Category Archives: RETROvan

Progress!

The engine rebuild is “done,” in the same sense that software is done.

It took six weeks and cost almost $3,000 including replacement parts. Ron Larsen and Ted King at Portland Engine Rebuilders took care to track down the right rod bearings and then discovered a major issue:

Basically the cylinder head was cracked. This 223 had been rebuilt more than 15 years ago and the crack was welded. But the weld had failed some time ago. So PER tracked down a replacement head in pristine condition and all should be good now.

So tomorrow Brett from McFarland’s Mobile Mechanics will do the install and hopefully the RETROvan will be drivable by happy hour.

My dad and I also got a good start on the helm console, or power station. We installed both Blue Sea Systems traditional metal circuit panels, one for AC and one for DC. Each panel is overkill, but they light up and have analog gauges. And that’s important.

Next, I modified and installed a cool iPad mount on the helm where a pontoon boat steering wheel would normally go. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching old TV shows on that iPad while my mom made her world-famous coconut meringue pie in the kitchen. This helm will serve as a safety bulkhead, and will also be a super cool design element for the passenger seat while driving, working or camping.

My retro JVC “Teeny Vision” TV also arrived from a collector on eBay, circa 1971 and in mint condition. It took a ton of research but I found an iView digital converter box that also serves up modern media attached via USB and routes it over an RF antenna cable. So imagine watching your favorite old TV shows on a tiny B&W screen with all the pops and buzzes.

Shows like The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Outer Limits, Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family, Get Smart, M*A*S*H, Star Trek and so on…

Much more to say, and more photos to add. The design is really coming together in SketchUp. I have the electrical system, the galley and the diner/berth mostly figured out. The berth will form a queen bed, even.

Stay tuned…

Bring in the Reinforcements!

It’s been a while since my last update, so there’s a lot to cover. My parents were here over Memorial Day, while large parts were arriving every day.

My dad helped me reinforce the roof by cutting and installing various lengths of 1/8″ aluminum L brackets along the cross members. This took forever because every hole had to be pre-drilled, and that aluminum is tougher than my old drill driver.

Next, we had to reinforce the curved corners sitting atop eight metal studs because, as you can see, all of them were cracked and some were split all the way through. And that means the roof itself was essentially supporting the supports!

To fix this, we used 6×6″ Simpson Strong-Tie galvanized steel L straps and bent one end to 90°. (My dad’s creative idea.) That gave us three points of contact with each load-bearing structural point and added only a few pounds to the overall weight. Once I get the rest of these screwed in, I’ll be able to get up on the roof to install the vents and the solar panels. Otherwise I’m sure I might have damaged the roof, since it was designed to protect cargo—not to support heaver things like air conditioners or me.

I made my first holes in the hull. The first was a 2-3/4″ hole for the Marinco Shore Power 30-Amp inlet port. It’s stainless steel and beautiful.

Next, I measured and cut two 14-inch square holes in the roof for the Fan-tasic Vents. This involved learning how to use my new DeWalt jigsaw upside-down. I got them cut cleanly but it took a while including sweat breaks. And my arms felt like they were vibrating the rest of the night.

The vent in the front will be set to suck and the vent in the back will be set to blow, which just might obviate the need for a power-hungry air conditioner.

These vents have remote controls, thermostats and rain sensors to open and close themselves automatically. The vents set in place nicely, but before I can get up on the roof to seal and screw them into place, I need to do some additional reinforcement.

The hull was strengthened significantly from side-to-side and at the corners, but the steel skin is still a bit saggy in between the cross-members. So, I’ll be adding two more aluminum angle brackets inside each ceiling pocket, in perpendicular fashion. This will require the use of some sturdy 2″ steel corner braces to secure a brace to each end of the bracket, and then the braces to the cross members.

There’s a strip of Dicor butyl tape between all the aluminum angles and the roof. That’s to reduce vibration. And the rule here is that “no new screw shall penetrate the roof if possible.”

That should complete the reinforcement phase to the point where I can safely start installing the roof-mounted goodies: Solar panels, vents, lights, wire conduits, insulation and ceiling panels.

