By on November 1, 2011


TTAC commentator horseflesh writes:


Last year I wrote to you seeking the B&B’s help in selling a car. Well, Grandma’s Park Avenue is gone now, in short, I found that the best way to sell a Buick is to befriend a used car dealer and supply him with BBQ meats until he calls some other guys he knows who move a lot of Grandma cars. Done correctly, this takes your friend 5 minutes on the phone, and costs you only 15 minutes at a dealer. It’s a beautiful thing!

But now that the Buick is gone I find myself needing another vehicle… also large, and perhaps also white. I’m looking for something cheap and boxy to haul my toys around in. Mountain bikes, scuba gear, model airplanes… These things can be moved around with a sedan, but it’s a chore and there is never enough room for everything. Oh, there is a Triumph Bonneville 750 in the garage too, so naturally it needs to be taken to the mechanic from time to time. And did I mention the pinball machines that I need to move sometimes? Currently I need to ask friends with trucks for help with those things, and I’d like to become self-sufficient.

So, the ideal vehicle will have a fully enclosed cargo area of TARDIS-like capacity, be indifferent to muddy toys, and be able to haul 500 lbs of broken British motorcycle plus two people. It will be a changing room and occasionally a workshop when a toy breaks. It won’t have to go off-road, but it will have to handle a dirt road. Some kind of sink and potable water tank would be a big plus too–that isn’t mandatory, but being cheap and reliable is.

The ubiquitous Ford E-150 van looks like the right sort of thing, but I don’t know anything about its reliability when well-used, or what other good options might be.

Sajeev Answers:

Yup, you need a full size van. Maybe a Chevy Astro-like Minivan, as they are also cheap and reliable. But the Astro isn’t exactly made for drivers with left feet, so maybe the bigger vans are a smarter idea. Plus, you can get that sink you so greatly desire.

The E-150 is indeed the obvious choice, as it is the 800lb Gorilla in this market. Sprinter Vans are pricey and quite the PITA to service unless you are a certified Sprinter Technician. The older Dodge vans might be okay, but all the ones I’ve experienced suffered from off putting transmission woes. The newer Chevy Express isn’t much to write home about, but the older ones were pretty frickin’ tough and easy on the eyes. You know, for a van.

Oh, and thanks for not giving us a budget to work with. That said, I am assuming you are looking for a beater in the $10,000 or less range…or not much higher.

In that realm? Most definitely the van with the most service records. I’d stick with Fords and Chevys in your price range, with the standard V8, and a smooth (yet not sloppy) shifting transmission. You might find a custom van is your best value, even if you’ll need to hack it up a bit to be more cargo friendly.

Enjoy your rolling TARDIS.

Send your queries to [email protected] . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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48 Comments on “Piston Slap: What is The Poor Man’s TARDIS?...”

  • avatar

    What Sajeev said.

  • avatar

    Ranger long-bed with a windowless cap/topper?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Cargo/child molester van? Of course.

  • avatar

    I would vote for the Dodge, but I’ve always tended to be a Mopar guy and growing up they always seemed that they could be driven harder on backroads. Plus, they can look this cool:

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a Mopar guy too, and in driving a couple of different Dodge vans at work I found that they skimp on room for the driver, and it’s hard for a tall guy to get in and out the driver’s door. If you’re not a 6-footer this may not matter.

    • 0 avatar

      This is relevant to my interests.

      The fast van part, I mean. Not the molester part.

    • 0 avatar

      Problem with Dodge panel vans is that they are getting long in the tooth for mileage or rust due to their discontinuation for the aborted Dodge Sprinter.

      Maybe find a conversion Dodge van with lower miles and low rust then gut the interior except for the front two seats. It could even have a raised roof cap as a benefit though he’d have to spray bomb the interior of the windows to keep prying eyes from seeing his stuff…

  • avatar

    Uhhh…Me thinks you need to get married and settle down – or a big, white Ford or Chevy van. Or…if you’re really adventurous – a large and tall Sprint. That’ll haul all your junk around plus a few of you’re friends and even a wife if you do happen to be married!

    Have fun!

  • avatar

    What you want is a pickup with an easily removable cap. I do all of what you describe, except with larger motorcycles, with a Ranger. A covered compact pickup *with* a small trailer is even better. You don’t need much engine at all to tow a motorcycle. They hose out easily. As a bonus, my Ranger has depreciated only about $1500 in retail value in the 7 years and 70K miles that I’ve had it.

