THE ODOMETER FLIPPED OVER to 340,000 miles somewhere between the Grand Canyon and the Mogollon Rim. Two-thirds of those miles were mine. Ten years wandering the West. About 22,500 miles a year. I chose van life so I could travel.
My 2007 Chevrolet Express was running okay, but it was getting tired. It was no longer a fan of steep hills. And it was consuming coolant. Neither I nor a few mechanics I consulted could see any external leaks. That probably meant the coolant was leaking internally, most likely because of a bad gasket. There was no coolant in the oil, so that was good. Our guess was that it was leaking into the cylinders.
I had a mechanic perform compression and leak-down tests. The numbers weren’t horrible, but they weren’t good either. Yeah, the old engine was struggling.
Bob has always preached the necessity of having an emergency fund. I had been building up mine for several years because I knew the day would eventually come when I’d need to spend big bucks on major repairs or a replacement vehicle. That day had come.
Three things made this a fortuitous time: I had the money, I had a place to stay, and I had access to a shop and tools in case I needed to build out a replacement van.
My best friend had died, and I was free to stay at his place until it cleared probate and went on the market. My friend had also willed me his pickup, so I would have transportation while my van or its replacement were out of action.
Making a Decision
I started by searching ads all over the Southwest. Maybe I would find not only a van with low mileage at a reasonable price, but also one with some features my van lacked, like cruise control and power locks/windows/mirrors. I got as far as checking out three vans in person. I had even figured out the logistics of getting the prime candidate (which was partially built out) from northern Utah to where I was staying in southern New Mexico.
My father’s vehicle philosophy — true or not — was in the back of my mind. “When you get a used car you’re buying someone else’s problems.” In addition, I would have the added work of building out a different van to be similar to what I already had. Hmmm.
Then there was the arithmetic. The amount I would spend on a different van with about 150,000 miles (good for another 200k miles?), plus necessary renovations, was equal to or greater than what I’d spend on an engine with zero miles and no further renovations. I had my answer.
Making It Happen
There’s an auto repair place near me that’s affiliated with NAPA. NAPA’s national network of affiliated shops warrantees the parts and labor for three years. So if I had problems with the engine swap I wouldn’t need to return to the original shop to have it corrected. That’s great for us wanderers.
The shop worked up a price for the engine replacement plus some other minor things I wanted them to do while they were at it — just shy of $10,000, with two-thirds of that being labor. That’s the down side of vans. In order to remove the engine you need to disassemble most of the front or lift the body off the frame. That’s a lot of work.
I paid for the engine then waited. And waited. We were still dealing with the post-pandemic supply chain issues — and a little incompetence in the engine supplier’s order department. Six weeks later the shop called with the news the engine had arrived, that they’d be able to fit me into their schedule in two weeks, and that the work would take a week or so.
In preparation, I emptied my van of all the stuff I would need or that would get in the mechanic’s way. For example, my refrigerator was in an insulated box mounted where the passenger seat used to be. It would need to be removed in order to get the engine cover out of the way. And I pulled out my mattress so it wouldn’t absorb auto shop odors.
I delivered the van on the appointed day and a helpful neighbor drove me the 25 miles back to my late friend’s place. And when the transplant was completed, another helpful neighbor drove me to town for the reunion with my nomadic home. It all went rather well.
Luck Is Not a Plan
Imagine if my engine had gone bad unexpectedly, leaving me stranded and homeless for two months. That has been the case with several nomads I know.
I had the good fortune (well, countered with the death of my best friend) and the luxury of doing this when it was somewhat convenient for me.
The key to not being marooned with an immobile home is to pay attention to your rig’s health. Although I’m the cross-your-fingers-and-hope-the-strange-symptom-goes-away type about many things, that doesn’t apply to my van. Avoid being surprised. Take proactive measures. Keep up with routine maintenance. Spend a few dollars — maybe once a year to celebrate your vanniversary — to have a mechanic check things out. Then find one of the many nomads with enough mechanical knowledge to advise whether the mechanic is trying to scam you. That nomad might even be able to do the repairs for you.
Have as large of an emergency fund as possible. Bob used to recommend a $3,000 minimum. These days I think it should be more like $15,000, or at least enough for a replacement vehicle and a place to stay until you can find that new rig. I know that’s hard for most of you, maybe impossible, but that’s the reality of it. In addition to parts and labor, you could be paying for towing or off-road rescue, a mechanic’s diagnosis, plus your usual monthly expenses. Sigh. At least you haven’t been paying rent or a mortgage all this time.
A Side Note About Small Town Mechanics
There’s a temptation to believe the largest auto repair shops do the best work. That hasn’t been my experience. I’m a fan of small town, one- or two-man shops. Small towns have a small customer base, so mechanics can’t stay in business if they do inadequate work or rip people off. Word spreads. Ask some locals before settling on a mechanic.
Also, small town mechanics have lower overhead, so they tend to be less expensive. I’ve had mechanics say, “You can order the part(s) from someone like RockAuto.com to save money, and I’ll install it without the markup.” And one mechanic offered me a beer as he was finishing the job. But sometimes you need to be flexible. For example, a mechanic told me he could only work certain hours because he also drove the school bus.
Love Your Rig
I hope your vehicle never needs major repairs. But I also hope you’re prepared, just in case. As the old saying goes, take care of your stuff and your stuff will take care of you. See ya down the road.