Project Motovan: Off-Road Van Conversion, Part 1

Jun. 27, 2010 By Eric Tabb

Here's our E-350 platform for Project MotoVan.

Life changes quite often dictate lifestyle changes; such is the reasoning for starting Project Motovan. Having gone from being single with a toybox trailer in the driveway and unlimited riding time to being married with an infant has resulted in a very slight impact on my riding and camping time. Where I could once ride at the motocross track one weekend and be in the desert camping and riding the next I am now lucky to get out once every month or two. While family life is wonderful and worth every minute it is a life changer and finding time to still enjoy my hobbies has become even more important to me because that is what helps me get recharged.

Getting ready for a trip takes a lot planning and time. Time is something that doesn’t come easy with a little one at home. No matter how organized you are you still have to spend the time to get things loaded up and get out the door. With a trailer in the driveway you can load up during the week little by little and be close to being ready to go when Friday rolls around. Moving into a bigger house worked great for family life but unfortunately there was no room for the trailer and into storage it went. In addition to loading up the gear at home I was now adding time, the enemy of the weekend getaway, to my schedule on both sides of the trip getting to and from storage. Hooking the trailer up in storage isn’t as fast as at home either, and putting the trailer away can be a downright headache with just one person trying to back it into a parking spot sandwiched between a post on one side and an RV on the other.

The "Open Road" - early inspiration for this project.

After a year of dealing with getting the trailer in and out of storage it was time to look into other alternatives that would shave time getting to camp and back home, leaving more time to enjoy the outdoors. My grandparents used to have an “Open Road” full-size camper van when I was growing up. It was a 2wd van with a hard fiberglass camper top that had a bed in the front, a couch/dinette down below and a small kitchen and stove setup.  They used to enjoy getting away from the city and camping in the desert. Over the years I have seen a few around but they are often converted to ice cream vans.  The idea of a camper van started to ring in my mind as a great alternative to a trailer since it could be parked at home and loaded during the week.

Doing a little research on the internet for camper vans led to quite a few hits. Most of the camper type vans were more city oriented with a very low ground clearance. When out camping, my buddies and I generally head off into the desert and camp away from crowds. In order to get off the beaten path it is a wise idea to have a 4x4 with decent ground clearance. While not mandatory, 4x4 comes in really handy for sand, mud and exploring for potential campsites. For the most part vans do not come in 4x4 from the factory here in the US. There are a few AWD models with independent front suspension but they are not designed for off-road nor do they have a transfer case which is useful for crawling around different terrain.

While attending a local RV show I ran into the folks at Sportsmobile, a well-known camper van outfitter. Speaking with Jonathon, the sales manager, we learned Sportsmobile can outfit a gas or diesel van into a full-on 4x4 camper complete with a plush interior and either a proprietary canvas penthouse pop-top or a fiberglass hard top. They had a 4x4 diesel van on display with their own 4x4 conversion, pop-top and a decked out interior. The van was awesome but besides being completely out of our budget a fully outfitted rig like that particular one doesn’t leave much space inside to haul a dirt bike and gear.

Reading a few van forums revealed a small number of other companies that specialize in converting Ford full-size vans into 4 wheel drive. The main companies I discovered besides Sportsmobile were Quigley, Quadvan, Salem Kroger and the do it yourself u-joint offroad. Each of these companies handles the conversion process a little differently but the net result is a heavy duty 4x4 van. Quigley is a Ford authorized 4x4 conversion company that allows you to order their conversion directly through Ford when buying a new van.  All three of these conversion companies will convert a used van to 4x4 with a price range somewhere in the ballpark of $10-$15K. The u-joint offroad costs will depend on what components you select and if you have a shop help with the install.

It was a tight fit, and had the Van been loaded in a better spot we wouldn't have punctured the tire. The driver was very fair about it, though.

With the cost of converting a stock 2wd van to 4wd being so high we set out to find a van that was already converted. Scanning eBay, Craigslist and other random sites led us to quite a few options with prices anywhere from $12k to over $100K for a full camper conversion. Some were older technology with small V8 engines and lighter weight Dana 40 axles and others were overkill for our needs. After looking for about 6 months we came across a very clean low mileage 2000 Ford E-350 Extended van with the 7.3 liter turbo diesel engine and a factory ordered Quigley 4x4 conversion. We had it inspected by the local Ford dealer in Ohio and once given the all clear we made the financial transaction and had shipped it to its new home in California.

