Home » Vehicles For Getting Stuff Done: 1973 GMC C3500 vs 1986 Dodge Mini Ram Van

Vehicles For Getting Stuff Done: 1973 GMC C3500 vs 1986 Dodge Mini Ram Van

Sbsd 7 26 2023

Welcome to your mid-week Shitbox Showdown! Today we have two vehicles with manual transmissions, built for different purposes, but both no-frills workhorses. We’ll look at them in a second, after we tally yesterday’s score:

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Interesting; based on the comments I was expecting the Chevy to win. And speaking of the comments, man, you guys are a tough crowd. I post two project cars; they’re too scary. I post two good cheap commuters like these; they’re too boring. I post anything at all; they’re too expensive. (Can’t do much about that last one.)

Today, because I didn’t have anything already in mind, I tried something a bit different: I pulled up the big Craigslist site map, closed my eyes, clicked on two cities at random, and from each chose the first cheap stickshift vehicle that looked interesting and ran well. As luck would have it, we got a one-ton flatbed truck and a work van. No comfy or quiet rides today, I’m afraid. Let’s check them out.

1973 GMC C3500 flatbed – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 350 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed manual, RWD

Location: Albuquerque, NM

Odometer reading: 123,000 miles (or could be unknown; does it matter with a truck this age?)

Runs/drives? “Real good”

Old stickshift trucks are a favorite among Autopian writers, from Jason’s infamous “Marshal” Ford F-150, to David’s honeymoon-wrecking Jeep J10, to my own ex-Forest Service Chevy K1500. But those are all standard consumer-grade half-ton pickups. What we’re looking at today is completely different, even though it may look the same. This is a one-ton dually, probably sold as a cab and chassis originally, now sporting a stake-side flatbed. The orange color and the lights on the roof make me suspect it was once a Highway Department truck.


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Powering this old brute is a tried-and-true Chevy small-block 350, backed by a three-speed manual transmission. There’s a good chance its transmission may have a “granny” low gear as well, like my truck does – the fabled Saginaw-Muncie SM465, which is technically a four-speed, but the gears are labeled L, 1, 2, and 3. The seller says it runs and drives great, and clarifies that “its [sic] a work truck.” You don’t say. I mean, you could do a grocery store run in it, and it would be hilarious to pull up to a valet parking stand at a fancy restaurant in this; the look on the valet’s face would be priceless.

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It’s in good shape for the price; the desert air has been kind to it and kept it from rusting too badly, though the orange paint is probably beyond any efforts at polishing. You’d want to check out the underside carefully; this truck is built extra-beefy, but you have no way of knowing how it has been treated over the past fifty years.

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This truck is overkill for most people’s around-the-house needs, and it’ll rattle the fillings out of your teeth if you drive it around empty, but if you need to haul big heavy stuff around regularly, there’s nothing better. It’s cheap, it’s tough, it’s a stickshift, and it’s orange. What more could you ask?

1986 Dodge Mini Ram Van – $2,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.2 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Baldwin, WI

Odometer reading: 68,000 miles


Runs/drives? Yep

If you’re after something a little less heavy-duty, and perhaps with some covered cargo space, allow me to present the 1986 Dodge Mini Ram Van. This is a first-generation Dodge Caravan, minus the rear windows and every stitch of interior aft of the front seats. Built for tradespeople, these little vans were popular with plumbers and electricians and anyone else whose job typically involved carrying around a lot of small stuff.

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This one is powered by Chrysler’s 2.2 liter K-car engine, driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual. If you’ve never driven one of these, I can tell you it’s awkward – the gearshift is a standard K-car unit, and the top of the knob is barely as high as the seat bolsters – but surprisingly fun. A carbureted 2.2 is nobody’s idea of a high-performance engine, but compared to other small vans of the era, these handle pretty well, ar least. This one runs and drives fine, and shows 68,000 miles on the odometer, though it could have rolled over.

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Also note the “Fuel Pacer” light in the spot where the PRNDL would be on an automatic Caravan. I’m assuming this is an upshift-indicator light, to tell you when to shift for best fuel economy. I’m not a fan of these; at best they’re irritating, and at worst they confuse drivers who don’t know what they’re really for. I once had to convince a friend that she didn’t have to shift her Pontiac Sunbird right when the upshift light came on; she complained about the car having no power, when it kept telling her to upshift at 2000 RPM.

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This van is refreshingly rust-free for a western Wisconsin vehicle, which lends credence to the low indicated mileage. We don’t get any good views of the cab area, but the cargo area looks nicely seasoned with dings and scrapes. It has done some work over the years, but it looks ready to do plenty more.

Obviously, it’s hard to draw a direct comparison between these two, because of their wildly different layouts and capacities. So factor in your own use-case for them: you need a utilitarian vehicle to do… something. Which one of these suits your purposes better?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Acrimonious Mofo
Acrimonious Mofo
9 months ago

“And speaking of the comments, man, you guys are a tough crowd. I post two project cars; they’re too scary. I post two good cheap commuters like these; they’re too boring.”

We can be a tough crowd for sure, and I’m sure always coming up with an interesting match up is a tall order–so it stands to reason that on occasion you will offer up a pairing that will elicit a collective yawn. Were yesterdays choices “two good cheap commuters”? Sure. Absolutely. And there’s almost zero compelling reason to pick one over the other. They are both solidly meh cars. Now two days ago with the Honda v. Chevy–that’s an interesting match up: what would normally be a desirable car in an awful spec and in bad condition versus a generally undesirable car in an okay spec in very good condition. This match is also a good thought exercise. (I’m picking the Ram because it’s a much better all rounder, but that GMC is oddly compelling.) Sure we gripe about the prices and conditions of the cars, but that’s just kind of baked into nature of thing, (and constitutes half the fun, and a lot of the discussion). Anyhow carry on the excellent work–the blowhards appreciate and enjoy it.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
9 months ago

My old man had an ’84 version of that Ram Van, but it had the mitsubishi 4-cyl and an automatic. It was used for at least 15 years previously by a company that did pool installation and maintenance. Not really sure exactly why the old man bought it, but he was always one that jumped on something that he thought was a good deal (probably picked it up for around $500 at the time). I used it a couple times to move stuff, and it was a really useful, unfussy vehicle.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
9 months ago
Reply to  Pneumatic Tool

For any Autopians in eastern PA/Lehigh Valley, the van was previously owned by Ice City. That’s probably a name that you haven’t heard in a while.

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
9 months ago

I’d have to pull up the interior dimensions to see what I could fit inside, but would be leaning Ram for a weekend household project workhorse. The truck could certainly do that, but I’m guessing my neighbors would rather see the Ram parked on the street than an orange dually with a flatbed.

9 months ago

“A Man With A Van, Is A Man With Plan!”

9 months ago

I have an odd desire to own another 2.2l K-Car derivative, which the Ram Van certainly is. So that’s my choice.

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