New Econoline Van

Tiny Cottage, New Van, Old Van

We have a new van. Our souped up 1993 Dodge Caravan SE, the closer one in the photo above, has served us well trucking ever so many tons of cheese, milk and pigs to market for the past ten years. But it is beginning to get tired. It no longer leaps tall buildings or leaves speeding trains in it’s dust. Rather it huffs and it puffs and it slowly climbs the mountain.

Back in January the clutch gave up the ghost 400′ down the mountain from our driveway when the van was loaded with about 1,500 pounds of cheese trim for the pigs. We had already unloaded half the load at a neighbors in hopes of making it up to our place but it wasn’t enough. In a gout of smoke the van was no longer climbing. I walked up, got the tractor and pulled the van the rest of the way up the mountain. Our neighbor Brian, being the great guy he is, later delivered the remaining cheese to our doorstep.

The Caravan went to the mechanic for twelve days to get a new clutch. We don’t have another vehicle so fortunately we weren’t going anywhere. I didn’t feel too bad about having to get the clutch replaced because it had lasted eight years longer than the mechanics had said it would. Since then the van has been doing pretty well but the engine doesn’t have good compression. The cylinders may be worn. Perhaps the rings. The crank shaft bearing is loose. It still runs but who knows for how much longer. Holly suggested we should get a replacement vehicle before the Caravan gasped its last breath. It is much easier to buy well when your not in panic mode.

I have another relatively new rebuilt engine that I can put in it but the change over cost is significant. There is also the question of whether the unibody frame of the Caravan will last much longer – it is 15 years old since it is a 1993 model that actually began life in 1992. The frame is very rusted. We’ve added a lot of tin and other patches over the years and even that is rusting out. When your patches need patching it is perhaps time to consider the vehicle driven into the ground. I did literally drive one vehicle into the ground once – it split in two on the interstate highway – sparky! I would rather not repeat that.

So we’ve been looking around. New car prices are outrageous. I could buy a new car and even then there is a good chance of having to do annual work on it plus the insurance is so much more expensive. Even used mini vans are horribly expensive. I went back to thinking about switching the engines. Ed at the cheese factory and quite a few other people keep saying to get a pickup but that really isn’t as practical as a van. There are just too many times I want the fully covered vehicle and the flexibility of being able to switch between carrying cargo vs people. We also have some pretty dang cold weather in the winter – I don’t fancy pigs would appreciate being delivered frozen to the butcher when it is -20°F plus a 55 mph wind chill from driving on the highway never mind the cross wind gusts. A pickup with a cap or an extended cap doesn’t cut it. The price of pickup trucks are also very high. My brother suggests that this is because pickups are ‘sexy’ and every red blooded American boy wants one thus driving up the price. I never have wanted one – perhaps I need my blood type checked.

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So we’ve continued to run the Caravan, doing all the maintenance and work it needs but knowing one of these days it will probably for good die climbing back up the mountain. Even doing all it needs we have only averaged $600 a year which is less than two monthly payments on a new vehicle. I consider that very reasonable and prefer to continue maintaining a vehicle I know to the devil I don’t.

Two weeks ago we were headed up to Cabot to pick another load of cheese trim and saw an extended body cargo van for sale on the side of the road in Plainfield. Only $1,375 for a 1996 Ford Econoline E250 with only 110,000 miles. That’s about half of our Caravan’s miles. It even has heavy duty added springs already and a 5,300 lb rear axle rating – extra rear springs are something I’ve always ended up adding to all our vehicles so we can haul heavy loads. The Econoline is in excellent condition. Almost no rust. It even has a tow bar incase we need to get a trailer – heaven forbid. So, why the low price we wondered?

We looked in the newspaper and found quite a few other cargo vans for low prices. Holly suggested that perhaps there just isn’t much market for used cargo vans. Families don’t want them because they lack rear seats and windows in the back. Businesses want newer vehicles. The cargo vans aren’t sexy. Maybe low demand was pushing the price down of a good vehicle class.

On the other hand, this full framed vehicles was just what we needed. It would take some work to transform it but we could add rear seats in just behind the driver and a cargo box for transporting pigs, cheese and other heavy things. A roof vent would give the pigs ventilation and suck their air away from the driver and passengers. I can also add an opening side window behind the driver for the rear passengers using a window from one of our older vans. In short, while this van might not fit the typical family or business needs it was just what we were looking for – we just didn’t know it until we saw it.

