Step 1: Panic.
Wait, don't panic, we'll get through this.
Building a 4x4 van is a lot of work. It's not a cheap sport to play, but the rewards are high, and the adventure of the build can be as much fun the travel itself.
If you're new to the concept or undecided about where to start, we have some good workshopping for you to go through over at our other Timberline Site. This may be a good resource to look at if you're early in the stages of figuring out what to do for a van.
Here at Timberline Supply we cater primarily to the DIY crowd and supply parts and kits for the Ford E-Series and GM/Chevy G-Series vans only. If you have an Express/Econoline or you know that's what you want, you're in the right spot. For the purpose of this site, we will focus only on these specific options, however there are certainly other vans and other companies that serve the overland vanning group.
Below you'll find good information on the best way to plan and execute your build, and resources to simplify the whole process so you can get right down to business.
In no particular order, here's the bulk of the brain damage:
Read the FAQ (It'll take 2 minutes.)
Platform (I don't have a van yet, what should I get?)
Instructions (Can I do this?)
Budget / Parts Lists (Can/Should I afford this?)
Sourcing (Where do I get things?)
Questions (Contact us)
Both the E-series and G-series vans are body on frame designs. They're built on well-tested platforms that are not the latest and fanciest technology. Frankly, they're Dinosaurs, but that's not a bad thing because the Dinosaurs lived a long time and so have these 2 vans.
The Econoline and Express are similar in many ways but have significant differences and in their own right, and work well for different types of uses. People can debate 'till they're blue in the face about which is better and why, so we'll just give you some primary information and pros/cons we've noticed about the various differences.
Putting this right near the top here, in a nutshell, the Ford is a great option for heavy offroad capability, easy ground clearance, universal visual appeal, and wide range of community support and product variety. The GM is arguably the choice for smooth daily driving, motor options for power/fuel performance and choice of lift height.
Ford Most Noteable
- Minimum 4" lift + tire size, recommended 5" lift + tire size. Coilover options coming for 6" and 8" lift.
- Solid axle design, widely avaliable F-series Superduty front end, big brakes, simplicity and durability superb.
- Expect to spend $12k or more to convert (If you spend less, great.)
- Conversion is straightforward and can almost be done without welding
- Standard vans ended production in 2014
- Many variants require R+R of transmission to complete conversion.
Chevy Most Noteable
- Minimum 1" lift, 2.5" and 6" lifts most common + tire size.
- Torsion Bar Independent Front Suspension design, smooth highway and bumps operation. Coilover options coming.
- Expect to spend $8-$10k or more to convert.
- Conversion requires some automotive experience and light fab (or a friend who can help)
- Conversion does not require pulling the transmission in most cases.
- Vans still in production today.
Ford Arguable Pros/Cons
- Go nuts with this thing in the brush, it'll just eat up your abuse
- Meet people every time you stop at a traffic light, gas station, or probably your driveway and sometimes in your own bathroom.
- Accessories, stuff people have made, youtube DIY, general internet support, for a niche vehicle, there's just quite a few of these things out there and it's very easy to find help, find someone to buy your van, or learn how to fix and make stuff.
- The engines.
- The 4.6 belongs in a taxi, but it's pretty ok for flatlanding and the beach with 4.10 or steeper gears only, not great for many people.
- The 5.4 is excellent with 4.10s which few came with but the fuel economy is not what you'd call great and it's not ideal for a heavy build.
- The V10 won't let you pass a gas station, particularly with a 31 gallon fuel tank which we're coming up with solutions for. It's a torque monster and easy to build, but again, if your van is 10klbs, it's not really exciting to drive, we hear more complaints about towing with a V10 than with a 5.4 somehow?
- The 7.3 is often leaky, noisy, and old...but they do tend to run a long time and for a heavy build, they tune well for power and fuel economy is passable. You will be worshipped if you have one.
- The van 6.0 has an unfounded bad rap, but it's also really noisy and doesn't particularly get great fuel economy without a tune. If you have roughly the budget to do a Cummins swap, the 6.0 can be made to be the best of anything in a Ford or GM Van.
GM/Chevy Arguable Pros/Cons
- IFS suspension is darn nice to drive compared to a solid axle. If you build it right, use nice parts and everything is tight, the rig should drive basically like a regular van which is pretty good.
