Archives for category: Repairs

I love my van. But I’ve never been in love with the way it looks. With its plain-white paint job and ’90s-era green-and-teal Mark III factory graphics, it’s always looked more like Grandpa’s RV, and less like anything resembling a badass street machine.

So far, I’ve lived with the less-than-killer appearance, because everything else about it was just too good a deal to pass up.  But now that I’ve officially decided to make it a “project” van, I figured it was time to beef up the looks a little.

In my dreams.

In my dreams.

In a perfect world, I would rush out and have the van’s body professionally stripped, smoothed, and drenched in 15 coats of purple metal flake. But in reality, even if I had the $2,000 – $5,000 to spend on pro bodywork and paint, the fact remains that I park my van on the streets of Brooklyn each night. It’s not a bad neighborhood, and I’ve been fairly lucky so far. But that doesn’t mean that tomorrow some moron won’t lose control and skid right into the side of all my hopes and dreams. Whatever improvements I make to her, I still have to be ready to walk outside and expect the worst.

With all that in mind, I’ve decided on a compromise: I’m going to remove all the existing vinyl graphics and pinstriping, deal with any necessary body repairs, and then restore it to its original Glacier White paint job, using aerosol touch-up paint and clear coat. Once that’s done, I’ll think about installing some kind of new graphics— hopefully something more “classic car” and less “Days Inn bedspread”. It won’t be show quality, but if I take my time and do it right, I just may end up with a decent “20-footer”. (In other words, a paint job that looks great… from over 20 feet away.)

And as with all of my do-it-yourself van activities, the work will all have to be done curbside, on the streets of New York City. Just to keep things interesting.

The first, very big step was to get the vinyl graphics off. Luckily, 3M makes a tool specifically designed for that: the Stripe Off Wheel.

stripe-off_wheel

Stock photo. Totally not my van. Or my hands.

It’s basically a big, heavy rubber eraser that fits on the end of a power drill. In theory, it quickly rubs vinyl stripes and graphics right off, without doing any damage to the paint. In actual practice, it’s a tiny bit more complicated. While it technically didn’t take any paint off, there were quite a few areas where it left some distinctive yellow smudges on the finish. I’m not sure if that was residue from the wheel itself, or maybe a result of the clear coat being heated up. Either way, I highly recommend this wheel— as long as you understand that you may have to end up doing some further refinishing when it’s done.

On a gorgeous, sunny Saturday in May, I parked in front of my building,  ran a heavy-duty extension cord out my second-story window, and hooked up the drill. Six hours later, I had the van completely stripped. I then went back with some 1000-grit sandpaper and #0000 steel wool and scrubbed off all the residue where the graphics had been (a result, I’m guessing, of 18 years’ worth of subtle dirt against the vinyl). There were a couple areas near the bottom of my passenger-side doors where the paint was already pebbled and cracked (the same place, probably not coincidentally, where the rust seems to be worst), and some of it came up with the wheel. With my hands sore from a day of drill-handling, and the sun fading, I threw a pre-emptive coat of primer on the rough spots, and called it a day.

Before...

Before…

... and after.

… and after.

It’s gonna need a lot more fine-sanding, and possibly some bondo, before the body is 100% clean. But the graphics were a huge step toward the final goal. And I think that, without all the stripes in the way, the body lines actually look a lot more sleek.

Next step: Sandpaper… and a whole lot of patience.

It’s been over two years since my last post on here. There are a lot of reasons I’ve fallen behind. But the main one is that my band, Uncle Leon and the Alibis, put out a new album at the end of last year. I’m really happy with the result, but the recording, mixing, and subsequent self-promotion did a good job of eating up my life for a while.

The good news is, the van is still running. She’s been through a lot of unglamorous—but very necessary—repairs. In the summer of 2011, one of her brake lines rusted through, up near the master cylinder, and I had to have the whole thing replaced. (Of course it happened the week before a big trip, but we managed to get on the road with only one day lost.) I learned that brake lines are incredibly simple parts… that require some very tricky access and a hell of a lot of custom bending. The final bill was $15 in parts… and $1000 in labor. Ouch.

Chiltons

Then, last spring, I took her in for her yearly inspection. She’d been running pretty sluggish, and louder than usual, so I was pretty sure there was a hole in the exhaust somewhere. Sure enough, the mechanic called and told me that the entire exhaust system, from the catalytic converter back, looked “like swiss cheese”. Once again, I whipped out the credit card and grabbed my ankles.

