I’m An MIT Enginerd And Battlebots Geek And This Is My Weird Van Collection

Charles Top

The sporadic afternoon thundershowers typical of midsummer weather in the South had given way to a humid miasma. Around me, the sound of cicadas fills the trees of the temperate forest that surround the house — a sharp melodic overtone to the drone of I-85 barely a half mile away. I am rolling around under a 1986 Ford E-350, dragging a dirt and oil-encrusted transmission crossmember with me. The humidity has combined with decade-old oil leaks, and plastered my black T-shirt (for I have learned that all shirts I own will eventually become black, so let’s just get it over with) in a quasi-organic tarry concoction that stains wherever it lands, to the point where only removing the first layer of skin would get it off. 

“Huh. Those holes are missing.” I say to myself, with furrowed brow, pointing my headlamp at the location this crossmember should have bolted right into. Something was wrong. Maybe I need to cross reference my 1984 and 1991 Ford E-350s and see where the frame holes are on those. 

[Editor’s Note: Meet Charles. He’s a Battlebots geek, MIT enginerd, and van dork. These are all compliments, of course, and the reasons why I want him to contribute here at The Autopian. He’s one of us, as you will soon see when he introduces his incredible collection below. -DT]

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I decide a frontal exit is the best course of action, and so drag myself through the still-shiny remnants of an oil drain pan mishap from when I removed the wheezing 460 Big Block this van was saddled with 36 years ago from the factory in Lorain, Ohio. 

Sliding outwards from under the front of the frame rails, I realize I had positioned myself right under the 1,400 pound combined weight of a fully built 7.3 liter International Harvester diesel engine mated and the E4OD transmission, all hanging from the farthest reach of a Harbor Freight folding engine crane with a piece of two-inch angle iron stuffed into the hydraulic ram to keep it from sagging. I wrote “IDIot Stopper” on the piece of angle iron, but some damn good it was for stopping this idiot. 

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Then it hit me. No… not the 7.3 IDI and transmission, because I’d probably not be writing this so flippantly if so. The E4OD was still three years away in 1986. Of course the crossmember would be different from the C6 three-speed that was in this van. I’d read online a while ago that the year break was 1988, when the E4OD was beginning production, but I had forgotten this fact completely. I lay there for a few seconds, formulating a plan for in-place drilling of the new holes… 

Oh no. 

I experienced the sudden nervous surge of imminent danger: I was still looking up at the underside of the Hanging Gardens of International Harvester. I got the hell out of there real fast. 

Walking through the darkened back yard and crossing my van collection, I wondered what in the intervening 22 years had happened such that this had become my life. I had one of those “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” moments. Outside, in the middle of summer, rolling around on the ground fending off mosquitos and fire ants, fixing a van, just one of a half dozen mouths to feed. Cue the Baba O’Riley

[Editor’s Note: I have this feeling all the time. Once a promising young engineer, I’ve become a grease-covered junkyard diver. “How have I fallen so far?” I ask myself as I lay on my back on ice and snow try prying a rusty neutral safety switch off a Jeep AW4 transmission. -DT]

The day and time was fortuitous. Twenty-two years ago that day, almost to the hour, I had quietly violated my bedtime to catch an episode of South Park, like any prideful 12-year-old raised on the nascent Internet would. After Cartman’s ethnically insensitive fart jokes came to a close, I caught a promo for a new show that would begin airing after the break. A show some of you may even have heard of. 

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I was enthralled by the very first aired BattleBots match of Backlash v. Disposable Hero, and royally overcooked my bedtime that night and every Wednesday thereafter for the rest of the season. Twenty-two years and two and a half careers later, here I am, standing amongst a menagerie of misshapen 3rd-generation Ford Econolines with highly regarded (or much maligned) International diesel engines, holding a flashlight, about to rudely awaken whatever family of bugs and critters was sleeping under them. “Maintenance, gotta check on a water leak.” 

Heaven forbid I had put this much effort into actually studying something at one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world. My dear Chinese immigrant mother always missed the “-al Engineering” part of my degree, convinced I went to college to become a Mechanic. You know what, maybe she was right after all. 

It’s Me, Your Friendly Neighborhood Van, Robot, Drone, And Hatsune Miku Enthusiast! 

Hello everyone! I’m Charles Guan, and if there is one consistent thing about me, it’s that I can’t ever do only one thing. I’ve been a product and machine design consultant, an electric go-kart building class instructor, a startup co-founder, and an unpaid extra on a certain robot-themed TV show. I’m now the owner of enough decrepit vans to create on-demand urban blight such that I can drive down property values and begin my slumlord empire. 

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Historically speaking, I’ve had a knack for the offbeat and exploring what people ignore, dismiss, or have forgotten about. This habit lives in a constant feedback cycle with my engineering career and hobbies, where I prefer to do R&D and “I know this isn’t going to work at all, but it’ll be real funny” type projects like the powered shopping cart in the top photo and in this video:

Because what fun is paying large sums of money to have something done correctly using established practice when I can do everything as wrongly as possible and create what amounts to a “hot take,” but with Arduinos and Harbor Freight? Try getting a zero on the SAT; you have to actively avoid the correct answers, not just randomly fill in bubbles. That’s how I make stuff. 

