Retirement Tour- In a 1961 Metro Van

Our van in the Polebridge July 4th Parade

We’re only days away from beginning our tour. I’ve only yet to set the timing, hook up the vacuum advance, air up the tires, install a cheap Chinese diesel cab heater, and pack up.

Eight degrees of initial timing and no more than 34 degrees of total timing at 3000 rpm will do just fine, I hope! Though I can always make adjustments along the way I’d like to get it right before I leave. I’m picking up my bride in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin. She’s flying there tonight and landing God willing, tonight. A hole in a snow storm here in Montana was her delight and she got off the ground safely. So now she can see her mother before our trip. The plan is to let Jackie, my wife, visit mom for a couple weeks, then head out!

The first leg of the journey I’ve done many times but never in an old under powered, poorly heated van. I should not give you the impression that the van is an old jalopy. It was however a sight to see when I bought it at a vacant lot in Columbia Falls Montana. The owner said his father, or grandfather, I don’t recall which, had parked it in a field at least 20 yrs before and it had been parked there ever since. He said he used it as a camper van, and the old man traveled to Mexico many times in it. On the windshield and the back windows were authoritative Mexican government stickers all about. It was cute, but truly in rough shape. At first sight I only saw potential and asked if it ran. The answer was, “not sure!” So I gathered up a gas can and an old battery, did some wire tying and cranked it over. It fired up to everybody’s surprise. “I’ll take it,” I said. An hour later it was sitting at our business. I had it towed because it didn’t have plates, but more so because I didnt know what else might not work.

Sure, it was one of those impluse buys. But we bought it for only $1,400, it was not much of a risk. We could just paint our business name on it and plant it in front of our shop if all else failed; a big cute sign that we could write off.

Sleeping Quarters

But it wasn’t long before I had it running good enough to get around town. And boy was it fun to drive. Fun because it reminded me of the old days of driving a stick on the column. The manly smell of oil burning, and the lifters rhythmicly clanking brought back many feelings and good memories. For this was not the first old vehilcle I would own. My first car was a 1936 Plymouth Coope. I cut my teeth on that old girl. Learned about popping gears, and timming, and hotwiring to get it to go. Then it was all I could afford and all my mom could loan me to buy a car. This time I wanted a project, I needed a project. But I soon found the old Diamond six cylinder, the transmission and parts to work on the old Metro were almost extinct. International Harvester was the brand but back then they used parts from Chevy and from whoever they could find them to build their vehicles. The only aftermarket parts I could find was a master brake cylinder. But the kicker for me was the day I drove it to town and lost a hubcap. I retaced my route, even walked it for several miles in search of the hubcap. It was gone! Somebody must have nabbed it. And so were gone my hopes of having an original classic vehicle.

Kitchen Area

I searched online and in magazines and came to the realization I’d have to buy several vehicle’s of the same make and year along with having things custom built at exhorbitant prices to make the dream come true.

The Cockpit

I didn’t take long to conceed and began thinking about other options. I heard from a friend that there was a good mechanic in the valley that did restorations. I thought maybe he could put in a completely new drive train and convert it to a four wheel drive. But at what cost? You see I usually do things myself. I’m generally pretty cheep or frugal if you like nicer words. I built my own home and it took nine years if that gives you perspective. But this time was different. We had a good year financially and I was getting a little too old to learn all the things needed to do such a conversion, besides it had been since high school that I turned a mechanics wrench. Krell Jones of Krell’s Customs got the job! He was very patient with me and let me come over to watch, help, and talk about his progress. He normally does complete, body off, restorations of vehicles he’s familiar with, so for him this was a treet as well as a challenge. A low budget challenge to boot. It took, if I remember right, about 8 months of off and on again work to get it running. He did not do it the right way, the way he wanted to. That was to take off the body, scrap the old and install the new. He had to pull the engine from inside the cab, figure out how things would fit, weld in motor mounts and install a new short block Chevy 350 crate engine that I had built and bought from Pheonix Engines. I can’t remember the torque ratio or many details beyond it having a beefy crank shaft and 326 horsepower off the dyno. We decided on a bomb proof turbo 400 automatic transmission and a rebuilt 205 transfer case. I also had him install a new steering column, wiring harness, custom gauges, and a Vintage Air heat and a/c (I havent hooked up the a/c yet). After some overheating issues, i also had a custom dual core aluminum radiator built.

As you can imagine by this point I was committed. The money was pouring out of our savings and into a classic old van that still had no proposed use except to run well enough to drive in Montana and beyond.

New Seats

Here is where van life and retirment converge. Why not make it again into a classic travel van? A new Mercedes Sprinter Van would cost way more than what I had into the Metro. Jackie agreed! Besides she thought it looked cool too. You see, we are both peas in a pod when it comes to liking different sorts of unique things. In a way it’s a curse. Furniture at Ikea is cheap and everybody buys it. But that’s exactly why we can’t. Of course we like the cheap part, but what usually comes with unique is expensive! For some things like underwear, socks, and maybe a winter jacket we can go to Costco and buy what 400 others have bought that day. But like unique door hardware and screen doors (former business we owned), being different was the draw. The same would be true for this old van.

Driving the old looking, but good running Metro gets all kinds of attention. It has become a game we play while traveling to count the number of waves, thumbs up, peace signs, and hang loose’s we get between waypoints. Of course we also get some strange looks but they are always happy strange looks. Jackie describes our van as like something out of the movie Cars. It’s cartoonish. It also has that “rat rod” look. It’s quite original on the outside besides the crappy paint job I put on it just to stop the rust. When I purchased it the former owner had painted it with brown and beige house paint – with a brush – and it had flying ducks painted on it’s side panels. Then it was ugly cute. Now it’s just cute!

Since we got it running and since Jackie finally decided to retire with me, I’ve been working on the inside making it into the travel van we can’t afford except by sweat equity. This is also a curse; and a blessing. Doing things yourself saves a lot of money, but learning how is also a challenge.. Usually more than half of everything you build or repair is labor. Sometimes it doesn’t look as good as a professional would do it or the materials need to be sewn or crafted to “make it work.” But in the end the joy can be had by the preparation, the learning, the effort, and the savings. And let’s face it, the pride that comes with the joy in seeing an 8 year old giving us a thumbs up as he’s driven by in his mom’s Escalade is priceless.

Well, besides describing the sunroof installation, electrical system, solar panel set up, roof rack installation, and describing how we will be staying warm, sleeping, cooking, showering and using the porta potty, that’s it for now. When our journey begins I’ll be updating my blog between campsites and interesting places. I hope you enjoy the journey too.

Bob and Jackie

9 thoughts on “Retirement Tour- In a 1961 Metro Van

    1. I honestly thought about it. There might be a day in our “non-schedule” to make it happen, but weather rules. RV campgrounds typically don’t open till after march 15th so we need to need to head south as fast as possible because we have no available campgrounds for us to stay at up north. But….. If we get some decent 40-50 degree weather while passing around Chicago we’ll do it! I think you’re only an hour or two off route. But if it stays cold we will have to head south. We do have one scheduled stop of March 15th at a Christian camp, Camp Nathaniel in Ky.

  1. Peter D Hanselman

    I’ll be following. Great summary of the Van and the Life it has had so far. Looking forward to hearing how it like retirement. Do you have any pictures of the re-build?

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