The shipping truck arrived on time but unfortunately getting the van unloaded turned out to be a nightmare. When the shippers arrived in Ohio to load up the van they already had a full load of vehicles on the top. Instead of unloading the cars on top and loading the van like they would normally do they made a bad decision and loaded the van on the bottom where it barely fit. The van is so wide it took up most of the width of the ramps and it was quickly obvious unloading was not going to be easy. One spot on the ramp had a pin sticking out that was used to support the ramps in a certain configuration, but not for the configuration we needed for unloading. While trying to maneuver the front tires around the pin the front end slipped just enough on the ramp to slide right into the pin and instantly puncture the load range E tire.

Our Van's tire didn't fare so well in the move, but we eventually got it off the transporter.

Changing a punctured tire on a moving truck is not an easy thing to do. With the limited space our first attempt at changing the tire left us with not enough room to remove the wheel. After moving the van forward a few feet past the side frame of the trailer we were able to get the punctured tire off and the spare on. The drama wasn’t over however. Each attempt to back the van off the ramps resulted in either almost hitting the pin again or the van getting to close to going off the edge of the ramps. After 3 hours of trying different things the driver threw in the towel and we called a flatbed. The plan was to disconnect the trailer from the truck and have the flatbed pull up to the front of the trailer so we could drive the van onto the flatbed. Luckily it worked and we had the van on the pavement in about 4 hours total. My hat goes off to the driver because although they loaded the van completely wrong he kept his cool the whole time and compensated me for the damage to the van by writing me a blank business check. There was no money made on that shipment!

We hope to be able to load dirt bikes into the van from time to time, but we also need to house all of our camping gear. There are a lot of options with this much space. With the van safely in the driveway I was still tense from the last 4 hours and having second thoughts on the whole thing. Listening to diesel engine just purring in the driveway however made me feel at ease that I did make the right decision. Going with a diesel over a gas motor does have its pluses and minuses which must be weighed against the van’s intended uses. Diesels are generally louder than gas engines but offer more torque and better fuel mileage. Diesel motors also cost more for oil changes and general maintenance but reward owners with excellent durability. The older Ford 7.3 turbo diesel is a well respected motor and in many cases more sought after than the newer 6.0 liter. While the van version of the 7.3 doesn’t have an intercooler like the trucks it is still a great reliable motor that offers good fuel mileage. In my case I am primarily going to use the van for hauling dirtbikes, gear and for camping trips so the extra low-end torque and additional fuel mileage of the diesel outweighed the lower noise of a conventional gas motor.

This particular van not only has the 7.3 liter tried and true diesel but it also came with 4 wheel disc brakes, the heavy duty full-floater rear axle and a beefy Dana 60 axle up front from Quigley. Front and rear limited-slip differentials, a tow package and rear air bags only add to making this rig a great starting platform for our Motovan. With such a great drivetrain combo the van will also make a great tow vehicle if we decide to pull a trailer or boat in the future. The rest of the van is pretty much your basic cargo van with the exception of a headliner and carpet. Luckily it also came with the power package that adds power mirrors, door locks and cruise control. While these are standard features on most of today’s vehicles, on a cargo van they are not necessarily an easy find. Rounding out the options on the van was an aftermarket cow pusher front bumper and steps under the doors for easier access.

An interior view of the front seat area after we got the van off the truck.

The goal for Project Motovan is to create a vehicle with many of the creature comforts of home while at same time still being able to act as a heavy duty hauler for dirtbikes, gear and whatever else shows up on the tow hitch. Reaching that goal will require more research, careful planning and finding the right products. Above all however it will involve finding the right people with the experience to help build such a custom rig. If you have ideas, contacts or input for Project Motovan feel free to send them in. In the mean time the hunt for the right rims and tires begins. Check back to see the progress of Project Motovan. Newsletter
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