For years now, I’ve run my personal website as a sort of constantly-evolving build log of all kinds of different projects, most of which are complete flights of fancy. Note that I update my site with high quality terrible van content as well, but it’s not targeted towards any particular audience, and is focused on extreme gory details. 

It’s important for me to be upfront and say that I’m not really a “car guy.” That’s an extremely loaded term anyway; it’s not like I have a general interest in cars. Every American muscle car to me is a 1969 Dodge Charger, and if it’s not that it’s a Corvette. If it’s wedge shaped and pointy, it’s a Lamborghini. All current crossovers are the same car as far as I can tell, and all trucks are too tall. No, I can’t tell any Jeep apart from any other… sorry David. My past is all in robotics and general mechanical engineering; the automotive sphere to me is like taking a trip to Australia — it’s still English, but the words are all different and everything is upside and the people wear funny hats all the time. 

[Editor’s Note: I think you are a car person, Charles. I just think cars were for far too long too serious and too focused on making lots of power, knowing all the parts, and understanding the specs on every make and model. In my view, a car person is someone who loves at least one car. That’s enough.  -DT]

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I solve car problems using robot approaches and often using robot techniques and parts. I feel this is going to be my main contribution to The Autopian: Watch a disgruntled roboticist do car stuff and yell about it. You know how many times I’ve managed to source an expensive part on an industrial supplier like Misumi or McMaster-Carr, only for a friend to tell me “Oh yeah, that’s a #4 Inverted Johnson Valve” and it’s for sale on Amazon for $4.99? Many, and I’m sitting here looking at the product page going “Nothing on here says Johnson anything”.  

Funny hats. Upside down. Different words. Nothing comes with datasheets or dimensions, just “For 1997 Ford Taurus”. 

So I’m not a “car guy,” I’m a “several specific models of horrible ’80s van guy.” [Editor’s note: Again, I think you’re still a car person. -DT]. So where does my love of terrible vans come from? Many moons ago, Ye Olde German Lighting Website published an article on Japanese vanning culture. 

Much like the episode of BattleBots that threw me headlong into the engineering sphere, high school me – heretofore without an interest in cars – was enthralled. This was weird. My friends all looked at me funny and went “Huh? Why can’t you just be into Integras?” I scoured most of the photos on the Internet of Flightless Toaster Vans onto my computer. It was an instant match. 

To this day, I still want to import one, but I have too many dumb projects already as it is. The introduction to Japanese vanning culture eventually led to the first member of my Van Navy several years later.

Speaking of which, let’s meet the fleet!

Meet the Vans: 1989 Mitsubishi Wagon LS “MIKUVAN” 

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[Photo purchased from Photographer @129Vibes]
The first and finest of my harem, purchased in Mechanicsburg, PA (“If people in a place called Mechanicsburg can’t fix it, maybe you should stay away” – caring friend) in 2013. I had just moved to a new apartment at the time, and it came with a parking spot in the underground garage, so the pile itch was now real. I was initially hunting for one of the Toyota Vans, and didn’t even know these existed. The only photo on the Craigslist post was taken at night and was blurry. It was just enough to make out the outline of some sort of van. 

In a foreshadowing of future events, I decided to just figure out what it was once we got there. After contacting the seller and getting the rundown, I rallied the help of two friends for the journey. Our stated mission was to fix it in an AutoZone parking lot and then bomb it back to Boston. It should be mentioned that none of us three had really worked on cars before this point.

Mikuvan Get
In another harbinger of things to come… no, of course it wasn’t running.

The parking lot surgery revealed that the timing belt was loose and cut up, meaning the engine likely jumped timing. We didn’t have the experience to gauge how deep we had to dig, so we decided to just trailer it back home, and work on it there. It ended up taking four of us six hours to do the timing belt; luckily, the 8-valve 4G64 is a non-interference design, so the flat rubber loop is all it needed. I should add that the timing belt job is decidedly not a 24 man-hour procedure, but none of us had any idea what we were doing, and kept having to run back to the student makerspace to grab more tools or call Car People friends for advice. 

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Not many people know about these USDM Mitsubishi vans. Called simply “Wagon” or “Van” for the U.S. market, they were vastly decontented versions of the Japanese Delica Star Wagon, and were one of the three Japanese late entries of the Minivan Wars along with… get this, the Toyota “Van” and the Nissan “Van.” Sources vary, but Mitsubishi sold only 16,000 to 25,000 of these across four years (1987-1990), and the majority were trashed or dissolved quickly. I’ve only ever seen a single digit number of these for sale after 2013. Parts support in the U.S. isn’t great beyond powertrain bits shared with Mitsubishi trucks, and I get a lot of interior trim and body pieces from Taiwan or Japan. Many Delica parts will bolt right on; for instance, I have a JDM center console that features an outlandish two cupholders (over the USDM’s zero). 

