By on March 13, 2013
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 [email protected]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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38 Comments on “Piston Slap: What is The Poor Man’s TARDIS? (Part II)...”

  • avatar

    Cool van.

    You really want to make it Darth Vader’s Econoline? Get bed liner applied to the exterior too! It might look silly but those gravel roads and krakkens won’t hurt the…err..paint job?

    I kid but only just. :)

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen pics recently of cars treated with plasti-dip, for an entirely matte black exterior. On a nice car I think it looks ridiculous, but it might suit a van.

      • 0 avatar

        “On a nice car I think it looks ridiculous”

        Agreed — I have no idea why the forums are full of these “lower it!” guys who plasti-dip all the chrome to “murder out” their car, as they call it.

  • avatar

    I rented one of those from U-Haul once, beast is right! Also about the LOUDEST VEHICLE I HAVE EVER DRIVEN. But in a good way. :-)

    • 0 avatar

      I was thinking spraying down the interior with bedliner would quiet it down, but I guess it doesn’t do anything about the diesel engine under the console.

  • avatar

    It may not look quite right being an Econoline and all, but I’m thinking A-Team van.

  • avatar

    You don’t have too much to worry about with the 7.3L. Pay special attention to keeping the oil clean as this engine uses HEUI injectors that depend on high pressure oil to fire. Too long between oil changes will cause them to gum up which will typically cause it to run rough when cold, but then smooth out as the engine warms up.

    The injector cups in the head can sometimes crack and leak fuel into the coolant. If you notice the coolant is getting nasty and smells like diesel, that’s the likely problem. Other than those issues, sometimes the under valve cover harness will chafe and short out an injector circuit, but for the most part these are long living engines.

    The fact that the follow up engine to this, the 6.0L (also HEUI not common rail), was so terrible still baffles me to this day.

    • 0 avatar

      Right now the Beast has Amsoil, the stuff that is supposed to give you a 7000 mile interval between changes. I don’t put a lot of miles on it, so I expect the oil will hit a time limit before a mileage limit… one question I have is, how do I know when that is? It’s an expensive oil change and I don’t want to do it more than I have to.

      My mechanic replaced the old coolant with new diesel-specific coolant including anti-cavitation additives. Being the careful sort I double checked the anti-cavitation properties with fresh test strips. I’ll keep on top of checking it, and put in more additive as required.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick 2012

        The folks at Bob is the Oil Guy ( can provide plenty of advice on timing. You’d probably be fine going to one of the major brands like Mobil Delvac or Shell Rotella. I think – just from spending too much time on BITOG – that Mobil and Shell spent tons of time and money developing the heavy duty diesel oils (HDDO) and have a far greater R&D budget than Amsoil.

      • 0 avatar

        Get the amsoil out of there and use Motorcraft 15-40. 5-30 should not be used in a Power Stroke and you should NOT try and extend the service interval 5000 miles MAX. That is what leads to a no or hard starting when hot issue. The Motorcraft oil is available at your local Walmart along with the Motorcraft oil filter, twice the quality at half the price.

        Hopefully he installed the Motorcraft coolant, though it doesn’t sound like it since it does not need the supplemental additive on the initial fill.

        Use the Motorcraft, fluids and filters and the engine will last another 250K no problem, use the wrong stuff and you likely won’t be anywhere near as lucky.

        The failure point is the ICP or Injection Control Pressure sensor that is what you should keep in the glove box.

        • 0 avatar

          You can in fact use 5w30. The heui injection systems turns 40weights to 30 anyway.

          On a side note any dyno 15w40 will do great. I get gallons for $10 on sale. There is allways sales on diesel dyno 15w40. He doesn’t need motorcraft oil, or motorcraft coolant. Any will do.

          • 0 avatar

            Motorcraft oil is better than most of the other oils on the market and at Walmart it is cheaper too. Delo and Rotella are acceptable but more expensive.

            5-30 should only be used in PowerStrokes if they are going to be continuously operated in freezing weather and it is synthetic. The HPOP shears oil quickly.

  • avatar

    What a wonderfully written letter – I’m afraid I’ve been bitten with VVCA and when the Subaru finally gives up the ghost I’ll be moving up to a larger vehicle.

