Back-To-Work Vans: 2009 Ford Econoline vs 1985 Dodge Ram 250

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Good morning, Autopians! It’s Tuesday, even though it feels like a Monday. I hope everyone’s three-day weekend was a good one. How was the race? I was too busy doing landscaping work around the house to watch. But then, I think Emerson Fittipaldi won the last time I watched it all the way through, so it’s been a while.

Today, since everyone is going back to work I thought we’d look at some work vans. But let’s wrap up last week first:

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Exactly as I expected. I hope the new owner of that Mercedes appreciates the incredible deal they got.

Now: They’re big. They’re white. They’re usually laden down with ladders or pipes strapped to roof racks, emblazoned with company logos and phone numbers, and far too often driven with reckless abandon. They’re the unsung heroes of the construction trades, putting in the hours day in and day out, with no respect and very little maintenance. They’re work vans, and today we’re going to take a good close look at a couple of them.

2009 Ford Econoline – $2,450

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.4 liter V8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Roselle, IL

Odometer reading: 274,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but has a misfire

The Ford E-series van has been the answer to so many questions for so many people for so many years, it’s hard to imagine the American vehicular landscape without it. Need a contractor’s van? Ford Econoline. Have twelve kids to shuttle to church camp? Ford Econoline. Have a band and need to haul your gear? Ford Econoline.

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This particular Econoline is the 250 model, rated for a 3/4 ton payload. This is important when you start loading it down with ladder racks and built-in tool chests and portable welding rigs and whatever else you need to do what needs to be done. Gotta leave some weight capacity for building materials.

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This van has all the right stuff: a ladder rack, a safety bulkhead (so that your job doesn’t smack you in the back of the skull in the event of a crash or a hard stop), a built-in cabinet, and what looks like a big power inverter attached to the bulkhead.  The driver’s seat is worn out, but apart from that the front compartment looks all right. It’s all dull gray plastic anyway, which almost looks better scuffed up.

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Mechanically, it does need a little help. The 5.4 liter “Triton” V8 runs, but has a misfire, or maybe two. Expect to pull the doghouse and check out some ignition components. But it isn’t too rusty (by Midwest standards), so it’s probably worth fixing up, even at 274,000 miles.

1985 Dodge Ram 250 – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: V8 of unspecified displacement (5.2 or 5.9 liter), 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Bothell, WA

Odometer reading: 152,000 miles

Runs/drives? Just fine

Work vans have looked pretty much the same for a long time. This Dodge is more than two decades older than the Econoline, but from a distance, in the dark, you could easily confuse the two. If it ain’t broke, as they say…

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[Editor’s Note: Can we agree that those little circular headlights in the square housing give this van an eager, maybe even surprised look that is somehow just charming? -DT]

This 1985 model Dodge van sits right about in the middle of a 32 year production run, with a couple of restyles that stayed more or less the same underneath. The ad doesn’t specify which V8 engine it has, but during this time it would have been Chrysler’s LA small-block, in either the 318 or 360 cubic inch size, backed by a good old Torqueflite 3 speed automatic. It’s a good reliable combination, and the seller says this one runs well.

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This van is a bit more barren in back than the Ford, though it does have the safety bulkhead. It has windows, which are sometimes a detriment in a work van. It’s harder to hide tools and equipment, and it’s nearly impossible to install anything along the walls. It also has a sliding door and side interior trim panels, leading me to believe that this might have started life as a passenger van.

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Also note the presence of a control that has long since vanished from cars: a floor-mounted headlight dimmer switch (the little silver thingy next to the brake pedal). I’m not sure when these disappeared, but this would have been a late one.

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I’m not really supposed to play favorites, I suppose, but I really like this van. It’s scruffy and beat-up in exactly the right ways, and I always liked the styling of this era Dodge van anyway.

But as always, the decision is not mine, but rather yours. Which will it be: modern-ish fully-decked-out van in need of a little TLC, or battered DIY workhorse?

Quiz maker

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49 Responses

  1. That Dajiban’s got the same powertrain (presumably) as my Fifth Avenue. Which likely means it’s still equipt with Lean Burn. Which probably means it does misfire because the ancient computer can’t properly work with the distributor lol

    Jokes aside, it’s a tough choice, but I’d have to go with the Ford because of the modern conveniences and parts availability.

