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Old 02-04-2009, 12:14 AM   #1
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Best GMC/Chevy van for towing?

I'm getting ready to spend 6-12 months full-timing to see how I like it. I currently have a '96 Chevy 1500 4x4 5.7L with a nice pop-up camper on it which is great for a week or two but not full-timing.

I've wanted an Airstream for years and decided now's the time to make it happen. I've decided to sell my truck and buy a van so that I have an extra detachable "pod" if I want to drop the trailer and boondock out some forest service road for a few days. Back when I was younger I full-timed in a Class B for a couple years before so I know I can be fairly comfortable even in just the van for shorter periods of time.

My plan is to buy a late 90's/early '00s 3/4 or 1 ton van and then find my Airstream which would ideally be in the 28' to 31' range.

My question is...what is the very best GMC/Chevy van to tow a trailer this size with? I'm open to all possibilities but do have a pretty strong preference for GMs.
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Old 02-04-2009, 04:34 AM   #2
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Hi, My Dad has a 1998 GMC 3500 Savana that has been very reliable and relatively trouble free with the exception of reg. maint items such as tires ,brakes ect. and it has the 454 engine with 157,000 miles. Although it has never towed an Airstream it has towed a concession trailer ,portable smoker, pontoon boat and did very well. He had a 1989 GMC 3500 van before it with the 454 engine and it was also a very good van and it did tow the 1975 31 ft airstream I had at that time and did a good job as I remeber although fuel mileage was only about 7.5mpg while towing and it had a 3spd automatic transmission.The van before that one was a 1988 GMC 3500 van with a 350 engine and it towed the 1975 31 ft airstream I had at that time as well lacked in the performance area alot.The 1998 with the Vortec 454 engine has alot more power and it also has the heavy duty ovedrive transmission. Hope this helps.
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Old 02-04-2009, 07:03 AM   #3
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I have no experince with vans, except a little at work, but I can tell you from a towing point of view, that you do not want one of the extended vans. You know the ones I am speaking of...the ones that are extended a great distance behind the rear axle. A vehicle with an exagerated long overhang sets up a situation where the trailer can drive the tow vehicle.
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Old 02-04-2009, 07:41 AM   #4
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Send a PM to jcanavera. He has a 3/4 van w/ 6.0L engine and 4.10 gears. He started out with a 1/2 ton van. From what I can tell he is pleased with his GMC 3/4 ton van. I believe it is *around* a 2004 model.

If you get a vintage Airstream, you might be just fine with an older1/2 ton (2006 you older). If you get a new(er) Airstream (say 1990s to present model year) and you start to push at or beyond 7000lbs I think the 3/4 tonners are what should be considered.

If you are looking a a new truck (2007-2009). Many of the 1/2 ton offerings have had their lines blurred somewhat (GM). Larger engines are now available in some of the 1/2 ton lines. What starts to now differentiate the 1/2 to 3/4 is the trans, hubs suspensions and rear end differential size (semi float, full float, 8.5" rings 9.5" rings, etc) depending on the models chosen.
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Old 02-04-2009, 08:35 PM   #5
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Thanks for the replies so far. To be clear, I'm looking for a late 90's/early 00's van and a vintage (70s) Airstream of around 28' to 31'. I've researched quite a bit already so I know a lot of general info but am mostly looking for real-world experiences towing with vans around 6-10 years old.

If I were to pick a van with my present knowledge, it would be a standard length non-conversion Chevy 3/4 ton with 5.7L engine and a 3.73 rear end (4.10 if I could find one). Would this be a good choice? Why or why not? Anything else I should consider?