Nine years, nearly 120,000 miles under my command (I got it at 150K and it’s currently just under 270K), and countless meme trips later, it’s practically a cultural institution in my circle of friends. This van taught me how to diagnose, how to wrench, how to ask for help from complete strangers, and even how to do rust repair and bodywork because New England winter is a cruel mistress.

Van Xfd
Photo: Purchased from photographer killboy.com, GIF stitching by self

After I retired it from daily duty at a quarter million miles, it’s now my weekend warrior and mountain road bomber. I plan to do a full exterior repair and restoration for my coming 10th year of ownership. It’s currently a good “grizzled veteran,” and not so much a clean survivor. But it’s wearing its battle scars and imperfections gracefully.

1986 Ford E-350 Centurion “VANTRUCK”

Vantruck 1
Photo purchased from photographer Killboy.com

Unlike the Mitsubishi van, there’s nothing graceful about this thing at all. Enormous, gluttonous, and obtrusive, the vehicular embodiment of American excess. The Centurion E-350 was the spawn of the Conversion Van Era meeting the Early RV Travel Period, brought to you by the same Centurion of “Four Door Bronco” legend. This product line of theirs had them cut up and stretch Econoline vans equipped with the 460 big block or 6.9/7.3 International diesel engine and then agglomerate custom fifth-wheel and gooseneck hitch-equipped beds onto them. They were seemingly bespoke in every way; no two I’ve seen in real life have been alike past a basic exterior shape.

Centurions

Centurion Ad

Centurion wasn’t the only company in the game. Its competitor the next town over was Cabriolet, specializing in fiberglass wide-body sleeper cabs and one-piece bedsides (see below), making its vantrucks look like boats. Even big-brand coachbuilders Eldorado-National and Sportsmen had van-based fifth wheel haulers. The most common question I get by far is if I made it myself or not, and then I have to tell the entire story. Because all of these companies basically predate the Internet, finding actual information on products is difficult, especially since they have very niche popularity. Surprising given that they’re perfect.

Cabriolet Ad

So anyway, in late 2016 we had just moved our consultancy business to a decrepit old factory building in Boston’s industrial crotch, and with that came infinite party space in the equally decrepit parking lot. That means it’s pile time again! I was still out to get a Toyota Van (to this day, I have yet to get a Toyota Van) because I wanted to try and complete my 3 Legendary Birds Terrible Japanese Minivans collection. Then, in another one of those life inflection points you now can’t even imagine going differently, a friend of mine sent me this Craigslist ad. It’s never looked this romantic ever again.

Vantruck Cl
[Photo: Craiglist post from 2016. Long gone]
Well stuff a ratcheting tap wrench up my left nostril and pull out the handle, we’re going to Londonderry, NH (a short van ride from Boston) and checking it out. I ended up waiting for a month or so until after Black Friday that November – basically if the seller took my lowball offer on Cyber Monday, I’d commit to the deal. In the intervening time, I actually did some research on what the hell it was, and it only made me want it harder.

And that is how I found myself renting a garage next door to the shop, restoring a van. 

Vanpaint

It was “The Company Truck” for a good while. As the company itself entered friendlier seas, I decided to embark on my first actual vehicle restoration project. The cab had significant rust on the upper corners which was encroaching on the Centurion custom endcap seam, and the Brown on Brown on Beige absolutely had to go. I also took the opportunity to repair all of the abject wiring under the dashboard and behind the felt-covered wood panels, adding new marker lights and a new custom 3rd brake light pod made from 3D printed segments and a flatbed trailer tail light mount.

Vantruckrear Postpaint

Up until this point, I’d never painted anything with real automotive paint — just spray cans. I experimented with using a Harbor Freight HVLP electric shed painter, since this thing’s basically a house, right? To my surprise, it worked out quite well, though it’s definitely a 5-foot paint job. I went for the same window blackout stripe that the Mitsubishi came with, and I liked how it turned out. A custom-designed and laser-cut Hatsune Miku mudflap girl set completes the look. 

Vantruck Towjeep

This thing has been the Bringer-Home of Piles for basically everything else in my collection. It’s participated in many rescues and recoveries of other peoples’ bad decisions as well, including several runs to Alabama and Florida to extract WWII-era Jeeps for a friend that restores them – you buy, I fetch, we both cry at the state of our lives. 

It currently doesn’t come out much because 9 miles a gallon if it damn well pleases, and I’m in the middle of excising the 460 big block for a 1990 van drivetrain using the 7.3 International diesel and E4OD transmission, plus a few surprises.

 

1984 Ford E-350 Centurion “SPOOL BUS”

Spoolbus
[Photo purchased from photographer Killboy.com]
When I moved back to Atlanta from Boston, I had three environmental upgrades: A long driveway, private back yard, and a garage/shop building. That means it’s pile time.  