  2. Having owned E-350s (I still own one) and having driven Dodge vans for work in the past, I would say Ford hands down. This one has a major issue; however. Those rear wheel arches and black-painted lower body section from the rear wheel to the bumper tell the story of 14 years in Chicago road salt. Salt water has probably already worked its way to the inside, where it is silently eating away the rocker and rear body work. In another couple years, you will be inside the van looking at pavement.

    Reluctantly, I think the Dodge is a better buy.

  3. I’m apparently in the minority but I voted Ford, having driven both the long nose on the Ford is a massive improvement in comfort. Also OBDII for easier diagnostics, no windows and interior fit out for work. While the misfire is probably a failed spark plug thread, an insert kit is $500 and a day of work. Or replace a head, not something I ever want to repeat but been there, done that, have the SOHC V8 timing tools

  4. Hmmm- I’m partial to the 92+ Ford Econolines, but I’m not particularly excited about the idea of getting a Chicagoland refugee with a misfire. That being said, it should have the 2 valve 5.4, so it’s probably not too expensive to fix the current issue and easy enough to get parts at local salvage yards.

    As for the Dodge, it’s done a great job surviving the last 37 years and I’d love to see it continuing to ride the roads. It’s old enough for parts availability to be a valid concern, increasing the amount of downtime when it inevitably breaks down.

    While I think the Dodge is the “cooler” ride, I’d go with the Ford as a work vehicle.

  5. Gotta go with the Dodge. I’ve owned a ’76 and a ’98 Dodge vans in the past, so I have bit of a soft spot for them.

    You also bring up in interesting question. What would have been the last car sold with a floor mounted dimmer switch? I imagine it would have been some sort of truck or van.

  6. If you’re buying it as an actual work van, you’d be a complete fucking moron to get the Dodge. It’s a 1985, for Christ’s sake. Ronald Reagan was president when that thing was built, OK? Everything in that van that can wear out due to age has done so. The gas mileage (a key factor when it’s a business cost) will be shit, even compared to the Ford. It will break down all the time just from being old, and that will destroy your business. It has essentially no safety features, which will A) make it more expensive to insure and B) make you more likely to die while driving it, which you are inevitably going to spend several hours per day doing, increasing your chances of having an accident. It has fucking windows, for easy smash-and-grabbing of all the thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of tools which you depend on utterly for your livelihood. Its sheer age will make you look like a deadbeat to potential customers. There’s a reason you almost never see anything this old rolling around anymore in trade service.

    The Ford, however, is a worthy consideration for somebody with wrenching skills and a need for a cheap, entry-level work van. Just get that whole 279,000-mile misfiring motor out of there, and put in something fresher. Grind the rust off those wheel wells, and put some cheap-and-basic overfenders on top to hide the raggedness. Now you have a serviceable, respectable-looking work vehicle that will give years of relatively inexpensive service until you are successful enough to step up to something newer. Parts will be stupidly easy to find, repairs will be cheap, it has a proper cargo area with no windows and some shelving already installed, and it’ll break down less than the Dodge. You will look like a normal contractor instead of some weirdo in an ancient rattletrap from before half your clients were even born. Also, if you have a crash you might not die.

    Now, if you have a thing for classic commercial vehicles and you for some reason want to restore that Dodge to its former dubious glory, knock yourself out my friend. If you are looking for a work vehicle to do work with, only the Ford is even a realistic option.

  7. Take The Dodge!!
    Grew up with a 1987 Dodge B250 318, last year of carburation. It was Red and White with beautiful red interior and O so comfy seats! Called it the B.U.V. (Big Ugly Van) because my aunt thought it was an ugly van, so naturally, thats the name that stuck just to pick on her. It hauled all four of us and three motorcycles in the back during a family vacation several times.
    Rust took it away after 300K plus miles. My dad still misses the B.U.V.

  8. I voted Dodge. I owned a 1973 Dodge D-100 van with a slant 6. I used that thing to haul just about anything. Rust finally killed it. I called it “Moby Dodge”. Moby Dodge 2.0 might be an interesting addition to the family.

  9. Get the Dodge. The Ford is better set up as a work van, but that mysterious misfire isn’t worth addressing in a used up vehicle. The seller knows this, hence the sale.

    Not that the Dodge is anything to write home about. I’d vote for neither if that were an option.

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