By on June 30, 2007

Unless you live under a highway, an empty box has no intrinsic value; it’s what’s inside that counts. The Dodge Grand Caravan we bought in 1992 was little more than a big dumb box on wheels. But by the time I got rid of it fifteen years later, I’d filled the Caravan with a lifetime of family memories.

Needless to say, it all started with the birth of my youngest son. Since I delivered Will at home myself (the midwife was stuck in traffic), the memories of his delivery are all-too vivid. I’ll skip the details here. Suffice it to say, his arrival triggered a strong and sensible desire for three door transportation.

Harboring well-founded suspicions about Chryslers’ reliability, I had my eye on a Toyota Previa. But Stephanie had exacting specifications: our minivan had to have room for a large stroller behind the last seat AND the bass-viol of one of the school carpoolers. The Dodge Boys’ best vanquished the Toy.

Back in ’92, demand for Caravans outstripped supply; we paid close to list price. Today, our $22k would be worth $32k. I see new Caravans advertised for under $20k. That 40 percent drop in transaction price says a lot about Chrysler’s woes.

Anyway, I should have skipped the optional four-speed transmission and ABS brakes; I’d have saved money up front and endless trips to the dealer. I went through four rubber-band “Ultramatic” transmissions before receiving one (at 88k miles) that lasted the duration.

The Caravan’s Bendix ABS brakes were so notoriously unreliable (and unsafe) that Chrysler was forced to offer a lifetime warranty. Which I used on a regular basis, returning to the dealer every couple of years to have the ABS pump replaced.

The last time, just six months ago, was almost comical. I reckon it would have been cheaper for Chrysler to buy back the remaining ’92-’93 ABS-equipped Caravans rather than constantly replace the offending unit.

Don’t get me wrong: Chrysler’s minivans were a breakthrough in 1984. A big box with car-like feel, performance and handling was new and overdue. (VW’s van was the ultimate wheeled box, but lacked the requisite passenger-car characteristics.) The Dodge Caravan made boxes both palatable and madly popular, especially when the long wheelbase version and V6 came along.

It was the family bus, and I’ve always enjoyed being a bus driver. From our very first family vacation to dozens of school field-trips, from guided tours all over California and Oregon to canoe trips to Waldo Lake, right to this spring’s full-family trip to the Portland car show, every time I heard the Caravan’s sliding door slam shut on a load of passengers, I felt fulfilled.

Looking into the rear-view mirror and seeing a half-dozen sleeping heads keeled-over in all directions while streaking across the high desert at the ton made me feel wonderfully alive and perfectly useful.

My utility was obvious enough when I repaired the Caravan’s smashed-in front end using a come-along and junk-yard parts. My older son had the inevitable first rear-ender; the van wasn’t worth collision coverage. The Dodge ended looking up like a veteran boxer’s face: functional, asymmetrical and not very pretty.

During the same son’s amateur cinematography phase, the van was as a rolling camera platform, shooting from the opened side door. Unfortunately, a spirited braking maneuver sent the door crashing forward, never to close with again with its original precision.

My younger son and I yanked the seats out and turned it into an impromptu camper for rambling trips into the Sierras. The Caravan became the inspiration for a Dodge camper (soon to appear).

For the first eight years, the Caravan was Stephanie’s ride. When we sold the Jeep and bought the Forester, she fell in love with the Subie. Since I work from home or use my old truck for building projects, the van I never wanted fell into my hands.

As a tall not-quite-dead white man, I began to increasingly appreciate the roomy front seat real-estate. So I started using it as a dry and warm alternative to the breezy pick-up in Oregon’s long wet winters. Lumber, sheets of plywood and drywall, appliances, you name it, it all slipped readily into the big box. I grudgingly suffered its practicality on weekdays, knowing that the Forester was on tap for weekend recreation.

One day, a couple of months ago, I just couldn’t face the plodding Caravan any more. I had to have something that brought a smile to my face, even on the run to Home Depot. It had to be efficient and haul my gangly fifteen year-old son and his friends around without feeling their knees in my backside.

