sparr (sparr0) wrote,

Sparr Bought a Police Van: Week one

I am slowly shopping to replace my bus. This involves email notifications from a few auction sites, not all of which can filter results as narrowly as I'd like. So, I get notifications that include other interesting vehicles sometimes. Last week one of those notifications led me to an auction with 15 minutes left, bidding at $499 with the reserve met, for a van with a good engine and transmission. That got my interest. I quickly discovered that it was the longest body Dodge made, in a model I've owned before (1994-2003 Ram Van B3500, specifically the 1997 rather than my old 96), and that it was a police prisoner transport van with all the interior reinforcement that implies. The only major problem was serious damage to the sliding door, and not enough photos to make the extent of the damage entirely obvious.

I bid on it. Worst case, the door damage includes frame damage and I either scrap it for less than I paid or I gift it to a friend who doesn't care about the damage. Best case, I get a great van for $500. I won the auction for $504, much to my surprise. I seriously expected the bidder at $499 to have a proxy bid set higher. I then immediately flew out of town for a long weekend. On the way, I got in touch with the seller (a small city government) and ended up paying via credit card over the phone.

I flew back to San Francisco a week after buying it, then took a convoluted transit trip a few hours south of the bay. I met the seller at their office (Watsonville Public Works). We filled out the title and some other paperwork and they gave me the keys. I asked for the maintenance records, and they turned over a manilla folder with ~100 pages of work orders and smog tests going back 20 years. I spent a few minutes photographing the van, cleaning the mirrors, adjusting the seat, etc, then drove away.

First stop, the DMV. I paid $41 in tax, $15 for the title transfer, $73 in expected registration fees, and finally $80 because it's a non-passenger van which qualifies for weight-class commercial vehicle fees. Adding seatbelts to the cage benches in the back would circumvent this next year, as would converting it to a motorhome. Unfortunately, they wouldn't give me a registration yet because the last smog test was 4 months ago. I suspect the DPW thought they would sell it within 3 months when they got that test done. I left a message for the seller (and later followed up via email) saying I was going to have to pay for a smog test out of pocket. They are going to have to reimburse me for that; it's illegal to sell an un-smog'd vehicle in California. I tried a smog place near that DMV, but one of their OBD devices couldn't connect to the van and they insisted that that one was the necessary oe. I ran out of time for the evening and drove back to SF.

The next morning (today), I woke up and went to a smog facility. They ran it through its paces and gave it a clean bill of health. All the numbers are well below average (and way below max), except NO (Nitrous Oxide) which is strangely much higher than average (and still way below max). I'll ask the internet and a mechanic about that later. I went back to the DMV and got the plates and stickers and a promise of a new title in the mail next week.

Having had some time to look it over, not thoroughly, here's what I've learned that's worth sharing:

I got it with 99985 miles on it, and watched it roll over to 100000 as I was driving back to SF. Sadly I was on a twisty mountain road with high speed traffic, so I couldn't slow down or stop for a photo. In addition to the novelty of that occurrence, 100k miles is crazy low for a 20 year old vehicle. That combined with the maintenance logs make me hope I've got some semblance of a reliable vehicle on my hands.

The interior is split into 4 compartments. The cab is a typical van cab, with the large engine cover doghouse common to that era of short nose vans. Behind the driver and passenger seats is a wall. The bottom half of the wall is a steel sheet, and the top half is a steel XXX grating with plexiglass bolted over it. The wall intersects the side door about a foot back, which is awkward, and leaves some small gaps at the edges and footwell. The next compartment is the full width of the van and as long as the sliding door, with a bench along the back and one side. Behind that compartment is another wall. The rear space is split in half, with two separate steel doors inside the normal rear vehicle doors, and a bench on each side. For this arrangement to remain practical I will need to sell the vehicle to either a tradesperson who needs security for their tools, or to someone who transports animals. Failing that, most other potential uses of the van, for myself or someone else, involves taking out most of the stuff the police added in the back. A lot of it's riveted in place; some of it might be welded. I have no info on what the interior van body looks like under/behind those steel plates and sheets. Time will tell.

The door damage is mostly to the door itself. There's some body panel damage on the van, both scratches and a deep dent, but I think there's no damage to the frame, which is great news. Having looked at it, I'm pretty sure someone used a really big pry bar to rip the door open and resuce a prisoner; I hope to find some mention of that in the news or police blotter when I get around to looking. The most complex of the support arms/bearings has a cast steel part that's broken in half, which will be very difficult to fix if I decide to try. I applied some cleverness and leverage and got the door slid back so that the lock pin and latch fit into their spots, so it's secure against wind and prying hands for now. There's still a big gap, for rain and litter and vandals to reach into, but it only leads to one of the secure rear compartments. If prisoners couldn't break from there into the cab, I expect vandals to have to put serious effort into it should they try. Fortunately the damage is at the rear, so the front still mates into a vaguely aerodynamic shape. If it was the other way around, I'd be stuck at low speed with an air ram scoop on the side of the van. I'm going to try applying some high pressure compression to get the door closer to its original shape and minimize the gap. This weekend I plan to hit some junk yards and shop for a replacement door, and probably misc other parts as well.

The suspension has a lot of creaking, and a few disconcerting pops at sharp angles and bounces. I'll have to get someone to look at that.

Fortunately, the suspension problem is NOT caused by rust, unlike my last few non-bus vehicles. After years of Chicago and Boston vehicles, I had forgotten that you could have a 20 year old vehicle with no rust on the undercarriage. I snapped some photos while it was lifted at the smog inspection place, and will get more when I get it up on jackstands and start poking around under there.

There was an option on this model for a second fuel tank. It's not there, but that means there's a void meant for a ~30 gallon tank, which is a great place to put 30gal of fresh water (or 20 fresh and 10 black) in a hypothetical future van dwelling conversion.

There's a huge exhaust/intake fan on the roof. It's outside, to avoid vandalism by prisoners, which is awkward in parking garages. I'll almost certainly be removing it. The controls for it have speed and thermostat relay settings, so once it's off I expect to have little trouble handing it off to someone to put on an RV or art car.

The A/C and heat work great. The dome light in the rear section doesn't work. One of the windshield washer lines has a broken tube. Both seatbelts worked when I got it, but then I broke the driver's while messing with some unusual hardware attached to it. I'll swap them tonight, and get a replacement for the other one from a junk yard if I can't fix it quickly. There's a lot of rust on the roof, and the paint on the hood has seen way too much sun with no protection. There are steps installed on the rear and sides, which I'll remove to increase the ground clearance and decrease the footprint of the vehicle.

That's about it for now. More to come, on progress and prospects and plans.
Tags: sparrboughtapolicevan, van
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