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Info On Common Vans
#1
This thread is intended as a write-up on the typical issues, fixes, and plus sides for the most common van platforms. Know that it is not all encompassing and your individual experiences may very. This is simply some general information for you to have should you be looking for a van, have a van and want to know what to look out for, or have a van that is currently having some issues. Our aim here is to address the vital components so don't be surprised that things like "Dashboard Quality" are not discussed.

The majority of people looking for a van are going to end up checking out and buying one of the full size vans available from the Big 3. The Big 3 are Ford, GM (Chevy and GMC products), and Dodge. The vans is question will be the Ford E-series (also known as Econoline), the Chevy Express platform (aka GMC Savana) and its predecessor, and the Dodge B-series (Ram Vans).

The information you find below will be geared toward the late 1980's to early 2000's as this is what can typically be found in decent shape and at a reasonable price. Know that some issues may well extend before and after this timeframe depending on the maker, model, and available options. Also, we will only be covering common setups. If we're honest, most people on here can't even afford diesel vans so I will leave those out completely.

Note, I am knowledgeable but I don't know everything about every van and their available setups. I will do my best but there is no replacement for your own research.
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#2
First, lets take a look at the Ford vans.

The quick and dirty to the Ford vans is as follows: Rear differentials are great, nearly all transmissions offered are good, motors are good runners but several have a common issue (which is a huge pain but fixable), suspension is an older/stiffer but tougher design.

Now, onto the details ...

Read Ends - Ford rear ends found in these vans will be the 8.8" and 9". Both are very stout, have tons of aftermarket support (helpful if you want to change gearing), and will generally be problem free. People often forget that the rear differentials need services. Swap to synthetic gear oil and replace the gasket. These units should hold up for the life of your van no problem.

Transmissions - What was used depends on your vehicles years and motor choice. Suffice it to say that with regular maintenance they will all serve you well. That said, the Ford offerings here are known for being fine right up until they aren't. They will also be the most expensive to repair and replace of the Big 3. Upgraded components are available and suggested for long trouble free life. Synthetic fluid is a MUST. The AOD transmissions are known for great highway MPGs but poor city numbers due to gearing.

Suspension - Ford utilized an older front suspension design right into the 2000s called a "Twin I Beam". This setup is extremely durable but has two key issues. First, it will offer the most truck like ride of the Big 3 vans. This means that it will be a bit harsher and likely have more body roll. Second, this older design does a much poorer job at optimizing suspension geometry when compressed. In other words, all the nice angles your suspension uses become goofed the more load you apply. This has resulted in many complaints of uneven tire wear a premature suspension issues. However, this problem has an easy fix. Get your van aligned when it is at full weight. An alignment when empty followed by laden driving is the issue. Having your alignment set for the same weight and weight distribution you will be driving under negates this issue almost completely. Now you have a properly set suspension which is by far the strongest of the Big 3.

Motors - This section has to be split into two categories. Motors in vans 97 onward are different and have a specific problem. Here is the breakdown.

4.9L I6 (300ci "Truck Six") - 96 and earlier - This motor will be harder to find in the vans vs trucks but if you find one ... buy it. This is easily one of the top 10 gasoline motors ever produced. Nearly unkillable, amazing power and fuel economy, gear driven timing means no timing belt or chain to worry about.

4.9 V8 (commonly called the 5.0 or 302ci) - 96 and earlier - This is the same 302 we find in Mustangs and Explorers as well as a dozen other vehicles. Cheap and easy to work on, ok fuel economy, lots of aftermarket support, but generally considered a little underpowered for the vans as the low end torque is lacking compared to other options.

5.8 V8 (Windsor 351ci) - 96 and earlier - Gobs of torque and pretty darn reliable. Fuel injected models deliver reasonable fuel economy. Valve cover gaskets often develop leaks.

7.5L v8 (Lima 460ci) - 96 and earlier - One of the last gas motors produced that can tow a house. They will run forever but pretty much max our at 12mpg and commonly return 8-10mpg.

Now, onto the 97 and later Ford Modular (Triton) motors which have some pretty serious issues ...

For whatever reason, Ford decided to produce these motors with VERY few threads in the head for the spark plugs. Blowing a plug right out of the head is not unheard of. Furthermore, Ford used a 2 piece spark plug design that is well known for breaking off in the head when you try to remove them, disabling the vehicle. It is so common that a special tool is made for removing the bottom section after it breaks off. Replace these plugs ONLY with aftermarket 1 piece plugs. Also, 97-01 motors have a common failure of the plastic intake manifolds where they crack and dump coolant (thankfully, most vehicles on the road today have already had the manifold replaced by Ford).

