And so, dear reader, in our last installment our Plymouth Reliant wagon was nearing the the end of its useful life. A blown head gasket, accompanied by billows of white smoke on I-5, had unnerved me. As always when an automotive issue arose, my Dad’s verdict on a car that had passed the tipping point between useful conveyance into thorn-in-the-flesh territory began to play on infinite loop in my head; there were times when you had to cut your losses. At some juncture matters went beyond mere safety and economic considerations. What if Linda, who was a NICU and transport nurse, had been driving on a late night call? Something had to be done and quickly. And so the gears began to turn.
The usual research proceeded, but what exactly would be the criteria? Thirty years on the details are murky. So far as I can tell my programming as an American consumer kicked in and I began to feel that innate urge for something bigger and better, whether it be automobile, house, or guitar amplifier. The house came after the car in quick succession (the amplifier came somewhat later). But first of all, let’s focus on the automobile, or more specifically, the minivan. The size of our growing family seemed to dictate that we second the choice many of our friends and neighbors were making; eight years after I’d dismissed the emergent Chrysler minivan as too extravagant for our needs, it now appeared arguably essential, even though previous generations of Americans had managed just fine without one. At the same. time, logically speaking, an argument could be made for the domestic minivan’s utility, and I admit I succumbed to current practice despite my former predilection for reasonably-sized Eurotrash cars. Fortunately, the Reliant had served as a step between the Toyota Starlet and a looming maxi-van (the term, ‘mini’ had become suspect), so the prospect of piloting one wasn’t quite like going from a VW Beetle to a Greyhound bus or a frigate to an aircraft carrier, no matter my misgivings.
Minivan dimensions were definitely growing at that point with extended versions for each of the major players, but so was the minivan market circa 1992: joining the original Chrysler trio were the Chevy Astro, the Toyota Previa, the Mazda MPV, and the Ford Aerostar. None of the others followed the Mopar blueprint, whose founding principles seemed so completely obvious that it’s difficult to comprehend how any car designer worth his or her salt could look at a fresh sheet of drafting paper and contemplate anything other than a FWD layout with a big box hung on the back (how about the GM Dustbusters, you may ask? Go ahead, I’m not listening). The reasons dictating a departure from the obvious solution may have been legion, but most likely they all came down to the usual dollars and cents. Why pay the engineers overtime for a clean sheet design when you could cobble up something from the parts bin and call it a day?
We can readily admit that Toyota didn’t exactly take this route given that they ended up with the world’s premier mid-engined minivan, although the fact is the Previa’s predecessor (and assorted JDM Nissans and Mitsubishis) used a similar layout. If the Toyota boffins had solid reasons for taking the mid-engine route, no one else seemed eager to follow and the admittedly futuristic and forward looking (at least styling-wise) Previa proved to be a dead end, plus it was pricey for a package that offered what everyone else was selling for less. As for the other entrants in the minivan sweepstakes, they convinced themselves that what the consumer really wanted was just another conventional front-engined, rear wheel drive van, only smaller, the result being the Astro, MPV, and Aerostar.
Given the choice of the offerings, it seems logical that I would have driven a sample of each and then made an informed decision, and in fact on a trip I had rented the latest Plymouth Voyager and put a good 1500 miles on it. I had no complaints about the Voyager…it was certainly the best looking of the available options and very handy but eight years of Plymouth ownership had left me eager to play the field. The Astro was also a familiar quantity as some of our friends had purchased GM’s earliest entrant in the minivan wars, but after having had the occasion to drive a few I scratched my head and wondered why as there appeared to be no place down there by the pedals to put my feet. Whether it was a feature or a bug, the lack of foot space seemed a puzzling engineering choice, but then GM marched to the beat of its own drum in those days. Also, truth be told, GM’s interiors had not progressed significantly from the standard set by the Citation a decade earlier, so the Astro was quickly stricken from the list. Mazda, unfortunately, was off my radar although we had friends who would later buy one and it provided good service over a long life. That oversight remains puzzling to this day as Mazda would loom large in my selection process in years to come.
That left the Aerostar.
I had no strong stake nor skin in the GM/Ford wars, despite the fact that my Dad had been a longstanding GM man, with the exception of a low mileage ’61 Ford Fairlane he’d bought from the estate of the town postmistress when she passed away. He apparently was not terribly fond of it as it lasted less than four years before he went back to the GM fold with the purchase of a ’65 Buick Electra 225, which of course was a whole other kettle of fish. Buick had been his preferred marque for most of his life. I’d come home from the hospital in a ’52 sedan, which had then been replaced by a ’58 station wagon, a car well placed in the running for the most overwrought design ever committed to sheet metal. The interloper Fairlane remained, then, an exception to the rule. Remaining antipathy for Fords may have set up residence in his genes, however, as he often told the story of his father bringing his first car home, a Ford Model T, only to run it through the side of the barn when it wouldn’t “whoah” when ordered. So, Grandpa Roan, a natural horseman who was renowned for his way with animals, may not have long remained a Ford man, but then apparently he wasn’t altogether comfortable with the results of the Industrial Revolution, either. On the other hand my maternal grandfather was a Buick devotee like my Dad and I have a firm memory of riding in his (altogether more attractive than a ’58) ’57 sedan on a trip to California. GM loyalty, then, seemed to run in the family, but ever the iconoclast, I was happy to fly in the face of convention, with my string of various funny foreign cars offered as proof.
