Posts from ‘vans’
So a bit over a week ago I dropped off my custom ’79 Chevy Shorty Camper van with my buddy Tom down south of the city in wine country.
Story goes like this: Tom has had a serious crush on my late 60′s chopper ever since he first laid eyes on it — something about the vintage custom one-off nature of the thing was highly appealing to a hotrodder/gearhead/fabricator like him. He has always done right by me, and I’m not afraid to stick my neck out for my buddies. So last summer when the weather was beautiful and he was pining for something to ride, I handed him the keys and loaded the chopper into his truck, saying only that I was sure that we would find some way for him to make it a fair deal down the road. No money changed hands. No contract was written out. Just a handshake between friends, and an understanding that one way or the other he would make good.
He played with it all summer: took it to shows, flogged it through the backroads in wine-country, waxed poetic about it, and generally made me happy to have passed it into his keeping. Sometimes, watching a friend having fun with something you made is every bit as good as enjoying it yourself. . .
Well, Tom has some serious skills – he is a skilled mechanic, can build performance engines all day, is a bad-ass custom fabricator, and also is a master of building crazy off road machines. He used to own a custom 4WD shop and did high end conversions and upgrades — everything from mild mannered daily drivers, to hill climbers, to the kind of trucks that can jump, take 10′ of air and land with no troubles. So, when he offered to do a serious 4WD conversion to my camper van (with all freshly rebuilt running gear) as trade for the chopper, I knew it was a more-than-fair offer.
And so for months now he has been collecting parts and planning the conversion, and now she had been handed off to begin the process. It seems that my girl will be getting rebuilt period-correct heavy-duty 6-lug Blazer running gear, a 12-bolt rear, with Eaton positracs front and rear, and a correct transfer case attached to my existing turbo-350 trans. She will lose the A-arms and instead have leaf spring mounted hard axles front and rear, and a set of burly original 6-bolt rally wheels.
The process will take a few weeks. . . and be ready in time for my (hopefully) upcoming roadtrip. I can barely wait.
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P.s. here are pics of the chopper. I found her as a dilapidated, non-running, half-wrecked roller in Idaho, and rebuilt her myself with nothing but vintage period-correct trick parts which I found one at a time in junkyards, ebay, and Craigslist. Now she is the equal of most show bikes, and has that honest patina of age and wear that the ratrod guys try to fake.
As promised, here are some pics of my shorty camper van post remodel.
We reused the original cooler and outlet box, but other than that it was completely new. The cabinet is solid pine, and the sink is stainless steel. The hand- pump faucet is a pre-fab RV/marine unit, plumbed into a small tank in the cabinet, and draining (along with the cooler) out through the floor of the van. Instead of installing a stove unit into the counter-top I decided to go with a portable butane unit, as they are a bit safer for indoor use than the standard propane units, and it makes the space more versatile.
The addition of the sink allowed me to regain my motorhome insurance classification, which should save me over $50 per month on insurance!
Soon the van will be handed off to my buddy Tom to begin 4WD conversion with heavy-duty running gear. Stay tuned!
So over the past week or so I have a couple of extended work sessions with a carpenter buddy who is helping me remodel and expand the kitchen/galley in the ’79 shorty camper van.
To date, we have ripped out the old galley (salvaging the built in cooler), and fabricated a new larger galley which will house not only the old cooler but also a sink, faucet, and freshwater tanks, with a power outlet extension and extra storage. The bare minimum necessary for extended camping, and to fall into a different insurance category.
Upon careful consideration, I decided not to install a propane stove, due to concerns re venting and high flames in a wood-lined box. However, I have sourced some small modular countertop butane stoves which have far fewer issues in terms of fumes, and excessive heat. They dont get quite as hot, but are more than adequate for boiling water for the morning coffee which, honestly, will 90% of the interior cooking I expect to do.
I hope to finish it next week. Here are some pics of what we have done so far.
So, I replaced the old, ugly, rusty, barely-functional, “custom” Ford style truck mirrors some dumbass mounted on my beautiful ’79 Chevy shorty van back in the 70s with a nice set of GM style van mirrors. In addition to being a visual blight on the old girl, I could barely see anything out of the old mirrors, and every time I hit a bump they went out of adjustment. And they rattled. A lot. The new ones actually allow me to see behind me. . . and aesthetics have been greatly enhanced. It was easy — took about an hour. . . should have done this ages ago. . .
And, I took the ’76 Camaro on her first roadtrip up to Seattle last weekend. She did great on the freeway! 3rd gear is exceptionally tall. Cruising at 60mph you are at about 2100 RPM, 70mph is about 2500 RPM, and 80 is about 2800 RPM which keeps the engine nice and relaxed. I pushed her to 100 a few times, and there was a lot left — I have no doubt she would peg the 130mph speedo if I asked it of her. . . and I might one of these days. . .
Best all, the nice tall freeway gear gave me 22 MPG on my trip up to Seattle, and that included half an hour of 0-5 MPH Seattle traffic. Not bad for a stock un-rebuilt 35 year old 5 liter engine. Im guessing that is literally twice the MPG I would have gotten from the ’69 Mustang. . . perhaps more. That thing could pass anything but a gas station.