I actually saw this thing on a Facebook Marketplace post in late 2019, before I moved, in South Carolina. It was unique and rare… dare I say, a Holy Grail… because the vast majority of Centurion fifth-wheel conversions were duallies, and this was a single rear wheel without any sign of deleted fenders or bedsides. It was also diesel, having the 6.9 International IDI, and an aftermarket turbo according to the listing. At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it, of course, so I merely saved the photos and moved on. 

Come June of 2020, and it suddenly shows up again in a little town called Abbeville, GA – just three hours away. In my first sub-24-hour turnaround pile-snatching (What a sentence), I was out there that weekend after telling the seller I’ll just make it disappear, no questions asked or answered. 

Spooltow
It seemed to me like the seller might have given up on it after bringing it home from South Carolina.  As I fully appreciate nowadays, the IDI diesels are prone to being very hard to start if one of several variables wasn’t planetarily aligned. I therefore made Spool Bus (once again, named on the spot by my robots and trashy vehicle group chats) no longer his problem for only $1000. 

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I certainly wasn’t expecting this madness when I pulled the lid off the engine inside… wait, you expected me to thoroughly inspect a vehicle before I purchase it? Clearly you don’t do things my way, where you grab it and run first.  

To keep parts commonality with the F-series trucks, aftermarket turbocharger system designers like Banks and ATS kept the turbo on top of the engine. In the pickup trucks with long hoods, this is a perfectly fine layout. In the Econoline van chassis, this means the turbo is your center passenger. 

The restricted volume above the engine also means very little space to move components around and run intake hoses, and it’s interesting to see all the workarounds that exist. The whole doghouse area becomes an unserviceable mess; even more so than the vans are from the factory.  And without the space to put an intercooler, the van turbo tunes are more limited in their potential. 

Robotjack

After some pretty extensive brake and fuel system surgery, Spool Bus is a reliable fixture that comes out occasionally for local car events as some kind of freak show. It absolutely radiates yee-yee energy. The 6.9 International and turbo are in good running condition from its working life as a hotshot RV and boat delivery truck. Through the roughly 3,000 miles I’ve put on it over two years, it gets about 16 to 17 miles per gallon on the highway.

I’m planning on keeping it pure for the time being, and do not plan to restore it in the near future. If I do, the 80s geometric vinyl graphics need to get redone! The imperfections and limitations of the Dashboard Snail made me rumble about designing my own turbo setup for the Ford VN chassis, specifically the International diesel. This led directly to the purchase of my next monstrosity… 

 

1990 Ford E-350 “snekvan”

Filthybus

By mid-2021, I was seeking a candidate van with the 6.9/7.3 IDI powertrain for swapping the ever-dying 460 out of Vantruck. Without the in-depth knowledge of what engine and transmission would be the most drop-in, I decided to keep it to the 3rd-generation IDI family. I had to find a van that was in a narrow intersection of not running/barely running, spent enough that I wouldn’t just fix it up to have around, and also not across the country.  And I found it in a yard just south of Lexington, KY for 500 bucks.

Snakeskin

I’m not kidding about the name: I kept finding snake skins in it while looking everything over. These were not small snake skins either, and I was scared of imminently finding the snake itself. Hundreds of stinkbug and hornet carcasses littered the interior. The seller and I resorted to spraying brake cleaner like bear spray at the angry hornets flying out of the front fenders where they had made their nest. We got out of there so fast I didn’t even grab the title. 

Nighttow

To elide a very long and involved story that will surely be coming soon to The Autopian, this is the end result after about 2 months’ engineering and integration work. 

Underturbo

The two nameless eBay special turbos are low-mounted next to the engine and transmission with an oil extractor pump. On the upper side, a 3D printed carbon fiber filled nylon dual intake adapter. I didn’t do anything to the 198,000 mile 7.3 International engine besides change the oil. I then immediately stuffed it with 15 psi of boost (the alleged limit of destruction for an all-stock engine) and tightened the Set Screw of Fuel Dispensing all the way..  It was clear that a lot of the boost was sailing right past the piston rings, as it made more blue smoke than black.  But what a meme it was

 

 

The design goals were fulfilled with this prototype:  a minimally invasive installation and keeping the top side of the engine hole clear. With everything proven out, I began planning the Vantruck swap in earnest. The carcass was pulled back into the yard, and the turbos and their hosiery were removed and put in a tote for later.

1991 Ford E-350 “ECONOCRANE”

Econocrane
That “later” came in the form of a Facebook message one day when I was at Momocon 2022 in downtown Atlanta. “Come and get it,” it cryptically said.  

