Cars Of A Lifetime: 1986 Ford Van- The Big Ugly

It was huge, white, ugly, and functional; what more can one ask from a van? A bit more actually, just a bit.

My friend’s  propensity to breed had caused his family to outgrow his aging Suburban. He had spied the van at a used car dealership and wanted me to take a look at it. So there it sat on the back lot with no mufflers and a green sign that read Special $750.00. It was apparently a former school district vehicle, a one-ton, fifteen passenger with all vinyl seats, a 460 V8 and C6 transmission. We test drove it, looked it over and all, and it seemed to be a solid old van. And so, like Patty Hearst, he bought it.

Of course we put a muffler on it, but the one the dealer had thrown in to “sweeten the deal” was something closer to a Honda muffler than the huge factory one.  So we bought the right muffler which actually cost less than a cheap “glass pack” or generic replacement.

Note the “special” sticker, never removed

Chris drove it for quite some time, and it was big enough to take both our families to the lake with a boat in tow, which it did admirably, turning long grades into effortless big block cruise control relaxation. It was the antithesis of our Toyota Van.

Now Chris has a certain dislike for all things mechanical. He bears a great deal of malice towards automobiles in general. His feeling are based on the idea that a car should serve a man and not the reverse. A great idea, and one that is catching on in more modern vehicles. But older vehicles and the people who designed and owned them saw it differently.

It used to be that a man had to care for his horse just as much, if not more than it cared for him. And when cars came along they were no different. If you care for your car, it will care for you. It’s a sort of covenant we make with anything we own. The more we own, the more it owns us. But modern engineering and thinking are changing all of that into. Nowadays, the more we own, the more we owe. Today you can buy a new car, drive it like you stole it, never check the oil or give a crap about it, and often it will go up to, or over one hundred thousand miles before it utterly fails.

But the covenant between man and horse and subsequently between man and car was never ascribed to by Chris. To wit, one day Chris calls me and asks me to come give him a ride. He says the van is broken down.  I meet him at the broken van and immediately check the oil: there is none.  Chris says “I just had it changed two or three months ago”. We buy oil, fill it up, it starts and runs just fine, score one for Ford, zero for its operator.

You would think that after that I would steer clear of said vehicle. But Chris used it for quite along time afterward with no issues. Except for the sliding door, that is. The sliding door is really one of those inventions like the battery powered shiatsu massager that promises much but only delivers on that promise under ideal circumstances. It seems that many vans, at least American ones, have something wrong with the overly complex mechanisms that operate them. I never seem to be able to find a van with conventional opening side doors, though I see them all over. The door on this van had a habit of popping open randomly, though usually when full of children. Eventually after numerous attempts to fix it, it began actually falling off if not closed just right. Search as we might, we could not find a good mechanism, as all the ones at the junk yards had been taken or were similarly broken, and Ford wanted a small fortune for a new one.

But in spite of all of this, when Chris decided to get a newer Ford van, I bought this one from him for three hundred bucks. My mother was living with us and she was taking care of my grandmother who also lived with us. So with the two of them and our five children, plus a friend or two on outings, and the dog too; well, a big van was a good replacement for our Suburban. It was actually a pretty good van. The miles-per-gallon were not too bad for having a 460 under the hood, being about twelve city, fourteen highway.

But it started to bug me that I could not have my cake and eat it too. I wanted a full sized four-wheel-drive van. All the four-wheel-drive vans for sale were very expensive, so I decided I would have to do it myself. I found an old Quadravan conversion that was ready for the crusher and bought it. It was a rusted out hulk but all the four wheel drive components were there.

The reality of it all

Unfortunately I had failed to take into account several factors. One, it was a twelve passenger model so simply swapping bodies was not an option. Two, it was a three quarter ton model, and when I looked at the frame web depth, I was astonished at the difference. The one-ton had nearly ten-inch frame rails. In comparison, the three quarter ton’s looked like a passenger car’s. Three, Quadravan used a ridiculous suspension set up which delivered very little articulation and a poor ride; observe the track bars pictured above. Four, I am very lazy.

The dream

I got as far as buying a few expensive new parts to do the front end conversion before I realized I was never going to do it, and the city started bugging me about the old van in my driveway. Eventually I sold the hulk for what I paid for it and settled for keeping the van two-wheel-drive.

It served us well except that the door was very annoying to my wife, and it was ugly as sin. I never did much to it except to change the oil and give it a basic tune up once. I figured it was so ugly and of such low value that if it decided to blow up or something, I would just junk it and get another, but it never did. The fuel pump quit; easy fix. And then the brakes utterly failed somehow while my neighbor was borrowing it.  She was able to get it stopped by hitting something; I don’t remember what, but it wasn’t hard. Now how does a modern dual circuit brake system completely fail? I really don’t know; actually, it had fluid, the power assist servo worked, but no brake pressure. I guess the master cylinder somehow blew out both seals at once.

I was now working for a tow truck company and had easy access to my choice of cheap vehicles. So it was the end for the ugly old Ford and time for a nicer looking Chevy. The Ford went to the crusher, though they did pull the good engine. I can’t say I don’t miss it a bit. The van I have now has a high performance 350 crate motor, but there really is no replacement for cubic inches, and 350 versus 460 does make a difference on those big, long hills.  The old Ford actually got better miles per gallon as well!  But the van I have now is four-wheel-drive so I can have my cake and eat it as well, at least in theory.