We met with the owner and took the van for a test drive. The engine purrs sweetly and quietly – quite the change after having gotten used to the gradually increasing volume of our old Caravan. The suspension is smooth even over deep potholes that would have slammed our van’s failing struts. The only negative is it is an automatic transmission. Holly and I would both prefer manual but it seems that is a thing of the past.

We took the Econoline van to the mechanic who has been doing CPR on our old Caravan. He gave it a regular state inspection and then a deep inspection to find anything that might need attention. It passed the first with flying colors. The second turned up some minor issues but less than I would expect. We’ll put a little money into the van beyond the purchase price to bring it 100% up to par before we start using it. Even then we won’t have come close to even 1/2 the book value and only 1/13th the new price. Ironically, the Econoline gets about the same gas mileage that our old Caravan did so even there it’s doing well.

Once the new Econoline van, new to us, is ready our old Caravan will no longer get so abused and should last much longer as a regular passenger vehicle. I’m glad we stuck with a van rather than getting a pickup or worse a trailer. I like vans for all sorts of reasons – that is what I learned to drive on, the load is covered and the vehicle is more flexible in how it can be configured. Since the Econoline is so large it means we can put off buying a trailer for that much longer. I’ve watched people with trailers and am not thrilled with the idea of pulling one, much less pushing one when backing up. If you saw the curves and mountain you would understand just how poignant this is…

The other interesting thing in that photo is that Holly follows directions very, very well. She backed the Caravan in next to the Econoline such that they were parallel, the two vans are even at back bumpers and in line with the back of the tiny cottage for this photo. The cottage is about 20′ away in the distance beyond the Econoline because of construction materials. Parked this way we can make some comparisons:

Tiny Cottage: 20′ long by 12′ high by 14.5′ wide.
Econoline: 19’6″ long by 6.5′ high by 6.5′ wide.
Caravan: 14.5′ long by 5.5′ high by 5.5′ wide.

So what’s inter
esting about Holly following directions like a champ? Well, you see she couldn’t see what she was doing and I directed her as she backed in. It wasn’t a straight shot but rather she had to curve around twice to get in line. When she got out of the Caravan and saw how closely she had parked, about 2″ from the Econoline with their mirrors almost holding hands, she was horrified and said to me, “If you had told me what you were having me do I would never have done it!” But she did. I love to lead and she dances backwards so oh so well.

Update: On Friday, after I first wrote this, our trust, dusty Dodge Caravan SE died on the side of the road at the top of a hill on I-91. At that point we were getting almost 100 miles to the gallon – that’s 100 miles to the gallon of oil, the lubricating kind. We were only getting about 14 miles to the gallon of gas. The rings were leaking badly and the compression was shot. It made a horrible noise and gave up the ghost. So Holly, Hope and I sat on the side of the highway for about an hour watching a power line crew cut trees and making plans while we waited for a tow truck. Fortunately we had bought this ‘new to us’ Econoline van just a couple of weeks before.

Outdoors: 78°F/57°F Sunny
Farm House: 74°F/59°F
Tiny Cottage: 72°F/68°F

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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10 Responses to New Econoline Van

  1. Brian says:

    The good news is scrap prices are way up! The caravan should bring 100 to 150 bucks if you can get it to the scrap yard Its a tough way to part with an old friend, but the good folks in China need it to make more stuff to sendback here.

  2. Dreamer says:

    Judging from the cottage to van specifications, the Econline can serve as a guest house too. ;) Just kidding. Sort of.

    I like well-designed small spaces too, where everything does double duty. Over the years I’ve dreamed up many “tiny cottages”. When I share these ideas with the Daddy he just looks at me blankly and then walks away. You’re lucky to have Holly

    I gave up the dream when I had kids. I’m in awe that you are building your tiny cottage to house you, your spouse, and THREE kids! Can’t wait to see it when it is done.

  3. karl says:

    i see dreamer wasn’t the only one that noticed the size of the vehicle compared to the size of the house.

    i like your choice we have been considering a similar solution. i am currently still holding out for a dodge sprinter though.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Walter,
    How does the cottage compare in size to the house you live in now? and why would you build it that small?
    Bill

  5. AB, Addison, vt says:

    Hi Walter,very interesting blog, thanks.How much whey to raise a pig to market 200lbs., no grain, just apples and pasture, can too much be harmful and besides storage and transportation, cost of whey?