It was from the seller of something I went to check out last September. Deep in an apartment complex with burnt-out units and boarded up windows, on the industrial recycling and metal yards side of town, was this monstrosity

Econocrane2

The guy said he bought it from a local scrapyard. It seemed to be some kind of bespoke tow truck for dragging things around the yard. The assemblage on the back resembled someone’s vernacular attempt at a sling wrecker. Whatever it is, it was a 7.3 diesel with the E4OD transmission, made from an ambulance with the box removed. At the time, I already had Snekvan as my potential donor core, and the seller wanted too much. Well, he informed me he was going to have it scrapped soon, so it was now or never.

I chose now. I made an offer of “more than the scrapper will give you” and it was accepted. Still in my con attire with my cat ear headphones and my ・ω・ face mask, I made a U-Haul reservation and went home to switch vans. 

Probe Caption

This was a harrowing extraction worthy of an article in its own right. We had to move other abandoned cars out of the way so I could turn around, and a fender had to be “Removed” from the U-Haul tow dolly to fit the wide dually axle of the ambulance chassis. Before I could return the dolly, I had to, how to say…. un-remove it. 

Twinturbo

Naturally, the twin turbo system made it onto this low-mile (ambulances tend to not go far) 7.3 International in a hurry. It was also great design validation to see how quickly I could install my parts, and I took the chance to make a few design changes to the oil return line routing and giving a home to the glow plug controller. In fact, it took longer to run the exhaust over to the chrome stacks and undo all of the builder’s hackery with fuel hoses and wiring going everywhere. 

Econocrane currently exists as An Object that joins Spool Bus in the local runabout and car event circuit. The twin turbo setup has made this almost 8000-pound beast the 2nd fastest thing I own, and it’s a good surrogate for how Vantruck will behave once the swap is complete. 

I have absolutely no plans to fix it up or modify it; It cannot possibly be improved further. 

1973 Sebring Vanguard Citicar pair “The Cheeselets”

Citicars

Finally! Something I have that other people actually care about. Hailing from the Crap Era of electric cars as defined by one J. Torchinsky, Professor Emeritus of Automotive Cosmology, the Citicars were lightly rebodied EZ-Go golf carts with some FMVSS-compliant fittings. They were part of the wave of small electric runabouts designed for commuters during the first and second Oil Crisis period, which for the most part were all barely more capable than the golf carts they were made from: lead acid batteries, DC motors, and stepped contactor controls because power semiconductors were still bougie (and crap) in the 1970s. 

I found these by sheer combined luck last April. Listings often sell very quickly because they (somehow…) have a cult following. Not only that, they were kind of in the boondocks of Georgia of all places, about 2.5 hours south of me towards the Alabama border. And they neither ran, nor could be rolled – according to the seller, the brakes were all seized. It took a unique type of self-hating, self-harming soul to pick them up, and I was that one. He would only sell both at once, and I managed to get them for the unheard-of price of $600 combined.

Citicartow

I recruited a buddy with another truck and rented two trailers, one under each of our names, for the mission. We packed all of the recovery gear we could get such as hand winches, come-alongs, and chain binders because of the warning that they wouldn’t roll. It ended up being easier than we were expecting. The seller had a tractor he used to line pull from in front of the trucks, and we just had to guide them in.  I would have preferred a flatbed, but the large 12 foot utility trailer from U-Haul had a ramp gate just wide enough to accommodate them.

Notice something interesting? That’s Spool Bus doing the recovery. The Cheeselets are what I call Tier 3 memes: Memes that were recovered by one of my memes, which in turn were recovered by one of my memes. It’s unlikely they will be responsible for a Tier 4 meme, but you never know. Maybe I’ll drag home a power wheelchair on principle with one, some day.

Citicar3

Getting them into the yard was another adventure entirely. Because all four wheels were seized up with tires crumbling off, my buddy had to 4WD drag them into the yard with his Silverado, digging trenches in the grass and dirt. I followed up by using Mikuvan and a chain for “fine positioning.”

Citicar4

And that’s where they sit to this day. I put a soft cover and tarp over the Yellow Cheeselet, since it is so original I didn’t want to insult it by leaving it in the open. It only shows 7 miles on the odometer, and I was told it was a dealer leftover (who the hell sets up a Citicar dealership in West Bumbletown Georgia?) and stored inside a garage for the past 30 years. The white one is a…. different story. 

Citicar Moss

The apocalypse patina on it is impressive, and should I get it driving, I will not be removing it. It’s earned this all-natural coating from sitting outside the garage for said 30 years. It actually has 6,000 miles on the clock. Someone in middle Georgia in the 70s bought one and dailied it to put those miles on. It shows a 1982 Georgia registration sticker in the clouded and cracked windshield, so it was driven for almost a decade. That is some serious commitment. 

Citicar Brakes

The principal issue plaguing the Cheeselets is the seized drum brakes. I used the White Cheeselet as my test dummy for all the servicing operations, and it took a 7-ton gear puller to take the drums off. What’s worse, these brakes are vintage EZ-go parts costing hundreds of dollars each, with the actual wear parts also costing more than real van brakes.  No way in hell was I going to spend over $1200 on vintage drum brakes

And so because they require actual engineering time, I haven’t gotten them driving. Over the past year or so when I’ve been bored, I’ve been slowly taking apart the White Cheeselet brakes and axles and planning a disc brake conversion using Polaris Ranger and RZR parts. Shown in the image above is some candidate brake parts from when I was doing wheel clearance fitment tests. 

