Piston Slap: What is The Poor Man's TARDIS? (Part II)

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap what is the poor man s tardis part ii

TTAC commentator horseflesh writes:

Hi Sajeev!

I’m sending you the third installment in a series of linked Piston Slap queries. A while back, I hit Piston Slap with a question… what’s the best way to unload Grandma’s Buick? Now I’d like to share the story of how one large, white, wallowing ride was replaced with another vehicle, also white, but more enjoyably absurd in every measurable dimension. This new addition to the motorpool is the conclusion to my second Piston Slap query– What is the Poor Man’s TARDIS?

My Piston Slap followup is also a roundabout way to get the B&B’s advice on how to care for the new addition to our garage, which I have taken to calling … the Beast. After the sale of Grandma’s Buick, I was chatting with Ron the Used Car Lot Manager and I mentioned that I was looking for some kind of affordable cargo hauler. “Keep your eyes open for something big, boxy, and cheap,” I asked him.

You see, like any guy, I hate borrowing or renting a truck when I need to move something big, such the pinball machines I collect. More importantly, the woman and I have a lot of hobbies that require hauling gear around. Packing her Mini Cooper Clubman with scuba gear for two is an advanced test of spatial reasoning skills, one which I usually flunk. That’s just an excuse, though. In truth I think I suffer from a suburban male’s mental malady, Vehicular Volumetric Capacity Anxiety. Reasonable or not, I don’t feel completely comfortable unless I have the ability to move giant things at a moment’s notice. You’ll find VVCA in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, listed with Electric Vehicle Range Anxiety and the horrifying disorder that makes people buy Land Rovers only to keep them free of mud.

Once again, Ron the Used Car Lot Manager came to the rescue, with an unexpected call on a Saturday morning. “You still looking for a cargo van or something?” he asks. “Because you won’t believe what I’m looking at…” An hour later, the woman and I are at the dealership standing in front of the Beast. “It’s a 2003 Ford E-350 Econoline Extended cargo van,” Ron says. “And it has the 7.3 liter diesel.”

There’s no one around, but Ron’s voice is hushed in the shadow of the gigantic white van. The Beast does have that effect on you, being around 18 feet long and almost 7 feet high. It doesn’t just cast a shadow–it produces a solar eclipse. Appropriate, I suppose, for a well-used vehicle with 258k on the clock, more than the distance from the Earth to the Moon. “I’ve been in the business for 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen one of these vans with the 7.3,” he adds. Ron says “7.3” like it’s some kind of talisman. I reckon a guy who’s been in the car business for two decades is likely to lay it on a little thick, even among friends, but my morning Googling confirmed that the oil-burning E-350 Beast is a rare breed. The 1999-2003 Ford 7.3 liter diesels also have a cult-like following.

We start walking away from the Beast’s gravitational pull, towards the service bays, while we look at the Carfax and Oasis reports. Things look good–one previous owner, no red flags. “I asked our diesel mechanic to check it out and give you a no-BS rundown,” says Ron. He introduces me to a fellow who, for some reason, reminds me of the comedian Patton Oswalt. “This is Eric.”

I spend a few minutes with Eric, getting a list of things the van needs. The news is all good–it’s basic stuff like radiator hoses, batteries, and an axle seal. The transmission fluid looks good, and more importantly it shifts well. “There’s even plenty of meat left on the brakes. It has an exhaust leak, though,” Eric tells me. “Fix it if you start getting headaches. Don’t sit in it and idle for hours and you’ll probably be OK. I knew this guy once, he did that too long with an exhaust leak and almost died… But, uh, you’ll be fine. Probably.”

I thank Eric, fill out a form for Ron, and the woman and I take the Beast for a test drive.

I used to drive an ’83 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. I thought I knew big. At the moment I goaded the Beast into motion, I realized I that I knew nothing about big. Nothing at all. But the engine is clattering happily, the turbo is whistling, and the vast cargo bay is soothing my VVCA like it came with a prescription. I see a Jeep Liberty pass by, far below, and I swear that my very first thought was, “what is that tiny little thing?” I feel like I’m going to need to scrape Fiat 500s and Minis out of the grille with a rake when we get back to the dealership. I don’t get carbon monoxide poisoning, but I do get a big smile. We’re gonna take this kissin’ cousin to a tractor home.

Ron sells us the Beast for wholesale. Massive overkill, bargain priced? Anyone who knows me knows that’s my kind of thing. Irresistible. I sign on the line which is dotted while the talkative Finance Guy prints forms and tells us about how he met his wife in church choir. One credit card swipe later, the Beast is ours, and we go find Ron.

“Check this out,” says Ron, pointing to a giant Ford pickup on his lot. “Look at that bedliner. You’re going scuba diving, right? You want the inside of the van lined? It’ll look awesome, like Darth Vader’s van. Let me make a call.” A few minutes later, Ron has cooked up another deal for us. The van’s cargo area will be sprayed up to the roofline with a durable and wicked-looking polyurea liner. I don’t even have to drive it to the shop. It’s being handled. After the liner is applied, the Beast’s next stop is to Andy, a shadetree mechanic’s shop. The Beast gets new hoses, fluids, filters, batteries, and an axle seal. It’s ready for another quarter million miles–with regular maintenance, of course.