Dedicated readers may recall that I’d had my own experience with Fomoco in the shape of ’74 Mercury, née Ford, Capri, which, at least by 1992, had receded into rose-tinted memories. With no apparent axe to grind, I decided to take a look at the refreshed-for-’92 Aerostar and came away impressed. The interior seemed a cut above the competition and the extended version left space for a considerable amount of cargo, even with all seven passenger seats full. The Aerostar had actually been around since ’86, so it seemed well-proven, and besides, it was basically built on the chassis (with some modifications) of the Ranger pickup that had first appeared in ’82. Essentially, it was a truck, and trucks are tough and reliable, am I right? So my internal argument went.
The local Ford dealer seemed happy enough to sell me one and the transaction proved relatively painless. As delivered our Aerostar was a fairly basic (beige? tan?) XL Extended, not the high-zoot XLT or Eddy Bauer edition. As such, it came with the base 3.0 liter Vulcan (‘live long and prosper’) V-6, a new design that had first seen duty in the Taurus and had no basis in the old Cologne 2.8 that had powered my Capri. That information may have been a moot point, given that an actual engine was barely visible from under the abbreviated hood–there could have been a fusion reactor under there and I would have been none the wiser. The purported V-6 reportedly hooked up with a four-speed OD automatic, my first ever slushbox. Included in the deal was air conditioning (okay, so maybe it’s needed in Seattle after all), AM-FM radio, and cruise control, but the rest of the mod-cons like power windows, mirrors, seats and a tape deck were off the table. All the same, the interior was an attractive place to spend time with plush upholstery and carpeting even in the cargo area together with a comprehensive instrument panel and a commanding perch high above the ubiquitous Puget Sound traffic jams.
The Aerostar experience began well enough, but quickly deteriorated. The bloom was hardly off the rose when one winter afternoon as I was merging onto SR520 traffic slowed abruptly in front of me, then came to a dead stop. The driver behind me remained blissfully unaware of this fact until he plowed straight into the rear of our new Aerostar. The damage was extensive, the rear sheet metal pushed all the way up into the rear wheel wells. There was no question as to who was at fault and consequently the guilty party’s insurance company quickly took control. The crippled van was flat-bedded posthaste to a nearby collision center staffed by a nice young man in a white shirt and tie. As I had served time at the infamous Bertone of North Seattle, I was somewhat surprised to find such a formality in an office covered with bondo dust, but I realized with a resigned sigh that the world was indeed changing. The rest of the encounter seemed convincing enough, with all the technical details covered competently. The insurance provided us with a late model Buick Century, which wasn’t exactly in the minivan class, but I was unfazed, assuming the repairs wouldn’t take an inordinate amount of time as they involved the Aerostar’s rear end and didn’t impact the drive train.
But things never go smoothly, do they? A few days later as I followed the progress of repairs, word came that my father passed away. One of the details that had been circling my mind during this period was the certainty of Dad’s imminent death and the looming necessity of having a car that would get us to his funeral services with a minimum of fuss, and now here we were with a severely damaged Aerostar in the shop for the duration. I called the insurance company: was it acceptable to take the Buick on an extended trip out of state? It was. We made the long trip from Washington and the Blue Mountains of Oregon through a bleak midwinter of Idaho snow and ice back home to the Rockies and truth be told, I was glad to have a FWD car in those conditions. And somehow it seemed appropriate that we were driving a Buick.
The long drive gave me occasion to reflect on my father life. In some respects his story was Capra-esque; there were elements of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life in his long history. Not only did he assist in the running of a Building and Loan, but his father had died when Dad was only twenty-four and recently engaged to be married. He promised his father on his deathbed that he would care for his younger brother and sisters and was true to his word. He took over the family ranch, which dashed any dreams of going to college. Instead, he provided the means for his siblings to attend, his younger brother earning a Masters Degree, his sister rising all the way to Dean of the College of Child Development at USU. Later in life, aside from helping initiate the aforementioned Savings and Loan, he became a real estate broker and had just established a real estate company with his brother when he watched him die when struck by a car while crossing the street. By some terrible twist of fate as a teen he’d watched his youngest brother die when his horse fell on top of him. Add to that the deaths of his parents at relatively young ages, an older sister, and three of his children. My father was not unacquainted with grief.