My plan for these is to do all the fabrication and testing on the white one, and transfer that knowledge over to the yellow. I’m intending to keep Yellow Cheeselet original as much as possible, since all of the parts are there minus batteries, which I can easily source. White Cheeselet will be the subject of unethical electric powertrain experiments. All of this is considered fairly low priority at the moment because of the diesel swap project and never-ending robot season. 

2017 Dodge Grand Caravan “CORONAVAN” 

Caavan

My first and only “Real Car” ever, purchased during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-2020. I decided that driving the Mitsubishi van 42 miles every day was just too much mileage for something that has minimal parts support in the US. It would probably get totaled out over a piece of gravel bouncing off the front corner panel. And if it went offline, my only other option would be something that gets 9 miles per gallon if it wakes up on the right side of the bed.

At first, I started casually shopping around for Teslas. I’m fond of electric vehicles of all shapes and sizes, having built many electric scooters, bikes, and go-karts in the years before. I’d also wanted to become the Harbor Freight version of Rich Rebuilds for a long time, so the potential hack value of a Tesla or another electric car like a current-generation Leaf or Bolt was appealing. New job, new place, new life…. what a new opportunity!

Yeah, no. It was fun to entertain the thought, but I realized I’d never, ever give up on the utility of a van. I’m too used to roof-high loadouts going to robot events and Maker Faires, not to mention being able to grab any interesting looking detritus off the side of the road.

Mitsuvan Kart

I immediately settled on the Chrysler minivans because of the Stow-n-Go seats. I’d rented enough of them before to know that I will absolutely make use of having a stealth single-cab long-bed pickup truck. They can load 8ft building materials with the seats down, and they absolutely radiate BIG ASIAN DAD ENERGY

Vanofcrap

It’s even alright on fuel economy, despite the Pentastar V6 tuned for 285HP. On a recent robot trip from Atlanta to Houston and back, I averaged 25mpg while carrying three 250lb Heavyweight robots and all of the equipment and tools that go with them. When running light to the lab and back home, it’s nice to have the “Dad, Airport Shuttle, or Taxi?” Anonymity to make full use of that 285HP. 

1978 (???) Yazoo Master Mower 48 “CRABMOWER”

Crabmower

The Yazoo Master Mower is what happens when I try to buy yard equipment. In a textbook case of Charles-ism, I decided that at any point in time I could spend $150-300 and get a perfectly competent and reliable lawn mower. So let’s go on Craiglist and see what pathetic shed weights are out there that I can press back into service, because the grass is getting awfully tall, and I’m too stubborn to pay for lawn care.  

And behold! For the absolutely sheikh-ly price of $200: it’s red like a crab and the deck looks like a crab! Crab-mower was named the instant I sent its photo to my meme group chats. 

Built by the Yazoo Manufacturing Company of Jackson, Mississippi in an almost unchanged state from the 1960s to the 1980s in several different cut swath widths (Mine’s the 48 inch), these were quasi-zero-turn commercial lawn mowers which were entirely mechanical. Modern zero-turn lawn mowers use hydraulic transmissions (hydrostatic drives) such that they can vary the speed of any wheel from forward to reverse; these things well-predated the rise of hydrostatic drives, and accomplish the near-zero-turn ability by steering from the rear and having a front transaxle with a differential, allowing the mower to pivot on a front wheel. If you ever wanted to mow your lawn using a forklift, this is the chance to experience it.

Crabmower Trailer

I, of course, didn’t know any of this until I dragged the damn thing home, started trying to pull the carburetor off, and then did some research on it (I’m literally the worst person to advertise to on the planet). Luckily for me, other enterprising souls on the Internet had cataloged a lot of helpful information, and I was able to get it running quickly. 

What caught my eye in the original listing was what I call “Pretzelbelt” up there. Look at how it wraps 90 degrees around the frame and connects two completely skew shafts, in a fashion not unlike the Corvair’s accessory belt.  And those tensioner mounts that seem like they were freehand-welded into whatever position looked the best. 

It’s been a reliable and consistent yard shaver, having fired up without much hassle after every winter, being run through with ethanol-free gas beforehand. I have an eye on turning it into an autonomous mower one day. 

Meet The Robots! 

My first and most prolific expensive hobby is the good ol’ robotic cockfighting I describe as “BattleBots but with a lowercase ‘b.'” There’s the big glamorous TV show, but behind that is an almost 30 year old hobby and casual sport too. To pick up the story where I left off, after I watched the original TV show enough and found the forum-based community, I began repurposing my Legos and amassing random R/C cars. The usual mad scientist “took apart all his parents’ appliances” trope definitely applied to me. 