The solution was another box, but smaller and frisky: a (gen 1) Scion xB. I’m off to a running start, filling it up with memories.

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23 Comments on “Auto-Biography 23: Caravan of Love...”


  • avatar

    Yeah it hit me the other day when I was following an older Chrysler minivan from the 80s that my Xb is realy just another version of a minivan.

    Love your series of auto bio on TTAC. You have driven and chosen a wonderfully eclectic and diverse selection of cars in your life.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I have a friend of mine who owns a rather large mini-warehouse business in North Georgia.

    On last count he owned 11 versions of your vehicle. These days, even with low miles, they can be had for no more than $1500. A typical used one at the auctions in good running order can be usually had for less than $1000.

    They’re actually very good designs. The 3.3L V6 is virtually bulletproof and the torque band on it is just about as good as any vehicle from that time period.

    The 4-speed can actually last a long time with one slight modification. The tranny fluid should be drained and filled every year. The fellow I’ve mentioned has owned them for well over 10 years and has yet to experience a tranny failure due to simply installing a drain screw onto the transmission plan. One year he drains and fills. The next he does a full flush. I believe some of his heavy duty users also get transmission coolers from JC Whitney as well. The majority of his fleet has over 200k, and one actually has 300k with the original engine.

    I’ve always opted for the 96-00 generation and I still believe it is by far the best in class for that time period. I’ve also had 3 Siennas, countless Windstars, MPV’s, the GM dustbusters, a Venture, a few Montanas, and 0 Odyssseys (their tranny problems are internal and chronic). So long as you avoid the four-cylinder versions, the Chrysler minivans are usually by far the best values in that segment.

    Related to your model, one of the opportunities that I regullarly see in the auction markets is the bargains that can be had with ‘unfashionable’ vehicles (3 door minivans always struggle). The early 90’s Chrysler minivans along with virtually everything else from that era is regularly snubbed at the dealer and public auctions because of the lack of a single extra door.

  • avatar
    seldomawake

    The wife was just thinking about buyng a (gen 1) xB, and I remember thinking how much like a mini-minivan it was!

  • avatar
    taxman100

    Get an old Caravan the 2.5 liter with the older 3 speed auto.

    Transmission problem solved (along with any performance)

  • avatar
    chris2

    Excellent trip down Nostalgia Lane, Paul. It sounds weird hearing wistful praise for such a bland appliance, but the quantity of those things sold over the years proves there are lots of people out there that had similar experiences.

  • avatar
    Dream 50

    Dear Lord, no, not a Chrysler minivan. I can’t believe you had me nodding along as I was reading.

    Looking into the rear-view mirror and seeing a half-dozen sleeping heads keeled-over in all directions while streaking across the high desert at the ton made me feel wonderfully alive and perfectly useful.

    I hear you. I’ve done the same in a diesel Toyota, the kind where the middle bench turns 180 degrees for the poor man’s limo effect. I wasn’t quite doing the ton, but the speedo read in kp/h.

    I love your writing, Paul. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

    Keith

  • avatar
    labrat

    Ah, the big dumb box on wheels! There comes a time in all (well, most) good pistonhead’s lives when they have to face reality and do the practical, family guy thing. That time came for me in ’98, just after our second son was born. We headed down to the local Pontiac GMC dealership and returned with a new TransSport Montana.

    The decision was a no-brainer, really, given our GM discount, the first place finish of this vehicle in a Car and Driver comparison test, and of course GM’s wild-west advertising that portrayed this vehicle as an minivan that was really an SUV (yeah, right). I guess all it takes to convert a minivan to an SUV is a set of raised white letter tires and some dark gray plastic cladding on the lower body surfaces.

    I learned to make friends with the box. Like Paul said, ours was the source of many memories and family vacations. Even though we only have 2 kids, we always found ouselves filling the box to the brim every chance we got. The 3.4 liter V-6 provided decent torque and still got decent mileage (about 18 mpg city). Unfortunately, ours
    experienced the typical GM 60 deg V-6 intake gasket failure. It happened at 39,000 miles (just outside warranty). Several other problems followed, and we ended dumping this thing after 5 years and only 53,000 miles. It was the only vehicle I ever traded in at the dealership.

