Come Along On A Van-Tastic Voyage: 1978 Chevrolet G10 vs 1985 Dodge Ram

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Welcome back! On today’s exciting episode, we’re taking a look at a couple of cheap old cargo vans. But before we get to those, we need to finish up with yesterday’s five-doors:

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I am completely unsurprised. As I mentioned in the comments, the Aveo was a last-minute substitution; the car I wanted in there was a 2006 Scion xB, but it sold sometime in the three hours between finding the ad and writing yesterday’s edition. It happens. I suspect the xB might not have had its ass quite so thoroughly handed to it as that Aveo did.

Anyway, let’s talk about vans. Who doesn’t like vans? (Put your hand down; it was a rhetorical question. And see me after class.) These big boxes are essentially blank canvases, sometimes literally, which an owner can modify to suit their needs. Need a work van? Install some shelves, toolboxes, and a ladder rack, and you’re all set. Want to take the family cross-country? Go full conversion-van and fill it with captain’s chairs and a TV. Have a ’70s fetish? Your wildest dreams are only some shag carpet and a disco ball away.

These two vans could be any of those things, and so much more. All it takes is some imagination and a ton of hard work. Which one is the better starting point? Let’s take a look and see.

1978 Chevrolet G10 Van – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: (probably) 350 cubic inch V8, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Issaquah, WA

Odometer reading: 110,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs great, according to the seller

This style of Chevy/GMC’s G-series vans were produced for a full quarter of a century, from 1971 to 1996. They’ve been cargo vans, conversion vans, U-Haul trucks, RVs; you name it, these vans have done it. They’ve been immortalized in song. They’ve helped plans come together. It’s a hell of a resume, to be sure.

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This old Chevy van, though it hasn’t traveled many miles, has seen some things as well. The seller says it used to be owned by a race mechanic, which might explain its engine swap. The original build tag is shown in the ad, and it lists this van’s powertrain as a 250 cubic inch inline six and a three-speed manual. Now, however, it is an automatic, and is powered by what is clearly a small-block V8. My guess is that it’s the ubiquitous 350, along with a TH350 or TH400 transmission: cheap, widely available, and as simple and durable as an anvil.

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Why the swap? Probably just boredom and a desire for more power. Racers can’t leave anything well enough alone, even when it comes to utilitarian vehicles, and the V8 probably was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and got mixed up in this whole thing.

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Inside it’s just bare painted steel and a dashboard, and what look like Plymouth Voyager seats. There’s a picture window in one side, but no other modifications. Do with it what you will.

1985 Dodge Ram Cargo Van – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 225 cubic inch slant 6, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Seattle, WA

Odometer reading: 38,000 miles

Runs/drives? “Been sitting a while but starts right up”

Dodge’s B-series van lasted even longer, from 1970 to 2003, though with a few sheetmetal changes. This example is the 1978-93 style, known neither for RV conversions and custom jobs like the early style, nor the unexpected “Dajiban” racing craze in Japan like the later style. This one was driven by plumbers and electricians, or crammed full of enough seats to haul a dozen or more kids to a church retreat.

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This particular van seems, from the tag on the door sill, to have come from some government agency or other. It’s claimed to have only 38,000 original miles, and that might be accurate; I know fleet vehicles sometimes have weirdly low miles. Usually this means it sat idling for long periods of time, or making a bunch of short trips.

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For such use, you don’t need a lot of power, and this van makes do with Chrysler’s legendary 225 cubic inch Slant Six. It ain’t much in the horsepower department, but it will run until the end of time, and not put much of a strain on the Torqueflite automatic transmission. This van has been sitting a while, but the seller says it starts right up; presumably this means they have been starting it periodically.

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Inside, it’s strictly fleet-spec, with vinyl seats and rubber floors. What looks like a big pile of junk in the back is allegedly the start of a home-brew RV setup, including paneling, insulation, and rooftop solar panels.

Yes, I know – both of these vans, as they sit, look like they should have “FREE CANDY” scrawled on the side. But if you use a little imagination, and put in a little elbow grease, there are lots of directions you could go with these. Which one will it be?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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42 Responses

  1. Despite being a Dodge van man myself, I gotta go with the Chevy between these two. It’s cheaper as well as a short wheelbase model. And I’ve never cared much of the 80’s Dodge van with the round sealed beams.

  2. These are fundamentally very similar vans despite the 10-year age gap. Neither of them are new enough to be used for work, and neither of them are nice enough or interesting enough to be a basis for a fun project. If you’re buying one of these, it’s for the same purpose as a beater truck—something cheap that’ll hold a lot of shit, for hardware store and dump runs.

    The Chevy appears to be in somewhat better shape, despite the extra miles and the powertrain swap. The unfinished RV conversion in the Dodge is a point against it. The Chevy is $1,000 cheaper, a point in its favor.

    Chevrolet it is.

  3. Chevy, I’ve driven Dodge vans and there’s no foot room. Given the choice, post 75 Econoline because the longer nose gives more room and I’ve driven them a lot

  4. “Who doesn’t like vans? (Put your hand down; it was a rhetorical question. And see me after class.)”

    My day is downhill from here, got a good laugh from that.

    Having driven a ’97 conversion van for 7 years, I can’t say I love either, but I’d go with the Dodge, probably.

    Torch, if you’re reading this, have you already discussed that Econolines only had amber rear turn signals from ’92 to ’94? I’m giving extra priority to those model years if I can a conversion van in good condition, although at that age they just get scarcer and scarcer…

  5. Two anonymous white cargo vans from the same era that one could use either to start a small contractor business of some sort, or use as your getaway hideaway vehicle for your serial kidnapping or murder aspirations. Or, hell, why not both.

    Even the siren song of the workhorse slant six can’t get me over the Chevy advantage of being significantly cheaper and much tidier.

    P.S. whichever one you buy, hose it out with bleach so you don’t get caught with any residual DNA from past crimes the vehicle has been an accessory to.

    1. I don’t understand why people think ancient vans would be OK to run a business around. It would be really weird for a contractor or technician to show up with something this old. Also, vans this old are sure to be unreliable—the last thing you want when your livelihood depends on getting somewhere to do a job. They would have been fine in their day, but this ain’t their day.

      1. If a painter/carpet cleaner/handyman showed up in one of these (Los Angeles) nobody would think it was weird at all. Nobody can really tell a van’s age since they were in production for so long and there are lots of 80’s/90’s utility vehicles cockroaching around. Bodywork, cheap paintjob and clearcoat and it would just be another van.

        1. Maybe it’s a regional thing? Around here (Boston metro) weeks can go by without me seeing anything older than an early-2000s E-series, and I keep an eye out for what other tradespeople are riding around in. Maybe it’s just the road salt we use here—those 20ish-year-old vans are generally rotting away from the bottom up. There aren’t all that many 90s vehicles still rolling around here, and 80s cars are essentially nonexistent.

          1. In Los Angeles you’ll see a 1-ton 80’s Toyota pickup dually every drive. My grandpa used a fleet of 70’s GMC C3500’s for his carpet business into the 2000’s.

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