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Old 09-15-2007, 01:12 AM   #1
ursa Maritimus
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Louisville , Kentucky
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Theoretical Ideals for Tow Vehicles

I tow trailers for work, used to go Airstreaming with
my late aunt and uncle, and plan to get into Airstreaming
in the near future. I haven't selected my trailer yet and wish to deal first with a tow rig that will handle nearly any trailer I might consider.

My present work van, a '96 Aerostar, isn't close to being up to the power needs of towing an Airstream, beyond an older 20 foot or length - I have towed 5000 lbs with this van, but it clearly isn't ideal for that. I have performed many vehicle restorations, and I have access to dealer resources, so I have the luxury of being able to purchase a suitable used platform and build the ideal engine, link it to a suitable transmission, brakes, change axle gearing, etc. I prefer the notion of building my own ideal rig, to
purchasing new or nearly new, but would not recommend that to most people. As stated, I have skills.

Since a van, is needed in my business anyway, I plan to use, as a starting point, a 3/4 or 1-ton van from one of the Big 3. From reading the forums completely, I've gleaned the following:
1. Start with the longest wheelbase cargo van possible, with a short overhang.
2. HD axle, gearing in the 3.73-4.11 range.
3. Truck tires, 16" steel rims, high load range.
4. V8 engine, appx. 5.7-6.0 liter, or possibly big block.
Built to produce power from idle to 4500 RPM. (no VET
testing in my locality to worry about). I don't see diesels
being practical for what I'm doing.
5. OD automatic, HD.
6. Oversize radiator, oil cooler, trans cooler, supplemental
fans, AC condensor.
7. Class 4-5 receiver hitch, wiring harness, and brake controller.
8. Largest possible disk brakes. I am willing to invest
in Wilwoods or Baers with ceramic pads, if needed, to
get the best possible braking power.
9. Replace worn parts in suspension, check for/repair frame cracks, refinish, and install front and rear antisway bars.

That stated, what am I overlooking, in the mechanical
sense? I am very interested in the comments of those here who tow with vans - what yours has and doesn't have, how it works for you, your experiences with various
brands of vans. Who has the best transmissions for this,
best engines, best van structurally as far as handling,
stability, braking, etc? There's no substitute for driving
one with trailer attached - they all drive okay empty.
Tell me how yours behaves.

Let's overlook the cosmetics, convenience options, and
such for now. That's the fun stuff, and I can deal with that, after I get the mechanicals perfect. Before I go
shopping for the raw materials, I want to do my due
diligence, and that's what this question is about.


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Old 09-15-2007, 05:19 AM   #2
Rivet Master
1977 31' Sovereign
1963 26' Overlander
1989 34' Excella
Johnsburg , Illinois
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Posts: 2,925
Vans as TV

I have had two Ford Vans. Both 3/4 ton. One 77 12 footer window van with a 351 which I bought with no interior. I put 100,000 miles on it and finally blew a rod bearing. I also had a 87 full size window with a 460 in it. I blew a rod in it at 105,000 miles and had it rebuilt. Never had a transmission or rear end problem with them. Ford Vans provide maximum wheel base with short overhang and a good solid frame. Suspension system is good. I did not have good luck on reliability of the engines and some accessories.

I now have a 2003 Chevy dually with 8.1 liter gas and a Allison transmission. I have had to replace the in tank fuel pump for $800 at 35,000 miles and the sensors on the front brakes went bad at 40,000 miles.

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Old 09-15-2007, 06:00 AM   #3
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You might like to consider a base vehicle that is easily compatible with a Pullrite hitch. This places the pivot point at or in front of the rear, with obvious benefits for avoiding sway. On my Dodge truck, fitting a Pullrite would involve relocating the spare wheel from its current location under the truck. The website for the Pullrite travel trailer hitch is here:
PullRite has a SAFER, STRONGER, BETTER designed hitch for you
Using "Pullrite" in the search box above will produce some more information.
Nick Crowhurst, Excella 25 1988, Dodge Ram 2500 Cummins Diesel. England in summer, USA in winter.
"The price of freedom is eternal maintenance."
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Old 09-15-2007, 07:30 AM   #4
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Westchester Cty.NY , / Miami FL
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" That stated, what am I overlooking, in the mechanical

