Monday, May 27, 2013

Equipment - Tow Vehicle Decided

Over the last year or so, and actually longer than that, I've been contemplating replacing the aging van I use to carry stuff to Bethel. It's a 1998 Dodge 15 passenger extended van with a one ton chassis - capable of carrying a lot of stuff, reasonably easy to drive, but not very stable if anything goes wrong. In fact if you Google phrases similar to "Dodge 15 passenger van" you'll get some hits that talk about the "death van" and such.

I knew this going in and had some ideas about doing a dually conversion for the rear axle (so it would have four wheels in back), maybe a rear axle stabilizer. The issue was that the rest of the van was starting to get a bit rusty. Although I could start replacing parts here and there it'd be a pain and ultimately I would end up with a van that needed some final developmental work (like the dually rear axle set up) and wasn't really optimal for how I used the van.

Right now I have two types of events where I use the van. The first is Bethel, the primary reason I got the van. I need to carry a lot of stuff to Bethel, and in fact I almost completely fill the van with equipment of various sorts. For Bethel I need a lot of carrying capacity.

In the future, if I can hold other races, I'll need similar carrying capacity. I may not need some of the stuff - leaf blowers and shovels seem to be more of a "Spring Series" kind of thing - but I may need equipment I don't have now. Overall, though, Bethel demands the most in terms of carrying capacity.

The other type of events are the smaller ones where I'm not the actual promoter. Instead I'm working one aspect of the event, either the finish line camera or registration or both. In these cases I don't need to bring anything for course prep and a lot of times I don't even need a tent. I've worked a couple races like this out of the Golf so that gives you an idea of the amount of equipment I bring to one of those races.

In the future I hope to have more of such events. I may need a lot more equipment for some events. Others will be relatively low equipment ones, suitable for the Golf.

The van is great but not very modular. It's all or nothing, a huge behemoth of a vehicle, not great in inclement weather, not really appropriate for carrying more than one passenger, and, critically, too tall to fit in our storage garage (by an inch!).

I wanted to get a modular system, a tow vehicle and an enclosed trailer. This would let me use the smaller tow vehicle for doing mid-size events and the trailer and tow vehicle for a Bethel or similar. If it's a smaller event (in terms of equipment) I can still use the Golf or Jetta. Importantly I could leave the trailer behind if I didn't need to bring a lot of stuff.

I also wanted a tow vehicle that would be able to carry the Missus and Junior if they wanted to come along in the same vehicle. This meant a back seat (Junior won't be a front seat passenger for many years) and some modicum of comfort. No working fans up front, no radio, in a bouncy van... that wasn't really ideal.

Like usual I tried to think outside the box. I briefly contemplated a Porsche Cayenne or a VW Touareg, sister vehicles which when equipped with a V-8 are rated at almost 8000 lbs towing capacity. Reviewing the dimensions I realized that both were taller versions of the Jetta Sportswagen (JSW), literally just a few inches longer. If the Missus and Junior were in the vehicle I wouldn't have any room for equipment.

I learned that pickup trucks command a significant premium, typically about 30% more than a comparable chassis SUV. Diesels also bumped the price up - I realized that we'd still have a gasoline powered vehicle in our stable because the big diesels were just too expensive.

I thought about non-garageable vehicles like the Dodge Sprinter or a school bus or another van. I knew that I'd rarely drive the vehicle so on principle alone I tried to avoid them. Driving the van 1000 miles or less a year on average meant that although the drivetrain worked super well the structure was corroding at a higher rate than normal.

To give people some idea of how little I drove the van, I bought the van in April 2004 it had 38,000 miles on it (37, 895 to be exact). On Sunday May 2013 it had 51, 456 miles. I drove the van 13,500 miles in just over 9 years.

I decided I wanted to stay with a garageable vehicle.

I realized that a larger enclosed trailer would weigh 5000-7000 lbs so I needed a vehicle with that kind of tow capacity. I quickly realized that I'd need a true body-on-chassis type vehicle (i.e. a truck). The big chassis would allow me to tow more than a 2000-3000 lbs. A normal chassis , even with a big engine, is limited by the fact that the chassis is a tub of thick sheet steel rather than a grid of steel beams.

This got me narrowed down to pickups or large SUVs. Pickups, by virtue of cost, would be unlikely. I'd want a second row of seats so a crew cab type set up, and I'd need a full size pick up to get the towing capacity.

There are some "mid-size" SUVs with 7000 lbs towing capacities, notably the aforementioned Cayenne/Touareg duo. The newer Pathfinder also came with a Class IV hitch from the factory so that would work as well. The problem with the mid-size SUVs was that they had limited space once I put a couple people in the second row of seats.

For larger SUVs it came down to the Ford Expedition or the Chevy Suburban. Both can tow enormous loads because their chassis are based on the heavy duty pickups from their respective lines. Both have third row seats and significant cargo room behind the second row. Both are large enough so that if they tow a large trailer the trailer won't end up controlling the vehicle.

The Ford Expedition had one significant drawback relative to the Suburban - it had less cargo room. There is almost no room behind the third row seats whereas in the Suburban there was a full width area as deep as a big wagon's cargo area. The Ford would require me to sacrifice the third row if I had to carry anything significant inside the vehicle.

(Although there is a longer version of the Expedition, the Expedition EL, it was out of my price range.)

