Many people seem to think two different things about vehicles that I think are quite off the mark. One is that if you have children it is incumbent upon you to go out and mortgage a new or late model mini-van, preferably a Honda Odyssey or a Toyota Sienna. Another idea seems to be that if you own a farm—of any size really—that you need a pickup truck, preferably a 4×4 and diesel fueled pickup truck.
We have what would be considered a “large” family that would definitely quality for min-van or Suburban service, but I have never had either of those vehicles. When we had three children, we made do with a full-size car: a big front wheel drive Buick with a surprisingly smooth and fuel-efficient V6. It was an inexpensive, comfortable, and reliable car and met our needs with a little ingenuity. Once we went on a very long road-trip where we planned on camping, and we had to put a car-carrier bag on the roof of the car since the trunk was full. We still achieved over 30MPG on this trip. We also failed to understand the difficulty some people claim exists trying to put three car seats in the back of a four door car. With a little adjustment, we were able to fit three car seats in the back with no problem. Sometimes, we even brought my sister-in-law along, making six people in the Buick. Definitely no more difficult than crouching to get to the rear seats of a mini-van. And the handful of times when snow was really bad, traction cables, which are very effective on front wheel drive vehicles since the front wheels drive, steer, and do most of the braking, got that big Buick through.
When my wife was pregnant with twins—so five children—the writing was on the walls. We needed a larger vehicle. I looked at mini-vans and thought they were kind of silly. They cost much more than full size cars, and seemed cramped to me compared to the full-size Ford vans I drove in a job I once had, and I was shocked at how poor their fuel efficiency was compared to full-size cars. They were hardly any better than those big vans, which all had V8 or V10 engines, one could stand inside, and can tow big trailers. So we started looking at full-size passenger vans and found them a far better vehicle than mini-vans. Not only could they get the job done—ours has up to 12 passenger seating—they are much sturdier vehicles than mini-vans and can take on most of the duties reserved for pickup trucks. The engine, transmission, and rear-end of my Ford E-150 are very similar to that of a Ford F-150 pickup truck. The heavier E-250 and E-350 vans are comparable to heavy duty pickups. Because the seats in such vans are essentially padded benches that clamp to the floor, 10 and even 12 foot lumber can be slid under the seats, something that even a full-size pickup cannot do without a roof rack, and the van protects the lumber from the weather. When the seats are removed (all but the front two seats are removable) a 4×8 sheet of plywood or a 3×10 sheet of roofing metal fits easily. The seats on most minivans are not removable, and if they are, none of them have large enough floors to lay a 4×8 flat down, and none of them can take 12 foot lumber. I’d be surprised if they can take 8.
I have two trailers, which greatly magnify the usefulness of any vehicle. One is a little 4×8’ high-sided trailer that is great for moving bulk materials and can be easily towed by my van, a four wheeled tractor, and even my little two-wheeled tractor. We use it for everything; I bought if for only $400, and I had to put about $250 of tires and paint and grease and lumber into it, but it is all kinds of useful, and completely surpasses a pickup truck “bed.” It is lower to the ground, holds more weight (it has a 3500 lb axle), has higher sides, and has the same square footage. One cow or steer or mule or pony will readily step into and out of it, something I’ve never seen done with a pickup truck bed. I’ve even fashioned a little canopy for it that I use when moving animals on the highway or if rain is expected.
My other trailer is a big 14×6.5’ double-axle low-sided utility trailer. And, a great convenience, it has the same tire and wheel size and hub bolt pattern as my little trailer, so they can share the spare. This trailer is much larger and less versatile, but it is great for carrying around bulky materials like baled hay or straw (it can easily carry 90 2-string bales compared to about 12 in a pickup truck bed) and moving disabled vehicles (see picture of Buick above and Dodge below). I’ve towed Jeeps, small pickup trucks, small tractors, cars, skid-steers, large implements and heavy machines with no problem. And the van has no problem pulling all this weight (6100 pound tow rating), something a mini-van could never manage. A good set of strong aluminum ramps is of great use if a trailer like this doesn’t come so equipped, and some chains and chain binders are essential.
It is true that vans seldom are equipped with four wheel drive, and this is a disadvantage vs. a four wheel drive equipped pickup truck or Suburban (large SUV) type vehicle. Or at least it is a disadvantage if you really and truly need four-wheel drive. I have had a number of very aggravating occurrences where my van has become stuck, usually towing in a field, because one of the rear wheels started spinning, and with the open differentials these vehicles are equipped with, all traction is lost. So I thought I needed a 4×4 pickup to do towing duty.