    You really, really don’t want an E150. They’re just too much of a chore to drive, and are expensive to feed. Imprecise is the most charitable way to describe its handling; “antique” is a better adjective.

  • avatar

    If you go the large American cargo van route (not a bad choice in my opinion), here’s my two cents:

    1) A V8 engine has its advantages, but in a van, gas mileage is not one of them. If you can tolerate more leisurely acceleration, a six may be sufficient and can yield higher mileage. I have an E150 with the old 300 straight six and it regularly pulls down 20 MPG highway, loaded or unloaded. I’ve owned several other Econolines with both small and large block V8s, and none of them would do much better than 15 MPG. But, if mileage isn’t a concern, a V8 certainly is nice.

    I would stay well away from any diesels, especially if trying to keep to a budget. They’re expensive to repair and not really necessary in this case.

    2) When it comes time to do an inspection of a candidate for purchase, pay attention the most attention to the condition of the transmission. They lead very hard lives in vans between hauling a lot of weight and typically high underhood temperatures, they’re by far the most troublesome and expensive things to repair. Voice of experience here.

    For the same reasons, cooling systems are a close second for trouble and also worth examining closely.

    3) If you haul large and/or heavy stuff in a cargo van, don’t skimp on cargo containment! Having a motorcycle crawling up your back during a panic stop is not something you want to experience firsthand.

    Good luck, and happy hunting!

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    This post has Transit Connect written all over it, except for the cheap part. I don’t know if the early ones have depreciated to ‘used runabout’ levels yet.

  • avatar

    It’s bigger on the inside.

  • avatar

    Vans get old…quick. Don’t be silly. Heavy RWD car + trailer hitch + trailer. Done.

  • avatar

    Would a Honda Element be too small? They can hold a lot of stuff and the interior can practically be hosed out.

    • 0 avatar

      I read up on the Element and sadly it is a little too small to be a top pick. You can fit a pair of mountain bikes in it, but some contortions are apparently necessary. I would not have thought so from looking at them, but this is what my MTB forum tells me.

      However, as they are available for around $5k used, and can be hosed out, they are worth a closer look.

      Part of the point of getting a cargo-dedicated vehicle is to make the load/unload process as easy as possible and to maximize cargo capacity. This is why I have ruled out a trailer–it’s economical, but I have no experience driving one and don’t relish the setup process. “Throw & go” is the goal! There is also the parking issue, as some of the places I’ll frequent with my toys feature normal sized parking stalls.

      I hadn’t considered a truck with shell yet, since I kind of got fixated on a van-like vehicle but I’ll put some thought in to it.

      @Slace66: When I said “trucks from friends” I was not being precise. I actually meant “a Tahoe from my bearded friend John.” But an enclosed cargo area is really important to me. There’s not only the rain issue here in Seattle, but the post-activity-beer-and-burgers phase where I want the toys to be outta sight and at least slightly theft resistant.

      Zackman, I ain’t married yet, but fortunately the bride-to-be is a strong supporter of the toys that I mentioned above. :) She has more bikes than I do, and the Triumph is actually hers!

      Thanks for all the thoughtful replies!

      Matt AKA Horseflesh

    • 0 avatar

      I was going to say, a Honda Element. The woman who runs the experiments at VA Tech where they put video cameras in 100 cars in the DC area for a year to record how drivers effed up, and the role of driver distraction in doing so (“the 100 car study”) and her husband have an element that they use to transport their bicycles all the time.

  • avatar

    Do you really need the enclosed cargo space? You’re borrowing trucks now. It seems that a decent tarp and bungee cords would suffice if you ever needed to take something in the rain.

    If you can omit that, then F150s come into play, or even an older Honda Ridgeline.

  • avatar

    I have a ’93 E-350, the “stretch” version. I’ve heard the OHC engines have sparkplug-stripping issues (but apparently these can be managed with careful maintenance). The transmissions are an issue; a rebuilt E4OD (“Electronic 4-speed, OverDrive”) from FORD is about $2k plus installation. They really do stand behind their guarantee (I got a new transmission for free once). I believe a properly rebuilt E4OD is more durable than a new one.

    The Econoline cooling/heating systems are excessively complicated because they’re packed around the engine and underneath the dashboard. Springlock fittings in the A/C system leak badly.

    Basic body stuff (seats, doors) hold up well. View forward is great; view backward is only via outside mirrors (forget about the mirror on the windshield). Overall, very reliable with minimal maintenance.

    Handling and ride are not inspiring, but they’re not why you buy a van.