Transparency is Good

Not just in politics, but in life too.

Got my custom acrylic back today from TAP Plastics in Tigard. The holes were a little off but I needed to drill them out bigger anyway to fit my #10 machine screws through both pieces. This was a delicate process but by stepping up through three bit sizes, I got there with no damage.

The result is beautiful at every angle, especially in the sunlight. This will hang either over the steering wheel or over the center of the cockpit, under the custom shelf and storage cabinets I’m building over the windshield. The position depends on whether it blocks any sight lines. And if it blocks too much, I can always flip it over and mount it lower on a dashboard mount.

All I need to do now is select, mark and drill the holes in the sides that will secure the Pioneer AppRadio 4 receiver in place. I’m using #10 thumbscrews to secure the gimbal mount to the 2-1/2 inch screws. But for final installation I might swap those out for capture bolts on 2-inch screws. All the hardware is stainless steel, of course. You wouldn’t want any chance of corrosion marring the acrylic.

Now the two most important parts of the project are pretty much done: The main audio/video receiver with Apple CarPlay, and my four custom Sony speakers in Photon Torpedo Tubes. If only I had a clean van to install them in…

The Front Desk

Well that didn’t take long. TAP Plastics took all of 20 minutes to cut six pieces and router all the edges smooth. The cost was $137. There are two extra pieces I might use as bracket spacers, not shown here:

This plastic is very easy to work with. There’s no sawdust when you drill it and it’s all the same density. I’m putting a lot of trust in 20 stainless steel machine screws but they went in tight and they’re all vertical so there are no shear forces. The 1/2 inch material isn’t really thick enough to countersink the screw heads but that choice was to keep things light and flexible. They do make 5/8″, 3/4″ and 1″ Starboard if I ever need to redo it. But I’ll probably just set a rubber mat or tray organizer on the top. Maybe a cat bed. 😉

It fits like a glove on the support brackets and it isn’t too heavy to lift. Of course it’ll all look better once the cockpit is cleaned and restored. But it’s a good start.

Fabrication Begins

Lots going on this week. First, I fabricated my first custom part, which I’m dubbing Photon Torpedo Tube #1.

The wake board “bullet can” housing is made by Rockville out of polished aluminum. The speaker is a Sony 6.5″ Marine 2-Way. The problem is, they didn’t fit. It turns out all 6.5″ speakers are not created equal. Some are considered undersized, like the stylish ones I insist on using.

So, I wound up having that red adapter ring made at TAP Plastics in Tigard. What a godsend they are. They’ll be doing more work for me. 

The ring is 1/4″ thick acrylic, with an outer diameter of 7″ and an inner cutout at a 5″ diameter. The outer edges are polished smooth.

The trick here was to carefully mark and drill two sets of four holes. The first set has to be countersunk so that the machine screw heads don’t protrude into the speaker mount. Once the ring was attached to the can, I repeated the process for the speaker using the screws that came with it.

The hardest part was working delicately with hand tools, with drill bits that tend to wander. I do have a Dremel tool but wound up just using my drill/driver because I did had to punch through the aluminum lip at just the right diameter and depth, with some force. This would have been much easier with a drill press.

The result is fantastic. I basically turned $135 worth of parts into custom piece of retro art. Now I’ll just repeat this process three more times to cover every corner of the Scenario Mobile.

The speaker cans came with fancy round bracket clamps, which I plan to secure on 2″ stainless steel rods.

Next up, I received my “glove box” today. It’s actually a gun safe with a biometric fingerprint reader, made by Verifi.

It seems to work great and after a bunch of research, it was the best fit for the space next to my engine cowl.

I’ll be returning to TAP Plastics tomorrow to cut four pieces of marine King Starboard. This is the same stuff boats and yachts are outfitted with, so you know it’s durable. You can use common woodworking tools on it, but it doesn’t warp or splinter like wood.

Here’s my design for the combination “front desk” and secure storage:

I’ll screw the enclosure together and then bolt the safe into place so it can’t be stolen. The whole assembly will be heavy, but I should be able to unsecure it and lift it off the support brackets to open the engine cowl.