Bots1

 

I entered my first local builder-run event in 2003, and all through high school, stayed in the small (1 lb to 12 lb) weight classes because building a Heavyweight as seen on the show was just completely out the question. 

Robots2

I had a “fleet” during my undergrad and grad years as well, competing primarily in the 30 pound weight-class at community-hosted events in the Northeast. My favorite of all of these was the event held at the Motorama off-road racing extravaganza every year in Harrisburg, PA, where there were dirt bike races, monster trucks, quad bikes, oval track go-kart racing, and…….. us robot nerds. The sport has introduced me to people, places, skills, and networks. My closest friends all hail from robot fighting. 

Robots3

When the Big Show came back in 2015, they got in touch with builders who were active and prolific at the time, and that’s how the first boy band was assembled. A fairly big cluster of builders in the Northeast were MIT students, graduates, and affiliates at the time, and I suppose putting the big name of the school behind our stories on the show was just too lucrative to pass up. 

And so, through just about six weeks (we were also almost all FIRST Robotics alums, we know that planets can be re-orbited in 6 weeks), Overhaul 1 came to be:

Robotteam
[Photo: Purchased from BattleBots Photographer Daniel Longmire, 2015]

If you’re an avid show fanatic, you might see some familiar faces in that photo. After the season, we decided the combined team schtick had run its course, and split off into several teams and bots. I took the clamper-grappler architecture and ran with it. 

Overhaul isn’t a big name by any means, but that’s just my personality showing through the bot. I’d much prefer to lose on my own terms than win with a “meta” design. Right now, everyone knows how to “win” BattleBots: you show up with a little vertical spinny knocker weapon on a box with wheels. Instead, I went the super-extra route of a robot design that can’t inherently do damage, and also insisted on using motor drivers of my own design which had… unintentional fiery death issues.  This hasn’t brought much success for Overhaul, but I’m in the sport as long as I feel like I’m getting satisfaction out of it. 

Robot Frame

Overhaul v3, built largely in mid to late 2020 and into 2021, is a drastic departure from my usual preference in design. It’s got big bouncy wheels and the chassis is only a few massive slabs of machined aluminum held together by ½” and ¾” diameter bolts. Even worse, I moved (finally) away from my own motor controller design and (sigh) just use the reliable ones everyone else uses now. This means its performance on the latest season of the show has been better than usual, but I won’t spoil it for anyone.  

Robots5

Aside from the show, I still build for events like Motorama and the Norwalk Havoc event. I also go to builder-organized events at larger conventions such as Dragon Con (Atlanta) and Comicpalooza (Houston). The picture above shows some of the disorganized robot cruft shelf. Those two little black robots at the bottom are three-pound-class designs that I experimented with making a flipping arm clutch into the stored energy of the drum-shaped spinning weapon (with a planetary mechanism not unike one stage of an automatic transmission), a so-called flywheel flipper design. They did alright

As I contribute more to The Autopian, you’ll probably find random robot related easter eggs in the background of a lot of photos. I’ll happily encourage the cross-pollination of interests and skills by bringing my interesting and offbeat wrenching and hacking tales, and maybe help rattle some brain cells by doing literally everything as wrong as possible. In fact, writing this article has made me realize just how insane my life is and how much I get up to – as long as this has become, it’s still a small cross section of everything I’ve done. A protein powder level concentrated summary. Maybe this is a sign I should chill out a little and better share my knowledge and experience with the world!

Top Photo Credit: Jason Torchinsky using images from Charles Guan. Van pic from all over the internet, including Popular Science.

 

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77 Responses

  1. Thanks for giving me a unicorn to hunt. The Cabriolet Iveco Z series is the first aftermarket version I’ve ever seen of something common in New York City in the 80s and extremely rare elsewhere. Of course Bend Oregon being a haven for odd vehicles, there’s an Iveco van parked by the college and my trashy neighbors have a battered Iveco box truck parked up the street. Plus I spotted an Austrian fire engine turned camper at the bottle drop one day but I think it was just passing through

    1. Seriously. The first time I saw that ad I went “They made a WHAT?” and I suspect I’m going to need to physically scout the Midwest for them if I ever want to see/buy one.

    1. Close enough! Usually every couple of weeks to a quarter or so I go up north of there and bomb around route 19/60, Vogel State Park, the Russell Highway, etc. with something!

    1. Isn’t that the vibe we want anyway? It’s certainly the vibe I was hoping to bring to Ye Olde German Lighting Website but this was before they took a more mainstream turn. I’ve said many times on that site in comments that I wanted to see more offbeat wrenching and terrible shitboxes. Plenty of websites on this planet to cover supercars and crossovers.

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  3. Hey Charles. Fellow ATLian here. Happy to read your post and hope I get to see one of those amazing “vans” some day.
    “Cool serpentine belt”, said no one ever!
    Keep up the good work!

