Hammer Time:The Minivan Man

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time the minivan man

I remember it like it was today. We had a long line of trade-in’s going through the public auction and I was working the ring. When you’re down on the ground at the auction, your job is to hoot, holler, and help the auctioneer create the urgency to buy. In most states you are called a ‘ringman’ and for the next two hours, my job would be to use everything but jumbled auctioneer’s English. As a ringman my powers of persuasion are eyes, hands, body, and a fair bit of negotiating after the final bid falls short of the reserve. I read people. Just as I do when I’m on the block, and by 2002 I had already finished in the top 10 in the World Auctioneer’s Championship as a ringman. But forget about that lucky accolade. At the moment, I needed a minivan for my wife.

When you work hard at any auction, certain buyers will give you a tip. It can be as little as lunch or $20, or as much as a few hundred. At the impound auctions, I have even managed to get a car in exchange for my work. Nothing special. A decade old plus Volvo or domestic sedan. But that nets me a lot more than the typical auctioneer’s compensation once I retail it. On this particular day I shook hands on a nice discounted minivan. A 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan in white that I managed to buy for $2900. It had 100k, dual sliding doors, cruise, V6, and had been a dealer queen since day one. The perfect vehicle for a soon-to-be family of four in the pre-Katrina era.

My first memory of what would be known as the ‘fam-van’ was taking it to the Chrysler dealer for the ‘clockspring’ recall. An under-engineered $2 part would cost tens of millions for Chrysler as the driver’s airbag wouldn’t even budge without the clockspring operating. While we were waiting outside for service to open. My two year old daughter all of a sudden began jumping on top of the second row seat, laughing her head off. She loved the thing and while our car was parked, my daughter began putting her hands all over the windows in ecstatic glee. She was now the tall one and as the employees began to arrive, she waved to every single one.

That would be one of thousands of moments of happiness. Road trips, kiddie videos, games for the family on the road, and most of all… tons of commuting. My daughter was going to an expensive speech school along with a pre-k program. Within a couple years my son would be in pre-k as well. Seldom was there a day when the van didn’t travel at least 50 miles with a wife who had renamed herself ‘Madame Chauffer’ for all the journeys. .I kept it up like Monk would with the best parts I could find and enough nighttime reading to decipher most of the road blocks that would come our way.

The first was the transmission. Like all minivans of that era, the transmission wasn’t designed to go over 100k without a tranny cooler and annual fluid changes. All of them were terrible from this era with the possible exceptions of the rear wheel drive Previa, Aerostar, and the slow selling Villager/Quest. The one in mine was original and no amount of pixie dust would save it from the laws of physics. Thankfully there was a junkyard that had a low mileage one that I picked up for $400 and once the tranny blew, it was steadfastly parked at the nearby Blockbuster. One tow, $300 labor, a 20k mile tranny, and 48 hours got my wife back on the road.

Then within a week, someone nailed the minivan with a pickup truck from behind. The sleep deprived driver had woken up at the very last moment (thank God) and carved a mean crease on the side of the vehicle. After an endless game of telephone tag, the insurance agent got the ball rolling with the usual low ball estimate of the vehicle’s value.

“Mr. Lang, we have appraised the ‘Actual Cash Value’ of the van to be right at $3675, and the repairs will cost $2800. Since the repairs cost more than 3/4’s of the value of the vehicle we have to total this car.”

“Really, What book do you use?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, in order to appraise the value of this vehicle you need to use some type of database that uses real world values for the vehicles. I have the Manheim Market Report, NADA, and the Black Book. All of which value the vehicle between $4800 and $5800. By the way, I do this for a living.”


The conversation became a bit more friendly and within 48 hours I had a $2800 check for what turned out to be an $800 repair. I was a bit more than a thousand up given that check minus all the repairs for the first couple of years. Not bad at all. But not that great given all the opportunity and market changes that would take place during the easy credit era.

The opportunity came through the fact that I was making far more money retailing cars on the side than I was in my regular work. $1500 here. $2500 there. I was making some pretty good licks. The dirty secret of the car business (at the time) is that a good retailer can make far more money than a good auctioneer or ringman. After I cleared over 8 grand retailing a two year old Infiniti Q45 on Ebay I decided to concentrate my energies exclusively on the retail side.

Which meant one more thing. I couldn’t keep cars. By selling cars at a three vehicle a week clip in the beginning, having a ‘keeper’ minivan with nearly 150k made no sense. There were more fuel efficient rides that were also safer. Volvo wagons in particular were still under-priced at a time when SUV’s and minivans were the kings and queens of the road. I sold the still popular vehicle off three years after my initial entry into minivan land for $2800 to a very nice young couple. Nearly every van and wagon would grace our garage in the coming years. But when I think of a family minivan, my mind always wanders back to our original.