  • avatar
    Steve_K

    I’ve got a few memories of the original Caravan although I’ve never owned one. It was the vehicle that solidified my assertation that front wheel drive is garbage. A friend had been graced with a Caravan hand-me-down in college and we took it out “hooning” as people now say. Having never driven a FWD to the edge before, I threw it into a hairpin turn on a dirt road just as I would have done with my 1977 Omega (RWD). The Caravan ended up on it’s side in the ditch, but four people were able to right it fairly easily.

    The other original Caravan I’ve experienced was a four banger 5-speed manual which a coworker pulled directly out of the junkyard and drove daily.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Related to your model, one of the opportunities that I regullarly see in the auction markets is the bargains that can be had with ‘unfashionable’ vehicles (3 door minivans always struggle). The early 90’s Chrysler minivans along with virtually everything else from that era is regularly snubbed at the dealer and public auctions because of the lack of a single extra door.

    Remember all the hullabaloo when Ford brought out the new Windstar in ’96 or so and the lashing they got for NOT having the 4th door? And how they tried to explain their research showed it wasn’t a customer priority, then went through several minor adjustments to lengthen the driver’s door to serve the purpose? Between that miscalculation and the WTF ’96 Taurus, I think we can pinpoint when the Ford train went off the track…..

    Great article. I was thinking just the other day how sentimental I was when my daughter graduated from her toddler seat to her child seat….and how my car has been there for each step of her 6 years….

  • avatar

    I have a 2002 Chrysler Voyager, and I seldom use the driver’s side sliding door. I think it’s one of those features that people just think they want.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Great and well writen article. Nice to see some nice things said about minivans. They’ve got to be the most underappreciated vehicles in America.

  • avatar
    ejacobs

    I hated that my dad wanted to get rid of our beloved ’84 Cavalier wagon. He wanted a minivan. But I came to like our ’86 Voyager LE with the big 2.6 Mitsubishi four-banger and 3 speed tranny. It was loud but absolutely reliable, and the car I learned to drive. A few months ago I rented a Chrysler minivan and was amazed at how cheap it felt compared to our old one, especially the interior. The faux carbon fiber trim was especially laughable.

  • avatar
    windswords

    My first and only minivan purchase was a 94 Dodge Grand Caravan SE Sportwagon. Try saying that 5 times real fast!

    94 was the first year of dual airbags. I also got the dealer to throw in the built in child seats at cost.

    The Sportwagon trim line featured a body colored grill, lower front air dam with integrated fog lights, lower body cladding, alloy wheels with Goodyear Eagle GS tires, and “Sportwagon” decals on the doors. I don’t know if there were suspension upgrades, but I imagine there were. It was still a box but it was as sporty and sleek a box as you could get at that time, so I didn’t mind driving it for the most part. And it was measurably more comforatable and better handling than the 84-90 models. The 3.3 was a great powerplant and with 162 hp on tap (pretty good for those days) it was surprisingly quick to me, and to some other drivers I encountered who thought that minivans are inherantly slow.

    We also had the Ultradrive tranny, but by 94 most of the bugs had been worked out of it and we had no problems with it. One thing is they were finally telling the technicians to put the right fluid in it. They are very picky about the fluid (as are Honda’s I hear), it has to ATF +3 (today it’s ATF+4). You will shorten the life of the unit by putting the wrong fluid in, but Chrysler when they introduced it did not specify that in the owners manual or the TSB’s until at least a year or more later.

  • avatar
    ex-dtw

    Ah…the Dodge Caravan. This brings back memories a lot of memories.

    My parents bought threir Caravan new in 1987, a bare bones models in Burgandy on Burgandy. And I mean a bare bones model, the AM/FM Tape player was added by the dealer. It was a 4 on the floor 4 banger and seriously underpowered.

    During high-school this was my defacto modus transpo and I have many memories hauling my friends around in the frigid Canadian winter before sound proofing insulation and rear heat. I remember long trips to the mountains for ski trips and never ever feeling like my toes were going to thaw. And that was in the front seat.

