Some cars you buy because they strike your fancy, some because you always wanted them and some because you’ve got a specific need. This van fell into the later category. It served its need for the handful of months that I owned it.
In the spring of 1985 I was about to get out of the Navy and had applied for admission to the University of Arizona. My best friend from high school was living in Tucson and he’d convinced me that I should come out that way even if I didn’t get admitted for the fall semester. I needed a way to transport my motorcycle and personal belongings. This A108 Van was inexpensive and had the volume I needed. It had a 3 speed column shift manual transmission and if I recall correctly it had the 225 cu in Slant 6 engine.
Dodge built these vans at their plant in Jefferson City, Missouri. That would prove useful. A feature of this series of van was its cab over design. The engine dog house sat between the seats and was (only) accessible from inside the van. This would also prove useful during my brief period of ownership.
While the nose was its best view it didn’t look too bad from a distance.
Of course it had the typical rocker panel rust of a Chrysler product of that era.
On May 6, 1985 I was discharged from the Navy and after loading everything I owned I left Norfolk, VA and headed towards New York. As I was passing Newark International Airport (in New Jersey) the front universal joint failed. I had the long wheel base version and the only drive shaft with a good universal joint that I could find in a local junk yard was from a short wheel base van. Not a big deal, my local machine shop cut the universal off the short shaft and mated it to my long shaft.
In early August I headed west. As I crossed the George Washington Bridge the transmission popped out of 3rd. It did that a couple more times. Clearly the synchro was shot so I decided to tie the shift lever off to hold it in gear. I was planning to stop in Jefferson City, Missouri to pick up my motorcycle that I’d left with my friends parents and figured I’d probably be able to find a replacement in a junkyard there.
When I got to Jefferson City I went to a local junkyard to look for a replacement transmission. The guy behind the counter handed me a service manual and a set of micrometers and pointed me towards a shelving unit full of transmissions. Between my transmission and his collection I pulled together a good set of gears and rebuilt my transmission on his shop floor. He charged me all of $20 for the parts I used and told me to keep the manual.
A few days later as I was headed down I-25 in New Mexico I noticed the engine temperature climbing and steam coming out of the doghouse. As I pulled off of the highway there was a radiator shop. He was closing for the night but said that I was more than welcome to spend the night in the parking lot.
When I woke up in the morning it was raining, but with the engine completely accessible from inside the van that wasn’t a big deal. By the time the shop opened I had the radiator out. It was quickly fixed. I reinstalled it and was on the road again by midday.
It took three significant repairs but the van got me to Tucson. Obviously this then 17 year old van was not the most reliable or resilient vehicle, but I owned tools and didn’t mind getting my hands dirty. Having reached Tucson I had no further need for it so I sold it to a lady that was moving to Las Vegas and needed to transport her Harley.
Some people Need vans,but I believe personal use and demise of station wagons was promoted by manufacturers in 70s as a response to Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations from Federal Government. These vans were technically considered trucks, which were exempt from figuring in to overall Corporate averages. Some one correct me if I am wrong.
Vans like this and those made all through the 70s were designed long before CAFE, which only began easing into effect on 1979 models. Full-sized vans became increasingly popular through much of the 1970s as an alternative to a traditional wagon.
Starting in 1979, CAFE still applied to light trucks, but the mpg targets were much more relaxed, and moving a vehicle from a car to a truck helped two ways – it got to used the less-stringent truck standards, and removed a low-mpg vehicle from the car average, making it easier for the passenger car side to hit its own targets.
It was the Chrysler minivan which was the first that could have been/should have been classified as a car, but which was classified as a truck instead. But if there was anyone who was not in CAFE trouble in 1984 it was Chrysler, which had built up credits for years by then. Still, that minivan as a truck helped keep that situation going. I am certainly not afraid to blame CAFE for things, but I don’t think it was a primary cause for the death of the traditional wagon. The Chrysler minivan did that, and it was built out of parts Chrysler had based on decisions made because of their poor financial condition from a few years earlier, and not the result of trying to hit CAFE targets.
The A-108 Sportsman that dad bought to replace our Impala wagon weighed less and was slightly more economical despite brick-like aerodynamics.
I still cannot look at one of these without remembering a case I was involved in back in the 80s, in which a front seat passenger got tossed through his half of that split windshield in an accident. He came out of it a lot better than he should have.
I would not call your van unreliable, but one that got put to a stress test right after you got it. I think it did pretty well for you, considering that it was old/cheap/well-used and got pressed into a cross-country trip almost right away. The lady with the Harley certainly benefited from your skills and started with a better van than you did.
It is funny that as much wheeltime as I have in old vans, none of it was in these first-gen versions from Ford/Chevy/Dodge. I would like to drive one of these, if only briefly.
With my legs being in front of the axle I feared for what would happen to them in an accident. I didn’t consider the risk of going through the windshield. The dash was far enough away that the lack of a shoulder belt wasn’t much of a concern either.
It was definitely well used when I bought it. I certainly hope that she made it to Vegas. I’ve always wondered.
With its minivan Chrysler made the most it could out of it’s could have been/should have been classified as a car. They called it the Car-a-van and played that up in their adds. IIRC event though it was classified as a truck they built it to passenger car safety standards. Full size vans of that era were built to truck safety standards.
I had the “pleasure” of driving first gen vans from all three (Ford/Chevy/Dodge) in the early 80’s. The Navy owned Ford & Chevy both had fairly low miles and were reasonably well maintained. My Uncles Ford bore the wear and tear of being a New York City working van and my high school friends Chevy Greenbrier should have been in a junkyard.
Sounds like between some good old fashioned know-how and some kindly servicemen, this van was destined to keep ticking.
