By on July 5, 2013
1978 Ford Freestar

2005 Ford Freestar

Sometime in the predawn hours of a day in early August 1974, my father loaded his wife and five children into his recently purchased Chevrolet ¾ ton pickup truck, the adults isolated safely in the cab while we kids were locked like monkeys in a cage under a canopy in the back, and left Snohomish, WA for Horton, KS. It was a trip we made several times during my childhood and I have vivid memories of waking up in the predawn hours when the air was still cold and first rays of the sun were just beginning to paint the sky in the East. In the decades since, my road trips have always begun that same way and so now, having just completed their first big road trip from Buffalo, NY to Washington D.C. my children will share those memories as well.

With my glorious, mile-eating 300M now in another man’s garage and my daily driven Pontiac Torrent far too small for three car seats in the second row, there remained only one choice of vehicle for our trip: the “Gray Lady,” the 2005 Ford Freestar van that I have previously written about because of its transmission issues. Despite my previous assertions that I was entirely happy with the repairs my local Ford dealer had made, I must confess that the discussion that accompanied that article, and the long list of problems many of TTAC’s best and brightest recounted about this particular model made me a little concerned about making the 8 hour jump to DC. The good news is that the Ford made the trip without incident, on days when the temperature hovered solidly in the mid 90s, air conditioner blasting the whole way.

Toll

I have always thought the inside of the Freestar is a comfortable place to be for driver and passengers. With my daughters in car seats in the second row captain’s chairs and my son atop a booster in the back row our ability to cram in the necessities of a life with young children was somewhat limited. Still, the well at the back of the van, an area large enough to swallow the third row seat to create a flat floor for loading larger cargo, had enough room for a large cooler, a folding stroller and three medium sized suitcases. In addition to the booster, the back seat held my son’s electronic-filled rucksack, presents for the people we were visiting and our Jack Russell Terrier in her medium sized travel carrier. On the floor between first and second row seats, a space made possible only by the fact my girls are still too small to have their feet reach the floor, were bags with still more personal electronics, DVDs, toys and other things and between my wife and I was small cooler with drinks and snacks. Even loaded to the gunnels, I was able to have the driver’s seat in its rearmost position and the seat back tilted the way I liked it. My wife, too, had her entire foot well to herself.

Out on the New York State throughway we wicked up to speed and ran on cruise control right at the posted limit all the way to Erie,PA where we peeled off south across the rolling hill country towards Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania turnpike. The van handled well, our new transmission transitioning on its own between overdrive and the lower gears without so much as a judder in order to perfectly maintain the speed I had set on the cruise control. The steering wheel was steady and firm, and the van’s soft suspension soaked up the road’s imperfections without transmitting them to my velour ensconced back side. As I have said before, the view out the front of the van is unobstructed and I soaked in the sights as they rushed towards me.

map

The Pennsylvania turnpike is a miserable road to drive. Road crews are working hard to make it better, but using it to cross the state remains arduous. Steep grades slow the big trucks down below the limit and force most of the cars to the left where those of us who are not interested in doing 20mph over the speed limit end up obstructing those who are. To passengers it feels like you are on the ocean, the vehicle pitching and heaving on the grades and rolling ponderously to one side and then the other as you continually change lanes. Eventually you hit the turn-off to DC, a maelstrom of traffic known as Breezewood, that puts you on city streets and subjects you to stoplights and a left turn across oncoming traffic before putting you back on another freeway, which leads to another that soon fills with ever increasing traffic as you bore in on our nation’s crowded capital.

Thanks to a couple of big accidents on the highway and backups that stretched into the dozens of miles I also had a chance to test my van in stop and go traffic. The brakes worked great and the van accelerated smoothly six or seven feet at a time everytime I pressed the pedal. We were, at the end of our long wait, rewarded for our patience by the sight of a broken car in the middle of the highway, both ends smashed as it contacted the cement barriers fore and aft while it spun. That sobering sight passed, we headed on into DC and arrived in time for a late dinner.

Enola Gay

If you have never visited Washington D.C. it is a trip worth making. The Smithsonian is free, but the parking is not so don’t forget your wallet. We visited the National Air and Space Museum annex at Dulles airport one day, played in the pool the next and went to the National Mall the third. It was not the kind of mall my kids were expecting, but they persevered. The fourth day we loaded the Freestar back up with our luggage, electronics, dog, still more presents and souvenirs and placed our now sunburned bodies back in our seats and made the trip back across Pennsylvania home to Western New York.

