Project Van: Suspension Surgery

Update by Tom Suddard to the Ford E-250 project car
Jul 8, 2019

We’re working on turning this $2000 van into a do-it-all machine that can tow a car to the track, then serve as a mobile workshop and hotel room for the weekend. 

We'll say it: Our van was scary to drive. Empty it wasn't terrible, but hitch up our small enclosed trailer, and every drive became a white-knuckle death wish. And it's no surprise why: After 235,000 miles, our van still sported its original suspension components, which were barely adequate for towing as much as we do before they covered all those miles. Sure, the van had been maintained—the shocks were tired, but not blown, for example—but it definitely needed a refresh. It also needed upgrades to handle the weight of a full trailer, too. Just look at how low it was riding in the rear when hooked up:

So, we started placing calls. Our first was to Hellwig Products, who specialize in making trucks drive better when fully loaded. We explained what we were dealing with, and a Hellwig care package showed up on our doorstep a few days later. Our next call was to Energy Suspension, makers of polyurethane bushings for nearly every vehicle ever made—even our van. They sent a full set of urethane suspension bushings. And thanks to a quick trip to  RockAuto, we rounded the parts pile out with a set of KYB shocks, Moog suspension parts, and a remanufactured steering box. Our goal? Replace all of the tired wear items in our van, and end up with something that wasn't scary to drive, even when towing at its maximum capacity. We laid out the parts, squeezed the van onto our barely-big enough  BendPak lift, and went to work. 

First step: Remove everything. We started up front, where the stock anti-roll bar was the first item that needed to go. Normally it attaches to each swingarm with rubber bushings. Unsurprisingly, ours were completely missing, meaning we'd been driving with over an inch of slop and a metal-to-metal interface. 

No wonder this thing drove so poorly! Once we had the anti-roll bar out of the way, we kept removing bolts, eventually dropping the infamous Ford Twin I-Beam suspension onto the shop floor. 

Next step: Replace bushings. We pressed each of the worn stock bushings out with the press, then pressed the new Energy Suspension urethane bushings in their place. 

We took our time and replaced every bushing in the front suspension. The shocks were worn-out and featured destroyed bushings of their own, so we replaced them while we had everything apart. 

Bushings and shocks done, we moved onto the ball joints and steering box. Rather than take any chances, we replaced everything.

We'll spare you the boring details of truck suspension work, and just say that it's miserable, heavy, greasy work. And our shop floor now sports a permanent crater thanks to a flying steering box that slipped out of our hands.

Once we'd replaced all of the worn-out stock components, we started upgrading. The first Hellwig part we installed was their Front Sway Bar Kit. Larger anti-roll bars are one of the best upgrades you can make to a tow vehicle, and at just over $400 Hellwig's kit includes a gigantic front bar and the necessary hardware and bushings to install it. Even better, it does away with the problematic factory bushing design that left us driving with metal rubbing against metal. It also includes a lifetime warranty, which is great peace of mind for something we plan to continue piling mileage onto.

With the front suspension finished, we moved on to the rear. Here the issue wasn't worn bushings–the stock leaf spring bushings looked perfect, so we left them alone–it was capacity. Our E-250's springs just weren't stiff enough for the weight we needed to carry.

Fortunately we're not the first ones to have this issue, so we once again turned to Hellwig. We installed a set of their Progressive Rate Load Leveler Helper Springs, which bolt on top of the factory rear springs and increase the rate significantly. The price? Nearly $600 with the installation kit, putting them right inline with ordering a set of stiffer replacement springs. We went with the Hellwig pieces for two reasons: One, they're easier to install. And two, they're adjustable, allowing us to dial in exactly the right spring rate for our load. We considered choosing a set of air helper springs, but since this van is only driven loaded, we didn't want the extra failure points or complexity of airbags.

We'd solved our spring rate issue, but had one more trick up our sleeves: Another giant anti-roll bar, this one also from Hellwig. At about $400, their complete rear sway bar kit includes a gigantic bar and the necessary hardware to bolt it on. 

With everything installed, we rolled the van outside, hitched up a loaded trailer, and stepped back to observe: Success! Rather than sag in the rear, the van now rode at the appropriate height, and we've got plenty of adjustment left in the Hellwig helper springs.


We took the van down to the alignment shop, and asked them to dial in as much caster as possible up front. Then, we timidly hit the road… WOW! It took a few hours of backbreaking, greasy work, but we transformed the way our van handled, and it's no longer terrifying to drive when hitched to a trailer. 

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View comments on the GRM forums
arthuruscg New Reader
7/8/19 9:49 a.m.

Raid a junkyard for the steering stabalizer and mounts from the ambulance E350/450s. All of the mounting wholes should be there.

duke906 New Reader
7/8/19 9:51 a.m.