Thanks!
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Old 02-04-2009, 08:42 PM   #6
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Solstice,

For the model years that you are looking for a 3/4 ton will work out fine, just make sure there is a tranny cooler on it (bigger is better).
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Old 02-04-2009, 08:59 PM   #7
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Check out the enterprise used cars for sale web site. They have some 07-08 chevy express passenger vans and 07- 08 ford econoline passenger vans all in the 3500 series with dual a/c that woull make great tow vehicles and escape pods as well. Some are low as 15k and under full warranty. Fords are 5.4 and chevs are 6.ol. Seems like a fun vehicle to customize for our hobby of crossing the country
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Old 02-04-2009, 10:33 PM   #8
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Keep in mind that the one ton GM van will have a lower towing capacity than the similarly equipped 3/4 ton van. The 5.7 liter 3.73 axle will give you a towing capacity of 6,500 lbs. in the half ton version. My 6 liter 4.10 axle 3/4 ton van will handle 9,900 lbs.

I had a '99 Chevy Express passenger van, 3.73 axle 5.7 liter engine with a towing capacity of 6,500 lbs. I pulled a 6,000 lb. 27' '01 Safari. Towing was in 3rd. The manual discourages the use of OD when towing. My 3/4 '03 GMC has the tow/haul button and allows OD towing. Interesting that highway mileage towing with the Chevy was around 10 mpg with the Safari. My mileage with the GMC pulling a 30' Classic slide out is also about 10 mpg with the Classic coming in about 2,000+ lbs heavier. I think the 3.73 axle with the 6 liter gas engine will get you about 8,000 lbs. towing capacity.

'03 was the introduction of a new body style for the GM vans. I felt than my '99 Chevy was a better fit and finish on its interior components than the newer van. Much more plastic on the newer. Note that the 3/4 ton vans sit on 16" wheels and will be a little taller than the half ton vans. I had to remove some wood trim from the of the surround of my garage door to allow the 3/4 to gain entry. Ride quality empty on the 3/4 ton van is rougher than the half ton. That heavier suspension gives you a much better towing experience though. The half ton van would bounce around a lot more when traveling over roads with dips. The 3/4 suspension may dip once but the recovery is very quick. I feel much more stable when towing over roads of poorer quality.

All in all I would recommend the 3/4 ton van over the half ton if you are going to go with a 30' trailer. Check out the axle and engine combo to make sure you get adequate towing capacity. The 4.10 axle is something you have to upgrade to on a new order. My van would have come with the 3.73 as standard axle with the 6 liter engine option.

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Old 02-05-2009, 02:16 AM   #9
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Thank you all for your responses.

Jcanavera, yours was particularly helpful as you've had experience with the same kind of vans I'm considering. Now that I'm pretty much sold on the 3/4 ton, I'm interested in your thoughts on the pros and cons of pre and post-'03 Chevys. I've heard that the engines in the '03s are a bit better so had been leaning in that direction. If the overall durability is better in the older models that's certainly a consideration as well. If you had the option to tow with either your '99 or '03 which would you choose? Also, what about a tranny cooler as drag'nwagon suggested? Necessary or just preferable?
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Old 08-13-2012, 06:35 PM   #10
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This thread has been really helpful thus far.

If anyone could help me with a few questions, I'd really appreciate it. I'm looking at the same setup as the OP here and looking to buy a specific van if it'll work.

First,y, the van I'm looking at is a 94 Chevy conversion van. It's got 159,000 miles on it, but a new tranny in '09. It's got a 350 CID engine and a class 3 hitch.

1. How does CID translate to liters? Is it a straight cubic inch to liter conversion? In other words, does 350 CID = 5.7 liter engine?
2. What is the significance of the various "3.7 rear" loads discussed here?
3. How do you think the "conversion van" aspect equates to the whole picture? Am I losing serious towing capacity due to the various woodwork, the bed, etc installed in the vehicle? Should I take it to a weigh station and add the additional weight compared to a barebones 94 Chevy van of the same type to get my true tow capacity?
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Old 08-13-2012, 07:49 PM   #11
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There are 61 cubic inches in a liter. So 5.7 liters equals about 348 cubic inches.

