The Ford Econoline was built from 1961 to 2015. This buyer’s guide will focus on the most common and widely available platform - the 3rd Generation (1992 - 2015).
Which model should I buy?
You have 3 options to choose from:
- E150 (½ ton)
- E250 (¾ ton)
- E350 (1 ton)
If you don’t plan on towing or doing a full camper build - the E150 is a reasonable option. It will ride a little bit nicer, but will struggle in the hills and when loaded down. The GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) of the E150 will be about 7000 lbs or so, meaning that if the base vehicle weighs 5400 lbs, you would have a max load capacity of 1600 lbs, which includes all passengers and cargo. This is not a lot of capacity once you start loading down the van. With a higher GVWR, the suspension tends to be stiffer and will ride harsher when unloaded.
For 90% of people - the E250 is the best all-around choice. On the used market, pricing is similar to E150.
- 5-lug 15” wheels with P-rated car tires
- 6 cylinder or 8 cylinder gas engine
- Light duty suspension
- ~7000 GVWR
- 3600-6600 lbs. tow rating depending on options.
- I would caution against towing over 3000 lbs. with P-rated tires.
- 8-lug 16” wheels with light truck tires
- 8 cylinder gas engine
- Bigger front brakes
- Heavy duty suspension
- ~8600 GVWR
- 5900-7300 lbs. tow rating depending on options.
- 8-lug 16” wheels with E-rated light truck tires
- 8 or 10 cylinder gas engine, or 8 cylinder diesel engine
- Bigger front brakes
- Heavy duty suspension
- Heavy duty transmission when equipped with V10 or Diesel
- ~9500 GVWR
- 7200-10000 lbs. tow rating depending on options.
Which engine / year should I get?
1997 was a big refresh year for the E-series. On the E150, the 4.9L I6 was changed to a new 4.2L V6, and the 8 cylinder models changed from the “Windsor” V8 over to the “Triton” V8. Both the 4.6L and 5.4L Triton V8s are excellent engines. The V10 is great for towing, but gets under 14mpg. I would suggest limiting your search to 1997 and later models for better reliability and fuel mileage. Parts availability tends to be better for the Triton engines as well. If you’re going for the E250, I suggest looking for one with a 5.4L Triton V8. Ford built millions of those engines, and they are very solid. Other nice things introduced in the early 2000s include anti-lock brakes, tilt steering wheel, and passenger front airbag.
In 2008, Ford once again did a fairly major update to the E-series. The dashboard, fenders, grille, and front lights were new. The steering, brakes, and suspension were updated. RSC (Roll Stability Control) was introduced. Some of the vans were updated to run E85 Ethanol. If your budget allows, these are very nice upgrades. The following engines tend to be the most reliable on the Econoline:
|Ford Essex V6||4.2 L (256 cu in) OHV V6||1997-2005|
|Ford Triton V8||4.6 L (281 cu in) SOHC 2V V8||1997-2014|
|5.4 L (330 cu in) SOHC 2V V8||1997-2016|
|Ford Triton V10||6.8 L (413 cu in) SOHC 2V V10||1997-|
If you’re opting for the E350 with a diesel engine, avoid the IDI engines (1992 - 1994) and opt for the 7.3L or 6.0L Powerstroke. Most people agree that the 7.3L Powerstroke (built by International) is one of the best engines ever offered on Ford trucks and vans. It will easily go 300k-500k miles with proper maintenance. It has no emissions equipment, but does use electronically controlled fuel injection and should not produce black smoke if running properly. Most common issue is a leaky up-pipe, which can be addressed for under $800. I typically get 17-18mpg with mine, but it is fairly loud and sounds like a UPS truck.
