Cars Of A Lifetime: 1988 Ford Diesel Van – A Killer Van Or Big Ugly Number Two

After owning the Big Ugly Ford van, we found ourselves wanting a more economical van to take its place. Not to mention one in better shape, as well as one with a wheelchair lift. But what kind of vehicle can accommodate a wheelchair lift and still get good miles-per-gallon, plus hold nine or more people? We eventually found one, but little did we know it would prove to be the grim reaper of automobilia.

After parting with the fifteen passenger Ford, we drove a tow-lot Chevy van for awhile until the transmission started to go. So I started looking around for something better. Years ago I had been very interested in obtaining a Ford van with a 7.3 Diesel engine. I found an ’88 twelve-passenger three-quarter-ton back then for three thousand dollars. It was tan and brown, and was in near new condition. It had a full length Conn-Ferr roof rack as well. I passed on it because I thought the price was steep. Ever since I’ve worn out several pairs of pants from kicking myself for not buying it.

So I began looking through the advertisements for a diesel van or something like that. All the time I had the image of that missed opportunity in my head though. And then one day I found an ad for a nineteen eighty-eight three quarter ton 7.3 diesel twelve passenger van with a wheelchair lift. He wanted twenty five hundred dollars for it.  Of course I called up and arranged a meeting right away!

One of my prerequisites for looking at any diesel is that it should be stone cold when I get there. If the glow plugs are working it should start right up after glowing. If not, it could be either low compression or bad plugs. It’s easy to test the plugs, not so much the compression. So I asked for it to be cold when I arrived. Previous bad experiences have shown that  if they agree, and then it is warm, or if they won’t agree, than it’s best just to pass it up.

(My son looking “cool” in it.)

The van looked exactly like the one I had passed on years ago, minus the roof rack and with the addition of the wheelchair lift. It was tan and brown, in about eighty five percent condition on the outside and about ninety five percent on the inside! It was a three quarter ton with a C6 transmission and the 7.3 non-turbo indirect injection engine. And it was stone cold when I arrived and fired right up after glowing.

I drove it down the road and out on the highway a bit. I smelled a little antifreeze and noticed a film on the inside of the windshield, a bad heater core. It ran great but the transmission seemed to have a little slip or almost free spooling between second and third gear. The man said it had always done that in the two years he had had it. He seemed to be a very honest family man and I took his word for it (something I don’t usually do). I knew the heater core was no big deal on this so I decided to get it, I was not going to let another brown and tan, IDI diesel, 3/4 ton, 88′, Ford van slip away!

I replaced the heater core right away and also found the correct glow plugs for it at an affordable price. I wanted to replace them because most of the time people just put in whatever is cheap at the auto parts store. Anything except the Ford spec ZD9 plugs made by Beru will burn out quick. Some of them will even swell up and break off inside the engine with disastrous results! So I replaced the glow plugs for good measure. Usually the glow plug relay quits on these as well and can be retrofitted with a starter relay and a push button, but mine always worked just fine. I also flushed the cooling system and filled it with the proper low silicate coolant and distilled water. As well, I also added DCA and got some test strips for it.

The wheelchair lift was an electric, single arm, side door mounted unit. It worked well most of the time though I did have to repair some of the safety sensor wires and such. The tires on the van looked good but one developed a broken belt on our way to buy a canoe in Portland. So I really couldn’t trust them, but luckily we had purchased new load range E tires for our E350. and kept the tires when we junked it. Being that good heavy-duty tires cost around eight hundred bucks or more for a set, I was glad I had them around.  And as an added bonus, the sliding door never gave us any real trouble except for being somewhat sticky.

As loyal readers may remember, my mother was taking care of my aging grandmother and both were living with us. As grandmother got older she was diagnosed with systematic cancer (years of smoking). So the wheelchair lift became a real necessity.

The van got about thirteen miles-per-gallon, which seems to be about what the IDI diesels get when coupled to a C6. It was better than the previous 460 and had just as much torque. We put it to good use. We took it to the beach, where we could go down on the harder sand (being that it was two-wheel-drive) and let grandma off right at the surf.  We used it to haul all of our hunting gear for a week-long outing for a bunch of us. And during the time we had it, I don’t think it ever gave us any problems at all.

My mother became sick during this time and was laid up for a few days. She was not getting any better and said she felt the worst she had ever felt. So Michelle decided to take her to the hospital. She used the wheelchair and lift, but just as she was helping her on to the lift she died. Medical staff tried to revive her but she was gone. It’s just the way she had wanted to go though, sudden as it was. And when our friend Peter heard about it he remarked that he wished he would go the same way, and a couple of years later he did.

Now there was only eight of us and it fell to Michelle to be the care provider for my Grandmother. So the van and lift continued to faithfully serve us for another year. Eventually Grandmother passed away in hospital, the van being her last car ride as well. As a side note, (we have a rather dark sense of humor in our circle) Grandma was given a cane on her first trip to the hospital while mom was still alive. Mom started developing some hip problems and began to use the cane. And then Mom passed away. So the cane went back to Grandma and then she passed away. So the cane ended up with Peter who collected canes. And then he passed away. We now refer to it as “the cane of death”. We tried to pass it off on to our friend Mr. Green, but strangely he would not take it.

So there was only seven of us now. The killer van had outlived its intended users and was now a bit much for our smaller family. I started looking around for a little 4×4 pickup and I found a good one. I called up the guy and asked if he would trade for a van………..