Living in an Ambulance

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By Gypsy Van Man

March, 2011

(Editor’s note: This is a post made to the Yahoo group Vandwellers by Gypsy Van Man. I loved what he did with his ambulance, so I contacted him about posting it here. He kindly agreed and so here is his post and pictures to go along with them.)

When I was a kid in the 70s there was this really cool matchbox van with tandem axles—I fell in love! Since then I have always wanted to build one but life always got in the way. A few years ago I stumbled across the idea of Vandwelling and it instantly grew on me. I started watching eBay, shopping around, and the next thing I knew I found a listing for this van. It said it was a 1988 Ford E-350, diesel 7.3 and low mileage. The listing also said it had some rust. I have a friend who owns a body shop so I asked him if he could teach me to repair the rust spots, and it was a go. I started bidding on this van I had only seen two small photos of it so I was thinking I must be crazy! Before I knew it I had won! $2,500.00, a steal. So I went off to collect my prize. When I saw it up close all I could think was “What have I done?”. This van didn’t have a little rust, it was rusted clean through, so bad in fact that the entire door-frame for the rear doors was gone! After a few moments of feeling utter defeat I decided that I could at least sell the engine and transmission and get some of my money back.

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I started it up, drove to the local gas station, filled both tanks with diesel and headed for home, just about 115 miles away. I was amazed at how well the van rode! It had air suspension and felt like riding in a limo not a huge rusty 1 ton van. The engine ran like a top! I easily out accelerated my grand caravan that my best friend was following me in. I set the cruise control and made my way home all the while thinking about how much of a fool I was to buy this thing sight unseen! About 10 miles from home I was jolted out of my thought by a loud “whump – whump – whump” I pulled over and jumped out to inspect the van only to discover what I was afraid of. One of the rear tires had completely lost its tread and was hanging off the tire, except for about 10 inches of tread. Well the next thing I realized is that this “project” didn’t have a spare and my lug wrench and jack from my caravan stood no chance of lifting this rig. No money left for a tow truck, I drove on the side of the road at about 5 miles per hour all the while being taunted by the constant noise of the tire tread smacking the wheel well going “Idiot – Idiot – Idiot” or at least that was the sound in my mind. I made it to a Firestone dealer and had the tire replaced with the cheapest one they had that would fit. $145.00 – Holy crap! I drove the rest of the way home and parked it beside the garage.

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There it sat for months, every time I looked at it I just wanted to be sick! I had spent every penny I had saved up to buy this thing thinking I could just fix it myself and it would be no big deal! What a fool! I finally asked my friend to come over and look at it in person. I guess I just wanted him to officially pronounce it junk! Well to my surprise he didn’t think it was a problem at all. According to him instead of learning to fix body panels I would instead learn to replace them.

That’s where the adventure began of making many trips to junk yards to find a “donor” Ford van to completely replace the back inches of the van. That is a whole other story about how I cut the rear off a van in the junk yard with my portable generator and my trusty sawz-all. I ordered some parts off eBay, and had to make the wheel wells from scratch because nobody makes them for old tandem axle Ford vans.

During my repair adventures there were ups and downs like finding out that the air lines leaked and had to be replaced, spending $1,200.00 on 7 new tires, but the best news was yet to come. As I said I had filled both tanks when I picked up the “Great White Whale” as she had become to be called, well with all my running it back a forth and running around it was time to add fuel. I filled it up again and just out of curiosity I calculated the mileage. Well I thought I knew how to do math but this couldn’t be right! 26 miles per gallon of diesel? NO WAY! Something was wrong. So I topped it off and drove 50 miles out and back and sure enough same thing! It was like a blessing from heaven! That was just what I needed to spur me on.

Several years, lots of hard work, many hours bargain shopping online, and here I am. I have everything I need to finish the inside. That will be my next adventure installing the sink, stove, microwave, furnace, water system, house batteries, solar charging system, toilet, shower, fridge, and TV combo washer and dryer! I added a drawing of my planned interior to the photos.

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