The Ford had two advantages over a similar year/mileage Suburban. First, the Expeditions had an independent rear suspension (IRS). That may not mean much but the IRS is shorter in height than the live axle rear because the center of the axle doesn't move up and down. This allows the floor to be lower in the Expedition which in turn gives more room inside. In fact it allows the third row of seats to fold down into the floor. This is a common feature in minivans, none of which have live axle rears anymore, but in large SUVs the live axle is a less expensive way of getting a lot of power down to the ground. Interestingly enough the IRS used in the Expedition is stronger than the live axle used before it - the towing capacity actually increased when Ford went with the IRS.

The other advantage is cost - the Expedition is a few thousand dollars less than a comparable Suburban. It may be the shorter platform that gave it less cargo capacity, it may be the less sexy image of the Expedition (who ever heard of the Secret Service cruising around in black Expeditions?), but whatever, the Expeditions cost less.

The Suburban, then, has the advantage of more cargo space (and therefore a lower likelihood of needing a trailer), and the disadvantages of needing to store the third row seat in the garage and costing a bit more.

The Expedition it was.

I wanted to get a 2004 or later if possible. Based on some of the high miles I saw on vehicles for sale (some were over 200,000 miles) I realized the chassis/drivetrain would go a long way, far more than I'd ever drive it. However the 2004 and later came with some electronic stability control to help prevent roll overs - I figured that couldn't hurt. Plus such Expeditions wouldn't be as old.

I also understood that the Triton engines had some plug issues when performing the 100,000 mile plug change. I wanted an Expedition that was a bit below the 100k mark or substantially above it (125k or so) so that I knew that either the plugs would be reasonable or the plugs were already replaced.

I started looking for an Expedition circa 2003 or newer, bookmarking those that looked promising. However every one got sold quickly, often before I could even contact the seller.

I should point out that I couldn't really do anything before the Bethel Spring Series ended because I was too occupied with Bethel. Then my poison ivy really hampered everything in my life and things got put on hold by default.

Finally, towards the end of May (i.e. right now) I felt ready to make a move. For a week or two I didn't see any Expeditions in my price range. Almost all of the Expeditions I found had 110-125k miles, so high enough that the plugs might have been changed. There were a couple at 98k miles and such but they were simply too expensive for me.

Then, on a late Saturday, I saw a new Expedition ad. It was new enough that it had no pictures and not even a color. 89k miles. 2006. I ran AutoCheck and it came back looking good, really good.

I had to wait until Monday to call the place, ironically a Chevy dealership. I went on Tuesday and, after a test drive and some hemming and hawing I left a deposit. Before I left Tuesday I took pictures with my phone, especially of the underside of the Ford. I didn't want to get a bent frame or rusting chassis. I returned Saturday with a Ford friend in tow, a car enthusiast like me. I wasn't sure if he'd be the one to take because he's more about cars than trucks but when I first called him on Tuesday, from the dealership, he immediately asked me the year and engine.

"2006? 5.4 liter? I think they went to the aluminum coolant crossover in the manifold by then. The plastic ones weren't good. The plugs are a pain to replace. It's an F250 chassis underneath so it's a proven chassis. I can't remember any electronic problems with it."

I decided he'd be totally appropriate to drag along to the dealership on Saturday.

We arrived during a bone chilling cold rain fall. The detailed running boards were slippery with silicone. The Expedition felt better than it did before - the salesman said that they replaced the tie rods. (My Ford friend confirmed that one tie rod was replaced, outer, and no inners).

I felt good about the Expedition. My friend felt good about it. I went ahead and handed over the bank check. I signed my first ever car loan. I declined the powertrain warranty.

The new battlewagon, as someone called the van.

A bit more presentable than the van (in the background in this shot)

Overall in pretty good shape.

The other side.

The third row seats, left side folded down into the floor.

The front suspension with the drive axle visible.
Tie rods on this side weren't replaced.

The rear suspension. The silver arms extending out are aluminum.
The center silver piece is stationary on an IRS, it moves up and down a good 8-12" on a live axle.

That's the extent of the tow vehicle stuff, just the tow vehicle. The trailer is a different story, a whole puzzle unto itself. My goal is to have registration inside the trailer (well the staff inside, not necessarily the racers). Such a trailer would use every bit of the Expedition's tow capacity, if not in actual weight then in the size/length of the trailer. I don't want to get into the situation where the tail wags the dog, so to speak, and a long tail, even if it's not quite 7000-8000 lbs, can exert a lot of leverage on the 5400 lbs "dog".

The "small" option would be to have a small trailer just for the finish line camera, similar to the one we've been using at Bethel. This would mean setting up a tent for registration in locales that didn't have a registration area.

The van, just before it left.

On a side note I listed the van in Craigslist on Thursday evening, sort of on a lark. I had no recent pictures of it so I figured I'd add pictures over the weekend. My experience with Craigslist car ads is that you get a few bites and that's it, so when I got 4 or 5 emails in the next 12-24 hours I was a bit surprised. One guy drove a couple hours to see the van on Saturday.

He bought it.

I got home and the Missus looked pleasantly surprised.

"I can't believe you bought the Ford and sold the Dodge in 24 hours."
"I should go into car sales."

The Missus shot me one of those glares.

"Or not."


Justin said...

Hmm... There was always the v10 TDI Toureag that can still be had if you were going used ... that has alot of lifespan ;)

Aki said...

Heh. Maybe the next one. Or the new VW midsize SUV that's supposed to be coming out.