The Ultimate Ford E-350: A Van Evolution 8 Years in the Making

Long before minivans ruled the roadways and folks were strapping tents to their roofs, fullsize vans were king. It didn't matter if you were a tradesman, hippy, or wide-eyed adventurer, a fullsize van could be easily adapted to fit your needs. With the explosion of overlanding in recent years, it's no surprise that we've seen a reemergence in the fullsize van platform. However, few have been beating the van drum longer than Ujoint Offroad owner, Chris Steuber.

His business is one that specializes in modifying the '92-to-current Ford E-series vans. While Ujoint offers everything from bumpers to roof racks, it's primarily known for its four-wheel-drive conversion systems. This brings us to the '02 Ford E-350 feature you're reading about today. While it's a far cry from the retired ambulance Chris found in the scrapyard in 2011, to call it a typical overland build wouldn't do it justice.

In fact, in the time since he originally started wrenching on this build, it's evolved wildly every few years or so. Be it a test mule for a new suspension or a modification needed for his growing family, V4 (as he calls it) continues to push the limits of what can be done with the E-350 platform. We caught up with North Carolina-based Chris on a weekend getaway in the Southeast, where we got to get a closer look at this flatbed-meets-van medley and check out his pull-behind trailer, which is aptly named the Sherpa.

Well-known for its longevity in the diesel world, after the original 7.3L Power Stroke diesel engine called it quits, Steuber replaced it with a remanufactured unit from Ford. Reliability was more important than throwing down large power numbers, so save for a custom tune and 4-inch Diamond Eye exhaust, the V-8 diesel remains mostly stock.
A freshly rebuilt 4R100 transmission is paired with an NV271 transfer case. This Super Duty-sourced T-case is fit with a manual-shift lever and paired with a set of 1350 series CV drivelines.
A high-pinion Dana 60 front axle was stripped and rebuilt with a Dynatrac Free-Spin kit, 4.56 gears, chromoly axleshafts, and a Knoll Racing Power Lock differential. Ujoint's crossover steering works with a hydraulic-assist steering system from Lee Power Steering Components. Helping to stop the 8,000-pound van are SSBC calipers, which clamp down on massive rotors sourced from a Ford F-550.
Originally, this van was converted to four-wheel drive using one of the company's off-the-shelf conversion kits that utilizes leaf springs. Looking to test out some new coilover concepts, V4 now uses 3-inch-diameter King coilovers up front. The 12-inch-travel reservoir shocks work with a custom three-link suspension that uses a radius-style arm on the passenger side, with a single link on the driver side. Keeping it all together is a custom high-mount track bar and sway bar from Speedway Engineering.
With big travel goals in mind, Chris went with a more race-inspired trailing-arm suspension system out back. Like the front, the rear uses 12-inch-travel, 3-inch-diameter King coilovers with King air bumpstops. Keeping the full-float Sterling 10.5 rearend in place is a pair of triangulated upper control arms.
The biggest departure from the original E-350 was the completely custom bed comprised primarily of 3/16-inch aluminum diamond plate. Lopping off 16 inches from the back of the frame left Chris with enough room for a 10-foot deck. While the Rhino-lined coating helps keep items from shifting about, the roll-up canopy cover increases the overall versatility of the setup. Also noteworthy is the fact that the custom headache rack was designed to carry two fullsize spare tires.
Speaking of tires, you'll find meaty 37x13.50R17 Toyo Open Country M/Ts wrapped on 17x9 Innov8 Racing beadlocks sitting at all four corners. The bed boxes you see just before and after the tires actually span the entire length of the bed, making for a tremendous amount of storage options.
Unlike a conventional truck bed that would be hard-mounted to the chassis, V4's bed utilizes two forward and one massive rear bushing. This three-link-derived design is meant to allow the chassis and bed to flex independently from one another. Making sure the van can pass a few filling stations along the way is Ujoint's 30-gallon aluminum fuel cell.
Part of the van's unique look is due to the 12-inch cab closeout from Blackhawk Industries. The fiberglass add-on was blended in by Smokey's Auto Body and coated with Ford-specific Forest Green paint. Protecting the cab are a set of 2x3-inch weld-on steel rocker guards.
The stock dog box and seats remain inside, while a touch of modern convenience is brought to the driver via a custom iPad mount. The interior remains largely stock but has a few AutoMeter gauges and a door-mounted sPOD switch panel.
V4 is no stranger to the road less traveled, and as such it needed a suitable bumper for proper front-end protection and recovery. This was all achieved thanks to Ujoint's FB003 aluminum front bumper, which neatly hides away a Warn 16.5ti winch. Lighting the way at night is an assortment of LED lighting from Baja Designs.
Equally as interesting as the van is the trailer that Chris calls the Sherpa. The all-aluminum expandable camping setup was originally designed to mount on the flatbed portion of the van. As his needs for V4 changed, he ultimately decided to craft a trailer for it to rest on. Sitting on 35-inch-tall Toyo Open Country R/T tires, the leaf-sprung and Fox shock-damped trailer acts a community center when camping with family and friends.
Using a series of air struts at each corner, a quick charge will send the top up and reveal the ultimate base-camp kitchen. This includes a three-burner, 30,000-Btu propane grill; full sink with prep station; Jockey Box Draft Beer System; and an ARB Fridge Freezer. Wondering about the bathroom? It's on the other side hiding behind a custom enclosure. Along with a Thetford toilet, there's an on-demand hot water system that pulls from the 50-gallon onboard tank.
Climb the ladder and lift the door, and you'll find that a king-sized foam mattress awaits. With custom blackout shades, sliding windows, and an electric fan to suck out the heat, sleeping in comfort isn't a problem.
For power off-the-grid, 320 watts of solar panels mounted on the top of the trailer feed four golf cart batteries. The van's 90-watt solar panel provides a constant trickle charge to the dual batteries, ensuring that Chris won't find himself without juice in the Middle of Nowhere, USA.
There's nothing conventional about this E-350, and it's part of the reason we dig it so much. Chris notes it typically gets between 13 and 15 miles per gallon, which is a common question he gets—almost as common as this one: Why didn't he just start off with a truck since that probably would have been much easier? The answer to that is simple. He's a van guy. Not a truck guy.

