Another AWD Cargo build


New member
After Lurking for a while I thought I’d share my mess of a project.

I acquired this gem of a junker last summer. While I’d likened to own one for some time; AWD vans bring an abhorrent premium in my area and I abnegated myself to never locate one reasonably priced that was not unreasonably worn out. The old adage, when you aren’t looking, something rears its ugly head, and this is no exception to ugly… :confused:

A friend texted me one afternoon inquiring if I knew anyone that would be willing to take his neighbors old van away, cheap. How Cheap is Cheap I replied…?

After a hairy-eye ball, a very sketchy test-drive, and zero negotiation, cumulated in me being the new owner of a well tattered ’03 Savana 1500 AWD.

All for a paltry sum of less than one monetary comma place! Sporting new snow tires and a loose set of all-seasons in the back, I was set to sell the tires for more than the price tag of the van alone.(y)

Unlike many on this forum, my use for this is not a camper van, or an expo rig. it’s not even a daily driver, It’s a utility tow pig for sno-go’s and boats. We have a couple of remote cabins that are only accessible by boat or snowmachine. Having the van is absolutely perfect for this. Our gear and the dog stays dry, warm, and secure for the road-system access to the landings and trailheads.


Previous life as a painting and contractors van, it was a little rough on the inside to say the least. The drywall dust, ashes, butts, spilled paint and mud equaled a depth measured in inches matted to the floors.
My wife instructed me to drive it straight to the dump and leave it…!



Before too much energy spent on cosmetics, I needed to address a plethora of mechanical issues. 160K registering on the timekeeper, the venerable 5.3 seemed to run well, didn’t mark its territory or fog for mosquitoes, if anything I had a donor LS… The PO stated a trans rebuild at some point in its life span, fluid was bright, and it shifted through the gears without hesitation. I had something to work with anyway, the rest is elementary…

A major issue was it would not hold park, she was a roller! After a basic inspection I spied a broken CV axle. I suspected as such on the terrifying test drive by the noise emitting from the front end… The CV tripod had long since vacated the housing and the shaft was free to bang about within the cup.

The poor van had endured some years of neglect and disrepair.

I replaced:

Both CV axles

Both front wheel bearing assemblies

All four ball-joints

Inner sockets and outer tie-rod ends, both sides

Both front brake hoses

All four brake rotors and pads

Fan clutch and serpentine belt

That got it safe(er) to drive anyhow… and in the process it got an oil change and diff services, fuel, oil and air filters.


Next was to address the catastrophic condition of the interior. I pretty much gutted it; seats, dash, door panels, and flooring, all had to come out for a thorough cleaning and some refurb. The floor was not rusted through, but a healthy layer of scale was removed, treated and painted.


I’m terrible about taking pictures but both seats got new bottom foam and factory covers, along with some cheapie Cabelas covers for additional protection.



A Son of the Purple Sage
Lookin good so far. What did you use (the gray stuff above) to coat over the cleaned up rusty front interior?


New member
Continuing on. I installed a low-budget double din receiver that offered a video input. An evilbay search located a pretty decent adjustable rearview camera that’s integrated into the third brake light. Switched separately, I can engage the camera at any time. Aimed at the hitch it is borderline invaluable for hooking up to a trailer!



New member
It was exceedingly apparent that this low-slung cargo transport vehicle was not intended for much off-highway use…
I intended on remedying some of that.
A G80 rear diff from the factory helps my quest, but a tire upgrade was in order for a scoche more clearance.

After some research on this great forum I settled on keys, UCA’s, shocks, and burb springs. That gained me a couple of inches but I wanted to run a pizza-cutter tire. Right at 33” I needed more lift!
A two inch body lift was completed next. I fabbed up some brackets to raise the front bumper but left the rear lazy. There may be bumper upgrades in the future…?
Unfortunately, I did not snap a single picture of the lift process? :(

Some 255/85-16 Maxis Bighorns wrapped around some plain-o white spokes I had kicking around, offer a modicum of ground clearance and pretty decent traction. I have access to a Tech-2 so I reflashed for as close as I could get to the tire size. That helped a little bit with the speedo and shift points but the haunting issue is the flat-lander 3.42 gear sets. Perhaps fine for zero elevation changes, no towing and a bag of spuds in the cargo area but they are not for me.




That brings it up to date. Next up are some much needed gear changes, and some bump in engine performance...


Rendezvous Conspirator
Nice work on the cleanup!

There are days I wished I'd gone w/ GM fullsize instead of the Astro van, but at the time I started my project, there wasn't a lot of documentation on the AWD->4x4 Tcase swap (vs. the Astro where this was already well documented). Now that a few people have done it on the FS vans, I've occasionally cast a longing gaze in their direction.


Rendezvous Conspirator
What are burb springs?
Guessing springs from a Suburban.

One of the strengths of choosing a GM platform is all the parts-bin mining you can do. My Astro van is lifted via Blazer rear springs (same rating but taller arch) and has 4WD via a Blazer transfer case. (Bolt-in)


Nice work! Sometimes the messy, trashed vehicles can be a blessing in disguise. Cosmetics mean very little compared to good mechanical stuff. All that damp stuff on the floor, you're lucky it didn't rot through!


New member
Thanks for the kind replies and encouragement!

The van got used over Easter weekend, got a record dump of snow! Made for a longer trip than planned, but the van is surprisingly capable.

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