    It took forever to get up to speed, but it was dead reliable until it gave up the ghost around 1999. Save for regular tune-ups, it never really needed any major work.

    Probably why I still have an issue with minivans and naturally aspirated 4 pots. Fuel mileage be damned.

    Still, those were the days. Just try picking up a date in one of those sex machines. If she agrees to another one, you know they a deeper than a puddle.

    One last thing, Didn’t Previa’s gain some notoriety for their front end crash results? I think you were probably safer in the Caravan no?

  • avatar
    zenith

    I had a first-gen Voyager, an ’84, with a 2.2 and 5-speed stick.

    At Omaha altitude, the vehicle beat lots of kids with tricked-out Hondas off the line.My usually conservative driving wife liked to get next to some joker with a coffee-can muffler and watch his stunned expression as Mom-mobile ran away from him.

    At about 5-6000 feet, you had nothing. It would hold speed o.k., but getting TO speed was painfully slow. Once, going up a steep grade from a dead stop, I had to kill the AC to make it up.

    The 1989 Voyager 2.5-liter with 3-speed auto. was a disappointment. Where the older van could be easily slipped between 4th and 5th on rolling hills, the auto. hunted back and forth with lots of throttle bumps and driveline lurches. Also, I never topped 22mpg with that one while the old one consistently got 26-28 on the highway and only dipped below 20 in the city during the winter (damned finicky Holley-Weber choke!).

    The 2nd-gen 1991 Grand Caravan did more than just re-skin the 1st, it cheaped out the interior–especially the look of the dash.You also lost the map pockets on the front seatbacks and the inside fuel tank door release. And the skimpy in-dash glovebox was no match for that big underseat drawer on the 1st-gens

    I’d like another 1st-gen 5 speed van. My wife was recovering from chemo, and I from the chemo bills, when a 1986 Caravan 2.2 5-speed described as a “pampered motorhome dinghy” came up in the local classifieds and I had to let it go without so much as a phone call.

  • avatar
    ex-dtw

    I too was in a rental Caravan recently (weekend trip to the beach), and as much as I wanted to like Chrysler b/c of my time spent in the company, I just couldn’t do it.

    The sucktitude of the interior and ass-poor ride (in the 3rd row) were just too much. This is especially salient to my wife and I as we are going to trade in our A3 in the next year for something with similar space.

  • avatar
    MgoBLUE

    Paul,

    Great article. Thanks for the shot of self-confidence and re-affirmation.

    As new parents, my wife and I LOVE our new Odyssey. The engine, ride and interior are all first class. While some of our friends like to jokingly bust our chops for owning “a minivan”, we wouldn’t trade it for anything (including their gas-guzzling-only-five-seatbelt Shyte Utility Vehicles). :)

    Now every time I push the bottons on the dash to close the sliding doors, raise the shades in the second row to keep out unwanted sunshine, and glance in the rearview mirror to see our sons and yellow lab in perfect comfort and safety, I’ll remember to be thankful for our spacious, comfortable, efficient family mover.

    And finally, thank you for helping me to see that while ‘you never know when you’re making a memory’, I now realize that we will have many memories tied to our minivan and the time we spend in it together as a family.

    You da man, Paul.

  • avatar

    Thanks for my best laugh of the week so far.

    I think minivans are underrated. They are what they are, with no pretentions, unlike SUVs, “crossovers,” etc. And they are very good at what they do.

    Of course, really cool people have loved minivans for years. I just happened to be in the SF bay area just after Jerry Garcia died. I went into Golden Gate Park where thousands of deadheads had gathered to remember him. The place was loaded with minivans. (Go to motorlegends.com, click on “art cars,” and click through the slide show until you get to the photo of one fo the minivans — you can’t miss it.)