We ran through some vicious thunderstorms and the Freestar responded well. The wiper blades I had changed out prior to our trip did a good job of clearing the water off the van’s massive windshield and the tires I bought new when we got the van two years ago had more than enough tread to channel away the water on the roadway. We dropped our speed according to the conditions and despite the incredible downpours I never felt anywhere near the limits of control. We rolled into Buffalo just after suppertime, still running on the tank of gas I put in before we left our hotel in Arlington, VA, put the van into the garage and our trip was completed without incident and totally trouble free.

Once again my Ford Freestar has impressed me with its comfort, cargo capacity and its solidity. I have never been a Ford guy, in fact this is the first FoMoCo product I have ever owned, but other than the vehicle’s somewhat dowdy styling I haven’t a single complaint about my experience. I see these rigs selling on Craigslist for just a couple of thousand dollars these days and, if one is prepared to deal with the possible mechanical issues, they are an appealing alternative to their much more expensive competitors. Although I would rather have kept the rather large amount of money I had to pay to replace my van’s transmission in my pocket, I am glad that I did not dump it at a loss and purchase something else when it ran into trouble. She truly is a Gray Lady and although she is aging she remains graceful and competent in all that she does. I am proud she is a part of my family.

2003 Ford Freestar

2005 Ford Freestar

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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42 Comments on “Highway Star: Road Tripping In The Ford Freestar...”


  • avatar
    mikeg216

    The freestar and much maligned windstar were constantly derided by the auto press, but when the recall issues are taken care of. I find no issues in these vans, no better or worse than their peers

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The best of the bunch was the last of the Windstars with the optional RAS or Rear Air Suspension. With that they blew every other minivan away. No matter what you put in them they always rode and handled the same. We had a 98 Limited and on one occasion when going to a concert with some of my buddies we had all 7 seats filled and only one of us was not above average height or weight and once it aired up it took every bump in stride w/o bottoming out despite the fact that there was likely very near a ton of us on board. Acceleration on the other hand was definitely hampered compared to when it was just the wife and kids on board.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      I’m sorry, but I couldn’t disagree with you more on this (speaking as a Honda Odyssey owner on its third transmission BTW). My neighbor had one and I helped give him automotive advice on it over his 10 years’ of ownership (about 100K miles), during which: intake manifold gaskets failed 3X, head gaskets once, one full engine rebuild, one transmission rebuild, entire exhaust system replaced, and a whole bunch of other items (EGR, ABS, water pumps, alternators, etc).

      He actually spent significantly more to repair the vehicle than he did to buy it originally. I have never seen an American car that was so crappy, and I used to be a huge Big 3 fan. It’s possible that the shops working on it bungled one or two of the intake repair jobs, but that again points to a bad design.

      I suppose if you stay on top of the intake manifold gaskets and religiously watch your coolant level, then maybe you can get by with just a tranny rebuild on a Windstar. My Honda does have an undersized transmission which is a definite weak point, but other than that, the vehicle has been flawless and still runs and drives like new with 170K miles on it.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        So you are saying you’ve never had a huge bill to fix the sliding doors nor replace the engine mounts or on the right years a $1200+ timing belt and tune up? If so you are not the norm just as your friend was not the norm having that many issues with a Windstar in only 100K.

        A friend of mine had a 95 Windstar about the same time as I had my 98 we both had to replace the transmissions and nothing else. Disgusted with the $2500 trans replacement at 80K when it was time for a new van he bought an Oddity based on Honda’s reputation. Fast forward another 8 years and he considers the Oddity the worst vehicle he ever owned. $4000 transmission, $1000 sliding door fix, $1200 timing belt, $700 engine mounts, $600 alternator not to mention the interior looking like hell all in about 120K. It was replaced with a Ford based on the fact that the Windstar had be sooo much better than the Honda.

  • avatar
    old5.0

    As a Kansas native, my curiosity is getting the better of me and I feel compelled to ask: why Horton?

  • avatar
    Summicron

    Yay vans! All vans.

    My poor kid is so chagrined about having to buy one. He wants fast & sexy, but since I traded my truck he has to face the issue of hauling.

    As SGT MAJ Mulcahy said in “Glory”…. “Let him grow up some more.”

    • 0 avatar
      KixStart

      Yes. The minivan is a fine vehicle for families. Most will tow, most have fairly good power, they generaly offer good visibility and decent fuel economy and will not be terribly difficult to park. The interior room in most puts CUVs and many SUVs to shame.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Sounds like a good trip. Would I even dream of doing that in a Ford? No.