Love the project, recently bought a 2002 Ford E-250 Sportsmobile RB Penthouse with only 27,000 miles, a southern vehicle  and like your projects.  Drove it back from Arkansas to Minnesota and was surprised how well it drove (unloaded).  Will be updating to be more of a tow vehicle as it is not set-up with a hitch so your additions, helper springs, sway bars and shocks have interest.  I have not got the vehicle in the air to inspect bushings but will.

Does your van have a tranny cooler? 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/19 11:44 a.m.

It does 

freetors Reader
7/8/19 12:07 p.m.

I'm having trouble understanding how a beefier rear sway bar would help in the towing department. The force applied at the hitch is essentially at axle height, therefore the roll moment on the vehicle chassis due to the trailer should be very small (negligible?). Unless, you're also planning loading up a bunch of junk inside the van too, then that would be totally understandable.

deaconblue New Reader
7/8/19 12:14 p.m.

Are you sure you got the correct shocks for your van?  The ones you pulled off sure look to be much larger diameter than the ones you put on.  What is the GVW on the van, 8600 lbs or something below?  If it is 8600 lbs, then you have a E250 HD.

The KYB GR-2/Excel-G shocks for the E250 are #344370 front and #344371 rear.

The KYB MonoMax shocks for the E250 HD are #565014 front and #565014 rear.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/19 12:20 p.m.

To be completely honest, I've never sat down and worked the math on exactly how a rear sway bar helps when towing, but it definitely does. We've added big rear bars to most of our tow vehicles over the years, and every time it's made a big improvement. I'll see if I can find an expert to explain it in science terms.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/19 12:21 p.m.

In reply to deaconblue :

It's not the HD version, but thanks for keeping an eye out!

californiamilleghia HalfDork
7/8/19 12:45 p.m.

I just got a new to me 2005 Chevy/ GMC Express van , 

When I first got it the rattles and noises drove me crazy , now that I have some carpets on the floor and some stuff in it , the noise has been cut down a lot , 

Do the urethane bushings squeek ?  Or transfer more noise than the stock rubber bushings ?

And do you have any of the antisway bars and chains connecting the trailer to your van ? I  do not understand exactly what they do !

Thanks for giving some "love" to the Vans ,  most stories are on Pick ups.



jstein77 UltraDork
7/8/19 12:53 p.m.

I'm glad that flying steering box didn't catch any part of you on its way down.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela GRM+ Memberand Digital Editor
7/8/19 12:58 p.m.
californiamilleghia said:

I just got a new to me 2005 Chevy/ GMC Express van , 

When I first got it the rattles and noises drove me crazy , now that I have some carpets on the floor and some stuff in it , the noise has been cut down a lot , 

Do the urethane bushings squeek ?  Or transfer more noise than the stock rubber bushings ?

And do you have any of the antisway bars and chains connecting the trailer to your van ? I  do not understand exactly what they do !

Thanks for giving some "love" to the Vans ,  most stories are on Pick ups.



Tom's certainly driven it more than I, but I did not notice any unnecessary squeaks or more noise from the urethane bushings when I drove it to Atlanta. 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/19 1:07 p.m.

Nope, they've been quiet and comfortable for 20,000 miles now.

RJStanford GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/8/19 1:48 p.m.

Would love to see a total cost break-down at the end of this - or even adding up as we go. A van does seem like a great choice compared to a truck/SUV, but I'm indecisive about adding another special-purpose vehicle to the fleet unless the cost savings justify it.

FPZguy New Reader
7/8/19 1:52 p.m.

I have a F250 HD Diesel and recently replaced the shocks, which looked very similar to the yellow shocks you took off the van.  I replaced them with Bilstein, which are amazing.  Having used KYB in the past, I'm wondering why you used them?


Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/8/19 1:52 p.m.

In reply to RJStanford :

We'll do a cost recap post at the end of the project.


7/8/19 2:18 p.m.

One thing I’ve always done when aligning a Ford with I-beam suspension is calculate your loaded rear axle weight and put that much junk in the back when you bring it in. The castor and camber can them be calculated and dialed in with bushings a little better and the front tires won’t cup and chop as fast. 

Donatello New Reader
7/8/19 6:31 p.m.

Where's the rust? Lucky you. I am jealous.

spacecadet GRM+ Memberand Dork
7/8/19 7:36 p.m.

the helpers are an interesting concept. glad you guys went that way so we can see how it all goes together. 

kevinatfms GRM+ Memberand Reader
7/9/19 7:35 a.m.

Any thought of going with an E350 rear set of leaf springs over the Hellwig add-a-leaf? They would fit, have a higher spring rate and should be cheaper than the Hellwig kit.

redtanrt10 New Reader
7/9/19 9:55 a.m.


another great article.  I haven't done the Helwig's yet or the poly bushings but one day?

someone else mentioned the E-450 steering stabilizer and I added one, pretty reasonable $$'s an easy to install.  I went with the Bilstein's on my e-150.  Not sure if I missed it in your notes but even at 50k and 7 years old the rear shocks were painful to remove!!  

