By on October 3, 2010

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.”

“Oh!”

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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25 Comments on “Hammer Time:The Minivan Man...”


  • avatar
    lahru

    So maybe you’ve been to Arab, Al? to study the art of auctioneering?
    Pentastar vans are a bargain today due to their stigma by the majority of the public and their trans rep.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    The Caravan is a benign vehicle but here’s one that’s a monster.
    http://www.mystarcollectorcar.com/3-the-stars/star-truckin/272-scary-rides-a-1989-dodge-caravan-a-stone-cold-tuner-car-killer.html

  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    I have a relative that keeps buying these brand new.  They drive nice enough, and are a well-conceived vehicle; but in terms of quality,they really are junk. He constantly has MAJOR issues with them, and he gets raped on the resale, but he’s foolishly loyal to them.
    To him, it’s all about owning ‘Merican, even though the “japanese” makers have several factories in his state.
    Just about everyone who owns one of these will have transmission issues, and most people aren’t going to go grab one from a salvage yard (which is incredibly risky) or have to the know how to do this job themselves.
    Unless you’re good with a wrench, that “cheap” minivan will be awfully expensive to own.
     
     

  • avatar
    NoChryslers

    Even though their workmanship was iffy most of the time, the 2001-2007 Chrysler minivans were some of the handsomest vehicles built.  A gorgeous teardrop shape that never aged.  People who wouldn’t normally look at minivans were buying them they were so pretty.  I don’t know what the f**k Chrysler was thinking with the current generation – they are quite stodgy looking.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I miss the first two generations. Mine was a ’92 Plymouth, with a 4-banger and a gen-u-wine stick shift. Yes it was not much more than a tin box, but it was a damned good tin box that hauled everything around and returned me 22-28mpg for the favor. I even lived in it for a short while during my divorce. :(

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

     
    Steven,
    I have had around 5 minivans…all Dodges. I used to put on 4,000 miles a month doing cold calls in the Midwest.
    So I can’t really talk to the differences between all minivans.
    What I can speak to is the looks.
    The series from Chrysler, 1996 through the last make over was a sharp look…as far as minivans go.
    The tear drop look was at least somewhat less humiliating to drive.
    This last functioning box is the end of Chrysler’s hold on the minivan market. They lost it.

    I can say of all vehicles I owned, the minivan still is the most universal of all. The only thing that ever came close was my 1987 Chevrolet celebrity eurosport wagon.
    That car was very nice and even the exhaust had a nice soft rumble for a car.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    My first minivan was a 96 Grand Voyager 3.3.  It was awesome until it died of electrical failure at 120k miles in 2005.  I never had transmission trouble (4-speed), but I faithfully changed fluid and filter every 25k miles.  Our kid count grew from three to five while owning that car, and it holds many fond memories.

    Our 05 Odyssey was horrible, so we returned to a 98 Dodge Grand Caravan 3.8 in 2007.  Unfortunately, it died the same way as the Plymouth, and now we have a Sedona. It is the best quality van we’ve had so far.

    I still think the 96-00 Chrysler vans were the best-looking minivans ever, and a lot of them are still on the road.  The latest generation of Chrysler vans is ugly and uncomfortable.

    • 0 avatar
      FJ20ET

      95% of those 96-00 Vans(That still run) have the Mitsubishi 3.0 V6. Burns oil and ticks, but will do so for 300,000km. Around these parts, they outnumber their domestic-engined brothers 10-1.

      Chryslers biggest mistake was putting chrysler engines in their vans.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      @FJ20ET: My experience in PA is just the opposite.  The surviving 96-00 Chryslers have the Mopar engines.  Nearly all the smoking Mitsubishi 3.0s are gone.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    ”  … the 96-00 Chrysler vans were the best-looking minivans ever …. “
    I agree, those were the best of the lot looks wise. We owned a ’98 full boat Town and Country for several months until Chrysler had to finally take it back under lemon law buy back provisions for electrical problems they never solved. It is weird that Chrysler didn’t once send a factory tech. to the dealership in order to stave off that buyback, even when they knew they were down to their last shot. Weird. Great looking van though. Metallic ruby red. We called her Ruby Roxanne!
     