After that, I decided that this van is officially a restoration project. I’d already been told that, with less than 115,000 miles on the odometer, the motor should be good for a while (he says, knocking very loudly on wood.) The problem now is keeping all the little things from wearing out—particularly since, underneath, this is very much a Northeastern van. (For those of you lucky enough not to know what that means: Up here in the cold, nasty North, we’ve got a thing called rust. It’s exacerbated by salt, which gets poured all over the roads when it snows in the winter. Rust is everywhere, and it sucks. There’s a reason that, in the classified ads, you will see the phrase “California” or “Southern” car, usually accompanied by a much higher asking price.) On the other hand, I now have an all-new exhaust and a half-new brake system, which means two less major things I’ll have to worry about for a while. I also put four brand-new tires on last year—a gift from my girlfriend Ashlie (who, perhaps not coincidentally, I am now engaged to). And I finally replaced my smashed stock plastic grille with an aftermarket aluminum billet one.

grille

The next big step will be to tackle the cosmetics of the body. In particular, removing the cheesy stock Mark III graphics, which I’ve never liked. And slowly tackling the many, many tiny nicks, scratches, and rust spots that have gathered over the years. I’ll be devoting separate posts to both these activities very soon.

I’d like to tell you that the first thing I did to my newly acquired van was to replace the  interior with purple shag carpet,  or to whip out the airbrush and cover both sides of the van with this:

And honestly, you’d probably enjoy this post more if I did.

The reality, though, is that before I can put any time or money into making this old girl look good, I’ve got to make sure she’s running strong. And that’s going to mean a lot of necessary but unglamorous repairs.  I realize that, for most people, this isn’t going to be the most fascinating stuff to read about. However, I’m including it all for the sake of completeness–and on the off chance that at some point, somebody out there with a similar predicament might just find it a little bit useful.

The first challenge was the rearview mirror. The previous owner removed it, because he felt that it obstructed his wide-open view during his long trips between New York and South Dakota. He was thoughtful enough to keep the mirror, though. And realizing that, in my reality, having one more way to see behind me in Brooklyn traffic was probably going to be a more pressing issue than missing the occasional stunning view, I decided to re-install the mirror.

I bought a special mirror-gluing kit, figured out where the center of my windshield was, cleaned everything, put the glue on both surfaces, and held it in place for a minute. When I took my hand away, voila–the mirror was mounted. Pleased with my handiwork, I reached up to adjust the newly restored rear view–and popped the mirror right off. Apparently you’re supposed to let the glue dry before you start messing with it like a dipshit. Oops. I made a note to go back to the auto parts store for more glue, and moved on.

Next up was a much bigger problem: The driver’s side seat adjustment lever didn’t work. You could move the seat, but only by crawling down, fishing around under the seat, and manually moving it. This wasn’t an issue for the previous owner, since, as the only guy who drove it, he just put the seat where he wanted it and then left it there. But as someone who was planning on taking the van on tour with my band–which would mean several guys of very different heights taking turns driving in the course of each day–I knew that routine wasn’t gonna fly.

I found the problem right away. Underneath the seat, there are two rails that the seat rides on. Each rail has a spring-loaded catch that holds the seat in place. The catches are connected by a cable, so that when you pull the seat-adjustment lever, both catches come free and you can slide the seat back and forth. The cable had snapped, making the whole lever-catch thing useless. All it needed was a new piece of cable. Simple enough, right?

Not so much. As with so many things automotive, the fix was easy.  But actually getting to it sucked. I had to get down in front of the seat, shove both hands into the space under it, and somehow thread a piece of wire through the holes on both catches. The only problem was, the space I had to shove my hands into was about half as high as my hands. After a good hour and a half of banged-up knuckles and twisted wrists, I got the whole mess to work. Good as new, though my hands would need a couple more days to recover.

The cable in question.

The last order of business was the spare tire. Being an uptight person, I thought it might be nice to make sure that the whole spare tire assembly was in good condition before I actually needed it. Better to find out here, in my neighborhood on a nice sunny day, than on the side of some muddy road in Indiana in the rain at midnight. But again, that’s just how I think.

This was my first experience with the whole under-the-body spare tire contraption. I don’t know if that’s just a Ford thing, but it’s pretty brilliant. Basically you stick the tire iron into a hole in the bumper, crank it like a screwdriver, and the tire magically descends on a little cable from beneath the van, like one of those awkward flying kids in a production of Peter Pan.  It turned out that the tire was fine, but the thingee (I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s really called) that holds it in place was rusted onto the hub.  Unlike the seat, this was not a delicate fix. Nothing like the smell of WD-40 and a few whacks with a hammer to make a man feel like a man again.

One rusty-ass spare tire.

While squatting underneath the van, I noticed two more problems. (Ain’t that always the way?) One of the clamps that holds the exhaust pipe had rusted through. And the leaf springs on the rear wheels were starting to peel apart. Those would have to wait. I’d done three fixes, and it was Miller time.

Speaking of the manly arts, I should point out that, if you have a white van, and you plan on spending a hot day crawling around under it and getting all kinds of dirty, an elementary school is a great place to park in front of while you do it. The kids spend a lot of time staring at you. (Probably because, here in fancy Park Slope, Brooklyn, they’re not used to seeing guys in public doing manual labor. Or at least not white ones.) And when the parents see you all sweaty and grease-stained standing next to your open van, they all do that same move where they stare straight ahead while they gently take their kid by the shoulder and guide them to the other side of the sidewalk. Thanks, lady. Nice to meet you too.

Another satisfied van owner.