    Did you consider going pretty much straight South from Buffalo and eventually picking up I-99? It’s 76 miles shorter…

    If one is crossing PA, and depending on exactly where one is going, I-80 is a good alternative road. No tolls, a decent amount of services along the way and, usually, the construction and traffic are not too bad. For our routine trip, the expensive I-90 across upstate NY is perhaps 10 miles shorter but I always take the Pennsylvania route.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      Don’t overgeneralize. I’ve gone on plenty of road trips in my 22 year old Ford product.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought about going straight South instead of West, South and then back East again but our navigation system told us the route we went would be fastest. I know it didn’t account for traffic so on the way down its estimated timing wasn’t right but on the way home its estimate was accurate to within 5 minutes.

      In the end, I figured sticking to the interstates would let me stay on cruise, make steady time, allow for easy access to services and keep me more or less sane. It was OK, even with the kids…

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Agreed ~

    Minvans may appear to be emasculating but , a true Man’s Man simply checks the oil , saddles up and rolls out in whatever is at hand .

    When I were a lad , we criss crossed the Eastern U.S. in Peugot 304′s , no electronics , no AC and Dad didn’t allow up to open the windows but still and all , we had a swell time and I still prefer auto travel over all else , maybe even more than riding my Moto .

    _maybe_ .

    I’ve enjoyed crossing America in old VW Vans and rattly old pickups as an (supposed) Adult .

    Glad you had fun with it and good on you for taking your Children to see D.C. too .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      “Minvans may appear to be emasculating but , a true Man’s Man simply checks the oil , saddles up and rolls out in whatever is at hand.”

      The minivan is the right tool for the job, as far as family transportation goes. And they’re so heavily optimized it’s hard to beat them as all-around practical vehicles.

      There is nothing “emasculating” about using right tool for the right job.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Thank you for being Man enough to agree with me ~ so many ‘Men’ fear Mini Vans .

        My father bought a Dodge Caravan and loved it sufficiently to ship it home to New Jersey from Hawaii when it was nearly 10 years old , then it drove across America fully loaded with kids & crap several times and moved with him to Bellingham , Wa. where he foolishly sold it at close to 160,000 Mi. on the clock and still purred like new , clean interior and paint .

        I drove it a few times and think it would have made a dandy Shop Truck ~ it surely was a great Family Truckster .

        -Nate

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        Lol, emasculating?… Not, when I’m haulin’ the products of my virility all over creation

        • 0 avatar
          infinitime

          I never understood the fear that a vehicle would be in any way linked to one’s masculinity. One would have to be quite insecure to draw that link.

          In any event, we bought an Odyssey a few years back, and I was just amazed at the space and practicality, after a string of smaller vehicles before that.

          With a family and the associated gear, it is likely that the the minivan will remain in our stables for the near future at least. But having driving one regularly, I wondered why I never considered it as an option, even when I was single.

          • 0 avatar
            -Nate

            Infinitime Said :

            I never understood the fear that a vehicle would be in any way linked to one’s masculinity. One would have to be quite insecure to draw that link.

            You ain’t kidding ! .

            Look in my Avator and imagine how often I head ” fagwaggon ” from the guys in the huge chrome plated 4X4 trucks that never even get dusty much lees go off road , same deal from the over the top Sports Cars guys who $pend more $ on trim than actual Go Fast parts .

            If you car , shame on or poor you .

            At home or work , get the right tool for the job ~ no one tool will please everyone

            I drive my Met & passed a Lotus (?! WTH?!) in the chop 7/4/2013 , others drive BMW’s or similar vehicles you couldn’t give me .

            -Nate

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    Sometimes, it’s more-worthwhile to replace an expensive component in your current vehicle than to shift it for a new one. It sounds like such was the case for you.

  • avatar
    canddmeyer

    I loved renting a Freestar in Arizona as it had fantastic AC.

  • avatar
    2012JKU

    The Freestar/Windstar were both total junk. The recalls on these still haunt Ford to this day. They actually bought some back for snapping rear axles rather than fixing them. They did their owners a huge favor!

  • avatar
    50merc

    Ah, Breezewood, PA, the abcess on the Interstate system caused by parochial politics and tourist trap greed. Business Week said “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap…the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.” Curse you, Pennsylvania!

    However, this article is a fine tribute to the pleasures of minivan road-tripping. I had two Windstars. One reached 90K without trouble when I sold it; the transmission in the other grenaded at 60K. An independent shop rebuilt it for $1600; a thousand less than a dealer charges. Now I’m done with my minivan days, but Windstars are good long distance haulers.

