Cars of a Lifetime: 1986 Chevrolet 4×4 Van – Once We Were Lovers

As many readers may know, I have flirted with 4×4 vans for some time. But the dream of a full sized 4×4 van has never really blossomed. I even owned one one but it was a project that never got off the ground. I thought my dreams of free-wheelin’ vandom were dashed without ten thousand bucks or more to buy a really good one until I found this one.

And one day there it was; I had been looking around and everyone wanted around four thousand bucks for a half (and I do mean half) decent one. I was pretty doubtful when I read the ad, but who knows, miracles can happen right?  The guy said he thought it ran rough and would need a carburetor. I asked him if it was drivable and he said it drove just fine. Now, it was located in Medford which is two hundred and twenty nine miles away from me. So I asked him if he thought it would make the trip. He said he thought it would but it was a big gamble anyway, since he only drove it a few times a year for gold prospecting. I thought it over. I knew if I passed on it, I would kick myself later. But what if it blew up far away from home? I didn’t have the cash to have it towed back too. I decided to go for it.

I booked a ticket on the Gray Dog for very early Saturday morning. I packed a backpack full of the most common wrench sizes and other goodies. It was a long time since I last rode the bus. When I was growing up, my parents would move all over just for the hell of it. By my calculation, I have over one hundred thousand miles on the bus and at least twenty thousand on the train. Most of that was before I was even twelve. When I boarded the bus, a lot had changed. the driver was now behind a clear plastic partition like a stripper in a booth, but without the good parts. The bus looked very new and modern, and very European, even though it was not. But the seats were like torture devices, extraordinary rendition quality, really. My lord, I could never have rode all those miles I rode on old MCI’s and GMC’s in this piece of crap. Other than that, the bus was still the same. This one was bound for LA so it had the usual assortment of grifters, urchins, bums, and other jetsam. That, I was OK with, this being my old territory.

The bus ride was of course needlessly long and when I finally arrived I had a five mile or so walk ahead of me. The walk felt good after the “seats” had been tenderizing my rump for several hours. The house was easy to find and I saw the van right away. It was perfect, clean, straight, no rust, good tires, newer custom upholstery, CB, stereo system, etc. The man came out to meet me; he was an older, heavy set fellow we will call Max. Max was very nice and I could tell he had not sold a car in a long time. He said he had owned the van for several years and had had an engine put in it and had just had the transmission rebuilt at AAMCO.

We started it up and drove it around. It would not idle well, but it ran great. At some time someone had done a professional job on the upholstery. Unfortunately Max had put in some cheap conversion van seats, I really would have preferred the factory vinyl; oh well. We moved into the bargaining phase. I had not bought a return ticket so I was at a disadvantage. But I let Max know I was not adverse to waiting for the next bus. I thought the price was more than fair but I am a cheap-ass-jerk. We agreed on twenty two hundred and fifty dollars. I could see Max needed the money and I probably should not have even negotiated, but it’s in my blood.

The first thing I did was to find out where a service shop was to have the oil changed, chassis lubed, and tires aired up. I ended up at Sears and had said services performed.

After that I hit the road. I really had very little idea whether the van would make it back or not. It sounded like there was a little pinging in the engine but Max said it had always sounded that way. I noticed the exhaust manifolds were a bit odd so perhaps that explains it. Nonetheless, I went easy on her. I stopped and filled up the tank, which proved to be just enough fuel to get back. It was a long drive, but the van did have a good stereo and a CB. When I got back it was dark and I had no time to work on the rig for a week or so.

The van is a one ton, twelve passenger, set up with an unidentified 350 crate motor with an Edelbrock Performer manifold and Edelbrock AFB style carburetor, dual exhaust, a TH400 transmission, NP 203 transfer case on a custom adapter, fourteen bolt semi-floater GM rear end with some kind of limited slip differential, and a leaf sprung Dana 44 up front. The conversion was done by LRP (Leisure and Recreational Products) in Wisconsin. They were one of the big van conversion companies back in the van craze of the late seventies, early eighties.

Transmission adapter

I ran a car fax report on it but it starts in 1990 something. There is no history before that. I am pretty sure it was purchased by the US Government or as a fleet vehicle for some company and that might explain it. The color is odd. It’s not US Forrest Service green, it’s too pale. Look as I might, I can’t figure out who might have owned it originally. But I did find a guy in Alaska who had one very similar to this one. But he was not sure where it came from either.