  • avatar

    I would add the Aerostar to the list of vans with gimp automatic transmissions. My carpool driver had one for years, a V6 with all-wheel drive. First time the tranny went out, well under 100k, the independent shop she took it to made the colossal mistake of giving her a lifetime warranty on the rebuilt unit. It was back there three more times that I know of. Of course that was not the only problem with the vehicle…I remember riding in it for over a month one summer with the a/c and power windows both inoperative. It was finally given away to some charity when a minor front-end accident rendered the driver’s door inoperative.

  • avatar
    SV

    Ah, this brings back some memories. My mom’s car from 1994 to 2001 was a green Plymouth Voyager SE. Pretty much the bare-bones model, except it had the 3.3 (or perhaps the Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0? it was so long ago), air conditioning and auto trans.

    We took that car on many a family trip, usually between Houston and Dallas to visit family. We did make it all the way to Colorado at least once, however.

    I remember the A/C had issues at one point, but apart from that the car was reliable, exceptionally so for a Chrysler I should think.

    I think my mom’s Voyager was actually one of the first cars to really get me into cars. One of my earliest obsessions was with minivans; I would (and still do) make up my own cars, and those imaginary designs used to be mostly minivans, all obviously Chrysler-inspired. I was always jealous of my cousins, whose wood-paneled, rear-A/C, leather-trimmed Town and Country put our sparse, base Voyager to shame, although my present self would undoubtedly prefer our minimalist Plymouth (okay…the rear A/C would still be missed). Their next car, a black 2000 Town and Country LXi, only increased my jealousy and was my main experience with the third-gen Mopar vans. Always loved the looks of those things, inside and out. Classic jellybean.

    I admired my friend’s parents’ 2001 red Chrysler Town and Country eX, which was also quite elegant family transport as far as minivans go.

    When the green Voyager was totalled in 2001, we replaced it with a silver Toyota Sienna LE, by just about any measure a superior car. Plenty of good memories with that car too, but I think i’m more nostalgic about the Voyager…that’s also why I wish Chrysler would get their damn act together and start making class-leading minivans again.

  • avatar
    Flybrian

    The ’01-’07s do indeed have a strange cult following I’ve noticed. I just sold an ’01 Grand Caravan Sport with 108k to a woman who has an ’01 DGC with 90k miles broken down in her driveway because the transmission blew…go figure.

  • avatar
    windnsea00

    The last generation Sienna was by a long shot the best minivan on the market. The Chrysler vans felt so loose and unrefined in comparison. Not to mention a little quick driving and the transmission’s shifts would get clunky and the power steering pumps would become noisy. The 3.5 V6 and 5-spd auto in the Sienna’s were really nice units. We ran a ton of them in our rental franchise and I was blown away by their reliability. Not to mention 1st gear really got you cracking off the line!

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      I agree with you.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Other than the doors—which are really irritating, power or not—I’ll agree about the penultimate Sienna.  I got some seat time in the new one recently (four-cyl and V6 CE models) and it’s the second time** I’ve been in a Toyota that felt less than it’s predecessor.
       
      It’s not bad, but it seems like they skimped on soundproofing and the ride seems every-so-slightly more crude.

      The Chryslers are pretty good, though you really don’t want to be the first owner. Between depreciation and some cheap OEM parts. For all of these, though, you really want an aftermarket transmission cooler. I suspect this is going to be a problem for a lot of front- or all-wheel-drive cars that are approaching minivan-levels of mass (**cough**Taurus**cough**).
       