As I surveyed Craigslist, I became gradually discouraged. First, for the last two decades or so, most pickup trucks left the factory to be more of a status symbol than an actual work vehicle. And when Ford decided to put an Aluminum bed on the latest F150, that sealed the deal. Aluminum will never hold up to real use, but it is just fine for the garden-hose toting duty that most owners will subject it to I’m sure. Almost all pickups today have extended cabs or four door cabs, and consequently, short, nearly useless bed in my opinion I suppose one could still use a gooseneck trailer with the short bed, but I think they can hold maybe 6 bales of straw or hay, or perhaps only a 1/8 acres worth of loose-stacked hay. I found myself having to go farther and father back in time to find a “real truck” and soon I was finding myself looking at trucks little younger than myself, and almost all of them having suffered those 20-30 years in the rust-belt. Maybe if I lived in California this would have gone better, but when I realized that this was going to cost several thousands of dollars, be a big mechanical risk, and I would have to pay ongoing fuel, insurance, and title costs, I started to really think of ways I could just make my van better. I looked first for four wheel dive vans, and there are companies that do this, but they are well out of my price range and buying a used one is not very easy since they are rare. But I do think a 4×4 van has it all over a Suburban.
Then I began to wonder if my obsession with 4×4 was really warranted, and if perhaps traction could be improved in a 2×4 to the point it would get the job done (not a perfect, but good enough solution). Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve understood how differentials worked, because I always thought they were fascinating in the same way some people find clocks fascinating. And I know that most 2×4 tractors have what is called a differential locker, which is mechanical linkage that manually locks the two axles of the powered wheels to each other so power goes to them equally. And anyone who has driven a small 2×4 tractor in adverse conditions knows how much better they perform vs. a 4×4 truck or Jeep. Much of this has to do with those big wheels, but much of it has to do with differential locking and “working the breaks.”
I think the “one wheel drive phenomena” is what gives 2x4s a bad name more than anything. True two wheel drive is twice as good as one wheel drive. If limited slip differentials, or locking differentials were more common, I think few people would feel a strong need for four wheel drive systems, which are very much more troublesome and expensive. But I thought that changing the rear-differential on my van would be an ordeal. I figured it would require a complete axle swap, something that a shop would have to do, and therefore would be cost prohibitive. Then I learned of the existence of the “lunch-box locker,” so named because it fits inside the existing differential housing simply swapping out the spider gears and pinion shaft for the locker device.
After reviewing the various kinds out there, I decided to go with the basic Powertrax LockRight Locker, which is the most basic and affordable kind of design, and it is the most common of these automatic, all-mechanical, and clutch-less locking differentials. They major drawback to these devices, other than the approximately $350 cost for the locker and ~$50 in gear oil and a new gasket that it will take to install them, is that they make a clicking noise when you turn on dry pavement—it is the ratcheting mechanism that allows the outside wheel to spin father than the inside. For about another $100 the no-slip locker, also by Powertrax, claims to eliminate the clicking noise. Since my van is a pretty noisy vehicle to begin with, with all those kids in there, I don’t really care. The locker will also affect handling on slippery surfaces to make the vehicle more “straight-line” or understeer, particularly if you are neutral with the throttle in turns. I suppose if I were to put such a device in a rear-wheel-drive car I would want the no-slip locker.
Now I’ve found my van can do almost anything you’d really want to try. No, it will not go “off-roading” or “mudding,” but it certainly can pull a trailer diagonally through a ditch, something that many 4x4s have trouble doing. The great thing about these aftermarket lockers is they are user installable and uninstallable if for some reason you don’t like them. No, it’s not as easy as changing the oil filter, but it isn’t that hard. The worst part is spilling all the expensive gear oil when you open up the differential. And of course, traction aids, like tire chains, have their effectiveness amplified by these differential lockers, too. I reckon that the van can handle any snow I’d dare go out into. Like I say with tractors, if you need four wheel drive to get through your field, then you shouldn’t be driving the tractor through the field because it will damage the field. If the snow is so bad that you think you need 4×4 to get through, then you shouldn’t go out because the risk of hurting yourself is too great.