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.
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.
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.
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.
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.