By on July 15, 2014

van. Shutterstock user Rashad Ashur

TTAC commentator Celebrity 208 writes:


I have been sitting on this draft message for a couple weeks now and I just saw your call for questions so here you go. I just bought a ’05 (Chevrolet) Express 3500 12 Passenger Van with 185kmi. It was owned by a Catholic Mission College where they maintained it as part of their van fleet and the maint. history is pretty clean. It was a good deal even if I have to do something dramatic like replace the transmission.

I’m going to use it for towing a boat (w/ trailer it’s 6500+lbs and the runs are ~15mi round trip), delivering kegs to Pamela Elsinore’s birthday party (“at the bottom of the big hill”), hauling visiting family and friends around when visiting (I live in DC which is a vacation destination for some weird reason), and likely Christmas road trips back to Cleveland because my mother goes hog wild with large Little Tikes stuff.

I have seen some of the B&B suggest that renting would be the best solution for these needs but, rental trucks/vans 1) don’t have the towing capacity, 2) usually explicitly forbid towing, 3) aren’t fitted with hitches & 4) are not always available on a whim/at my convenience.

To be sure I don’t use it a lot and hence that’s why I bought one that is 9yrs old and hi mileage. If I wanted new then renting might have met the bill for everything minus towing. At this point you should be laughing. Don’t. This is a step up for me as it is replacing my rusty ’88 G30 Sport van which had 78kmi, or 178kmi, or278kmi, or… (No 100,000 mile digit in the odometer). The ’88 G30 was a beater. It towed ok but it looked like crap and couldn’t be used as a backup daily driver b/c there’s no place to put two+ car seats whereas the ’05 does. The new one has the LQ4 6.0L v8 and the 4L80e trans. So, to my questions:

  1. When I finally get it home what service do you suggest I perform (oil change, trans fluid change etc., timing chain replacement, shocks, 3+ cans of sea foam, etc.)?
  2. What are your and the B&B’s opinions on towing and loaded and unloaded ride performance improvements such as: rear sway bar [this makes sense to me and it’s on my to-do list], Roadmaster Active Suspension [this product seems like a gimmick], air suspension kits [I understand how these would increase my load capacity but unless I remove a leaf spring I can’t see an air kit improving my unloaded ride quality and allowing me to raise or lower the rear end i.e. adjust the spring rate]?
  3. What are your an the B&B’s opinions on slippery ramp performance improvements such as replacing the open diff with a locker or limited slip [what type? ARB Air, OX Mech, Limited Slip, eLocker, etc.]?

I’m a GM guy but props to the Panther love and props to the site. You guys kick ass. You’re a multiple times a day refresh for me. You keep it up and I’ll keep clicking on some of the ads.


(Note: I’m not really a narcissist; a Celebrity 208 cc was my first boat.)

Sajeev answers:

Thanks for the kind words, I always admire and appreciate the diverse backgrounds, attitudes, styles, etc of our Best and Brightest.  It’s been the cornerstone of this site’s longevity for more years than I can remember. No doubt, your new van is light years ahead of the old G30, and having a two-time Chevy vanner such as yourself amongst our ranks…well, it’s an honor.

Definitely someone like you should never rent a van, this is the perfect spare vehicle for your lifestyle.

Question 1: Changing all fluids (and the usual worn rubber belts, hoses, vacuum lines, tires, etc) is a great idea, even if we’ve spilled a ton of digital ink over the utility of high mileage ATF service in any transmission.  If the fluid is fresh and the transmission shifts fine, don’t bother changing.  Even if it has a factory tranny cooler, consider putting the biggest aftermarket cooler instead: certainly not a pleasant task, but it’ll be worth it.

Question 2: That Roadmaster kit always intrigued me, just never enough to buy and try.  Definitely get a rear swaybar if that’s an easy swap using junkyard bits from another GM product.  But honestly, all you need are fresh shocks of the high performance variety to get an amazing bang for the buck.  Oh, and replace whatever else in the suspension is worn out after all those miles.  Your eyeballs and basic tools are your guide.