    I just drove a friend’s 94 250 Econoline 15 passenger wagon though… with the V6 gas engine (I didn’t even know that was an option in the 250!). The ride is higher than 90% of the unmodified pickups on the road, you really are looking down on everyone. It was also a bit scary, as the steering was vague and it wandered and dipped like a drunken sailor down the road. I suspect that a close look at the suspension would be in order, especially on one with as many miles as yours. My grandfather has the diesel E350 12 passenger wagon and uses it to pull an airstream, but it’s had all sorts of problems with the brake booster, lines, etc, and I know he’s had it in the shop for engine trouble too, I just don’t know enough about it to say what preventive maintenance (if any) could have prevented this. It’s stranded them a few times, but at least they had the trailer.

    I am fascinated by the dichotomy of the wagon versions of the heavy duty vans. These 1 ton, diesel, 15 passenger behemoths: way overkill for transporting people… but still so awesome. Why?

    For my cavernous fix, probably something like an Astro/Safari, MPV, or Taurus X, in order of purchasing power, as it’d also be a daily.

    • 0 avatar

      “I just drove a friend’s 94 250 Econoline 15 passenger wagon though… with the V6 gas engine (I didn’t even know that was an option in the 250!).”

      That would be the 4.9L I6 in that van. The I6 vans are somewhat well renowned because if their reliability (altho terribly slow and hard on fuel).

    • 0 avatar

      The steering wanders like crazy on these rigs, from what I have read on various forums. Ford makes a steering stabilizer that bolts right on to the frame, which allegedly makes a big difference in steering feel.

      I have the parts, but I am incompetent when it comes to operating any tool bigger than a bottle opener, so I have not yet tried to install it. It’s probably a 10 minute job for someone who knows what they are doing.

      • 0 avatar

        A steering damper will only mask the issue of wander if there’s a problem. If there’s an issue, the damper will eventually wear out and you’ll notice it again. What corrects wander a lot of the time is caster adjustment. If it’s set to spec, you can try reducing it slightly with adjuster bushings.

        Sometimes they can characteristically wander a bit even when caster is adjusted. Often the effects can be mitigated by adjusting steering gear mesh load a bit tighter.

      • 0 avatar
        old fart

        I had a 93 ford 1 ton club wagon chateau in ’07, rode like a Cadillac ,and was very tight on the road. So find out what they did different between the two vans.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Congratulations on the great purchase! I have many memories listening to the drone of a powerstroke ford econoline from when I was a volunteer EMT at a rural service in college. They pulled very strong and would cruise all day long while getting surprising fuel economy. All had well over 200k on the clock.

    One of the Powerstroke buses had some kind of aftermarket ECU that replaced a shorted-out original and no governor (most have a 97 mph limiter – all the faster you ever need to go). I was volunteering one day and we got called out to the other side of the county – about 15 miles away – for a 5 year old hit by a car going 50 mph and struggling to breath.

    The ‘chipped’ bus was the in-service rig for the day. As this was one of the few runs where seconds really did matter, traffic was light, weather was good, and I had an escort, the accelerator stayed firmly planted to the firewall when possible. The kid was in very rough shape when we arrived on scene and the paramedic had to do a needle tracheostomy to get him air. Had we been any later, things probably wouldn’t have ended well.

    After the call and things calmed down, the deputy running ahead to clear traffic and block the few intersections on the way said we were cruising about 110-115 mph. I had no idea something that big could punch such a large hole in the air as the speedo only went to 85.

    About 5 months later the kid stopped by the station to say ‘hi’ – he made
    a full recovery and has some gnarly scars to impress the girls with.

    • 0 avatar

      Great story. Interesting to think about the number of people who have been transported in an Econoline in their hour of greatest need.

      When my wife broke her neck in a rollover during blizzard a few years back, a Powerstroke Econoline ambulance picked us up.

  • avatar

    I’m curious, was the van originally owned by a electrical company and or have a roof rack? We are also in the PNW. If so it may have been the van that spent a couple of weeks in my parents driveway as a loaner while the other service van was being repaired.

  • avatar

    As touched on above, the choice of coolant is critical. I’d go with a heavy-duty diesel truck coolant labeled ‘ELC’ (Extended Life Coolant) that already contains the necessary SCAs (supplementary coolant additives which prevent cavitation).