    • 0 avatar

      Only certain years are likely to blow out the spark plugs and that usually occurs after someone over tightened the last spark plug stuck in that hole.

      If you paid $2K for a E4OD/4R100 w/o instal you got ripped off, sorry to say. The last one I did was about $1900 out the door installed.

  • avatar

    What’s (a) TARDIS mean? Thanks in advance.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe it is Time And Relative Dimension In Space or something close to that.

      It is a time machine used by Doctor Who since about 1964. It is a police phone box on the outside and huge with high tech/olde world charms on the inside and is absolutely real…unlike The USS Enterprise which is, of course, made up.

  • avatar
    Downtown Dan

    Definitely second the Transit Connect nomination– as long as price is not a factor.

    If you’re really on a budget, an old Ford Aerostar? As Car and Driver’s John Phillips put it, “It causes all hip persons to run away”.

  • avatar

    As I read this, I kept thinking “E-Series FTW!” Looks like Sajeev and the B&B concur! No other does it that good for the price. Like Sajeev said, you could go Sprinter, but it will be a PITA and you will not save much fuel. I looked into a minivan C/V like Aerostar or Chrysler product, but they are really not big enough for your application of cargo capacity PLUS passengers.

    My dream is a Sportsmobile…but even used they are expensive!!

  • avatar


    • 0 avatar


      Tsk tsk you mean c o a c h..

      What is TARDIS..?

      A blue transportation box without wheels but much larger on the inside than outside.. first shown on TV the same thanksgiving as the Kennedy assassination.

      I think I’d go with a Chevy before an E150. Can’t explain this but have experienced it. If you have a fleet of both on a long, dark, damp night the Chevy will start – plus E150’s a gas hog. If your considering stripping out an old RV (save the sink,) gun for a GM platform.

  • avatar

    There is 1 and only 1 correct answer for this question and that’s E150. If you’ve got the money for the last gen that is new enough to have a modular and 4R70 power train that is the way to go. The engine will go and go and go up to 500K or more. The trans depending on how it’s cared for will last from 200K to 400K. If not the old school 5.0 or 5.8 and 4R70 will do good too but after 250K or so they tend to get weak and you’ll need to replace valve cover gaskets and water pumps occasionally something you should never have to do with a 4.6 or 5.4.

  • avatar

    Thanks Simon and Joss. I had no idea what it was, and after I posted on here I looked it up on the Urban Dictionary because they had a lot of ‘popular culture’ (and some not so popular as well)terms on that site. Simon, you were spot on.

  • avatar

    The E-150 shares the F-150’s drivetrain and price point and also happens to suits his needs more so I won’t try to talk him out of it. Mostly it’s the van’s brick aerodynamics that kills its MPG but has a shorter wheel base than all but the reg cab shortbed F-150 plus has available 4X4. Visibility isn’t so great in a reg cab truck with a campershell anyways.

  • avatar

    When looking for one, try not to buy one that was part of a fleet or used in construction. As the guys who drive them drive them hard, and any maintenance beyond gas and oil is optional. Look out for depreciation, my dads couple year old chevy 3500 was only worth 7k.

    Also, keep in mind that vans are noisy, have interior that suck, and are generally unrefined. No real comparison to a similar age truck or car in the NVH department.

  • avatar

    Thinking outside the box (no pun intented).
    What about the dreaded mini-van with all the seats removed. I seem to recall seeing a Chrysler Grand Voyager with a Harley in the back.
    Got to be a heck of a lot easier to drive than an E-150 . But I’m no expert on their value equation? BB any comments

  • avatar

    I really don’t know how to convey the depth of my disdain for the E-series. It was absolutely my least favorite project to work on when I did on-road vehicle testing for Ford. I worked with engineers who spent their ENTIRE CAREERS on this vehicle — literally, since 1977. when I asked why they still weren’t capable of holding a lane on gusty days, our coordinator said that ride and handling weren’t priorities for fleet customers. I would be very, very hesitant to recommend one of these for a daily driver. A stripped F150 is a limo in comparison.

  • avatar

    I used to own a minivan but am now driving an E-150 passenger cargo van for pretty much the same reasons as the original poster. My thoughts:
    – The van can haul a lot of stuff. With one rear bench installed, it still fits dirt bikes and motorcycles in the back. The rubber floors make cleanup very easy.
    – My van has the 4.2L six cylinder. In hindsight, I should have bought the 4.6L V8. The fuel economy is similar, but the V6 feels underpowered in my van.
    – You will probably need to replace tie rods and ball joint. The E-150 suspension is an old design and is hard on its suspension parts.
    – My van is an 03 with 160k miles, and has been very reliable. I used to own a fleet of Ford cargo vans, and some had upwards of 500k miles on them. The engine and transmission run for a long time.
    – Most vehicles will handle better than this van. But as long as you don’t push it, you’ll be fine.