Question 3: There are superior limited slip differentials from the aftermarket, but they are brutally difficult (or expensive) to install.  Why go through all that when–with a little researching–I betcha there’s a complete GM axle assembly in the junkyard with fewer miles and a posi that you can swap in an afternoon?  That said, I couldn’t find a suitable swap candidate, but what the hell do I know?  I’m a Lincoln-Mercury Fanboi.

Perhaps a suitable axle lies in a nearby junkyard, complete with a rear swaybar?  And perhaps addressing the normal wear items and switching to premium shocks will make this van cool enough for even the most jaded reader ’round these parts.

[Image: Shutterstock user Rashad Ashur]

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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25 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Express’ New Mission?...”

  • avatar

    I’m not sure a limited-slip set-up will help you very much. Your van either has the GM “corporate” 8.5″ 10 bolt axle or it could be a Dana since it is a 3500. Either way, it’s a lot of $$$ to change out the carrier. If it is the 10 bolt, a limited slip “drum to drum” swap would be the way to go; a Dana is going to be a whole lot more expensive either way. Ultimately, all wheel drive or switchable four wheel drive would be the best set-up but that’s obviously not feasible in this instance.

    A better way to go is to have the proper tires for good traction and maybe some ballast that you can load/off load in the back of the van when needed. You can also alter the air pressure in the tires for traction such as on a boat ramp as long as you adjust them correctly for when you’re back on the road. I honestly think that will do as much for you as a diff swap.

    As for the engine, basic fluid changes are a good idea – agreed transmissions can be iffy – if the fluid is good, leave it alone, if not and its burned, then change it. As for a timing chain, no, it doesn’t need to be changed as it should last the life of that LS motor which is a long life.

    Good Luck.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed 100%, especially the timing chains.

      While I have heard of 2WD trucks slipping down a boat ramp to their watery grave, I have seen many open diff pickups handle boat ramps with no problems. Tires, weight in the back, judicious use of throttle, etc. is all needed.

      • 0 avatar

        Through a combination of idiocy, bad luck and an algae-ridden ramp, my Panther slipped down a boat ramp to it’s watery grave. It was actually quite a scary occurence. I wish I had taken a picture of myself standing on the top of the submerged car warning boaters not to come too close.
        Amazingly, a tiny little 4WD pickup (I’m thinking it was a Ranger or S10) was there unloading a sailboat. I dove into the water, attached a chain to the front of the drowned Panther, and the pickup managed to drag it out of the water!
        Amazing because the Panther was filled with several cubic meters of water. As it was being pulled up the radiator fan was still just running. After an exhausted sigh, the Panther went silent forever. So long Big Blue.

        A few things I learned: (1) once the rear wheels start floating, you’re probably fu$ked, (2) Panther fuel tanks are actually rather low to the ground and act like floaties, (3) waves can exacerbate an already dicey situation, (4) be careful on slippery ramps, (5) turn your front wheels just in case things start going bad.

      • 0 avatar

        Especially since before 1990 or so, the majority of pickups were 2WD, and not just fleet either. Guys who bought a pickup to tow their boat did just fine with only the rear wheels powered.

        • 0 avatar
          Carlson Fan

          If your boating in fresh water electric brakes on the trailer will solve any issues with sliding down the ramp. I just converted the tandem under my 250 Sundancer last fall and will never go back to surge.

          I have the same engine/trans in my ’04 GMC 2500HD PU. I wouldn’t waste money replacing the tming chain, but I would change the transmission fluid unless you know it was recently done.

          That said 5500 lbs of boat and trailer is nothing behind that 1 ton van.

          My second boat was a Celebrity 180/4.3 MerCruiser. Nice boat. Towed that for 5 years my compact Toyota 4WD PU..

      • 0 avatar

        At one point I tried very hard to get my Land Rover to slip down the boat ramp to a watery end, but no chance, without it looking like insurance fraud, the darn thing just kept crawling itself out.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Free tip: mount a front hitch and put the trailer on that end when launching/retrieving the boat.