Dad was forty-five when I was born. By the time I was sixteen he was in his sixties. He came from a world that I could only vaguely imagine and his experience seemed far removed from mine, but we probably never begin to understand our fathers until we have reached a stage in life where we can look back with some clarity and are able to brush aside what we think we knew and begin to understand what really happened. Dad often seemed remote, but he was a quiet and thoughtful man, and a gentleman in the true sense of the word. He treated my mother as an equal. He seldom raised his voice (except perhaps when uncooperative cattle were involved) and never resorted to corporal punishment in an age when it was not only accepted but expected. I had friends who were afraid of their fathers. I was never afraid of mine.
I wasn’t as young as my Dad was when he lost his father but there was still much of the world I didn’t clearly understand and I would miss his advice and wisdom as I blundered my way forward. From my perspective now, I realize that I am more like him than I would have thought possible (and, sadly, not necessarily in the more positive aspects), this despite the fact that when I was younger we seldom saw eye-to-eye. But then why would we? He raised his children to think for themselves. Our family routinely talked politics and world affairs at the dinner table, but he never dictated his position, expecting everyone to fall in line. We could express ourselves without condemnation or belittlement. I don’t know what he’d make of our current situation, as he believed in talking things through and reaching something like an understanding of differing positions if not consensus. He might find our world somewhat less comprehensible than the one he came from.
As we returned to our Buick loaner from his graveside, I didn’t quite understand the depth of my sadness in that moment (only compounded five years later when my mother joined him), but I thought that I might be able to incorporate what I knew of his life into my own and treat people as he did, fairly, openly, and kindly. I often fail, but I’m not discouraged. His example doesn’t dim with the passing years, and I may yet reach my goal.
But this is also a story about the Aerostar, after all, and we must proceed. In 1992 I was back in school, finishing up a degree and teaching, returning to Seattle from Idaho in time for the end of the quarter and the usual stack of term papers to grade. I would check in with the collision center when I had a spare moment, but the days stretched into weeks and the van wasn’t released into our hands until the beginning of the next year. The techs did a reasonable job–the quarter panels and tailgate had to be replaced, and the cargo area floor, as well. The paint match was good and the big (mini?) Ford seemed to drive fine and so the experience was filed away as just another one of those things.
But when we took a trip the following summer, I was stunned to find a pool of anti-freeze beneath the Aerostar on a relative’s driveway. I checked the slice of the engine bay visible from under the hood and couldn’t see a source of the leak, but as we drove home I had to add coolant a couple of times. Once home, it was off to the dealer, where the diagnosis was…a defective head gasket. At less than 10,000 miles. Wait, wasn’t a blown head gasket the reason I’d gotten rid of the Reliant in the first place? The service manager was apologetic and slightly embarrassed. The verdict was it had been one of those inexplicable manufacturing mistakes and of course the head gaskets were replaced under warranty, everything was buttoned up, and the van was sent forth to sin no more.
At less than 20,000 miles, the brake master cylinder failed. Now, wait a minute. I began to wonder if the accident had cast a spell over the rest of the car, but realistically, how could a rear end collision affect a head gasket and the the master cylinder? Again, the service manager registered dismay and promptly took care of the problem, but my faith was shaken. Around the same time the Aerostar had its first brake service. New front pads were required at a little over 20,000 miles. Paranoia began to rear its ugly head. Like clockwork, at least every ten thousand miles some other problem would crop up, plus there was a leak in one of the rear taillights, so the van returned to the collision center with concerns about imminent rust creeping in. And then every spring it was time for new brake pads, often with less than another 10,000 miles on the clock. Then the air conditioning went out. And the transmission started leaking fluid. All while friends extolled the virtues of their Aerostars that went 150,00 miles with only oil changes.
If you don’t see a pattern, well, I certainly did. The Aerostar soldiered on, although it’s likely that it was my pocketbook and I doing the soldiering. When its transmission failed at around 100,ooo miles, the jig was up. By that point we’d begun to question the need for such a lumbering leviathan, anyway. Some of the kids were out of the nest by then, so why waste all our resources, both in fuel and constant maintenance bills, to keep sending an ailing Aerostar down the road? At various times as service invoices piled up I’d considered a replacement. I came close to signing the papers for a new Dodge Caravan but then got cold feet after reading about the Chrysler minivans lunching their transmissions. I looked long and hard at a Taurus wagon before I had a moment of enlightenment: was I really going to buy another Ford? Had I fallen prey to Stockholm Syndrome? I checked out a used Toyota Previa at a nearby Acura dealer because Toyota=reliable, but was treated so high-handedly and quoted such a laughable price that I beat a hasty retreat. In the end, I settled for something quite different, a vehicle whose entire engine was visible when the hood was propped open. Would it hunt? Would it prove to be reliable? Was it funny and foreign?
Watch this space!