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  • Joeveto3 Joeveto3 on Oct 04, 2010

    A couple of weeks ago, I was in Mempis. Hertz literally ran out of cars. I don't know how that happens (like Burger King running out of Whoppers), but they did. After more than a half an hour wait, the nice ladies behind the counter threw me a silver Chrysler Town & Country with around 5000 miles. I really wanted to like the T&C. Just a few months ago while searching for a new car, I stopped by a Dodge lot to look at the Grand Caravan. The wife and I ditched our old Grand Caravan during Cash 4 Clunkers. For the most part, the old Dodge was a reliable vehicle. Yes, the transmission gave. And yes, as someone else here mentioned, planning on $600 a year worth of repairs was a good move. More than anything, the rust is what made me decide the time had come. Call me vain. So I had the DGC and CTC on my shopping list. Unfortunately, the salesguy was such a piece of garbage, I left 5 minutes after I arrived. Maybe the new Grand Caravan was great. I honestly didn't care anymore, such was the "buying experience." I never even opened the door to the minivan, I just told the idiot "goodbye," walked to my car and drove off. So now I sat in a new T&C, and I was finally able to really evaluate it. Over the next three days I drove it and took good mental notes. At the end, the verdict is this: What a disappointing, bloated, sad, and dumb feeling piece of garbage. Really. I'm pretty forgiving, but I've never had a vehicle that felt so disconnected to the rest of the world. It's as if the van's front end weighs 4000 pounds (it probably does) and the other 7/8's weighs less than a thousand. It understeers at the slightest prodding. The steering is awful. It's numb and heavy. Again, it's just disconnected from any sort of reality where the tires meet the pavement. The body motions are not controlled well at all, so as I drove, I experienced a lot of side to side head movements that became tiring after only 20 minutes of driving. The drivetrain is nothing to write home about. Compared to other 6cylinders, including the one in our old Grand Caravan, the unit in my rental just wasn't smooth enough for what I guess is a $30000 vehicle. Also, the transmission often felt out of step, and at one point made a noise that had me convinced it dropped out of the bottom and was sitting in the middle of the street. This didn't occur after hard driving, or anything other than ordinary operation. The 6-speed transmission just let out a clunk and a thunk like nothing I've ever felt. On the upside, the seats are all day comfortable, the stereo was good, and of course the space and various cubbies make its weaknesses even more disappointing. With just a little suspension tuning (and some NVH work on the drivetrain), I believe the Chrysler minivans would be EXCELLENT vehicles. I mean world beating, like the used to be. The Sto 'N Go seating is brilliant. For a guy with 5 kids this thing would be fantastic. But why should I be penalized just because I need to carry some folks and their stuff with me? I "get" that most people who buy these things don't give a crap about vehicle dynamics, and couldn't give a crap if their head bobbed or whether or not there was any steering feel. That being said, if we are to believe the typical minivan buyer doesn't care how it handles, what harm is there in making the thing handle well for the few of us who DO care and DO notice these things? Does it REALLY cost that more to design a well sorted suspension and a steering system that actually provides a little bit of feedback and some entertainment? I don't think so. I even like the way the new Dodge minivans look, and the interior materials and design never offended me. So color me completely disappointed. For me, it's really the typical Chrysler story -- So close to greatness, yet so far.

    • Windnsea00 Windnsea00 on Oct 04, 2010

      The 4.0 V6 is quite a rough powerplant and for its size doesn't provide as much get up and go as one would suspect. The 6-spd is not up to other competitors' smoothness of operation or speed of shifts either. The 3.3 or 3.8 V6 with the 4-spd is just downright gutless and of course having only 4 gears doesn't help. I actually think they cut costs from the interior on the new model. The dashboard is all hard materials, at least the last generation had soft rubber for half of it. Also the HVAC controls are tiny and not as user friendly. The center row or bucket seats are far from cushy. Lastly, I have found squeaks and creaks to be apparent in them with less than 35k miles.

  • Ironghost Ironghost on Mar 26, 2011

    I had two, 92 Plymouth Voyager and a 97 Ford Aerostar XLT. The Plymouth was a great buggy, I put 25k on it the two years I had it until some doofus in a Camaro tried to pull across traffic at the last second. The Ford was equally hard to kill: it had the 4.0 which could have used a turbo, granted, but it ran great until I got hit by a Chevy Avalanche driven by another doofus who couldn't understand that wet roads are slick.

  • Redapple2 Why does anyone have to get permission to join? Shouldnt the rules to race in a league be straight forward like. Build the car to the specs. Pay the race entry fee. Set the starting grid base on time trials.?Why all the BS?I cant watch F1 any more. No refuel. Must use 2 different types of tires. Rare passing. Same team wins every week. DRS only is you are this close and on and on with more BS. Add in the skysports announcer that sounds he is yelling for the whole 90 minutes at super fast speed. I m done. IMSA only for me.
  • Redapple2 Barra at evil GM is not worth 20 mill/ yr but dozens (hundreds) of sports players are. Got it. OK.
  • Dusterdude @SCE to AUX , agree CEO pay would equate to a nominal amount if split amongst all UAW members . My point was optics are bad , both total compensation and % increases . IE for example if Mary Barra was paid $10 million including merit bonuses , is that really underpaid ?
  • ToolGuy "At risk of oversimplification, a heat pump takes ambient air, compresses it, and then uses the condenser’s heat to warm up the air it just grabbed from outside."• This description seems fairly dramatically wrong to me.
  • SCE to AUX The UAW may win the battle, but it will lose the war.The mfrs will never agree to job protections, and production outsourcing will match any pay increases won by the union.With most US market cars not produced by Detroit, how many people really care about this strike?