  • avatar

    I own the 2012 version of the same van, and I would definitely second the changing of the shocks to Bilsteins. I think the OEM shocks wear out in 15,000 miles.

    The engine itself is pretty bulletproof. I have a few friends with the same engine and it’s easily gone 250,000 – 300,000 with normal maintenance.

    You’re obviously a van guy, so you understand the virtues. This is my first, and I have to say I’ve grown to love it even with my initial trepidation at purchase time.

  • avatar

    I’ve got one as a service truck and they are pretty indestructible, even with my guys at the wheel.

    What do the service records show?
    Sounds like it was probably regularly serviced so the common items like water pump, etc have been replaced. I’d replace belts and hoses, flush the brakes and new plugs, filters on day one if you don’t know when they were changed.

    These vans eat calipers, so make sure you have them properly serviced with the rebuild kit from someone who actually knows how to install it, not some quick lube service joint. Poorly done, they will stick burning up the pad and the rotor, everyone I talked to before we bought mentioned it.

    Check your bushings before you change the shocks, they’ll probably need to be replaced as part of the shock change. The shocks help, but nothing tightens up the front end like new bushings. It will never ride well, but bushings will make a huge impact.

    The 3500 is an HD Chassis, so you should already have the tranny cooler, upgraded rear end, HO alternator, etc. These vans will run forever with basic care, but the rubber parts need to be replaced or you are in for an expensive repair.

    Dexcool might have plugged up the radiator and heater core, so make sure you flush and check those before a long tow session. Don’t spend a ton on rehabbing the old radiator, just swap it out for a new one and replace the hoses, it’s often cheaper than service.

    When it’s tire time, make sure you buy heavy duty truck tires, not light truck tires. The suspension parts are worn, and that front end wear coupled with the van weight will eat up cheap tires.

    If you can find out who’s been servicing the van or who services other fleet vans in the area, you’ll find it is very cheap to maintain, outside of fuel costs.

  • avatar

    If you’re going to deliver to Pam Elsinore’s party, I think you need to find a faded red with grey primer ’71 Vandura.

    • 0 avatar

      You beat me to it.
      Any day I can open up TTAC and see a gratuitous reference to Strange Brew, it’s a good day.
      “They’ve got two stops, and then, no brakes.”
      “Just testin’ the brakes, eh? They felt a little soft.”

      You also need stickers for every NHL team on the side window, a CDN spare tire cover, and a “Beer Lover” sticker on the rear door. Beauty van, eh?

  • avatar

    GOOD tires and brake pads/rotors. I’ve read those vans are notoriously horrific to drive. good luck.

  • avatar

    (Note: I’m not really a narcissist; a Celebrity 208 cc was my first boat.)

    Man, I thought your first car was a Celebrity. (Had no idea what the 208 would have stood for then though, lol.)

    Too bad you din’t find one of the factory AWD models but good luck with your van, sounds like the right tool for the job.

  • avatar

    Check the lower control arm ball-joints. Often overlooked, but creates havoc when they go. I’d replace them both, and not look back. Check the ball-joints on steering links too.

  • avatar

    He: I want to buy a boat.
    She: You know that saying about the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life, don’t you?
    He: You’d deny me the two happiest days of my life??

  • avatar

    The most important thing to do is give it a custom paint job. How about a dragon strangling a mongoose with a psychedelic background?

  • avatar

    Add transmission fluid do not flush, same with the oil. Drop the pan change the filter. Swap out the rear axle and sway bar for a suburban 2500 with the limited slip and you are good to go.

  • avatar

    Find the little rectangular white tag with all the option codes on it. Look for one that says “G80” which will mean you already have limited slip or start hitting the junkyards to find one that does.

  • avatar

    You could see if powertrax has a option for your axle they are pretty easy to install and should be strong enough for what your using it for.

  • avatar

    I hope that I’m not the only one who got the “Strange Brew” reference in the 2nd paragraph.

    Watch out for the brakes!

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