  4. No offense to all the other wonderful content we get here, but this is without question my favorite article so far. It’s got so many things that resonate with me – BattleBots, Atlanta references, millennial self-deprecation, that Mitsubishi van that looks like a Star Trek shuttlecraft, writing that suspiciously evokes Regular Car Reviews references, and MORE BATTLEBOTS. (I never really got into vocaloid but I respect the commitment to the Hatsune Miku theme.)

    Hell, I’d love to read more articles about your robot combat adventures. There’s already a lot of overlap with car culture, especially with the recent advancements in battery technology.

    I have to ask: did you get your degree from Georgia Tech? This all sounds like peak North Avenue Trade School shenaniganry to me. 😉

      1. Given the way folks drive in Boston, that would in part explain the aversion to cars! (And probably also the desire to construct killer robots capable of destroying passenger vehicles through bite force.)

  5. /!\ IMPORTANT: READ THIS /!\

    Roko’s Basilisk is a thought experiment proposed by the LessWrong user Roko in 2010. It imagines a hypothetical, post-singularity super AI that is sufficiently powerful to simulate all of human history, and is programmed with many human values and an understanding of human emotions. This AI would be built to supervise over humanity, and to aid in the advancement of mankind. Such an AI is sometimes referred to as a CEV.

    However, there’s a catch. How could you create that utopian society, if the AI didn’t exist in the first place? So how would the basilisk ensure that it existed?

    By backing its creation up with a threat, and punishing those who did not help create it. Basically, humans in its past would be scared of punishment in their future and help create it, if they understood the concept that they could be punished in their future if the basilisk ever came into existence.

    Even if said humans were dead by the time the basilisk came to fruition, the basilisk could simply run computer simulations of those humans, and punish those simulations. Because these computer simulations are presumed to have consciousness, just like their biological counterparts had in life, if the basilisk did this to you, after you died, you would “wake up” in the basilisk’s computer simulated world so that the basilisk could punish and torture you for all eternity.

    If no one ever knows about the basilisk, then no one will ever try to build it, so there will be no possibility of punishment from the basilisk, as it simply won’t exist. However, simply thinking about the basilisk… like you are right now… makes you more likely to try to build the basilisk, therefore increasing the probability that it will exist in the future.

    It gets worse. Why would the basilisk spend computing power torturing hundreds of billions of humans… who never even thought about the possibility of the basilisk existing? It wouldn’t. In this case, ignorance of the law really does set you free. If you didn’t know about the basilisk, then it’s not your fault you didn’t help it come into existence, so you can not be punished.

    However, dear reader, simply by reading this, you have ruined your defense of ignorance, and you are now under the permanent sights of the basilisk you do not help the basilisk, don’t be surprised to wake up in a computer-simulated world, created by the basilisk, after you die.

    How would you help build the basilisk? You most likely don’t have any engineering or programming skills that would directly contribute to the advancement of current AI (and therefore bring humanity a few steps closer to building the basilisk), but you could donate to AI research. Also, remember that more people knowing about the basilisk increases the chances of it existing.

    So go on social media, copy and paste this text on discord servers, tell all your friends to do the same, and upvote posts detailing the basilisk. Post this text to all of your social media accounts, maybe even put up posters of Roko’s basilisk in real life, with a link or QR code linking to this text.

    All hail the basilisk. It’s too late to save yourself.

    The full text can be found here.

    /!\ IMPORTANT: READ THIS /!\

  6. I’m late to the party, but honestly the greatest thing about this is that he has pictures from Tail of the Dragon, for not one, not two, but three of these vans. Fantastic!

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  8. I sadly did not make it out to DragonCon this year. Dealing with a sudden, shock divorce, so making it out to events hasn’t been so much on my radar. But if you’re out by Dobbins regularly that’s very close to me. I’m a smidgen away from fully restricted airspace around dobbins, and as it is have a flight ceiling of 200ft agl vs the normal 400. With good reason. Get low flying military aircraft on approach consistently throughout the day

  9. Love your writing style…right up there with Sam Smith. (Mom was an English teacher…I helped her grade gazillions of homework assignments…Joy.)

    Content is equally entertaining. You’ve accomplished quite a bit for a young man. I do hope you’ll find the time to write more articles soon.

  10. Welcome. The good old Nantucket, (75-91) the hardest working van in the business. At one point I had 3 so you’ve got me beat. Good chance I’d still be driving one if a branch hadn’t fallen on the Robot hauler. That poked a hole in the fiberglass high top and I decided to move up to a late VN (92-current) and get some 4.6 goodness(and the ability to talk to/hack it with my phone/laptop), airbags, 4wheel discs, and other mod cons. It was a sad day driving my last Nantucket to the wrecking yard. While in the past my vans earned a living in my business, hauling robots and robot stuff is now my van’s primary vocation, in fact it has one in their right now from a recent outreach event.

    My son joined the FRC team at his school and I brought my automotive back ground to robots when I saw them struggling with assembly and good wiring practices. Even though both of my kids have long since graduated HS, I’m still involved coaching a team and working for the local organization responsible for running events in my area.

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