interior/

        Was the ad by the local dealer or national if you can tell?

        What would it take for Ford to follow Nissan and make a f150 into an E150 by adding a box?

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    The Transit may not be so bad. First off, the existence of Transit chassis-cabs indicates some sort of rigid frame under there and the Eco-boost V6 option holds out the possibility of a reasonable tow capacity since UK spec diesel models are rated for 5000lbs towing and the Eco-boost has considerably more power.
    I’m interested in something Sprinter sized and shaped but more reliable and less overpriced so a Transit or Ducato look better than an Econoline to me.


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