Auto-Biography 23: Caravan of Love
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.
More by Paul Niedermeyer
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