4.2L v6 (Essex) - This is the smallest and lightest duty motor available. Not a bad motor but too underpowered for a big van loaded with stuff. Fuel economy will suffer greatly in a laden vandweller setup.

4.6L v8 (Triton) - This is the same motor found in everything from later Mustangs to Lincoln TownCars. A good compromise between power and fuel efficiency so long as your setup isn't super heavy.

5.4L v8 (Triton) - Most common motor to find in the full size vans but WILL suffer from the above mentioned issues. Good power and fuel economy for its size.

6.8L v10 (Triton) - This is the big monster gas offering. If you're not towing just avoid it. Fuel economy is abysmal and it has the same problems noted before.

Other - Expect to replace fuel pumps and starters often (Especially on older models). Power steering setups tend to make a lot of noise but they last if you avoid cranking the wheel all the way until it stops and turning the wheel when sitting still. Ancillary equipment (AC, alternators, etc) typically hold up well.

In summary ... Older is better because you avoid the Triton motors, while newer motors have issues they can be addressed (though it may be labor intensive), transmissions hold up well with regular interval synthetic fluid changes. If issues are addressed ahead of time and they are maintained properly they can easily be the longest living vans of the Big 3. I rank it #2 on the list.
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#3
Next, lets take a look at the Dodge vans ("Ram Vans" and "B-Series").

The quick and dirty to the Dodge vans is as follows: Awesome motors (but prone to some oil consumption), soft ride suspension (car like) but VERY weak and overly complicated design, transmissions are exceedingly sensitive, rear differentials have unpredictable issues.

Rear Ends - The Dodge differentials are usually the 8.25" and 9.25". The 8.25" is pretty light duty for a vehicle so heavy but typically solid. The 9.25" is very strong but some have issues. The pinion and axle bearing can wear prematurely. Some also left the factory with excessive gear lash and will develop a whine. There is no way to predict if your will have an issue. Many of us buy vans with over 100,000 miles and if you don't have a problem by now you will likely be fine.

Transmissions - Here is the deal breaker as far as I am concerned for the Dodges. First off, Dodge was the last company to use 3 speed automatics. This was done to save cost and bolster the capabilities of the underpowered V6. Expect poor fuel economy from the 3 speed automatics. All transmission offering are the "Torqueflite" (despite a name change). This design dates all the way back to the 50's and while some are known for extreme durability and reliability they falter in later applications. All automatics are sensitive to heat but none more so than these. Low fluid volume, poor heat dissipation, and weak internals means that excessive heat results in a quick death. There are several different models of the transmission offered but all have this issue. DO NOT run a Torqueflite without adding an aftermarket transmission cooler. DO NOT get a "flush". Proper servicing requires a full drain/fill with a filter change. After that ... Cross your fingers.

Suspension - These vans have the most car like setup of the Big 3 and consequently have the nicest ride. Sadly, this design is overly complicated, weak, and very exposed. The entire front suspension hangs down and is exposed to road crud, water, and salt. Rust is common if you live in a place where it is an issue. Some components are user serviceable (greese fittings) which will help extend the life of the parts but expect to replace the steering components often. The nice ride is great for highway use but the weak design means broken parts on rough roads. Adding an air dam and/or a belly pan can help prolong the life of your parts. Regularly check your ball joints for torn boots which will lead to a quick failure.

Motors - Finally we get to some good news. The Dodges all run on the Magnum motors and are known for great reliability and fuel economy. Some oil consumption is common but the motors really don't seem to mind. These motors are somewhat sensitive to stretched out (old) timing chains but when you redo the timing you can swap to a double gear/chain setup (highly recommended) which is far more durable and long lasting. You may see these motors referenced as the 239, 318, & 360 but really they are just based on those older motors.

3.9L v6 - This is the smallest motor available in full size vans from the Big 3 and is typically considered underpowered. A laden van will achieve the same fuel economy with the bigger motors. Though, 92 and later motors have multi-point fuel injection which makes for a considerable improvement.

5.2L v8 - Probably the best bang for your buck. Great fuel economy and power. Do keep in mind that these motors do like to be higher in the RPMs compared to the Ford and GM motors.

5.9L v8 - Lots more power than the 5.2L but still return great fuel economy. These motors also prefer a bit higher RPMs. Could be considered the best "big" motor available of the Big 3 for all around duty.