- Choice of lift heights. This is the main reason we set out to build them, you can neatly tuck the diff under the front and have a true 4x4 van that looks just like a regular wagon but won't get stuck in the snow and won't be hard to ge in and out of. Alternatively, with some bold-on components, you can change that church van into a rough and tumble back-country-hoss...and it'll still drive nice at 80mph.
- Fuel + Power - Few people debate the LS motors being anything but the nuke proof Timex watch of the cheap american V8s. They just take a modest amount gas and spit out tons of torque and power and don't seem to care much about you forgetting to change the oil or running them ragged. For towing, for comparative fuel consumption, for daily driving, they just do the work and ask very little of you.
- The extended wheel base vans without additional lift are both difficult to park and will definitely get high centered on a parking block, but they sure do drive nice on the highway.
- Barn door hinges freeze up and so many dents in the middle doors, and exceedingly difficult to remove floor rails in the passenger vans, and flyaway paint and uncomfortable seats, GM vans aren't without their quirks either.
We are proud of our instructions and our process development. Even before we started building vans some 8 years ago, we knew our goal was to develop a repeatable standardized system that was straightforward to follow and left little room for interpretation.
We've compiled a list of tools both for Ford and GM Conversions that will make your life easy, so brush up on that before you make the big decision. Manuals include helpful tricks, mechanical and real application photos, torque specs, and thoughtfully delineated sections.
Here you can check out a few pages from the Ford and GM manuals. Individual product purchases will come with either printed or digitized support snippets for installation.
Budget / Parts Lists
Converting a van to 4x4 is often perceived as an easy process, just take the van body and put it on the truck frame right? Well, there's a bit more that goes into than that, especially if you want something it's safe to put your family in and go down the highway at 80mph.
Our conversions are designed to have as few non-standard parts as possible with servicability in mind and long term use. The wear items on the conversions are almost all factory replacement components, most availble either OEM or aftermarket.
We realize that there are a lot of DIY'ers out there that want to build their rig a certain way which is why we also offer items a la carte.
Below you'll find links to extremely useful lists outlining what goes into a 4x4 conversion for either Ford or Chevy. These provide a good snapshot and worksheet for you to determine if this is the right option for you, as well as a way to stay on task, making sure you have every component you need before you set out to build a rig.
Please select either the PDF which can be printed and filled out by hand, or if you prefer to edit in Excel or Sheets we have a spreadsheet you may download and edit.
GM / Chevy Downloads
Please stay tuned as we update this section with direct links to source individual parts. For now, here's some general help on sourcing products for your conversion.
Car-Part.com - This is an excellent source for finding axle cores, transfer cases, differentials and transmissions as needed. It can be great for finding all matter of used parts. Do your research, call the companies on the phone and if you can stay within the PRP network, those yards are typically good to deal with.
Rockauto.com - This is a good source for new parts and a good place to look at a variety of brands for the same type of part. They can be really finicky about where they ship to, so check if they ship to your address before spending too much time on the site.
Amazon.com - The giant is often a good place to find something if you know the exact part number you need. READ THE REVIEWS, there is a lot of garbage mixed in with good parts, the prices for many products are often good, but if it's way cheaper than anything else, understand you get what you pay for.
Ebay.com - Ebay tends to be a good place to find brand name over-the-counter steering and suspension components. Amazon can be cheaper for shocks, however Ebay seems to be a good place to buy things like Moog products.
Carquest / Napa / O'reilly / Autozone / Advance Auto Parts - These are great sources for things like brakes, rotors, heavy to ship items. They often have listings for more than you'd think. Also, did you know you can ask for a discount and sometimes they'll just give it to you? Who'd a though. Price-match here, they can't usually match online pricing, but if you can find it anywhere local, they'll often beat the price of their competitor.
Walmart.com - Fluids, shocks, wheels, tires even, Walmart has an incredibly large catalog and often offers cheap prices and free shipping. It's a great place to shop wheels and you can see what's actually in stock.
Wheels - Be careful where you're buying these, Ebay and individual sites mass marketing tons of wheels, they almost never have updated inventory of what's available. Wherever you're buying wheels, contact the seller direct to see if the part is in stock before paying for anything.
Discount Tire - Great nation-wide company to buy brand name tires at. Use good tires, spend the money to get what you want. It'll make all the difference in how your rig drives / feels.