In April of this year (2015) we bought a 2004 Chevrolet Astro All Wheel Drive van. I’ve been in love with VW campers since I was a little one, so to not buy a VW when we were looking for a campervan just felt wrong. We struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided on a Chevy Astro (also recognized as a GMC Safari).
So why did we buy an Astro you ask? Well, part of the reasoning for us buying a van was to help move us 2100 miles from Chicago to Portland Oregon, where my wife Bex, is going to graduate school for Speech Language Pathology. I sold her on the idea that instead of renting a U-haul van, we could use those funds towards our van and a trailer. Now, a little VW camper struggles to move out of it’s own way at times. To ask it to pull all our belongings would be too much of an ask, the Astro however will tow 6000 lbs.
VW vans aren't known for their reliability either, and to give them the power they need would take an engine swap of a Subaru 2.5 litre or maybe a VW diesel for the best mileage.
While researching vans we also looked at the Ford Econoline's, what we liked about them was the extra interior room and the ability to have a bed made up in the rear and still have a seating/living area.
We liked that the Astro was all wheel drive as were hoping to drive on some mild off road trails, beaches and dirt roads. The Ford didn’t have this option and to find one that was 4x4 would have been too expensive, but that would probably have been the ideal van. If you haven’t read up on a company called Sportsmobile, you should check out their vans. They build what I'd consider the ultimate overlanding vehicle. A tough, 4x4 campervan with all the utilities of an RV, very sweet indeed. There are however plenty of people doing self builds to save huge amounts of money.
So, back to the Astro and why we eventually bought one:-
We've named our Astro Vanhalla. We’ve already done quite a bit of work on it and will be documenting that shortly. Check back later to see how the progress goes.
Finding the right van
Finding an Astro that's 10 to 15 years old in Chicago isn't easy. Most vans were commercial with hundreds of thousands of miles, a lot were passenger vans with no seats that plumbers/electricians/handymen had used and the others were in poor condition. Then one popped up for sale in Milwaukee, about 1.5 hours drive away. It was owned by an older couple and had plenty of service history. Saturday morning we got up early and headed north.
We arrived and the seller was just pulling it out of the garage, that's a good sign. It was in great condition compared to all of the other vans we'd seen. The only visible rust being on the very front corner, a few chips from road rash, it's a pretty common spot on these Astro's and Safari's. I climbed underneath, a bit worried about what I was going to find, but it wasn't too bad, many new parts under there, of course there was surface rust but nothing scary, I could seal that up later.
On to the test drive, off we go and a few miles down the road the ABS and BRAKE warnings light up, no worries, I know exactly what that is and can use it to negotiate. The van felt tight, and drove much better than I thought a vehicle of that size and age would. All goes well so we head back.
I ask to see the service history, a nice stack of papers comes out and I flick through. The guy has taken great care of it and addressed all issues except for the ABS and BRAKE warning (this is caused by a few solder joints inside the Electronic Brake Control Module going bad). I guess he didn't want to pay to have it replaced at the dealer which is what they recommended to him, so he decided to sell.
So after a bit of back and forth with negotiations we settle on a price that we felt was fair, a bit of paperwork, hand over a wad of cash and off we go, back to Chicago proud owners of a new project.