We tow with a '99 Chevrolet Express 2500 (3/4 ton) van with the 5.7 liter engine (it has fairly low miles at around 97,000). Ours is the extended version. For our trailer that weighs 8,000 pounds, this van works well, but is a bit slow on steep hills. I changed our rear gears from 3.73:1 to 4.10:1 (the higher the ratio, the faster the engine turns per mph - so the more power you have). This helped a lot. I also added an additional transmission oil cooler and an external engine oil cooler (heat is the enemy of towing).

Without seats in it, the van has lots of space in the back - it is not a "conversion" van. If you get a conversion van, I would stay away from the 1500 series as it probably will not have the towing capacity unless you get a fairly small trailer.

Attached are a couple of pictures of our trailer/van...
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Old 08-14-2012, 12:19 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by clicknathan View Post
This thread has been really helpful thus far.

If anyone could help me with a few questions, I'd really appreciate it. I'm looking at the same setup as the OP here and looking to buy a specific van if it'll work.

First,y, the van I'm looking at is a 94 Chevy conversion van. It's got 159,000 miles on it, but a new tranny in '09. It's got a 350 CID engine and a class 3 hitch.

1. How does CID translate to liters? Is it a straight cubic inch to liter conversion? In other words, does 350 CID = 5.7 liter engine?
2. What is the significance of the various "3.7 rear" loads discussed here?
3. How do you think the "conversion van" aspect equates to the whole picture? Am I losing serious towing capacity due to the various woodwork, the bed, etc installed in the vehicle? Should I take it to a weigh station and add the additional weight compared to a barebones 94 Chevy van of the same type to get my true tow capacity?
Typically a conversion van will have less towing capacity than a factory passenger van due to the conversions use of heavier materials. The typical 5.7 liter GM van with a 3.7 rear axle will have a towing capacity of 6,500 lbs. The factory hitch package would have a 1,000 lb hitch weight limit and a 10,000 lb. towing capacity provided that you use a weight distributing hitch. I've towed with two Chevy 1500, half ton passenger vans, one was an 88 and the other was a 99. Both were adequate and the 99 towed a 28' 5500 lb. Safari. The Safari weighed out at 6,000 lbs with a typical towing load but with dry holding tanks. Towing with that vehicle was strictly 3rd gear only since that transmission was not qualified for towing in OD. Gas mileage was about 11-13 mpg when towing. I added an external transmission oil cooler when I bought the van.

I decided to upgrade to a GMC 2500 3/4 ton van in '03 in the anticipation that I would be moving to a Classic trailer. This van has a 6 liter engine with a 4.10 axle. Tow rating is 9,900 lbs. GM at the time was still putting on the same towing package as in 99 so I had to upgrade my hitch receiver to a Class V unit to handle the heavy hitch weight of the Classic. Also of interest is that GM included an external transmission oil cooler with the towing package. The tranny on this van is a heavy duty unit and it is qualified to tow in OD. Gas mileage when towing is 11-13 mpg. The penalty in gas mileage is when not towing where the higher rev's of the engine due to the 4.10 axle take their toll.

I would advise you to weigh the van to get an idel of the load that the conversion package carries. You need to add an external transmission oil cooler and remember to tow in 3rd not OD. I would recommend that you consider changing out the hitch receiver to a Class IV. Was the vehicle used for towing before? That may lead to some additional things you need to look at.


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Old 08-14-2012, 12:25 PM   #13
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Thanks Jack. To answer your last question there, yes, it was used to tow a little popup camper in the past.

I'm going over to check out this particular van tonight. The whole process is exciting but a little daunting.
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Old 08-14-2012, 12:54 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by clicknathan
Thanks Jack. To answer your last question there, yes, it was used to tow a little popup camper in the past.

I'm going over to check out this particular van tonight. The whole process is exciting but a little daunting.
Take a white paper towel and check the tranny fluid off the dip stick. It should pink. If it is dark or turning brown,, take a whiff and see if it smells burnt. Usually a small pop up won't place a burden on the vehicle. I assume the van is pretty rust free. . Conversions sometimes rust around the custom windows since those holes are usually cut by the conversion manufacturer. Passenger van window openings are stamped out at the factory and the entire body is dipped in a primer.

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