New or Used: Dude, Where's My Gig Van?

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

(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.

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

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  • Wheeljack Wheeljack on Oct 08, 2011

    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.

  • TheShivers TheShivers on Apr 11, 2013

    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!

  • Bob65688581 We bought zillions of German cars, despite knowing about WWII slave labor. Refusing to buy something for ideological reasons is foolish.Both the US and the EU have imposed tariffs, so the playing field is level. I'll buy the best price/quality, regardless of nationality.Another interesting question would be "Would you buy one of the many new European moderate-price EVs?" but of course they aren't sold here.Third interesting question: "Why won't Stellantis sell its best products in America?"
  • Freshblather No. Worried there will be malicious executable code built into the cars motherboard that could disable the Chinese cars in the event of hostilities between the west and China.
  • Bd2 Absolutely not - do not want to support a fascist, totalitarian regime.
  • SCE to AUX The original Capri was beautiful. The abomination from the 90s was no Capri, and neither is this.It looks good, but too similar to a Polestar. And what's with the whacked price?
  • Rover Sig Absolutely not. Ever.
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