On the face of things, people might think I have some moral opposition to the existence of trucks and diesel and big heavy haulers. To an extent, I suppose I do, but when they are used to the effect they are built for, they’re pretty great. It’s appalling in my mind that people use big diesel trucks as daily drivers to look hard or whatever, but for the niche tasks they’re designed to tackle, I have no qualms. Need to haul a boat? Great. Need to haul a 20-pound toddler? Get a minivan.
I’ve been looking for a tow pig for the last few months to use for multiple purposes. While my Porsche Boxster track car project is mired in the depths of scope creep, it’ll eventually be a track-only machine that will need to be towed to the track. I recently decided to pursue motorcycle track days as well, meaning I’ll need something to haul bikes and gear. And as Radwood gets back into full post-vaccine swing, I’ll need a vehicle to haul our gear and merch to and fro. But I also didn’t want to spend a lot of money, ya feel me?
I knew I needed something with a healthy frame and somewhat powerful engine to have enough ass to haul around everything I need it to. I need something with a high roof and a big cargo area to fit everything necessary for a track day or a Radwood show, which is a lot of space. To prevent myself from staying at shitty trackside hotels and save a few bucks, it would be great if I could camp inside, as well. And a high roof so my 6'2" frame can at least hunch inside. So I’m looking at big commercial vans.
I started out by looking at new high roof vans from Nissan, Ford, and Mercedes, but couldn’t stomach the dealer markups and quick moving products on dealer showroom floors. So I started cruising Craigslist for solutions. Even the used market is crazy these days, but I found the cheat code. If you want a diesel engine in a decade-old pickup or SUV, you’re going to end up paying around 30,000 American Greenbacks right now. If you want it in a commercial van, you’ll probably pay in the $20,000 range, thanks to the Van Life Instagram dorks. BUT! You can get a nice clean rust-free Ambulance with a few minor issues for just $11,000. Which is what I did.
There are obviously plusses and minuses to buying an old ambulance, not least of which is the ghosts. Generally ambulances are quite well maintained, with regularly scheduled services taken care of with ample budgets and professional mechanics. Ambulances also spend a whole lot of time idling, and when they are moving they tend to be pushed beyond their limits, so the indicated 207,000 miles hardly scratch the surface of the difficulties this E-350 has faced in its life. The VDO hour meter indicates that this 13-year-old van has been running for around a year and a half, so average lifetime miles per hour is just 16.4!
So anyway, what did my $11,000 buy? It’s hardly perfect, but I have some pretty cool plans for it, so let’s do a quick walk-through.
Hell yeah it comes with a stretcher. I mean, it’s the first thing I’m ditching, so if anyone wants a free stretcher, you’re welcome to it. But it’s still pretty cool that this is a fully-operational ambulance. According to the seller it was decommissioned in 2019 when he bought it to run a traveling scuba safety course. When COVID hit he couldn’t really do in-person training anymore, so he wanted it gone. All of the stuff in the back still works. There are hookups for oxygen and suction, as well. It even came with an oxygen bottle wrench (also free to anyone who actually needs it).
Mostly, I was just stoked that there is a bench seat in the back, dozens of secure storage bins and shelves, and two 110v outlets on either side of the van. It’s pretty much exactly what I need from a van for travel and hauling and track days.
Fuck yeah! I’ve always wanted a vehicle with overhead switches like the Goddamn Millennium Falcon. Better yet, all of the sirens and lights and switches still function. Now, obviously I can’t legally use any of this stuff while on the road, but it’ll make for neat party lights at a car show or track day evening paddock party. Why not dance to strobing lights and loud wailing sirens when the kegs come out?
I was sort of hoping this would be a citizen band radio, but it’s actually an exterior speaker system, so I can shout at people to get out of my way or whatever. Again, not legal to use on the road, but it’s a fun conversation piece. Maybe eventually I’ll replace it with a CB, as that seems more functional for my long-haul driving purposes.
It just has so much space! There are hidden cubbies under and behind every seat. There are lockers and hidey holes, cabinets and compartments. For a guy like me, who has always wanted a door hidden behind a bookshelf, it’s heaven. I have a compartment for human needs like sunscreen and rain ponchos. I have a compartment for tools. There’s room under the bench seat for tire chains and spare parts. I have very few notes here.
The passenger compartment is still in pretty solid shape, given how many miles and hours these seats have had asses in them. Everything in here has held up okay, including the custom engine cover which doubles as a clipboard work station and exhaust-heated lunch warmer-upper compartment. The seats are fairly comfortable for long hours in the saddle, and there is plenty of leg room for my lengthy walking sticks. Compared to the similar-era GM and Dodge vans I tested, the foot well is far less cramped.
Being a 2008 Super Duty, this is a 6-liter turbodiesel V8. It’s not exactly revered as a great motor, and there are a few common issues with them. The EGR system typically gets clogged up with soot. These engines don’t respond well to hop-up parts, as the torque-to-yield head bolts are weak, so more boost is a liability. I plan to keep the engine fairly stock, but may eventually upgrade those bolts and an aftermarket EGR cooling system to mitigate some issues.