    Tons of info on the diesel forums (join them, read them, learn much) – here are a only a couple from a quick internet search:

  • avatar

    Nice purchase.

    I own the ancestor of your engine. A 7.3 idi. Similar engine, different injection system.

    As for cavitation it isn’t a huge issue on the powerstroke. Now if you own a 7.3 idi keep up on top of that.

    I recommend a diesel elc coolant. Based on the year of your truck elc is safe to use with the engine. Be sure to only mix with distilled water.

    Just watch out for the transmission. The 4r100 doesn’t seem to last forever behind the diesels.

    My truck has the e4od the earlier version of the 4r100 and of course the torque converter lockup clutch is wearing out. I think thats probably the most common problem, and wiring that gets old a brittle with age.

    • 0 avatar

      The dealership’s mechanic (who I did have reason to trust in this case) said that the trans fluid looked good, so I put off changing it for now. I did want to do something to better verify the health of the trans, so I got an OBD2 instrument to check the trans temp, and mine does run nice and cool. That proves nothing, but a cool trans and smooth shifts are a good start.

      Even when fully loaded with toys or trash, the Beast is running well under its capabilities–I don’t even know how to drive with the kind of trailer that it’s equipped for.

  • avatar

    Crush all front drive minivans and replace them with Econoline vans, and, most importantly, Ford Club Wagons. Time to stop pussyfooting around.

  • avatar
    spreadsheet monkey

    Love the van. What kind of gas mileage do you get out of a 7.3L diesel?

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Last October in Iceland, we toured the northern part of the country in a big 15 passenger, diesel powered Ford van with four wheel drive. It looked to be lifted to accomodate the oversized, off road tires. I’d never seen anything like it before. Even though it had a permenant step below the passeneger door, some of the passengers with short legs had a tough time getting up and into the van. All in all, quite an impressive machine.

  • avatar

    I am a diesel technician, and we had some of these in our fleet. They were a year or two newer though, with the 6.0L. What an awful piece of crap and lousy excuse for a heavy-duty engine that engine was.

    The worse, was when things went wrong, and they always seemed to do, working on them was a bit a nightmare. I don’t know if the 7.3L is set up the same. But need to change a Accessory belt? Remove the whole front end. Fan? Same thing. A lot of coolant lines shoved back in there that leaked. Turbo’s going out on a few too I think.

    I also don’t like how the brake rotor assembly is all part of the front hub. Not a cheap part. My dad has a 98′ Conversion Econoline and found this out the other month infact.

    Oh, and a few of the transmissions took a crap before the 200k mile mark.

    Good luck. I’m not impressed by them much. I’ve only worked on the older 7.3L in much larger trucks, but most of those were gone by the time I entered the field. It has to be an improvement over the 6.0L.

    • 0 avatar

      The 7.3s are better in stock form, and their resale value shows that most people agree.

      I recently heard from a Diesel tuner that the 6.0 is a fantastic, far superior to the 7.3…once you remove the EGR setup and some factory calibrations. Which makes sense.

  • avatar

    I know the 150s and 250s will tend to warp brake rotors, not sure there is anything you can do about it, other than turn or replace when they start shaking.

    Also, try not to let it sit too much, stuff can start growing in diesel after 30 days or so, if water gets into the tank.

  • avatar

    Look after the transmission. If it was still an E4OD in 2003, that will be the weak point in the powertrain. Econoline diesel ambulances used to eat transmissions alive.

    I drove a 15 passenger Dodge van (5.9 gas engine) back in the 90’s. Yes, those are big beasts, but only crosswinds in the desert caused me any problems.

  • avatar

    Great letter, awesome rig, especially with the diesel. I too suffered from VVCA until I bought a Suburban. I love my ‘Burb, but an E350 would be a whole ‘nuther box of love. Can you share some pics? We’d love to see the cockpit and the liner job in the back. Also, how about a picture of you, the Woman, or anyone standing next to it so we can get an idea of the scale of size of Mount Econoline? Shepherd her (or is it a “him”?) in good health.

  • avatar

    Hats off to the OP. Very well-written story. I thought I was reading a future writer submission.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar


    one day we might be so lucky to know everything like you…lol

    big boy stuff…lol

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