As promised, here are a couple pics of camping in Black Rock city at the 2011 Burning Man festival.
The van has been described extensively below.
The bike was a $15 POS I bought from the Goodwill 5 years ago, and has been used exclusively for Burning Man. It has an anti-theft system: if someone tries to shift gears the de-railer will launch the chain into their ankle. Maintenance for this lovely machine consists of being thrown into my parents garden shed after the event and sprayed down with WD-40 before the event every year. I secretly hope someone will steal it, but no one has. . . I wonder why?
The shade structure is a vintage military surplus shade netting, pole and spreader system. I have been using it for about 5 years now with nothing but success. It looks kind of rough, and takes a few minutes to set up, but it had survived gale-force winds with no damage. There have been a few years when everything around me was leveled by dust storms with 40-70 MPH winds, but the old mil-surplus setup was still standing.
2011 was my 10th year attending Burning Man, and due to my sweet van it was my most comfortable by far. After doing it this way, it is safe to say that I will never do Burning Man in a tent again.
So, I have been attending the Burning Man festival for a decade now. Hell, the festival camping circuit is one of the reasons I am such a devotee of custom “camping capable” vans.
This year, before I left for the thousand mile trip to BRC and back, I took my sweet little Custom ’79 shorty van into a professional shop to have a safety inspection and make sure my amateur mechanical skills hadn’t missed something mission critical. After a 32 point inspection they basically gave her a clean bill of health, although they recommended a “transmission service,” due to aging fluids, which I had them perform.
The little old shorty did really well on the trip out — 6500 feet of elevation gain while heavily loaded down with hundreds of pounds of gear, food and water was no sweat. She took the curvy roads like a champ. And, even got pretty decent gas milage. I arrived at 12:30 AM on Monday morning.
But upon arriving at the entrance line to the festival, during the miles and miles of slow creeping progress from idle, she started to show problems. The transmission started slipping, and eventually refused to engage altogether. Some random nice people helped me push her off to the side of the queue (into the dreaded “D-Lot” a.k.a. BRC Purgatory. . .). Basically, she was dead in the middle of the Nevada high desert, many many miles from anything resembling civilization.
But, I didn’t freak out. I didn’t panic. I didn’t give up. I strapped on my headlamp, grabbed my socket set and Leatherman Tool and crawled under the van.
The entire undercarriage was coated with a sludgy mix of desert dust and many quarts of transmission oil — all the fresh fluids I had paid professionals to instal had been dumped in the desert. Uh oh.
But, again no panic and no freak out. I was in my Zen space — somehow I knew I had this.
A looked for the source of the problem. And, despite the thick coating of sludge and near total darkness, eventually found the leak: a cracked hose leading to the tranny cooler. I cut out the cracked part, spliced the hose together and reclamped it. Then I spent six hours begging passing cars entering the festival for spare transmission fluid, until I had put in enough that the car would engage and allow me to drive the rest of the way into the event and make camp. The next day I was able to source enough tranny oil to fill her up properly (thanks to DPW and the man known as “The Satanic Mechanic”! And, thanks to the helpful D-Lot crew.) Apparently my diagnosis and fix was a success, because she made it all the way home without any problems — and this after a week of camping in the desert.
Now that I’m safely back in civilization, I’m going to have some words with the “professional shop” about the quality of their inspections, and their ability to service a transmission without checking its integrity. But, the satisfaction of taking care of business when it mattered, was, I think, worth it.
So, for the 10th time, I will be attending the Burning Man festival in Nevada. In preparation for this, I have done a bunch of work on the little shorty camper van to prep it for the trip and the camping portion when there.
Among other things, I have (with the invaluable help of Mr. Z), fabricated a new base for and then mounted a swiveling front passenger seat, had the rear vent hatch replaced (by professionals who warrantee against leakage, TYVM), and had a pro shop check my work, give it an overall safety check, a tranny service (sounds kind of dirty, eh?), and track down a couple stubborn electrical issues. And, I replaced the dry-rotted-hockey-puck of a spare.
I think she is about ready for a nice long trip to the desert. And, spending a week camping in her should be pretty posh as well. . . definitely better than a tent in a dust storm. . . I’ll upload pics of shorty camp when I get back.
As I got deeper and deeper into the world of motorcycles, I fell in love with simplicity in engineering and the commensurate ability for a moderately intelligent amateur wrench to tackle 90% of the issues which accompany vintage bike ownership. Nothing makes you feel like a self reliant old-school red-blooded American like rebuilding a 60s era chopper yourself, using it as a daily driver, and routinely fixing the damn thing on the side of the road when it breaks down again and again. Eventually, I got good enough that they weren’t breaking down so much, and boy was I proud.
