Getting the van back to Chicago…

So this post is long over due. It’s been a hectic past few weeks, and while I would love to recount the happenings in great detail, it would take pages upon pages to do that. So I am going to hit the highlights.

We went back to Santa Barbara to pick the van up from Burley Motorsports, and then make the drive back to Chicago with the major mechanical work complete, so we could focus on kitting out the interior of the van. But like the rest of the project, it didn’t go as planned.

The work that Burley Motorsports did was absolutely outstanding. The fit and finish of the custom suspension parts, and the sheer artisan skills that went into making our expedition rack to hold the jerry cans, medical kit, and spare water, is awesome. Burley was responsible for designing, building, and installing the suspension system for the expedition. Burl Beveridge is the owner of BMS, and he is a former desert racer who has years of experience pushing off road rigs at speed across difficult terrain. In addition, he is a master welder and mechanic, and can basically dream up solutions and make them with his bare hands.  He’s become somewhat of our Pit Crew Boss. He is helping us plan everything moving forward, and dial our entire rig in. He has a ton of contacts across the Vanagon community, and years of experience, so he is up to the job. He is also, one of the nicest and most caring guys on the planet, and really cares about the project, the van, our safety, and us. What more could you want?!

Here is the AWESOME rack…


With Burl’s initial install complete, we were ready to head back to Chicago. Since picking the van up in Seattle, there has been a nagging issue with the engine not wanting to start cold, but once started and warmed up, she was running like a champ again. Hmmm, put that one on the list to fix in Chicago. In addition, there was a weird thump noise coming from the driver side rear of the van intermittingly as we warmed the van up driving. So it’s weird. A problem when it’s cold, and a problem when it’s hot. ugh… How did we pick up more ghosts, but its ok, we will figure it out in Chicago we thought…

We left Burl with the promise to come back after the interior and systems (water, gas, electric) were fitted and the final decision on an engine made (more on that later).  We shot some cool footage for a short video about Burl and BMS, and are editing that now to showcase our good friend.


With the CA sun setting behind us, we hit the road heading east. The goal being to make it back to Chicago in 4 days, and get to work straight away on the rest of the build. The first night of driving was ok. The evil red coolant light did rear its head (ugh) but we chalked that up finally to just a bad sensor, and drove on.  The next morning, we hit our usual cold start problem, but we were up and running fine once going.  But as the day progressed our gremlins started to come out. The thumping noise that had been with us since Seattle, had returned. And it was getting worst. If we stopped and the car cooled, it was fine, but once heated from running, “thump thump thump”.  It sounded like something was caught in the wheel and flinging about as the wheel turned. Ugh.  But we got under the van, (at lot easier with the new suspension), and could find nothing. But it sure seemed like something from the axles… hmmm….  We pushed on a bit further and the next gremlin arose. The front steering all of a sudden felt VERY heavy, and the Power Steering pump was screaming like a banshee.  We decided it was time to stop. We were in Williams, AZ and it was late and dinner time anyway. We parked the rig, and ate at Denny’s.

I immediately hit and read all of the threads I could find on mysterious noises, and heavy steering. What I was finding wasn’t so good.  It could be the axles and potentially a front locker issue.  I didn’t feel comfortable driving the car any further without diving deep into the mechanicals to see what was happening.

Now its time for a little side bar :).  The vanagon community is filled with people who absolutely LOVE these cars, and it creates a powerful sense of community and mutual support. Its evident in the community at and other spots across the web, but also at live events and meet-ups, and through a nifty service called the Vanagon Rescue Squad (VRS). Yes, there is a Vanagon Rescue Squad and it’s just like a human rescue squad, they are like Vanagon EMTs ready to spring into action to help another Vanagon owner in need. It’s a completely volunteer driven organization, where people sign up to be a resource for other owners in need. There are hundreds of volunteers across the country. Ok, that’s the end of the side bar; the rest of the story should make sense now :).

We decided to get some sleep, and wake up in the morning, and email the VRS and call AAA to see if we could find a place where we could work on the van and ideally someone who could help us.  Morning came quickly, and I sent 3 emails out to VRS volunteers, hoping someone would respond to me by the end of the day, and then I could get towed to them. I just needed a place to work, access to tools (left all mine in Chicago remember), and a parts store close by. To my surprise I received responses from everyone in less than 15 minutes! And this was 7AM in the morning! Wow, that’s service.

The first guy to get back to use was Joseph, a retired mechanic and syncro owner with a ton of tools and a good place to work.  Sounds like a plan. With a quick call to AAA, we were on our way to Joseph’s house to get sorted.

Now the next 30 hours of the story are filled with amazing acts of kindness and caring from Joseph and his wife, knuckle busting work on the van pulling axles, front diff actuators, repacking CVs, calling Burley, Daryl (AA Transaxle), and Jeff (Peace Vans), eating some delicious Mexican food along with a Dairy Queen night cap, losing an ipad (well having it stolen) and arguing with a hotel owner. Whew. Was crazy. But here is where we netted; we had an issue with our rear axles and another doozy.

We completely removed the rear axle and inspected it, as we were removing it, we immediately spotted a problem. It was insanely loose. The bolts fastening it to the transmission and to the wheel were VERY loose, only finger tight. This is a huge problem, and luckily one that was caught before it was catastrophic. Is they had come loose while driving; it would have been VERY bad. The other issue is that the CV joints inside the axle were pretty low on grease. Looks like the looseness in the bolts allowed a gap where all of the grease could be spun out of the joint. A dry CV is a bad bad thing. Luckily, the fix for this wasn’t too hard. Refill the joints with grease, and reinstall the axle tightly :).

But the real doozy was why the power steering pump was screaming. The front differential was seized in locked mode. Meaning both wheels was locked to turn at the same speed. This sounds fine, but it’s really dangerous. Typically the front wheels move at different speeds, especially when turning and steering. With them turning at the same speed they “fight” the desire to turn, hence the screaming power steering pump trying to fight the forces exerted. These forces can snap axles, power steering components, and worst, front differentials (basically the front transmission on a 4 wheel drive vehicle).  Tried as we may we could not get the diff to disengage. It would not be safe to drive the car another 1900 miles home.

The trip was scuttled.  We had to make a call. I needed to be back in Chicago the next day for a huge work meeting, and so I had to leave AZ one way or another that day. To drive the van home we needed to dismantle the entire front end and remove the front axles and then keep going. The issue is that unlike the rear axles, it’s a beast to get the front one out and you have to remove the disc brakes, some suspension parts, etc. Not fun and sorry, not enough time. UGH. So we made the call to leave the van with Joseph and have it picked up by a transporter and shipped back to chicago L, and rent a car to do a 26-hour mad dash back so I could make my meeting. Yes, 26 hours straight driving, trading off between the two of us to get back in time for my meeting. It was the only way!

Wow, this is a long post. To sum it up, the van made it back to Chicago! But now, still have to take out that diff and send it back to Daryl to help us sort it out. But there is one problem; we don’t have a place to work on it!

The Final “Tow” Home

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