Peeling the Onion

Today I started removing rivets with a sledgehammer and chisel. Hundreds of rivets… Thousands of rivets… Roughly twenty minutes per panel so far.

Some of the aluminum panels are almost twelve feet long. I’m not sure whether there’s enough scrap value to avoid going to the local recycling center. And while the wear and tear is certainly interesting, there are too many non-rivet holes so reuse them as finished cladding even if they were buffed out. But I’ll number them and keep them around for a while.

The wall cavities measure 3-1/8 inches deep, which is plenty of room for better insulation. But it also means the windows will have to be recessed because they max out at a 2-3/4 inch depth.

The main task here is to expose the frame ribs, remove the old insulation and transfer some accurate measurements into my SketchUp 3D model. From there I’ll be able to better plan out all the fixtures, including:

  • electrical system
  • window placement (and wall thickness)
  • vent placement
  • air conditioner placement
  • solar panel placement (at least the pre-wiring)
  • insulation
  • interior lighting

Starting to look like a tiny home, eh?

The Heart Transplant

Today was the day. It took Brett from McFarland’s Mobile Mechanics six hours to remove the patient’s still-beating heart with his bare hands (and a cherry picker).

This process was complicated by the fact that several bolts and two steel panels were rusted together and had to be cut. But at least now I have most of the cockpit panels off, where I can strip and repaint them, and replace any rubber seals. When it’s all done, all the bolts will be shiny new and stainless steel.

The damage for today: $729.34, including transport. And yes, I started a ledger to keep any eye on my investment.

Brett’s tow truck guy delivered it to Portland Engine Rebuilders where Ron took my $500 deposit and put it on his schedule.

We discussed the option to find a rebuilt Ford 292 Y-Block but I decided to just rebuild the original 223 after weighing all the pros and cons. It would mate to the existing transmission. But the extra horsepower would only make a difference in uphill speed at the expense of fuel economy. And it would basically double the cost of this retrofit to change all the mounts, the exhaust system and so on. It would also be a larger engine, which would make it harder to access for maintenance.

So, the rebuild is expected to take three weeks, which is pretty amazing. And the purist in me likes the idea of just restoring the original configuration — at least for the cabin and chassis. There will be plenty of custom add-ons so the size of the engine ultimately isn’t that important as long as it’s reliable.

Before re-installing the rebuilt engine, I’ll have to round up the following parts:

  • New starter (because the recently installed one has a broken tab)
  • New flex plate (because it’s missing a mount ear)
  • New fuel pump (because the bottom gasket is leaking)
  • New fuel filter and 1-foot hose
  • New oil filter
  • New oil coolant thermostat (because you should always replace it)
  • 5/8-inch heater hoses (because some chimp spray-painted them)

Fortunately Brett gave me the names of a few local NAPA old-timers who specialize in finding the right Ford parts, so I’m not too worried… yet.

Bubble Dome Skylight?

I’m still exploring the concept of a submarine theme. Specifically, this:

Note how the front windows are similar to my rig’s. But of course, the most notable feature is that crow’s nest bubble dome. I found a place that vacuum-forms domed skylights out of acrylic for a few hundred bucks. You can order them in any size and thickness, and they look like this:

Such a dome could be mounted (and carefully sealed) over my cockpit. A 36-inch diameter would increase my overall vehicle height by 18 inches. So that means staying very aware about low-hanging obstacles when driving around. Most gas station canopies are tall enough for bigger RVs, so I’m not overly concerned. An air conditioning unit will add some height anyway, but not as much.

From the inside, we’d have a great view of the trees and stars. Taller folks would have a comfortable place to stand and a step stool would afford some good 360° observation in case of zombie and/or hipster attacks.

Thoughts?

Engine Rebuild

Today I had Brett from McFarland’s Mobile Mechanics come out and diagnose my engine. And sure enough, it was a rod knocking. So that means it’s time to rebuild the engine. The house call cost me $85 but it was very informative.

