COAL: 1968 Dodge A108 Van – Chapter 6, Some Cars Are Just Tools

A Pretty Face

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.