I had bought the RAS leaf spring helper that gave my van a 1 -1 1/2 lift in the back, seems similar to what you installed 

Recently I added the Timkin Bump stops.  Pretty reasonable price and I definitely feel them work when I have my 5k car/trailer on the bumps.

thanks for everything your doing!!

CyberEric HalfDork
7/9/19 11:55 a.m.

Awesome. Does it handle like a Miata now?

Also, what is the difference between the E250 and E250 HD?

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/9/19 1:03 p.m.

It definitely  handles like a Miata now. It's even done Tail of the Dragon, and I had motorcycles pulling over to get out of my way.

I chose the Hellwig pieces for two reasons: One, they're easier to install. And two, they're adjustable, allowing me to dial in exactly the right spring rate.

ekauppi7 New Reader
1/31/20 9:58 p.m.

I was sorry to see in GRM recently that you have retired this van.

I have a 2002 E-350 van with the 7.3 Powerstroke diesel.  It has a 10k tow rating and we routinely tow a 25' toyhauler which is over 7000lbs with motorcycles and gear in it.  Works great!  We've towed to Nova Scotia and all over the eastern USA.  I've even passed other rigs on two lane roads while towing. 

I haven't done much to it except add a much-bigger-than-stock trans cooler, and routine brake and suspension wear items.  It has 250k miles on it now.  I expect the powertrain to be good for at least another 100k.  I might look into that front swaybar kit, thanks for the tip.

IMO, as long as you don't need to tow a fifth-wheel, diesel vans make great tow vehicles.  The only weakness in our rig is traction when off pavement.  We go to a weekend event, they park us in a field, it rains and on Monday we have trouble getting out.  So I've switched to rear tires with very aggressive tread which took a hit on the handling.  Next will be a front hitch for a tow point and a winch mount.  I'm seriously considering an ARB air locker or similar locking rear axle conversion.  I have the factory limited slip but it doesn't seem to do much in a muddy field.  The off-road folks tell me that a real 100% locker is almost like magic.

Vans are so un-cool that they're cool.  And cheap!  I'm very happy with mine.



Purple Frog
Purple Frog GRM+ Memberand New Reader
1/31/20 10:24 p.m.

Sort of sad to see GRM van project retired.  Totally understand, based on the unit you started with and the need to sleep in it trackside.

150,000 on the odometer, and I'm keeping mine.  Gasser.  E350  Tows a trailer just about everyday.  The enclosed trailer is a 20'.

Never cared for pickups... everything either gets wet or stolen.

ekauppi7 New Reader
4/30/20 9:50 p.m.

Re handling when towing:

Your first step needs to be a good load equalizing sway control hitch.  They make a world of difference.

It'll fix the sag in the rear, it'll fix the funny handling from the front being up in the air, and it'll fix the tail wagging the dog.

I bought and recommend a Blue Ox swaypro.  It was around $800 but compared to other suspension mods that's not crazy money.  And compared to other suspension mods it was super easy to install and tune.  I don't know why I don't see more race car towing rigs with this basic safety/handling equipment, it's pretty common in the RV towing world.

Our van is an '02 E-350 with 220K miles on it.  In the suspension department all we did is new kingpin bushings and new (cheap Monroe HD) shocks on it.  And the hitch.  We tow an 8k+ toyhauler, have towed it all over the eastern US, Nova Scotia to Georgia, taking us and our bikes to Deals Gap and other fun places.  It's not a white knuckle ride at all.  Half the time my wife or my teen kid are driving it, no problem.

I might try the Hellwig sway bars, just because I always want better handling.  But really, a good load equalizing hitch makes a huge difference.



Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter)
Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/1/20 10:22 a.m.

In reply to ekauppi7 :

What engine do you have? I find that with the 4.6 hills are a bit of a struggle with an open trailer, to the point that I'm not sure I want to attempt an enclosed one. 

ekauppi7 New Reader
5/23/20 10:56 p.m.

I have the 7.3 Powerstroke turbodiesel.

When we got the toyhauler, my sweetie had an E-150 van with the 4.6, on paper it was rated to tow this trailer.  Just the 60 mile haul from the dealer to home on the flatlands made us reconsider this idea.  So we shopped carefully and got the 7.3.  We've never regretted it for a minute, even when doing those 15 quart oil changes.


A 401 CJ
A 401 CJ Dork
5/24/20 2:09 p.m.

These days a 7.3 van belongs in the unicorn sighting thread.  A 4X4 is the equivalent of an albino unicorn.

ekauppi7 New Reader
11/8/20 11:03 p.m.

Nah, 7.3 vans aren't that rare. You have to be patient and keep looking, they are out there.  I agree with you that a 7.3 4x4 van would be an albino unicorn. 7.3 4x4 pickups you can find easily.

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