i'd put in a nice high output alternator with possibly a dual battery system. i've always wanted to set up a dual alternator system. ok, i'll go take my pills now
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Old 09-15-2007, 08:07 AM   #5
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Definitely what Ricky said. HO alternator and room for batteries. Prep for a decent size charge and supply wire from the alternator/battery to your hitch area.
Also, suspension work is a good idea. HD bushings and Bilstein shocks to make the van as tight and well mannered as possible. This does not necessarily mean rough riding, just well controlled.
GM's Express vans have very short overhang in the rear. They actually stretch the wheelbase to make the van longer, instead of adding 3 feet to the back behind the axle.
I owned a 1984 Ford Econoline 150, have towed with a 1989 Econoline 350, and owned/towed with a 1994 Dodge Ram Van 350 extended. The Dodge was by far the best driving and best towing van of the three. It's 360ci FI engine was excellent for towing, and the 3:90 rear end helped a lot. The extended frame section in the rear was supposed to cause instability when towing, but it seemed fine with my 25ft trailer at the time. It ate gasoline like it was a contest and losing was not an option. 6-8mpg towing, 12mpg at best empty.
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Old 09-15-2007, 08:24 AM   #6
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Welcome to the Forums AC. Sounds like you are headed down the right track and I am sure you will get many good ideas from other members. I am not sure you will have sufficient power from the 6.0 liter, depending on how you intend to load the van and your driving habits, or the terrain driven in. I have always had good service from GM, but a good friend and Ford trained mechanic says the Ford trannys are setup to last longer because of less slippage. Read shift more positive but also much harder. I had a '72' blazer tranny rebuilt at 150K we added a positive shift kit at that rebuild, that would have been lifetime had I chosen to keep the vehicle, but you felt every shift. I am currently running a NV4500 manual tranny in a Wrangler, that I am sure will outlast me.
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'77' Minuet 6 Metre, behind a 2005 stock Jeep Rubicon with Equa-L-Zer hitch.
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Old 09-16-2007, 12:56 AM   #7
ursa Maritimus
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Yes, some very interesting responses, indeed. Thanks!
Richinny, thanks for the reminder on the alternator. Very
high output alternators are not a problem, actually. All 3
major automakers have them, as do speed shops. Might take some adaption, that's not impossible.

Uwe and Royce, I spent the day driving a number of vans, of all makes. I noted the short ohangs of the GMC/Chevy vans, even on the 1971-1994 models. at
all lengths. I admit that I haven't owned a GM vehicle since they sold me 2 lemons (an '80 Citation and a '74
Vega), but perhaps I could forgive that after 27 years.

I drove a couple of the newer style solo, and one older one a friend owns (G30, 1983 model w/350) with a trailer attached (a car hauler, about 1500 lb as is, which we parked my 2850-lb Toyota Matrix on). The 350 in the '83
G30 lwb was much better as a towing engine than the
new 6.0, even empty, but my friend has rebuilt it with
a hotter cam, Edelbrock intake and specially rebuilt QJet, no computer, 4.11 gears, etc. The newer vans seemed geared too tall - perfect for cargo hauling, but they'll need regearing - the od automatics were nice, and they
are more stable than the admittedly-worn '83, which needs bushings and shocks. Nobody's
ever been inside the TH400 in the '83, with 290K miles.
He recommended that, regardless of which I choose, that
I go older, build the engine specially, and only use EFI if
I can change the operating parameters in the computer via laptop - not impossible.

Next, I tried Fords. A '93 E150 w/302 and a '99 E350 w/7.3 PSD, both lwb, short tails, both used to tow a
35' toy hauler - all owned by former boss. Obviously
the '99 was excellent in all ways - I also know that my old boss had a very hard time finding the PSD-equipped
van, and paid very dearly for it when he did. The '93 E150 was stable towing the trailer, good
control, but nowhere near enough power. The engine was
tired and needing replacement, but I'm not considering
even trying to do this job with a 302, anyway. Both vans
have over 300K miles on them, and have proved durable,
although the 302's shot and its transmission was rebuilt
around 150K.

Dodge time. I have a friend who maintains vans for a church transport. He swears by Dodges and has been telling me that I'm crazy to think of anything else.
His service has 2: a '96 extended length 350, and a '97
lwb normal tail 11-passenger 250, both 360s, both 4 speed od automatics, both 3.55 gears. We hitched a trailer up, about 2500lb, to each, and roadtested them.
They both have 100K miles appx. on them, and were well
maintained. They moved out and handled nearly identically, but on the highway, at about 50 mph,
you could feel an aerodynamic "holdback" with the extended one, compared to the short one. He confirmed for me that the
short one gets 17 highway, 13 city, 12 towing, while
the long one gets 13 highway, under 10 city, and 8 or
so with a trailer. I think the difference in weight has an
impact, but the aerodynamics of the longer van must
act as an aerodynamic brake, maybe? The 360s seemed
superior to the 350 or 6.0 Chevy.

I drove newer vans on lots - cargo vans exclusively. I am
skeptical of the Ford Triton engines, because I've heard
their longevity is not the best, and because they're much
more expensive to rebuild than the Chevy and Chrysler
V8s, and the 5.3 Triton is nowhere near the 360, either.
But I like the Ford's structure. Actually, all of them seem
structurally well up to heavy towing. I admit I've also
considered the notion of building a 454, 460, or 440 for
a van, or building a stroked smallblock to over 400 cubes (or using a built 400M Ford) and know that I'll be using an OD automatic with 3.73 or more gears. I will be avoiding the long overhang vans, for certain.

To answer another question: I don't know the size trailer
I will have yet, but don't plan to get into 30 footers - it's just for me, wife, and parrots; still, as noted here often,
too much tow rig is much better than inadequacy. I will be climbing hills with the rig - I often lobby Congress, there are some fairly high hills between here at DC, and going to Burning Man with it is also possible.

The search - and research on engine possibilities - will continue, but I know more after today about what I'll
need. Thanks!


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