A Rough But Humbling Start: Learning Mechanics And Getting The Van To Run


At one point in my life, while living a very busy, focused life downtown Toronto I literally told myself I "would never own a vehicle" and, looking back, I can't help but laugh at the statement.

Before moving to Calgary two years ago, being the anti-vehicle person I once was, I couldn't even comprehend changing a tire; let alone rebuilding an engine. Since moving here I've owned three vehicles and regularly have my hands caked in oil or covered in cuts from working in an engine bay.


About two months ago when I decided to fully commit to this project I sold most my belongings (again), bought my friends non-running van and moved into his house to rebuild it. Since moving in 50% of my life has been occupied by my required life tasks (work, family, my sanity) and the other 50% has been committed to the van.

Since first opening the hood it's been a challenge - what started as a quick repair by swapping one piece for a new one has turned into a project that has introduced myself to almost every bolt, hose, and required parts of an engine. We've replaced countless sensors, completely opened the engine in half to replace one single piece, and spent hours repeating the line "maybe its this..." and it would still only run for 30 seconds before it dramatically shut itself off.

Left is the engine open with an instructional youtube video telling me what to do. Right is the top of the engine out and full of oil where it shouldn't be.

Left is the engine open with an instructional youtube video telling me what to do. Right is the top of the engine out and full of oil where it shouldn't be.

Finally, after around a month of dedicated troubleshooting and countless 'thank you's' to two close friends we got it running. Well, not just running... but purring. Ultimately it ended up being the ignition coil but if any of you car nerds are curious about the work we did, the following is the spreadsheet (I love lists) of the things we did.

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At the time I was considering rolling the thing off a cliff but even that would have been too difficult considering it couldn't even drive to the nearest cliff so, luckily for it, our patience triumphed and not only did we get it running but we essentially replaced most of the parts that could cause me any problems in the future AND I now have backups of most of the parts for when I'm on the road.

Of coarse the literal blood, sweat and (almost) tears had gotten the best of me at times but once I relax and reflect on the experience I become thankful for how fortunate I am to be in my current situation. I'm living with two great individuals who are selflessly willing to donate their times to teaching me mechanics, I have access to a heated, fully equipped garage, and I own a van that I'm coming to love.


So, the first (major) step is done. The van is running and we've begun the fun upgrades that will make life on the road enjoyable. Although this step was stressful, the skills I learned and the confidence I now have will be invaluable while on the road. In fact, all this was reassured while reading some advice from the infamous book "Van life" by the legendary Foster Huntington;

The one piece of advice I could offer is to learn as much as possible about your vehicle prior to departing for your trip. Become familiar with your rig and brush up on your basic mechanical and electrical troubleshooting. Something is bound to break at some point, and having the parts with you can be the difference between a quick roadside repair or an expensive tow bill and unplanned downtime in the desert.
— David Browning from 'Van Life: Your Home On The Road' by Foster Huntington

Check! The repair could potentially be seen as a blessing in disguise next time I'm in the desert. 

Now that the van is running we're deep into the cosmetic repairs and I'll touch on that in the next post. Until then, feel free to follow along during the build on my personal Instagram, @dylanleeder.

Can't wait to update you all again soon!