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My First Diesel: Van Life

Getting (Un)Stuck

Courtney McKinnon
Oct 29, 2019
In the first installment of this series, I explained how I, along with my wife and two dogs, took Vincent Van Go, my new-to-me '03 Ford E-350 with the venerable 7.3L powerplant, on his first adventure—and wound up at a secluded campsite (aptly named Camp Nada Lotta) in the Southern California desert. After three days and nights of exploring the surrounding hills, stargazing from atop the roof rack, countless Yahtzee and Uno games played in the shade provided by Vinny's shadow, one confirmed afternoon UFO sighting (we have video!), and way more junk food than any two people ever need to eat, it was time to deflate the air mattresses, pack up the van, and head back to civilization. By 11 a.m., we were on our way home. Or so we thought. When I pushed the pedal to the floor, Vinny made no forward progress. The only other time I experienced something similar was the year prior when I got a motorhome stuck in the mud in New Zealand
Not to worry, though: AAA (Automobile Club of Southern California) to the rescue! All I had to do was provide the address, and they would come tow us out of the loose sand I managed to dig our rig's mismatched, bald tires into. But there was no address to provide—only GPS coordinates that didn't translate well to the AAA operator. So, I hiked down to the main road to flag down the driver, only to discover there was no way his tow truck could navigate the narrow, bumpy, dirt road to our site. Thankfully, he called a reputable 4x4 towing company, which arrived within 30 minutes. Note to self (and for any other adventurous explorers reading this): AAA does not cover off-road excursions.
Photo 2/5   |   Two hours, two tow trucks, two pissed-off Chihuahuas, and $200 later, we were finally on our way home.
Photo 3/5   |   002 My First Diesel
When the new tow company arrived, I admit I was a bit skeptical. The driver's rig looked as though it had seen better days (the passenger door wouldn't shut from the inside), and his partner's shirt read: "Don't piss me off. I'm running out of places to hide the bodies." But they guaranteed they would free us and told tales of rescuing full Fortnite movie trailers—buried feet deep in the sand—with their mighty GMC. And they delivered on their promise.
On our drive home, the discussion obviously centered on how we could continue visiting off-the-beaten-path locales without getting stuck—sans converting Vinny to four-wheel drive. So it was a no-brainer to scour the Dick Cepek Tires & Wheels website for the perfect set of all-terrain tires to replace his worn-out rubber. With the goal of making Vinny more off-road worthy, I settled on the 265/70/R17 Fun Country, a mud- and snow-rated hybrid all-terrain designed to provide superior off-road traction while minimizing road noise when on the street. To accommodate the larger tires, Vinny's eight-lug wheels also needed an upgrade, so I opted for the 17x9 Dick Cepek DC Matrix—not only for its hot, all-black aesthetic (a much-needed contrast to our stark white van), but for its durability as well.
Photo 4/5   |   To make Vincent Van Go a little more off-road worthy, we upgraded his severely worn-out rubber to a larger-sized Dick Cepek Fun Country, an all-terrain engineered to provide firm contact and exceptional surface grip. And we couldn't leave the wheels out of the equation when upsizing the tires, so we selected Dick Cepek's mean-looking DC Matrix (size 17x9).
Photo 5/5   |   As if a quick glance at the shot rubber wasn't enough to inspire a tire upgrade, the tread depth, as measured by the experts at A&G Automotive Tires & Wheels, was a whopping 1/32", with some areas completely devoid of any grip. Conversely, the new Dick Cepek Fun Country tires provide a meaty 18/32".
After a quick and painless trip to the pros at A&G Automotive Tires and Wheels in Reseda, California, the new tires and wheels were mounted and balanced, and Vinny is once again ready to tackle some tough terrain—maybe even the formidable sand at Camp Nada Lotta.
As It Stands Today:
Year/Make/Model: '03 Ford E-350 XLT
Engine: 7.3L Power Stroke V-8
Transmission: 4R100 four-speed automatic
Purchase Price: $7,100
Odometer: 256,789 miles
Fuel Economy: 13 city/17 highway mpg
Horsepower: 215 hp at 2,600 rpm
Torque: 425 lb-ft at 1,800 rpm
Fuel Capacity: 35 gallons
Tires: LT 265/70/R17 Dick Cepek Fun Country
Wheels: 17x9 Dick Cepek DC Matrix
Stereo: Stock (nonfunctioning)
Suspension: Home-brew lift and level
Exterior Modifications: Roof rack, ladder, side steps, spray-on bedliner applied to roof and front and rear bumpers, aftermarket head- and taillights, towing mirrors
Interior Modifications: Wall liner, plywood floor, locking van partition, E-Track rails
Wish List
Sound deadening/heat barrier
Reupholster driver and passenger seat
Stereo/backup camera
Improve mpg (via bigger exhaust, cold-air intake, Flex-a-lite fan, ECM tuning)
Tires and wheels
Suspension refresh
Spare battery and isolator to run electronics
Retractable awning
Solar auxiliary power system
Pop-out windows