Skip to main content

Can Retro-grouchery Get You a Better Truck?

It's Super Bowl season. What would the ancient Greeks think of the NFL player who dances in the end zone after scoring a touchdown? No matter how proud a modern secularist and rationalist is about their superiority to superstition, don't we still believe in hubris? We start to get nervous about feeling too pleased with ourselves, and especially, if we show it in public.

For instance my van (tow vehicle) recently passed the 250,000 mile mark. At first I thought about celebrating this achievement by posting about it. Then I decided to keep my big trap shut, lest I jinx myself.

But by now, the gods have probably moved on to other things, and they won't notice if I do a little dancing in the end-zone about this.  Of course, when a person considers a new vehicle, all they can really do is stack the odds in their favor with statistically-valid generalizations. It still comes down to one lucky or unlucky specimen in a general category. But it is still worth mentioning my good luck with this Ford Econoline 250 van (1995), just as an illustration.

Why not choose a new van or truck with the same mindset as before? Why mess with success? But this should not be interpreted to mean 'Stick with Ford.' The more modern Ford engines are not similar to the engine in my old Ford van. But some of the semi-modern GM engines are!

By 'success' I meant sticking with tried and true and hopefully more durable technology, rather than getting suckered into more complex engines that only get 20% better fuel economy. Trucks and vans get lousy fuel economy because they weigh almost 3 tons, have a frontal profile the size of a barn, and are non-aerodynamic. It is a fool's game to keep adding complexity to engines to improve the fuel economy by 1.5 mpg. We are already past the point of diminishing returns. But Congress likes to write laws that try to enact popular environmental sentimentalisms, the entire culture is disconnected from physical reality, and career bureaucrats at the EPA need something to do, so we get modern engines with:
  1. Overhead cam engines, higher rpm, timing belts with expensive replacement, or timing chains with plastic tensioners, four valves per cylinder, and four camshafts instead of one.
  2. Variable valve timing.
  3. Cylinder deactivation. A V8 collapses to a V4 under low-load conditions. Why doesn't vibration tear the engine apart?
  4. Two turbo-chargers. Oh goodie, vrrooom vroom! Thousands of dollars to repair.
  5. Fuel injectors inside the combustion chamber!
  6. Fuel injectors upstream as well as in the combustion chambers.
  7. Active (closing, sliding) shutters in front of the radiator that make things a little more aerodynamic.
  8. Plastic air dams on the front bumper, which smash into the ground.
  9. Automatic engine shutdown when you are idling at stop lights, guaranteeing an earlier demise of the starter motor.
  10. Active suspension that jacks up or lowers the body, depending on your driving conditions.
  11. Aluminum pop can bodies. Bet those will really hold up to getting dinged in the parking lot by the adjacent car.
  12. Electrically heated transmission lubricant, for the first three minutes of a drive.
  13. A toy-like spare tire. 
  14. Future technologies? How about new improved outside mirrors? They could rotate at highway speeds to become more aerodynamic and improve your overall fuel economy by 0.12 mpg. When combined with new mandatory anti-collision cameras, they would retract the mirrors in parking lots so the battleship-on-wheels actually fits in the parking space. Furthermore, the side-view cameras would automatically turn off when a law enforcement officer approaches your side window. 
It's not that any of these items is intrinsically bad. But they will cost you when you buy the vehicle, and they give Murphy's Law many more opportunities for making your life miserable. 

But let's be fair: EPA requirements haven't yet forced automakers to use hollow plastic crankshafts, made from recycled grocery bags.
It is a good idea to avoid getting a vehicle the first year or two that is has been redesigned. Of course, that is just the time when the hottest "spokesperson" at the Detroit Auto Show will demonstrate getting in and out of the car, while wearing a tight mini-skirt and stiletto heels; and the year that the vehicle qualifies to win the Motor Trend Truck of the Year; and the year that its commercial is chosen Favorite Super Bowl commercial.

Soon the hot new vehicle might have a recall.  Fan-boys will be bitter and disappointed. But a new model has a lot of wrinkles to iron out. When are people going to learn not to be an early adopter!? 

That certainly wasn't the case with my 1995 Ford Econoline van. Even better, it was just a year or two before Ford switched to the overhead cam Triton engines. (Recall their exploding spark plugs.) My van had ye olde "pushrod" design, with a camshaft in the engine block itself, and no vulnerable timing belt or long timing chain to worry about. If you want a pushrod design now, you must go with a GM "small block" engine. (Or a Chrysler Hemi.)

I am leaning in the direction of a 2008-2013 Chevy Silverado (or its GMC doppelgänger), with a (Fourth generation) 4.8 liter V8 Vortec engine. Unlike the 5.3 liter engine, the 4.8 eschews cylinder de-activation. (But I think it does have variable valve timing.) Also, the 4.8 liter engine is usually paired with the old-fashioned four speed transmission. The newer transmission with 6 gears might be desirable, but only if they don't have "double clutch" designs; these lack (fluidic) torque converters.

(As an added plus, it is fairly common for the GM trucks to have a locking rear differential. The RPO code in the glove box is G80. This is a good way to obviate the need for a four wheel drive tow vehicle.)

In 2014 GM went over to their Eco-tec engines with fuel injectors inside the combustion chambers, fed by high pressure fuel pumps. (I don't even want to think about it...)

I am not an automotive engineer, a good auto mechanic, or a "car nut". So don't be bashful about pointing out errors in this write-up. I'll quickly edit your corrections into the post.


Randy said…
Interesting, useful and a bit demoralizing. But thanks!
Not demoralizing. I have opened my mind to the fourth generation of Chevy small block engines. There are a lot of 2009-2013 Silverado/Sierra/ExpressVans out there. I argue that the 4.8 liter V8 is preferable. It will be somewhat unpopular and unsexy, so the price might be pretty good.

I wonder if it is easy to find that engine in salvage yards, or whether it is fairly economical to get a remanufactured engine of the that type.

And these "low tech" engines will get 20 mpg on the highway.

So where's the bad news?
Although I gave one example of believable good news, it does make a person yearn for what 'could be.' If only they made Ford Ranger-sized pickups with these more modern engines and transmissions. Stop making them so damn big you can't even park them!
John V said…
Don't pretend. We all know you're a dyed in the wool GM brand man! :-)

We used to have the year 2000 base model Ford Ranger. It was an OK light duty truck. It didn't handle well at all. The damn thing was all over the road when running over bumps, holes or washboard. It did slightly better if loaded up in back. The payload was really weak also. I put 800 pounds of wine grapes in it once and I looked like a bootlegger going down the road with the way the back end was hunched down. And it was supposedly one of the more robust light pick-ups on the market. It was really only good for suburban weekend warrior light property work. Kind of like those baby tractors people buy for $20k that can't even lift 500 pounds but look cool in your yard. You would need to go to at least an F150 to adequately meet your needs.

It's too bad though. I hate to see the era of the white cargo van go away. Now I'll have to find something else to give you a hard time about. :-)
I'm afraid the white cargo van era is coming to an end for me. I don't like the low ground clearance and high cost of the new ones. But that is a good design for most van customers.