The 5R110W transmission is a little slow to shift, particularly when it’s cold. It also has this strange squeal (in the video above) when kicking down to a lower gear at highway speeds. The van is booked for a shop appointment to get everything sorted next week, and I’m hoping it won’t need a new transmission. I’ve been told to look for a cracked downpipe, so maybe it’s just as simple as that.
Oh yeah, it developed a check engine light a few hundred miles into the drive home from picking up the vehicle in Los Angeles. Because of course.
Ugh, the air conditioning is currently borked. There are two separate A/C systems for this van, one for the front and one for the rear. Neither seem to work right now, but I need to figure out if I’m operating the rear system properly. Either way, it’ll be going in for a full A/C system checkup soon. Unfortunately not before I have to drive it across the central valley of California where it is currently 109 degrees. Two windows down, 60 miles per hour, baby.
The one part of the interior compartment showing its age was the pitted and gross factory original steering wheel. A banger $12 cover from Wal Mart fixed that up nicely.
And it may not be my highest quality installation ever, but the dodgy factory radio was immediately ditched for a nice $180-marked-down-from-$650-open-box-special touchscreen Pioneer Apple CarPlay unit from Best Buy. It was slightly too large for the dash, so I attacked it with a dremel until it squeezed in there acceptably. Is it a pro-grade install? Hell no. But it’ll do the trick.
There are a few little things around the vehicle which still need to be addressed, like the fact that this driver’s side reading lamp is broken and no longer functions.
And that a heat-brittled wiper blade appears to have broken off and given the windshield a good wallop at some point or another. Oh, Safelite?
One last thing. Oh lord, the cost of maintenance is high. I did a preventative oil, filter, trans fluid, and trans filter swap on this thing, and it ran me an incredible amount of money. Despite doing it myself, the job still entailed four gallons of motor oil and two gallons of transmission fluid. Add in OEM filters and you’re talking 200 bucks for a standard service. That’s a big old oof.
I guess that pretty much covers it.
Every time you get a new vehicle, you come up with plans for it, right? Yeah, I’m the same way.
For sure the van needs an aesthetic makeover, especially if it’s going to haul the Radwood gear. I sort of wanted something from the Rad-era (that’s 1980 to 1999) but couldn’t find anything I felt comfortable relying on getting parts for in the middle of Nebraska. A 7.3-powered Econoline might have fared better, but anything with a 7.3 is immediately $25,000, it seems (and has zero emissions devices, which is diametrically opposed to my sensibilities). So, I got the later 2008 model, but as luck would have it, my local junkyard has a 1992 Econoline on the premises, so I’m going to swing down there and pick up all of the front end sheetmetal to do a body backdate. Think of it like what Singer does to Porsche 911s. Yeah, same thing.
The stock steel wheels have to go. These eight-luggers look pretty great with an Alcoa-style aluminum telephone-dial wheel, so I’ll be on the lookout for some of those. Right now I’m leaning toward the American Racing AR172 Baja in a 17-inch design. Naturally, I’ll need a swing-out rear-bumper tire carrier for a fifth full-sized spare. Instead of the traditional OverVANder style of knobby off-roady tires, I’ll be going for a low-rolling resistance long-haul highway tire which should last a lot of miles.
While most of these vans get lifted with a front axle, I’ll be sticking with rear-wheel drive and a 1-2" lowering kit. I would like to eke out the miles per gallon if I can.
For now I don’t think a roof rack will be necessary, but we’ll see how that goes.
To increase interior capacity and make it easier for me to see out the back of the van, I’ll be removing the solo jump-seat from behind the driver’s seat, and removing the half of the partition wall behind the passenger’s seat. I’ll keep the wall behind the driver, because there’s nice storage there, and the driver’s seat doesn’t need to move any further back.
I’d like to maybe one day replace the factory seat with one of those special Recaro air-suspended long-haul trucker jobs. They look super comfy. For now I’ll probably just buy a seat cover from Reno local Motor Sheep, because I’ve always wanted one of those.
Obviously a removable motorcycle wheel chock in the rear compartment will replace the chocks for the stretcher, and I’ll have to put some tie-down hooks in the floor somewhere. And the rear bumper step will be swapped out for a nice sturdy hitch.
I’d like to eventually experiment with running a waste vegetable oil system, but there are a lot of difficulties involved with that whole thing, so maybe not. We’ll see.
So that’s my new van. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine. I intend to fix it up a bit, make a few modifications, and keep it for quite a long time into the future. Do I wish it was a little better for the environment? Of course. Do I wish it was a little more comfortable? Yeah. But for the money I spent, I’m quite happy with this purchase. Even if I have to invest a few grand into cleaning it up and making it right again, this beast will probably serve dutifully for many thousands of hours to come.