Absolutely…If any of those maladies had occurred on the road today, even in a 2006 model, things might have been different. A lot of junkyards have gone corporate, machine shops are closing, radiator shops are closing… The upside is that a 2006 car today might not have those problems along the way. The trip was probably a lot more fun in that van though; it was an adventure!
I’ve been blessed over the years with kindly servicemen. A few of them have probably even been life savers. I’m not sure what I would have done in Barstow if that mechanic hadn’t delayed his vacation to get my Silverwing back on the road.
They’re still out there. I found one in deep west Texas in June 2021 and another outside of Espanola, NM a couple of weeks later.
In 1980 I purchased a 1966 orange SWB Dodge A-100 van that needed a little engine work, which I performed in my driveway. Winter coming, I put a shelf across the back to sleep on, stowed my tools and a small carpenter’s horse underneath and headed south to spend the winter in the warmth doing carpentry work.
Somewhere in Virginia the automatic transmission began to slip pretty bad and I took it in for a look-see. I was afraid I was going to be stranded short of my goal. Not to worry. Either the factory or somebody else had installed the big 720(?) torqueflite to the slant six, the transmission ordinarily used behind the larger V-8s. A few tweaks and some fluid and I was on my way, assured by the mechanic that that transmission would long outlast the slant six.
And it probably did.
A727 Loadflite transmission was used on all Mopar light trucks, even with the six. Only time mine “slipped” is when the fluid was low, due to a bad o-ring seal on the shift mechanism.
I’d always wanted one of these vans, and I acquired my ’69 from the original owner, completed my plans of installing a 340 c.i. engine (replacng the \6), and some other custom touches. I also intalled shoulder belts. I’d like to restore it and get it back on the road! 🙂
Let’s try for the picture again! Don’t know what happened. 🙂
I put in more than a few miles car-pooling in a colleague’s A100 (or A108? It was over 3x years ago) in heavy traffic on California’s Hwy 17/880 in the East Bay. I don’t recall worrying about safety; I was young, and the driver was a skilled SCCA B Production Corvette racer. But he didn’t drive aggressively. This was during a late seventies “gas crisis’’ and he had installed a manifold vacuum gauge prominently on the dash, and diligently drove for fuel economy with a gentle foot on the throttle. It was a slant six and he did use it to tow the ‘Vette. Now I’m sure everyone uses a 1 ton diesel pickup.
Our son is in the Navy, and he recently sent us a behind the wheel and through the windshield shot of a Navy van he recently drove. A Ford Transit with a mere 11000 miles showing on the odometer.
The images you conjure of the welder in NY, the junkyard in MO, and the radiator shop in NM…particularly the junkyard in MO…seem like something that’s impossibly far away from the present day, even though they’re experiences from only 40 years ago. As Aaron says, the likelihood of finding a junkyard today that would allow you to rebuild a transmission on site, not to mention one that assumed that the customer would be willing to do that, seems vanishingly small. I get why they don’t exist, but I sure do miss junkyards like that.
I had a ’68 A100. Bought it from a plumber in the spring of 1976; it was tired by then; well over a 100k miles. 225 /6, and three-on-the-tree. It became my first remodeling job. I bought an electric jig saw and paneled it with plywood. Cut in two windows. Bed in the back, cross ways, which was of course too short for me, but then I don’t sleep stretched out My GF made the curtains. I loved it.
Towed it behind a rental truck to San Diego. Put on some used snow tires in the back, and drove it all over the Anza Borrego desert, Death Valley, and all kinds of remote places exploring the spectacular outdoors of California. Only got stuck once, on a crazy steep rocky trail in DV. Had to back down for half a mile.
The engine burned oil, but never failed me. After I met Stephanie, it was our weekend get-away vehicle from the bowels of LA. Up to the Angeles Crest to spend Friday night, and then down the other side to spend the weekend in the high desert.
It became the first “remote truck” for the little tv station I worked for, hauling the then-big portable Sony camera and the portable 3/4″ Umatic VCR.
Eventually I sold it after I came into my first Peugeot 404. I got almost as much as I paid for it. It served me very well. Never had a serious issue with it.
In addition to my A-100, dad bought an A-108 Sportsman for family desert outings, with two small dirt bikes and camping gear. Both vans were “loaded” with LA 2bbl V-8’s and Load Flight automatics. The bigger van became my brother’s first car. Mine was sold before the Hawaii move, as it was too big to ship economically.
Back in the ’60’s and ’70’s the cars were simpler, and generally easier to work on. Drive lines had been in production since the late ’50’s and parts interchangeability was high. Wrecking yards were full of cheap parts. We were young, resourceful, and limber. We were also broke or just so poor, that we didn’t mind getting our hands dirty. We expected that things could likely go wrong, so a breakdown didn’t faze us… much. We just found a way to deal with it.
Now I’m old, but will still spin wrenches and swing hammers when necessary. I’ve had Triple A for years, but would rather change a tire on the road than wait an hour for the tow service. I was amazed one time that my neighbor had a tire go flat in his driveway, but chose to wait two hours for Triple A, instead of changing it himself. A computer guy in his 40’s, he doesn’t do any work around his house or yard. To each their own, I guess. I may not work fast, but I still get things done.
Some of us still do that, and please do not generalize about “computer guys” I’m a systems administrator i my 50s and when my truck got a flat in the driveway I whipped out the floor jack and the impact wrench and took care of business. Then again I also replaced the cylinder heads on that truck in the driveway. I also have a friend who’s an IT manager and builds Jeep rock crawlers as a hobby, plus my son works in high tech and is a regular at the salvage yard to upgrade and repair his fleet
Thanks for refreshing my memory about the window between the side doors. In the early 70s one of these A100 passenger vans offered a shared ride service from White Plains station and that was my first time in a van. I was fascinated by the engine visible through an opening in the dog house.