Other - You can expect good life and reliability from the Dodge ancillary equipment. Adding some slip covers and zip ties to the wiring, ac lines, and rubber lines is a good idea though as they tend to unusually exposed and poorly retained. If you have rear heat/ac be sure to check the lines and make sure that they are tucked up out of the way as they tend to hang low.

In Summary - Great motors but very weak transmissions and suspension. Lots of conversion vans (and Class Bs) available based on the Dodges but the issues drop it in the rankings to a distant 3rd. Many people have had great ones but many others have invested a lot of money only to have major problems. I personally would not own one.
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#4
Lastly, lets see how the General Motors products hold up.

The quick and dirty to the GM vans is as follows: Easily the best all around for the categories we're addressing, tend to have quirks and electrical issues (nothing major), transmissions hold up well when taken care of but die young if abused, only one glaring flaw with the motors (but completely fixable).

A note - Only the 96 and later vans are the Express (Savana) models. Those replaced the Older Chevrolet Van and GMC Vandura models. However, the late 80's models up until 96 are largely the same. I'll bring up the differences where they matter.

Rear Ends - GM rear differentials range from a light duty 8.5" all the way to a massive 10.5" posi. There really aren't any glaring issues here besides the fact that some can have gear oil changed easily and some completely lack the ports to do so.

Transmissions - These can be broken into two categories. 92 and older TH400 & TH700R4 and the 93 and later 4L60 & 4L80. An entire book can be written about these transmission but I will summarize thusly: Very beefy, can be a dog at low speeds, cheap to repair/service/replace, NEED regular fluid changes, add a drain plug to the pan if yours doesn't come with one (some do some don't), upgrading valve bodies and shift solenoids is cheap and highly recommended. These transmissions are the most sensitive to old fluid and will often kick the bucket BY 150,000 miles if they don't receive regular fluid changes. Conversely, if maintained properly they can take a heck of a beating.

A note here about a common GM transmission issue. Keep Q-tips handy. These transmissions (depending on year) have sensors which are prone to losing contact because of fluid seepage. Common issue is that the van starts in 2nd gear and doesn't want to shift higher. Disconnect the sensor connector and clean both ends with the Q-tip. It takes 2 minutes and you're good to go for a while again.

Suspension - GREASE! GM vans will have grease fittings just about everywhere. They are meant to be regreased regularly and will last a long time if you do so. If not, you will get just as much wear as the Dodges. The GM design offers a good ride and long life but I can't overstress the need for regular servicing. It is the best compromise design between ride and strength and is designed the same as most modern heavy duty vehicles.

Motors - For all years concerned here we are talking about variations of the 350ci v8 (5.7) and the 305 v8. Even the 4.3L v6 Vortec is a 350 with two cylinders cut off. I will make this section quick because there are only a few things you need to know. The 305 sucks, the 4.3 is the best v6 of the Big 3 (but may still be too low powered for really heavy vans), and the 350 is what you want. Now, the 350 has a ton of variations and is the GM workhorse for a good reason. The only glaring flaw with the 350 is that the L31 variant (found in 96-02) has a major issue with the intake manifold gasket. They are plastic and fail predicability. A failed gasket will dump coolant outside the motor and must be addressed soon ... or ... it will dump coolant inside the motor and you're screwed. There are aftermarket gaskets available which completely fix the issue. Do not wait until a failure. Just replace the gasket now and eat the cost. An internal leak has a high likelihood of compelling your connecting rods to exit the block at high velocity. Fix it now and you can rely on the motor for ages.

Other - This is likely to be your biggest problem area with the GM products. Expect issues with vacuum lines and valves. Check and replace often as vacuum leaks will drop your MPG significantly. Electrical oddities abound in GM products and can be difficult to trace. For electrical issues I highly suggest you solve in the simplest manner (such as adding override switches) and replacing entire systems (like gauge clusters) vs trying to fix "properly". Expect quirks from ancillary systems and know that weird mid-year changes and year-to-year changes might make replacing certain items a headache. Favor later GM models with 6 lug hubs/wheels.

In Summary - Best all around van. Besides the issue with the L31 and the oddball electrical problems you can expect the least trouble here and that is what puts it in the #1 slot. Get yourself a Haynes manual so you can do your own transmission servicing as well as locate all the grease fittings.
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#5
Extra notes -

Transmission fluid and differential gear oil changes are part of regular maintenance. Many people simply ignore these but do so at your own peril. Fresh and/or synthetic fluids here will also mean a bump in fuel economy. Also, if you are already having problems you are probably too far gone for fluid alone to help you (this is why you need to be doing it ahead of time). A "flush" of your transmission fluid is a bad idea ... Do it properly! The idea that servicing a transmission for the first time late in its life will kill it is a myth (kinda). This applied to transmissions from the 70s and earlier.

