Auto-Biography 23: Caravan of Love

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 23 comments
  • Nick Nick on Jul 09, 2007

    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.

  • Johnf514 Johnf514 on Jul 16, 2007

    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. :-)

  • Digital wwoww
  • Probert No, they're not the future. BEV sales are growing every year, and, along with sound energy policy, result in cleaner air, lower CO2, foreign policy not based on oil, and will continue to drive like a smooth powerful nearly silent turbine. Some 19% of new car sales in 2023 were BEVs - this will continue.
  • Mishab Agree with you. Thanks for sharing this insightful update about the upcoming Mini Cooper models! It's fascinating to see Mini's shift towards electrification and the unique design elements they're incorporating into the new John Cooper Works edition.Speaking of Minis, if you're a Mini Cooper owner in Sharjah looking for spare parts or considering common repairs, you might find this article on 7 common Mini Cooper repairs quite useful. ( for reading it). It covers some of the typical issues Mini owners might encounter and offers valuable insights into maintaining these iconic cars.Looking forward to more updates on Mini's electrified lineup and the exciting changes they're bringing to the automotive industry
  • Redapple2 Love/lust a 110 diesel defender. Should buy one since the INEOS is gas only (and double the price). Had a lightweight in Greece. Wonder how this rides.
  • Ajla There is inventory on the ground but as pointed out it is generally high dollar trims of high-dollar models and at least around here dealers still aren't budging off their mandatory nitrogen tires and Summer weather protection packages.You aren't paying '21-'22 prices anymore but it's still a long way to go.