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    Taking three small children on vacation in a minivan sounds more like a personal hell to me……

    Growing up we had Astro’s. First a 88′ then a 98′ The 98′ had AWD and was a nice van. Very roomy, and I remember us driving through some pretty bad storms. I remember being about 12-13 and my mother passing people on the interstate in a snow storm in the un-plowed lanes. That van really was a decent little truck by all means.

    But now, when I think of mini-vans, I think of those vans flying down the interstate weaving in and out of traffic with some manic father behind the wheel who looks likes he’s pissed at the world. Seriously, men in minivans are by far the most aggressive drivers on the interstate (my commute is a major gateway from North-South, I see a lot of travellers). Real fun to let them think they’re going to get around you, then hit the gas in the Mustang and leave the poor sap behind in his Honda Odyssey. Usually you can see the couple arguing.

  • avatar
    Kamaka

    Vans rule! I grew up with Plymouth Voyagers 1st and 3rd gens and when my brother in-law was thinking about a SUV for their growing family I championed the minivan. Minivans are cheaper to buy, cheaper to fuel, cheaper to insure (no one steals a minivan;), more spacious, and they drive better than most BOF SUVs. I was vindicated when they bought a used Odyssey.

  • avatar
    Scribe39

    I notice, more and more, people who have never owned a product are the first to jump in with all the old wives’ tales about how bad some are. Auto journalists have the same tendency.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      I dunno, I haven’t seen anything to disprove that the Ford Aerostar or GM Dustbusters weren’t very good…

    • 0 avatar
      tooloud10

      Well, the truth is that there really are no more bad cars. At least, not how we thought about them just a few decades ago. I wouldn’t think twice about heading out on a long trip in a well-maintained Freestar, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t what passes for a bad car these days. All new cars are pretty competent even compared to what we were all driving in the ’90s.

      • 0 avatar
        Windy

        this is a good point. think what you would do before setting out on a road trip, such as the one under discussion here, in 1963 in your 1960 Country Squire statin wagon with the family.

        a full service points plugs tuneup and all the many grease points attended too and careful examination of the tires. (you would have a 50/50 chance of a flat if we take them at half worn. and you would have the fun of fully unloading the wagon to get at the jack and spare [my luck it would be in the poring rain])

        A visit to the AAA or ALA office for a triptic plan for the journey helpfully stamped with all the small town speed traps along the way.

        do not forget cash in the pre credit card and atm era either. while you would have enjoyed the Pennsylvania turnpike back then a lot of the trip would i think have been on 2 lane blacktop

        the chance of a real breakdown on your trip would be quite real your 3 year old wagon would be at what was then mid life for a car driven say 15,000 miles a year and roadside amenities that we take for granted today were rather thinner on the ground 50 years ago.

        it is easy to forget just how reliable cars are today verses half a century ago.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          Um ;

          For some of us , things have not changed much .

          I don’t own any modern vehicles and I still enjoy driving all my oldies as much as I can , both in daily commuting (the ’59 FHC is parked outside now) and on long distance trips full of kids and SWMBO .

          Those who take the time to prepare , have a *much* better time of it .

          I usually buy tires in sets of 5 so I never have to worry about the spare Being and good .

          I rather miss all those tiny road side gas stations and Touristy ice cream places in the middle of nowhere when I were a lad , we’d never stop (thanx Dad ~ _NOT_) but I certainly do now ~ what better way to teach the Foster boys an appreciation for The open Road ? .

          -Nate

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I loved my Aerostar. Had an ’89 ext. XLT loaded with DVD player with headphones individually controlled for each kid, pretty cool stuff in ’89. That first summer I was Sparky Griswold criss-crossing the eastern US in my Family Truckster ending up in Wallyworld. Only thing missing was Christie Brinkley. That Aerostar never gave me any trouble, a real dependable family hauler

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I’m glad my wife and I decided not to have children, so I never have to make the “choice” of buying a minivan. I will admit, if you got kids, they’re great. Also, a use most people don’t think of, but they’re great if you’re a traveling salesperson. My dad is currently working out of an ’08 Chevy Uplander. Loves it, in terms of ease of being able to work out of. He’s had probably a dozen company vehicles over his work life, from a ’78 Malibu that blew it’s engine at 30K miles to ’82 Celebrity to an ’88 Pontiac 6000 wagon that would just not die (and got nearly 30 mpg while doing it). He then had a succession of Ford Tauruses. He loves that van more than anything except the old Pontiac.