We pick up the van from Andy’s home shop in Puyallup, Washington. It’s a serious operation, not so shadetree after all. There are 2 lifts, gated parking with at least a dozen vehicles inside, and an appropriate assortment of manufacturer and motorsport signs. “First diesel?” asks Andy. I have to confess. “Yes. First Ford, first van, first diesel.” Andy talks me through what’s under the hood and how to take care of it. I pay attention like it’s my first day in the dojo, learning from the master. I’m hoping to be anointed with a smudge of Amsoil 5w30 on my brow, indoctrinated into the cult of the Ford/International Harvester 7.3, but I just get an invoice.

As I count out the cash for Andy’s services, he says, “so, I hear you two are scuba divers? Really? What do you see down there?” Andy says “scuba diver” the way some people say “astronaut.” Well, it’s a fair trade–mechanics do amazing things, as far as I am concerned. We chat about the life aquatic for a minute and part ways.

Next stop: the bedliner shop, to pay them for services rendered. Aaron is our contact, and he remembers the “scuba van” well. “Wow, scuba diving. You guys really do that?” Generations from now, folks in Puyallup will be talking about those crazy scuba divers and their van that passed through in the spring of ’12.

I hand Aaron a wad of bills and thank him for the great job they did–and the work does look tremendous. The acres of interstellar black, non-skid, chemical-resistant liner armoring the walls and floor look serious. Futuristic. Military. Our Ford cargo van now looks like something from a William Gibson novel, at least on the inside. I’m thinking we need a matter-of-fact sign on the back of the Beast: the interior of this vehicle is impervious to abrasion and bodily fluids. Free candy inside!

The Beast is now being put to work, hauling our scuba gear and mountain bikes and heavy, messy things from the hardware store. For a rig that can tow close to 10,000 lbs, it’s a cushy retirement indeed. While the Beast slumbers in the third bay of the garage most of the time, I know that it likes to work, and I’ll loan it out when friends need it. If you should find yourself operating the Beast, I only ask two things. One, pay for your diesel. Two, try not to get too much blood on the outside, as it is not impervious to abrasion and bodily fluids like the cargo area.

But as a new diesel owner, and one who is totally new to heavy-duty vehicles, I know there is a lot to learn about the care and feeding of my new oil-burning rig. So my story is really an appeal to the B&B–what do I need to know to keep the Beast happy for another quarter million miles?

Sajeev answers:

Well said, and congrats on your purchase!

Aside from the obvious items to address as any vehicle ages (shocks, tires, belts, etc), I only know of two big problems: bizarre Cam Position Sensor failures (buy a spare from an International Dealer, leave under the seat) and electrolysis/cavitation from the cooling system.

Some have mentioned that adding a metal ground strap to your cooling system, wedged between the heater core plumbing and the rubber hose attached to it (yes, really) helps with cavitation. Sounds like overkill, provided you keep the coolant mix correct. But I am not a Diesel Tech by any stretch of the imagination.

My only other advice is to engineer an intercooler to work in the Econoline’s cramped engine bay, so you’ll get the same performance (potential?) of the 7.3 Powerstroke equipped trucks. And then go ape shit, like this guy:

OMG SON: what I wouldn’t do for a 7.3 Econoline that runs a sub-14 second quarter mile!!! Fastest free candy on the planet!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.
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2 of 38 comments
  • Porschespeed Porschespeed on Mar 17, 2013

    Dear letter writer, Welcome! You are officially an obvious 18 year old who knows sweet FA about cars. Let alone vans. Your 'car guy' has never seen a an E350 7.3 diesel? Where is he located, Outer Mongolia? I'm showing 2 on local CL right now, I can buy a dozen within 300 miles on a whim. Wouldja like one with a 5M? As to it being some sort of 'massive' truck, apparently *you* have been living in Mongolia. "Full-size" US vans are a pathetic joke inside. They have NO room compared to a Sprinter or any one of a dozen world vans on offer for the last 40+ years. They do have excessive HP, and the parts are almost free, but they aren't rated to tow half of the equivalent p/u truck, and more importantly they are a nightmare to work out of, unless they have a 2 foot topper. And even then, a Sprinter makes life much easier. I've got an E350 extended as a small parts hauler. That's all it's good for. Big boy stuff goes by p/u and trailer, or by Sprinter.

  • Porschespud Porschespud on Jan 24, 2014

    porschespeed...pffft one day we might be so lucky to know everything like you...lol big boy stuff...lol

  • Allamericanred Interesting that as a car design nut that hates most American Suv designs that I think it is a pretty good design that stands apart but is not odd. The color really impacts how it looks to me. Some just do not work
  • NormSV650 I had a 2014 Vsport back in the day. It have a quiver feeling over some bumps in turns. Currently have a 2018 CT6 it is very solid and a great driver's car for the size.
  • NormSV650 I had a 2014 Vsport back in the day. It have a quiver feeling over some bumps in turns. Currently have a 2018 CT6 it is very solid and a great driver's car for the size.
  • MaintenanceCosts I saw my first IS500 out in the wild today (a dark-grey-on-black example) and it struck me that it was much more AMG-like than this product. (Great-looking and -sounding car.)
  • ToolGuy https://youtu.be/Jd0io1zktqI