At a Glance
General
Vehicle: '02 Ford E-350
Owner: Chris Steuber
Stomping grounds: Fletcher, North Carolina
Build Time: 8 years
Drivetrain
Engine: 7.3L Power Stroke turbodiesel
Transmission: 4R100
Transfer case: NV271
Low range ratio: 2.72:1
Crawl ratio: 33.61:1
Front axle/differential: High-pinion Dana 60, Ujoint Offroad Stage 2 w/RSC upgrade, Dynatrac Free-Spin kit, 4.56 gears/Knoll Racing Power Lock
Rear axle/differential: Sterling 10.5, 4.56 gears/Yukon Grizzly Locker
Suspension
Front: Custom radius-arm three-link w/track bar; 12-in-travel, 3-in King coilovers; Speedway Engineering sway bar
Rear: Trailing-arm lowers w/triangulated uppers; 12-in-travel, 3-in King coilovers; King 2.0 air bumpstops
Steering: Crossover w/hydraulic-assist
Tires/Wheels
Tires: 37x13.50R17 Toyo Open Country M/T
Wheels: 17x9 Innov8 Racing beadlock
Miscellaneous
Armor: Ujoint Offroad winch bumper, custom rocker guards
Cool stuff: Ujoint Offroad onboard air; Diamond Eye turbo-back 4-in exhaust, AutoMeter gauges, Warn 16.5ti winch, Southeast Overland synthetic rope, Ujoint Offroad fairlead, 30-gal fuel tank, Baja Designs LED lights (front), Rigid Industries taillights and bed light, Mag-Hytec transmission pan

Related Articles