I got rid of the Edelbrock carburetor, as they are one of the worst carburetors for off-roading. I replaced it with a rebuilt Quadrajet. The Quadrajet will keep chugging along at nearly any angle and has much better slow speed response. After that, the van ran pretty good, though still a bit unevenly. But the power it produced was pretty phenomenal for such a basic set up. Romp on the gas and it would burn rubber on both rear wheels, through second gear, making zero-to-sixty mph in about eight seconds. That’s pretty good for a full size four wheel drive van. The driving experience was a bit like driving an old fashioned roller skate. Being a one-ton on a shorter chassis with leafs up front, it was pretty bouncy.

I found a full length roof rack for it and we put that on. Plus we also found a Warn winch bumper for a pickup cheap. It’s a good thing my friend has a nice fabricating set up, otherwise we would never have made that bumper fit!

It drank gas like there was a hole in the tank. We took it to the beach which cost us an ungodly sum. I noticed that as we went up the coast range hills it lost a little power and when we got to our destination I noticed the engine sounded more “pingy”. I was worried but I didn’t say anything about it to the wife.  On the sand it seemed to struggle a bit. Perhaps it was the way it’s laid out, but it took a lot of gas to power through. We drove several miles down the beach until we came to an inlet were we had to turn around.

The surf was piling up some nasty mud and the turning radius on this van is one of the worst I have ever seen. So I backed around to avoid it going through the surf. But the reverse shuddered. I thought I was just spinning the tires so we went forward a little and then tried again. No reverse, the wheels were not even turning. I had moved forward enough to get into the surf a little. Now I had no choice but to go through it. It was very soft and somewhat muddy. We said a short  prayer to ourselves and I gave it lots of gas. We very nearly did get stuck but managed to power out of it. Eventually to get off the beach I had to air my tires down to ten psi and dig out several times.  Kids are very handy for this, and that’s why I carry more than one shovel.

It’s funny, our 79′ Suburban was probably the best beach rig (probably due to it’s 12.5 x 33 inch tires), followed closely by the 95′ land Rover Discovery. In the Toyota Vans, even though they were OK, I could feel that I would get stuck if I went too far. But this Chevy van was terrible, it even has fairly wide tires so I am not sure why, perhaps it’s the weight distribution and gearing.

The reverse on the transmission was completely gone. I later had it diagnosed as a burnt out low/reverse band. I know I can repair it, I have done it before, but it’s a big pain in the rear.

I noticed on the way back that the engine temp was climbing near the top of the big hills but it never got critical. After our trip I replaced the spark plugs and set the timing. Neither of these made much difference and the plugs looked good. But one day I was coming back from work, I rounded the next to last corner to my house when I heard a loud pinging start. I pulled into the driveway and after a while I tried to start it up, it would not start. Diagnosis found that the fuel pump had quit. So I had my son replace it. Eventually we got her going again, but it was now pinging a lot more. No matter where I put the timing, it would not stop. I had to dial it way back to minimize it, which really cut down on the power.

I took it to an acquaintance who is a professional mechanic, but he had no answers. I replaced the carburetor base plate gasket and looked for air leaks/warpage. Nothing made a difference, so I had to assume the worst. I figured it was most likely a hole in a piston caused by continuous pre-combustion on some hot spot. Strangely when I talked to several mechanics about this, they seemed to act as if I were speaking in Greek. So I decided to drive it until it got bad enough to tell for sure what it was, since Chevy parts are dirt cheap.

It did get worse. Now running very badly, we took compression readings on all the cylinders. All were good except numbers three and five. Zero psi in number three and twenty five psi in number five! Well it was head pulling time; my oldest son did most of that, thank God for kids! The problem was of course obvious with the head removed. A blown head gasket between the two cylinders. I wondered how that could be all though. Number three was full of carbon, so I cleaned it out and there it was; the confirmation of my suspicions. The back side of the piston was completely burned away revealing the top ring even! I hate it when I am right!

So that’s as far as I have got on it. Right now I am trying to locate a piston just like the one in it. There are a lot of them that are close, but non exactly like it.  It’s been so long since I had to do anything like this, I really do hate it now. But luckily my son is pretty capable, if not a little lazy.

In the interim we purchased a replacement vehicle and it’s quite an enjoyable ride. I have still not decided on the future of this van. It offers lots of room and convenience. But in return it eats fuel like it’s chocolate. It’s not the most refined of vehicles with a ride like a skate, and it’s pretty dang loud at full throttle up a mountain. Off-road, it ain’t so hot either, with very limited front axle articulation and a terrible turning radius. The great things about a twelve passenger van though; are that one can fit everything a family of seven needs for an outing inside. And when we get there, I can put the back seat down into a bed, put up an awning, set up a table, and relax very comfortably.

But the van fills me with bitterness. I really don’t know what I will do with it; fix it up and sell it, sell it as-is, keep it? For right now, I am enjoying it’s replacement, but that’s going to be the last COAL I write after the next one.