  • avatar

    I will toss in a vote for the Sprinter van as I liked the handling on them over the wandering Ford E series but I speak only as some one who just rents a van when I need one (perhaps an option?)

    • 0 avatar

      The Spitter does ride and drive nice but it’s a big money pit. If you take it to the dealer look at spending $250 a year on fuel filter replacement and $1500 a year or more on brakes. $600 alternator that takes way too long to get out and the new one back in.

      • 0 avatar

        Well as a renter those problems are not a factor for me the problem for some one that wants to rent a van for a day or a week or 2 is finding someone that has the van they want for rent.

        but I an quite serious about renting what you need when you really have no day in day out need for a specialized vehicle I can have my fun to drive MINI get good basic milage and then when I need a van or a pickup I rent one

        I think it might be worth considering thats all.

  • avatar

    I’m thinking Transit Connect, or if you want to go older/cheaper, then Dodge Caravan Cargo Van.

  • avatar

    Honestly, it’s either E-Series or Caravan CV. It doesn’t sound like you’ll be dealing with that much mass, so the Caravan is probably the better choice, mileage-wise, and it doesn’t drive or handle horribly.

    Do get the transmission inspected, though (and the front-end on the Caravan) especially since many people, and lots of fleets, are pretty hard on these cars.

    Also. whomever mentioned a cargo firewall is a smart thinker: you do not want hundreds of pounds of stuff flying around in an accident.

    The Sprinter is way too expensive to operate unless you’re, eg, UPS, and the Savannah/Express are utter and complete crap (no, really, they’re just awful; GM made these to a cost point and it shows. They seem to have the thinnest sheet metal in creation and lots of little stuff—and not-so-little-stuff—wears out way, way too fast).

    There’s some dark-horse candidates:
    * Honda Element: If you play dumb with the low load capacity, you’re probably okay. Probably.
    * Honda Fit: with the seats flat you can fit a hell of a lot in these. I can’t speak for a motorbike, but I have put my 61cm, extra-tall-seat Trek in mine, as well as (on a different occasion) three fully-populated 7U servers
    * GM U-Body vans: Garbage, but cheap and ubiquitous. If you cannot find a Caravan (unlikely) but prefer something carlike, this is the way to go.
    * Kick it old-school with an Astra/Safari. All the biodegradable bits that GM equipped these with have probably worn out by now, anyway. They’re not appreciably better than the E-Series, but they are smaller.
    * Transit Connect: you might get a former fleet candidate at a fire-sale. No idea how robust they are or how good the parts availability it.

  • avatar

    I noticed that you can now get a Chevy Express full size van with the smaller more economical 4.8 liter engine and the newer designed 6 speed automatic transmission. That would give a reasonable trade off of power and mileage in a large sized serviceable package. A cargo firewall is a smart idea.

    Love seeing one of my favorite show beings mentioned here. The Tardis is of course dimensional transcendental which means larger on the inside than outside with the form of a police public call box making up the exterior. This happened because when Dr Who first appeared in 1963 his ship got stuck in the police box shape trying to fit in with the local surroundings while his granddaughter Susan went to Coal Hill school. Two of her school teachers Barbara and Ian Chesterton grew very curious about her extreme knowledge of science and Social Studies (as if she actually experienced these events)and decided to follow her home one night finding themselves in an old junk yard with the Tardis and were soon whisked off into time and space for the adventures of there lives. This show is now listed in the Guinness book as both longest running series and longest running sci-fi shows of all time which is testament to the genius that went into the making of this show, all it’s monsters and clever plots, the Tardis, the fact that when the Dr wears out his old body he can regenerate into a new one thus giving a new actor a chance to play the part after the previous one decides to bow out after 3-5 years playing the part. This of course was one of the reasons this show has lasted so long giving constant change and renewal and fresh blood to the part along with new locations, ideas and endless plot possibilities. It is currently enjoying 10 plus million viewers in England and is watched in many countries around the world. End history lesson

  • avatar

    Pickup with one of these:

    The bed cover, that is.

    Trailer-fear is irrational, BTW. I drive that truck with that 30′ car hauler everywhere, and I’m astounded by how maneuverable it is. I can spin it around in a suburban cul-de-sac.

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