The 6.0L Powerstroke was introduced in 2004 due to new requirements for cleaner diesel emissions. The smaller displacement engine was paired with a variable vane turbo, newer fuel delivery system, and exhaust gas recirculation. Unfortunately, these engines proved to be very problematic and cost Ford millions of dollars in warranty repairs. Watch out for carbon build up on the turbo vanes, failed EGT systems, bad FICMs (engine computer) and blown head gaskets. Many people will do an extensive upgrade to address these issues and “bulletproof” their 6.0L to the tune of $8000. When running properly, these engines are quiet, smooth, powerful, and can achieve over 20 mpg.
|Navistar / International 7.3L Powerstroke V8||7.3 L (444 cu in) OHV V8 turbodiesel||1994.5-2003|
|Ford 6.0L Powerstroke V8||6.0 L (365 cu in) OHV V8 turbodiesel||2004-2010|
One more advantage of the 6.0L Powerstroke is that it came with a 5-speed transmission (5R110) over the 4-speed (4R100) found on the 7.3L. The 6.8L V10 also got this transmission in 2005.
Both Powerstroke engines are easily upgraded to produce more power, but cooling is an issue in the van compared the trucks. Make sure to have proper monitoring in place to ensure EGTs and coolant temps are within operating range.
NOTE: Even though it gets worse fuel mileage, most people report lower overall cost of ownership on the 6.8L V10 when taking in account repairs and maintenance, as compared to the diesel engine (especially the 6.0L).
There are many configurations that you can get an E-series van. The first thing to decide - do you want the regular body or extended body? The extended van is identical in wheelbase and will lose about 100 lbs in cargo capacity due to the added weight. It’s 18” longer than the regular body, which is nice if you want to install a toilet, shower, or plan to #vanlife with 2 people.
Next, you can choose between the Cargo Van or Passenger Van. Cargo vans basically made door windows an option and did not come with carpet or seats in the back. You commonly see the back doors equipped with windows, but windows on the side doors are rarer. You can always head to your local junkyard and get doors off a passenger van for around $100. The passenger vans came equipped with windows on all the side panels if that’s what you like. It was optional to have the windows pop out a few inches from the bottom.
I started with a lower mileage cargo van and added quality windows from CR Laurence along with doors from a passenger van. I also suggest looking for a van with power windows up front, as it is impossible to reach the passenger door from the driver's seat to roll down the window.
Both the passenger van and cargo van came with the sliding door or the cargo doors. Most people who convert to campers prefer the cargo doors because you can mount cabinets on them. It’s also a bit easier to open the doors to get in and out, and if you ever decide to go with a lift kit and wider tires, sliding doors will limit the width of the tires you want to run.
A major drawback to the E-Series when compared to the newer vans such as Sprinter, ProMaster, or Transit is the lack of standing room. After living in my van for a few months, it became apparent that I would eventually need to install a high roof. If you want to save quite a bit of money (an aftermarket roof install runs $4000-$7000), find a van with the extended roof already installed. Be aware that at 7’, a van with the original roof height already can’t fit in most parking garages. Once again, you have quite a few options here when searching:
These were modified E150s typically equipped with cushy captains chairs, a fold out bed in the back, and probably some small TVs with a VCR. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t a regular body E150. The upside is that these were usually gently used and have little wear.
These are a great starting point for a camper conversion. They typically have an 18” or 24” roof extension, they are almost always based on an E250 or E350. They tend to be well maintained when found with lower mileage. If it comes with a wheelchair lift, it can be sold to offset some of the cost of the van. Either the rear doors or the side doors need to be extended to match the roof, and I’m not a fan of the modified side door because it typically means they made heavy modifications to the floor to put the lift on the side.
An ambulance conversion is a whole can of worms. There are lots of different types, and you can find a great article comparing them. The engines tend to be lower mileage - but lots of hours are spent idling, which is arguably worse than cruising down the freeway.
- Available in many heights and styles. Call your local van conversion shop to get a quote, as it differs widely by state due to freight charges for the roof.
- This is closer to the Westfalia style top that you see on VW campers. Great because it only adds a few inches to the height of the van when it’s down, which means better fuel mileage, and the potential to fit in some parking garages. They have 4 install centers around the US. Last I heard the going rate was $7000.
- CCV - Colorado Camper Van
- This is a mix between the above two options. Proceed at your own risk, as they have some strong negative reviews online.
- People get creative and do some crazy shit.