    My mother had a 97 dodge caravan. She had multiple sclerosis, and she used an electric scooter instead of walking. The caravan was rigged with a ramp that extended out from the back at the press of a button. She could drive the scooter right in. The front passenger seat swiveled, so that my father could transfer her from the scooter to the seat, and turn her around to face front. It made their lives much easier.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David,

    Your comment about deadheads reminded me that the last time I saw Ken Kesey (before he died) he was driving one of those bargemobile Buick Roadmaster wagons from the mid 90′s, complete with fake wood paneling.

  • avatar
    blautens

    In 1993, with a second child on the way, I traded my 1989 Mazda 323 for a new base 1993 Dodge Caravan, with the 2.5L 4 cylinder and a 3 speed auto (not the hated UltraDrive), but even it ate the transmission once, too, but fortunately I checked Uncle Lido’s 7/70 box when I bought it (remember when you could choose the warranty option?) so they replaced it for the deductible.

    White with a gray cloth interior (perfect for South Florida sun), it said “utility” all over it – perfect for 2 adults and 2 kids to cruise on long trips. Thrifty on gas, cheap to keep (brakes and tires were inexpensive), and not quite Honda reliable, but okay.

    Fond memories – sadly, the ex-wife got that van in the divorce, paid off (courtesy of me), and traded it the next day rather than sell it to me just to spite me.

    So uncool…it was…cool? I wish I still had it. Maybe not as my only car, but a good Home Depot car, or for the kids to learn to drive. Too slow to get in much trouble. But probably not up to today’s best in terms of crash safety, so maybe not.

    Thanks for the memories with your excellent series.

  • avatar

    With all the seats pulled out, the ‘van could smoke stock Hondas and the like with ease. It may have gone around corners like a toboggan, but to my knowledge there is literally no limit to the number of highschoolers you can fit in the benchless expanse of the back. Oh, and that “supple” suspension means major nosedive under heavy braking, so, um, don’t rear-end anyone. Their bumper will be unscratched, but your sweet ride might end up “pimped” with a straight-out-of-the-junkyard hood, complete with flaking paint. The “inevitable” accident didn’t fade my enthusiasm for generous application of V6 goodness exiting the highschool parking lot, but I did get sick of being the designated driver by virtue of the seemingly unlimited human payload capacity. On the whole though, a highschooler could do much worse.

  • avatar
    NickR

    Not to wander of topic, but did anyone ever stick a larger inline 4 than the Mitsu 2.6 in a production car post WWII? I can’t think of one.

    I guess a lot of people here came of age at the same time…some of my fondest memories are of road/camping/fishing trips in my friends hand-me-down blue Caravan (and really, weren’t 90% of them blue?). They seem to have replaced the station wagon in people’s collective childhood memory. Probably the best idea Chrysler ever had.

  • avatar
    johnf514

    When I turned 16, I was given our 1989 Plymouth Voyager as a first car. Faux wood siding, automatic transmission, air conditioning, power everything, and tinting all came with the LE edition, including a 3.0L V6. Motivating the 5000lbs of solid steel was no small matter, and I made up for it by constantly staying at speed. Needless to say, that van saw it’s share of curbs.

    I drove that van for 3 years/30,000 miles and went through 2 transmissions, an alternator (because of my poorly wired sound system), and a radiator (mom found out how much fun black ice is). I took people all over the state, and with the middle seats out, the van was a home away from home. I loved that vehicle.

    When you have such an enormous van for your first car, you find out every way you can to push it to the limit. When I discovered that it’s low(er) center of gravity would not tip over, I found out that the emergency brake doubled as a “drift lever.” Left-hand turns became left-hand “sweeps” and the local Johnny-Laws paid no mind – c’mon, was that really a minivan? Nah . . .

    Later we discovered that metal cookie sheets under the rear wheels created a Tilt-A-Whir scenario when in reverse and locking the rear drums with the e-brake. It looked like a road comet.

    I had many “firsts” in that vehicle.

    After 3 years, the engine leaking a quart of fuel a week, the (3rd) transmission struggling to find a gear, and the suspension . . . suspended, I begrudgingly gave up the 1989 Voyager in leiu of a 1999 Camaro.

    And I’ll tell ya – the van was more fun. :-)


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