During this time, I had been running a series of practical, reliable and exceptionally milquetoast vehicles. The epitome of this was the (above/below mentioned) Volvo 240d station wagon which I owned for years. It was literally the same make, model and year that I had learned to drive on as a 15 and 1/2 year old. It was cheap, reliable, super practical, ugly, underpowered, and perhaps the least “cool” vehicle I had ever owned. I would get thumbs up from dreadlocked old hippies and hipsters with ironic mustaches and double-digit IQs as we would pass each other in identical vehicles. Despite an affection for the damn thing due to so many road trips and camping trips in it, I hated it at a fundamental level. I never washed it, ever. When I sent to sell it I had it detailed, and it literally looked like a different car — I had forgotten what color it was, that is how dirty the Volvo had gotten.
And this while I was running more and more kick-ass bikes. The kind of bikes that in a couple cases literally caused traffic accidents from people rubbernecking to get a better look. Eventually, I decided I wanted to indulge an old fantasy is pick up the kind of custom trick van I had always wanted as a kid in the 80s. The kind of van that was effectively a posh portable living room. Such things are pretty much exclusively built from American full-size vans (although that didn’t stop me from trying to make do with a couple Toyota space pods), and so I ended up with a full sized American vehicle for the first time in my life.
Despite my prejudices and preconceptions I really really liked it. This was a older vehicle from the mid-80s, and even though it had all the available options it was still spartan compared with what I was used to. What I lost in handling, prestige and sophistication I gained in simplicity, ruggedness and brute power. And, it was basic enough I could work on it myself, just like an old motorcycle — no black boxes, no fancy electronics, nothing that some basic hand-tools and determination couldn’t conquer. All the sudden I had some pride in ownership again. . . and whaddaya know, somehow there was always time to keep it clean and sharp looking.
And the engine! It was an ’86 Chevy LE9 5.0 L 305ci — literally the last year of the carbureted 305. The prior owner had had it blueprinted and balanced by a race shop — it was smooth, powerful and had the harmonic thrummm that the best built American v8s can get.
I was in love. I suppose it was I suppose inevitable that I would want something similar in a smaller car. . . with a louder exhaust, and a more aggressive cam. . . Something to spank my father’s fancy late model bimmers with . . .
So there you have it — the story of how a kid raised on sophisticated and refined euro marques ended up an apostle of the American v8, solid axles and technology older than himself. . . But, I do still hate bench seats, soft steering and mushy suspension, so I guess I’m not a total Philistine. I’m thinking that a mid 70s Corvette Stingray is somewhere in my future. . .
So, I wanted to ditch the old vinyl tire cover which has uglified the backside of my otherwise pristine ’79 shorty van. Problem was that under the cover was pretty ugly as well — nuts, bolts, and a crusty weather-checked old hockey puck of a tire.
So I craigslisted some rare-ish matching hubcaps, and scrubbed down the old steel wheel. Looks much better methinks. $15 well spent, eh? And I have three spare hubcaps for when I inevitably loose one. . . All I need now is a replacement tire that would be roadworthy in the event that I somehow blow one of my new matched Hanooks.
I do. I always liked the products of the “van craze” of the late 70s and early 80s. The concept of a slick mobile living-room without the excesses of a modern “Class B camper van” or the spartan cookie-cutter cheapness of a VW Westfalia. A trick custom ride that was also very practical and versatile. But, having owned a few “full size” American vans, I can attest to how cumbersome they are to drive in the city. And, lets not even talk about trying to parallel park one. . .
For me the sweet spot was the shorty van. That unusual creature which was effectively a full size van with a shorter wheelbase and about 5′ of the ass-end chopped off. Shorties were only made for a brief period — they were effectively superseded by today’s minivans (van shape on a car chassis — your basic soccer mom rig) and midsize vans (built on light truck chassis and exclusively powered by v6 endines: Aerostars, Astros, and the like). If you want a short van with full heavy truck running gear and availability of a 350 ci V8 engine and serious towing ability, you’re shopping for an older vehicle.
After looking at every shorty van to be craigslisted in the greater PDX area for many many months, I was beginning to resign myself to restoring a dilapidated beater. The notion of rejuvenating a once gloriously trick ride does have some appeal, but I must say it is nicer to find a cherry old vehicle which has clearly been loved and well taken care of.
After lots of looking and a few misfires, I think I finally scored such a rig — to my eye the perfect camping/car-show/festival rig. She is an old school custom shorty van which has been lovingly cared for. She is a 1979 Chevy G20 (3/4 ton) short wheelbase van w/ 350 V8, a turbo 350 transmission & a tranny cooler. This was a special order vehicle — she came from the factory in beautiful “Charcoal Metallic” paint and black high back vinyl bucket seats. Soon thereafter she was give a full custom interior by local van customization shop: wood paneling, wrap around bench seat which can become a bed (of course), custom rear windows, roof vent, and an icebox. Not the most lavish trick van, by any stretch, but simple, classy, comfy and very functional.
I am the third owner. She came with records going back many years — I even have the original dealer window sticker! She has 120K original miles on the vehicle and about 20k on a fresh engine. She got a very high quality repaint of the original color a few years back and the exterior is a perfect match with the painted interior portions. Even has the original bow-tie hubcaps in perfect shape — the paint on the hubcaps is perfect! She is so damn clean I might just have to show her this summer. . . everywhere I have driven her people want to talk to me about how nice she is. I have gotten as much attention on the road with the “little” van as with the ’69 Stang, and that is saying something!