Weight distribution can have big effects on the life of your suspension parts. Try to keep weight as evenly distributed as possible while relying on the rear for heavy work.

Many components of your van can be cheaply and easily upgraded with parts from other vehicles (such as using Corvette transmission parts in your vans transmission). A little searching on the web and you can find many upgrades that are well worth your time and money.

There is no such thing as saving on tires. Cheap tires will cost you more in the long run so don't bother pinching pennies here.

Reducing aero drag will reduce the strain you place on your van. Any/all improvements here are not only MPG helpful but they will extend the life of your van.

Do not wait until you develop problems. Preventative maintenance is far cheaper. If it boils down to that cool new energy efficient fridge you've been wanting for ages or a suspension overhaul you need to go with the overhaul. That fridge wont be helpful if your van can hardly make it down the road and your money is spent.

If you are in a relatively static location you need to find a mechanic you like. A Haynes manual and some basic tools can go a long way but even I get some things done professionally. A good and honest mechanic is worth his weight in gold.
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#6
Hmm, writing this up on Word first and copying it over made for some small issues. I hope nobody minds. I wanted to keep it all together as I went.
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TequilaSunSet (01-24-2016)
#7
Awesome work and a HUGE thank you!!!

I made a PDF of this in the event my brain does another info dump into my azz! Big Grin
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Gideon33w (01-24-2016)
#8
It doesn't cover everything but it is as all-encompassing as my knowledge extends without getting into crazy detail.

And of course there will be plenty of people who has a van where I talked about issues but they have been just fine. The issues written about don't mean that 100% of the vehicles can expect a problem it is only a generalization.

I would like to amend things a bit though though. If I owned the van from new or had some other way of knowing it had been well maintained (like a fleet vehicle with records) I'd be much more willing to consider a Dodge. But on the grand picture for those of us van shopping we can expect comparable offerings from each of the Big 3 and therefor should lean towards the most reliable.

Also, I probably give GM too much credit (indeed I'm actually a Ford guy). If you expect perfection and can't tolerate the annoying bs that comes with owning one (like the electrical gremlins) than they just aren't the van for you. I should note that I didn't go into detail on other transmission derivatives that were also offered.

All that said, I implore people to do their own research and come to an educated decision. You will likely find a lot of the things I mentioned out there in vehicle specific forums though.
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#9
Good stuff, thanks! Couple Q's...

1) I was under the impression that transmission "flushing" was the upgraded service over just a drain & replace. I know that a garage told me that once and they charged more, I believe saying it required special piece of equipment. They also cautioned me that it could damage the seals on my older van. If you could comment further on different ways to service a tranny...?

2) I've read that "fleet maintained" isn't what it used to be...in fact, it shouldn't be considered a "sales point" to justify higher price anymore. I read this in a forum (possibly manufacturer specific, not sure) and the OP was a fleet mechanic. Others with claimed fleet maintenance experience supported this. The basic premis was: Fleet maintenance has gone so far corporate that the theme is now "get it in, get it done fast, get it out as cheap as possible."

I don't necessarily have a valid opinion on mechanical issues at all...I can change a tire, swap a battery, and...hmm, surely there must be something else....

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#10
I don't do a flush. Not necessary to get absolutely every bit of dirty, old fluid out of there. Don't go for the type of fluid replacement where they suck some fluid out through the dipstick. The pan needs to be taken off and wiped clean of the metal shavings and the filter needs to be changed. Same with the oil change- it must be drained.

The brake fluid also doesn't need to be completely drained. I don't drain the whole system including the lines. I suck out the brake fluid reservoir and replace it with new every once in a while.

With fleet maintained vehicles, I would totally do that, but wouldn't pay a premium for it. Even if they put cheap fluids and filters and get them in a out as quick as possible, that is way better than not changing the fluids at all. Not changing the engine oil on new vehicles is a very bad thing. Not changing transmission fluid per manufacturer specs is pretty hard on the tranny. Neglect is worse than cheaping-out on maintenance.

If one can prove regular maintenance, then that is a good thing.
“If I could be half the person my dog is, I'd be twice the human I am.” ―Charles Yu
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