    I have to admit, the Uplander is thoughtfully designed, and has lots of interesting features. Very useful vehicle, which I respect. The 3.9 “cam in block” wonder sounds like a pushrod motor, but has lots of scoot. Too damn bad that all the electrical and trim pieces are falling apart. It’s in the shop practically monthly, and also has an oddball 17 inch tire that he sometimes has to special order.

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      I’m well past the daddy years and I want a van more than ever.
      Old people like to go out and buy stuff that needs hauling home.
      A lot of us also like to DIY around the house.

      A minivan lets you haul like a pickup, comes with a built-in topper and gets much better gas mileage, particularly if you can get a 4-cyl. Win, win, win.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        Well fortunately Chrysler put the Pentastar V6 in the minivans.

        No more sluggish acceleration when you have a 283 horsepower minivan.

        • 0 avatar
          Summicron

          That engine is sweet and fine… even I couldn’t resist punching it a few times in my son’s Caravan. Wow, it got that giant bread box motivated.

          But I’d still like to have the choice of a 4-banger. Pretty quiet & rural around these parts and a 4 would do just fine for me.

          • 0 avatar
            NoGoYo

            Someday I’ll be like you, perfectly willing to be slow.

            But for now, I’m still a young’un and I want to have something that destroys tires and makes lots of delicious engine noises.

          • 0 avatar
            Summicron

            At your age, I’d wonder about you if you didn’t :-)

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        Nah, Grandpa needs to have a cool car so the Grandkids think Grandpa is way hipper then their no-fun-at-all parents

        • 0 avatar
          Summicron

          Granddaughter would have to remove her face from the Nintendo to notice whether Grandpa was driving a car or just levitating her seat down the road.

  • avatar
    RS

    I recently bought an 02 Chevy Venture LT from a local used car dealer at a wholesale price. This one was traded in and was going to the auction because they didn’t want to dig into the ABS light that was on (turns out that a front wire harnesses near the hub needed to be spliced.)

    I’ve had lots of auto rehab projects over the years and this was one of the easiest. Parts were cheap and readily available (I spent about $300). A good amount of repair info is on the web. A weekends worth of detailing, fresh maintenance and fixing little things and it was done.

    I usually drive pickups and never thought I’d like it as much as I do. Runs nice, drives nice, gets low to mid 20′s for MPG’s. Easy to get in and out of, has a Pickup/SUV-like seating position, easy to park. Love the power sliding side doors.

    The utility of it is crazy good. It’s a bus that seats 8…or a crew cab with topper..or a regular cab 8′ bed with topper – it can be used in more ways than any other vehicle. Given their ultra utility, it’s always curious why they get a bad rap from some.

    Too bad it doesn’t have Stow-n-go. That is a brilliant utility feature for vans. Removing the rear seats isn’t too bad in the Venture, but it’s not close to the convince of the Stow-n-go. As much as I like this Venture, I’m going to eventually flip it for an 05 or newer Chrysler….just not right away.

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      You’d SO love the GC/T&C with stow & go.

      First thing I did when my son got one was move my wife’s humongous oak work station w/hutch. The kind of move where every door and stairway couldn’t be 1 mm smaller or you’d never get it through.

      His GC swallowed the main desk section and hutch for one trip, the side desk and drawers & sundry on the second. No muss, no fuss, drove like a dream to his house where the D-in-Law now has the monstrosity.

      Seriously, if you don’t have to tow or 4-wheel through snow, this thing beats pickups every which way. Never thought I’d say that.

  • avatar
    mburm201

    Great story Thomas. As the owner of a 2004 Freestar used to haul my three kids, I can certainly relate. My wife and I previously owned a 2000 Windstar for about 4 years and put almost 100k miles on it without major problems until it reached over 220k. We did do the axle recall, and Ford was great about it, giving us a free rental for a month while the axle was on order and giving us back our van fully detailed with a new axle and battery (which had failed from sitting). We really liked the comfort and ride of the Windstar. The engine was unrefined but made good power. When the engine finally started losing power we decided not to invest any more in the rusting van. Our vehicle search found a 2004 Freestar on Craigslist with 220k for a great price. I figured that with the price I paid, if I ended up having to replace the engine or transmission in the next year, it would still be a good deal. So far we have put almost 30k on the van with no major problems. The AC was broken when we got it, so we’re getting that fixed now along with the cruise. The interior is cheaper, seats harder, and ride stiffer than the Windstar, but the 3.9l engine is more refined and makes about the same power as the old 3.8. We just got back from a 1200 mile round trip to the Black Hills and are planning to take the van from our home in MN to Alabama in august.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I’ve known 2 people whose Windstars had transmission failure just after the warranty expired and both decided to dump them at a great loss of money.


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