  6. Hi there Walter ,

    I am in the process of figuring out how to transport my pigs to a Usda slaughter house. The only one close to me seems to be in Goffstown, NH.( i live in Brooklyn CT) I have a dodge ram 1500 and was looking a trailers for it. Although the trailer would only really be used to transport the pigs. Kind of a big investment for one sole purpose! Then I remembered looking at your blog and seeing you used a van. A van seems more useful than a trailer to me. Anyway i was wondering what you had to do to the van to make it pig ready and pig proof? What kind of van is best? How did you get the pigs in the van? I suppose some kind of ramp? Also how many pigs could you fit in the van? Any info you can give me would be great! I have a local slaughter house right down the road from me but it’s not Usda. I would really like to be able to sell at farmer markets and local stores.
    Thanks for having such a great blog of awesome info!
    See Ya
    Eric

    • You are almost in luck. I was about to write a post about how to load and the van setup. Maybe another two or three weeks. But that might not be soon enough for you so here’s the basics. First, go see these articles and specifically this, this, this and this which will give you some photos and discussion.

      Short answer: We used cattle panel, fiberglass and plywood to build a carrier in the back of the van. This is bolted to the bottom and side frame of the van. The one we’re using right now can carry six finisher hogs or a big sow and a couple of finisher hogs. It can also carry a pallet load of something such as peanut butter, apple pomace, cheese, etc. The cage created by the cattle panel keeps the animals and objects from flying forward in an accident. We did real crash testing to prove it. The tree lost and is down for the count. Minor ding in the front bumper of the van. Nobody hurt. Always think about where your load will go. Holly’s alive because I’m a mildly paranoid over engineer.

      Note that we used to carry pigs in our little Dodge Caravan but then we upgraded to a Ford E-250 Extended Body Cargo Van that is as long as our house. The upgrade was really nice as we could carry more pigs and it now has a freezer in it as well. Luxury. That is 15 years old and the state of Vermont says we can’t keep using it. I detest waste. It runs fine. It just looks a bit rusty. Okay, it is rusty. But it is also safe.

      Now on to the topic of butchers. Have you called Adams Family Slaughter which is in Athol, Mass? That’s just east of Greenfield, Mass. They’re great and they are USDA inspected. Tell them I sent you.

      Speaking of slaughter, now is the time to be booking your slaughter slots, everyone! The fall season is very busy for butchers.

  7. Walter,
    Great loading idea!!!! I’m sold on the van! Going to start looking for a van!
    I have tons of pallets and scrap wood i can use for a loading platform and run.
    I’m glad Adams-farm-slaughterhouse rebuilt! The only reason i didn’t mention them is i didn’t know they rebuilt! I will defiantly use them. Now the hard part starts finding a good running and good priced van!
    Why won’t Vermont let you use the rusty van? Can you register it as a farm vehicle and then they will?
    Thanks for you in-depth answer it has got my wheels turning!!!
    Have a great night!
    Eric

    • The reason we like a van rather than a trailer is that on our mountain dirt roads a trailer is very dangerous half the year between steep hills, ice and sharp turns. In other words, pulling a load up, and worst yet, down the mountain would be shall we say, exciting. On the other hand, with the pigs in the van we have a straight vehicle and better control. I also think the pigs fare better being in the van with the luxury accommodations, heat in the winter (a nice benny at -20°F with 65 mph winds), full wet bar, bed and breakfast, stewardesses and all they can eat buffet.

      I do wish we had all wheel drive rather than rear wheel drive. There is a retrofit kit for about $5,000. That’s $4,700 more than I paid for our van. Maybe sometime in the future with another van.

      Our old 1996 Ford E-250 is registered as a farm vehicle. We only have one vehicle and everything we do is farm. My other vehicle is a tractor. I think the reason they force vehicles off the road is they are trying to make people buy new vehicles. This drives the economy (auto sales) and raises taxes for the state (auto sales tax, registration fees, etc). It is a racket. The van works perfectly well. It has rust along the bottom side panels because the state of Vermont spreads salt on the roads. The rust is their own fault and they’re profiting from it. As you can tell, I’m not pleased. I detest throwing it away and refuse. My plan is to cut the body panels off and replace them with new steel. It is a lot of work. We’re practicing welding to be ready to do it probably next year.

  8. Nan Shepherd says:

    I love the way that you use a van instead of an trailer for your livestock. You care about how they are during the trip. I really appreciate that about all that you do. You are farming the way it should be done. Thank you for all that you do!

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