The good news is, Brett can pull the engine on-site with their cherry picker and deliver it in long-block form to Portland Engine Rebuilders next week. It will come out the side door, after taking off a few steel panels around the engine compartment. That’s okay, because I need to strip and repaint the cockpit anyway, one panel at a time.

Brett recommended keeping the Ford 223 Six engine (versus upgrading to a bigger one) because it’s original, notoriously reliable, and easy to work on. Plus, it mates to a known-good transmission and there’s no compelling reason to swap that out to handle a bigger engine. He said my cruising speed would still top out at 55 mph anyway. He actually owned a 223 in his F-100 so he’s got first-hand experience. He did suggest adding an electronic ignition kit for around $100, which sounds like a no-brainer. No sense in worrying about adjusting points if I don’t have to.

So I made the arrangements for next Wednesday. It will take four or five hours to remove at $107 per hour, and then Brett will deliver the engine to PER where Ron will take it and completely rebuild everything inside the core for a flat $2,122. That process will take three or four weeks, but they have the state-of-the-art machinery necessary and they’re experts in these old engines. Meanwhile, the van will still be in my driveway where I can continue working on the inside. And that’s an ideal scenario if I want to be driving it by summer.

Brett’s eyes got huge when he first saw the rig. He couldn’t believe I found one in such good shape. Most of them are completely rusted out or scrapped for parts. He said he thought it was easily worth $10K in its current state. So that made my day, and eased the blow of these inevitable engine-repair expenses. I had budgeted $4K total for that work and so far, so good.

Insulation Plan

I took a peek inside a small wall panel and found dirty fiberglass insulation. The cavity appears to be about 2-3/4 inches deep, so that’s plenty of space to replace with a modern line of foam insulation board like this:

Owens Corning FOAMULAR comes in various thicknesses: 1/2″, 3/4″, 1″, 1-1/2″, 2″ and 3″. The R-value ranges accordingly from R3 to R15. By comparison, a typical 4-inch wall cavity in your home is insulated with R-15 fiberglass, which implies that foam board is 25% more effective and probably easier to apply to square surfaces. For 4’x8′ sheets at Home Depot, the cost ranges from $19 to $29 for each 32 square feet. And that means even with waste, this step will afford good bang for the buck.

I went to Home Depot today and found a different brand that is made of styrofoam and includes a thick layer of aluminum foil. Not sure which would be better now, but a reflective thermal barrier seems like an upgrade.

For the Scenario Mobile, it’s as much about acoustics as thermal comfort. So the walls will probably get 2-inch foam while the floor and ceiling might only get 1/2 inch. That’s to maximize headroom. As-is, I only have 6’1″ of clearance from floor to ceiling. But the ceiling appears to also have a 2-3/4 inch cavity, which gives me some hope that I can  do this without losing any height. My son is 6’1″ and it’s going to be awkward if he has to hunch over. If I can reduce the ceiling cavity to one inch or so (even in pockets), that’s a major win because i can put in a new hardwood subfloor.

So I’m thinking the process will go something like this:

  1. Pop all the rivet heads with a hammer and chisel and remove all the aluminum interior panels. I’ll number them in case I want to reuse them later.
  2. Clean out the old insulation and dispose of it properly.
  3. Clean out the bare frame rib cavities.
  4. Figure out my finished wall depth and measure out all the frame ribs to sanity-check my Window Plan.
  5. Patch all holes with aluminum tape. Even a small hole under the floor can allow water to spray in while driving.
  6. Apply a vapor barrier to the whole thing. I need to research options there.
  7. Figure out where to run electrical conduit so that I can snake wires easily.
  8. Cut and adhere the foam insulation boards with construction adhesive.
  9. Join all the seams with aluminum tape.

And hopefully, that will create an airtight and watertight box ready for cladding. I’m imagining black-and-white checkerboard vinyl on the floor, loop pile carpet on the walls for sound absorption, and quilted aluminum on the ceiling for that retro diner motif.

What did I miss? Oh, yeah, the ceiling. We’ll need low-profile LED lights, skylight vents and an air conditioning unit. More on that later…