The Ford Econoline: 3 common issues to look for before buying as your van home
Updated: Aug 29
The Ford Econoline is still a popular van choice for van life despite its relative age compared to models like the Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter. You can usually find good deals on them and there are many with raised roofs so you get the height "luxury" of a newer model without the high price tag.
The Ford Econoline (E-series) includes the E150, E250, and E350. Interestingly, the numbers correlate to how much weight the vans can carry (and not the size of the vans–which I had originally thought!) The lower the number, the lower the cargo carrying capacity.
E150 = 1/2 ton payload
E250 = 3/4 ton payload
E350 = 1 ton payload
This is important to consider because converting your van–depending on how many appliances you want to include–will add significant weight to it. For example, my bench-to-bed conversion setup is made out of oak wood–one of the most dense and heavy woods out there. The bed is probably the heaviest piece of build in my van.
From what I've seen, most van life individuals will opt for an E250 or E350 for the extra weight capacity and suspension. That being said, if you end up with an E250 or E350 and have a very light payload, it might make for a rougher ride because these vans have stiffer suspension designed for heavier payloads. Personally, I have an E250 and I think it rides smooth as butta'.
But regardless of which Ford Econoline van you're interested in, you should look for the common issues that run in these Ford vans before buying. Especially because the E-series stopped being sold in 2014 and was replaced by the Ford Transit–so the newest version you could even get is already six years old. Which, is great from a financial perspective and a big reason why it's still such a popular campervan conversion choice.
Common Issues to Look For in the Ford E-Series Van
I'm speaking about these issues from experience. I grew up with an F350 truck and am now living in an E250 van (they are very similar in build). So, whether you're at a dealership or viewing a car from a private seller, don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. Bring your mat to get down on the ground and look under that van for rust and other issues!
Exhaust Leak from Broken Manifold Bolts
Yeah, I was confused about what the heck this meant too. Basically, the exhaust manifold is responsible for collecting all of your engine's emissions, burning them up, and sending them out the van via your exhaust pipe.
The exhaust manifold is bolted to the engine, which exposes it to extreme heat and temperature changes. The area in which the manifold is bolted to the engine–also known as the head–can expand in size when exposed to extreme heat. Over time, this constant expanding and change in size can snap the bolts/studs that attach it to the engine and can also cause the manifold to crack.
What's more, the Ford Triton family of engines use aluminum heads instead of cast-iron–which is bad news bears. It's bad news because aluminum expands much more under heat than cast-iron (which is the other material the engine heads are typically made of). So, you're much more likely to have snapped bolts/studs and a cracked exhaust manifold if your van has a Ford Triton engine. Not all E-series vans have this family of engine, so it's worth trying to find out. My van (a 1999 E250) did have this style of engine so it wasn't surprising to have had this issue.
How Much Does it Cost to Repair Snapped Manifold Bolts?
I paid $1,200 to replace my exhaust manifold bolts. Ouch, right? It's a pricey fix mainly because of the manual labor. The exhaust manifold is attached to the engine, which is basically located at the "heart" of the van. So accessing and working within that area is difficult and time-consuming.
Unless you're a mechanic or very automobile-savvy, it'll be hard to make an accurate judgement on the exhaust manifold bolts when going to see the van before buying. You'll have to get under the van– I was lucky because my dad was with me when viewing the van and he knew to check for these. Side note–he knew they were cracked but that didn't stop me from buying it...that's another story. I recommend bringing someone along who could help with this, or asking the seller if you can have a mechanic look it over before purchasing.
But now that the exhaust manifold bolts are fixed, I won't risk emissions leaking under my hood, potentially breathing them in and having them wear down everything else under my hood. If you don't have this fixed, over time your fuel efficiency and engine performance will decrease.
What Are Signs of Leaking Exhaust Manifolds?
A good indicator of an exhaust manifold leak is that your van makes an almost whistling, squeaking sound when you start it and run it for the first few minutes. It may never stop, or it may go away after a little, but over time it will only become louder and more constant. It will be a slow death! Here's a more in-depth look at the risks of not fixing your exhaust manifolds.
Shift Linkage Loose in Steering Column
Good news is that this is a much more affordable fix! Tightening the shift linkage in a steering column is anywhere under $100 and even a brand new one should run you about $150. Both the
F350 truck I grew up driving and my current van had very loose shift linkage in the steering columns.
Loose shift linkage is when you shift into different gears but the shifter feels loose or the gear you're in doesn't match what the dashboard is saying. I would constantly throw my van into reverse, only to realize after hitting the gas pedal that I was in neutral. Thankfully, this isn't a super critical fix but it is something that will only wear down more over time.
Rust On the Van Frame
Obviously, rust is a HUGE– if not the BIGGEST– problem to look out for before purchasing any van. But as someone who watched her family's brand new F350 truck rot out FAR too quickly for how old it was, some Ford makes just do not stand up against rust.
What Causes a Van Frame to Rust?
The rust definitely stems from salted roads. Good old-fashioned table salt used to be the treatment for icy roads, but twenty years ago many highway departments switched to spraying magnesium chloride and/or calcium chloride as a pre-treatment before winter storms. These types of salts are way more corrosive than regular old sodium chloride, AKA table salt.
So, I was very happy to learn my van had spent most of its days in Southern California and Guatemala, where there is no salting of roads. The frame of my van was not too rusty. I definitely, highly recommend looking at vans from southern states. Avoid the states with winter storms and salted roads! It played a big role in why our F350 truck rotted out so quickly. I will note that in the last few years, car makers have made huge progress in making corrosion-resistant vehicles, so looking at a newer model E-series van could help with this.
When you're evaluating a van, look under it to see how rusty the frame looks. The frame is a structural part of the van, meaning without it, your van might as well be a pile of metal. While rust spots, say, above the wheel wells aren't ideal, they are much less of a concern than rust on the frame.
Another thing to note is that rotted chassis mounts are a quick way to fail a safety inspection. The "chassis" is the "box" that is mounted to the frame of the van and the places that they connect are specifically called the "chassis mounts". Whether the rot is on the frame of where the chassis mount connects, or on the chassis of where the chassis mount connects, it doesn't matter–it's equally as bad news for passing a safety inspection.
So, there you have it! Picking out your van to live in is hands-down the biggest van life decision–you want to go into it knowledgeable and prepared. Overall, I highly recommend the E-series because they're relatively cheap, easy to get parts for, and reliable. Even as a 1999 Ford E250 with 174,000 miles already on it, my mechanic was pleased to tell me that the transmission, engine, and (thankfully) body frame were still in solid condition on my van.