      ** the first was the 1998 Corolla.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    When my 96 Odyssey got totaled last winter, I went looking for another nice but cheap minivan.  I kept running suggestions past my mechanic, and he kept telling me to consider a well-kept Chrysler minivan.  I finally relented, then stumbled upon my current ride, a 99 T&C LX.  It had high miles (187K) but had been obviously well cared for its whole life.  Each of its two owners had driven it for about 90-95K.  I did not pay much for it.  After a couple of weeks, I decided that it drove nice enough to put some upgrade money into so that it would be a real car, and not just a cheap heap.
    I am a convert now.  I have put about 9K on the car in the last 6 months.  I am 3500 mi away from 200K.  The 3.3 will use a quart of oil in 3000-3500 miles.  It starts, runs, shifts and drives just as it should.  It is tighter, smoother and quieter than my 93 Crown Victoria (with 110K on it) or than a friend’s 04 Odyssey (also with about 110K on it).
    Within a year or so the van will become a teenager car and I will find something else.  But for now, with a 93 Crown Victoria, a 07 Honda Fit Sport and the T&C at my disposal, the T&C is my first choice to drive.

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    A couple of years ago, I bought a ’99 Grand Caravan with 100K miles on it for the nanny to use during the week, and for family outings on the weekends. With 3 kids, a minivan is the only way to go, given how they fight whenever forced to sit next to each other in a sedan’s back seat.
    We call it the ‘crapvan’, but it is one of the true luxuries in my life, because it is such a stress reducer.  Get sand in it from the beach?  So what.  Parking dent?  It happens.  Kids spill their milk all over the floor?  Well, I cover the interior in Resolve every 3 months and vacuum it out.
    Yes, it wants about $600 for repairs every 6 months, but otherwise saves me about $5,000 a year in depreciation I’d pay on a new Ody or Sienna.  The kids love the thing, although they wish it had a TV/DVD in it like their friends’ do.  Maybe I’ll get them iPads for the holidays.
    The crapvan has 135K miles on it, and while its in decent shape, I know the tranny will give at some time.  Hopefully we have a few years before that sad day.

  • avatar
    Slocum

    We had a ’97 that we used to tow a boat.  Never had transmission problems (maybe because of the transmission cooler that came with the towing package?)  Eventually it got demoted to teen driver duty and we put 140K miles before giving it to a relative.  He got rid of it after a couple of years, but it’s still on the road as far as I know.  The Toyota Sienna that replaced it is clearly a more sophisticated vehicle, but it hasn’t been any more reliable.

  • avatar
    mountainman_66

    steve…..were you in akron for the 2010 championship….not too far from my house.  back in the day it was owned by two men, one was a guy named Glenn Fisher, who went on to own  a jewelry store with a great local rep. Gave my Dad a job (18 yrs until he became bed ridden ill). Good guy.
    BTW..I love the van platform, depite the stigma……that  BMW Z3 is worthless on the NE ohio roads.

  • avatar
    windswords

    My only minivan was a 1994 Grand Caravan LE Sport Wagon. It was “sporty” for a minivan, with body colored grill, large cast aluminum wheels, fog lights, lower plastic body cladding, and Eagle GS tires. It had the 3.3 V6 with 162 hp (which seemed like a a lot in those days) and dual airbags (new for 1994) and 2nd row built-in child seats. Deep emerald green with medium quartz cloth seats. The perfect family vehicle. It never gave us any problems, including the transmission, which was the 4 speed and still carried the A604 Ultradrive moniker. We drove that thing on many a vacation and other trips thru all kinds of weather. It felt safer than many cars I have driven since. I took the seats out of it to take our old aluminum above ground pool to the recyclers (made $70) and bring home the new vinyl clad steel replacement. It was surprisingly fast to me and to other drivers who thought they could outrun me on the highway just because I drove a minivan.
     
    Years later I rented the latest generation “boxy” minivan. It didn’t seem that bad. It was a loaded T&C with the 4.0 V6 and 6 speed auto. It felt quite solid and comfortable, and handled well for such a large vehicle. The backup camera was a nice feature. A Kia Sedonna I rented a couple of years earlier was competent but didn’t drive nearly as well or feel as solid. It did get better mileage.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    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.

    • 0 avatar
      windnsea00

      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.

  • avatar
    Ironghost

    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.

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