COAL: 1986 Dodge Caravan – It’s Not Hard to Make a Minivan

Note: None of these pictures are of the actual vehicle

In 1984, Chrysler stunned the automotive world with the introduction of the Caravan/Voyager minivans.  Although based on the K-car platform, these vehicles were quite versatile in that they fit most garages, could transport up to 7 people, and could haul all sorts of items both big and small.

Naturally, when they were introduced, the motoring public couldn’t buy enough of these vehicles.  That resulted in prices at or above sticker.  In my case, that meant that although I was interested in acquiring one, it wouldn’t be for a while until prices came down on the used market.  Sure enough, several years after the introduction, a co-worker mentioned that he was interested in selling his 1986 Caravan.  Only $1500 and it only had 80,000 miles.  I went to look at it, test drove it, and declared it mine.

The van was a tan metallic paint in the SE trim level.  It had cloth seats, A/C, 2.6L Mitsubishi engine, automatic transmission, power windows, power brakes, and power locks.  Everything worked like it should have and it also had decent tires.

This is the same color and material type that was in my van

The rear seat was adjustable so that you could either haul three people, or move it forward behind the second seat to haul cargo.  The middle seat was not adjustable and was shorter in width to allow access to the back seat.  Although advertised as being able to transport 7, in reality, the 2.6L engine was maxxed out.  Four or more people resulted in slow acceleration rates and poor overall performance.  The standing joke at the time was that Chrysler put rear window defoggers on the vans so that the passengers could keep their hands warm in the winter when pushing the van uphill.

The best feature was the cargo capacity of the Caravan.  With a low liftover height and a tall ceiling, these vehicles could haul a lot of gear and haul it with ease.  The largest load I hauled with my van was a washer and dryer, which I was able to load with both standing up.  Just try that with any SUV.  Since I was usually the only driver and passenger, both rear seats were relegated to couch duty in my basement.  That kept them in pristine condition.

The engine was a typical Japanese rear drive engine adapted for front wheel drive.  In other words, the manifolds and carburetor were at the front of the vehicle.  Easy access was available for all of the components.

This engine was equipped with two features as shown above.  The MCA Jet added a small third valve to each cylinder for improved combustion.  This never gave me any problems.  The Silent Shaft balance shaft system was the Achilles heel to most 2.6L engines including my engine.  Over time, the problem with this design was that the lubrication of the rear bearing of each shaft would degrade in quantity.  Thus, the shaft encountered more resistance when trying to turn and resulted in timing chain damage.  Most of these engines would eventually lock-up when the silent shafts stopped rotating due to a lack of oil pressure.  The oil pump itself was driven by the silent shaft chains, so when they stopped turning, so did the oil pump.  It happened to me after a couple of years and that meant time for an engine overhaul.

The engine was easily pulled from the top unlike certain Ford cars where you had to drop it out of the bottom and lift the body over it.  There were a couple of learning experiences on the 2.6 engine that I would use again in the future on flipper cars.  First, the balance shaft setup could be eliminated with the $35 kit shown above.  The chain is needed to operate the oil pump, the camshaft timing chain is operated directly from the crankshaft.  When this kit is installed, you couldn’t tell the difference in engine vibration levels.  Apparently, some Mitsubishi engineers felt that there were some vibration levels that were only detectable by sensitive instruments that needed to be offset.  Second, when you have the top deck of the block machined, you need to include the timing chain cover to the machine shop.  If you don’t install it on the block before machining, you will have an uneven cylinder head mounting surface.  You also have to make sure that the shop returns all 17 bolts that attach the cover to the block.  Years later, when I rebuilt a Chrysler 2.5L engine, the same machine shop recommended that I eliminate the balance shafts from the bottom of the block.  This was a simpler procedure that did not involve having to buy a special kit.  All you needed to do was remove the hardware, insert a tap into the oil feed hole in the block, and break it off.  No more balance shafts and again, you could not sense the difference in vibration levels.

The second most favorite component of mine(second only to the silent shafts) on the 2.6L engine was the Mikuni carburetor.  Compared to the simple Holley found on 2.2L engines, this was a mechanical nightmare to adjust.  Plus, the choke had a wax pellet inside of a housing that used engine coolant to heat it.  You had to be careful when installing the carburetor to make sure that the coolant passage would seal correctly.  Otherwise, you would get coolant flowing through the carb into the engine.  Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time I owned the van, there were Weber carbs available for retrofit that would have simplified life.

Another experience with the van was that I decided to get the automatic transmission rebuilt while the engine was out for rebuild. The early transmission had a reputation of being a weak design.  I was referred to a transmission technician at Chrysler Engineering who rebuilt them on the side.  He had a good reputation for work, the problem was that I could never get in touch with him to find out if it was done.  I finally decided to go to his house and confront him.  Turns out the transmission had been done for a couple of months, but I had purchased a used transmission in order to get mine back on the road.  I ended up selling the rebuilt unit to another minivan owner, so all’s well that end’s well.

The air conditioning in the Caravan worked well when I bought the car.  Upon inspection, the condenser was of tube and fin construction.  This was much more impressive from a construction standpoint than the shaved fin serpentine condensers used in K cars.  After two years of use, however, the Caravan’s condenser failed.  I installed a new replacement condenser, pulled a vacuum on the system, and recharged it with R-12.  Back to proper operation.

The left front door had been in an accident prior to my ownership.  It had been repaired with Bondo and was showing some stress cracks due to door closure shock.  I ground it out and used All Metal filler to repair it.  After repainting, it looked as good as new and never cracked again.

I put 20,000 miles on the Caravan, including a four month long term training assignment in Virginia.  It hauled cargo easily and was easy on gas.  What else can you ask from a car?  More power from the engine would have been welcomed, but you can’t have everything given Chrysler’s shortage of good V6 engines at the time.  I was going to keep the Caravan longer, but was presented with an opportunity to buy a three year old Voyager at a very attractive price.  I sold the Caravan for a small profit, considering the expenses involved in repairing the engine.  The Caravan/Voyager were advertised in Canada as “Magic Wagons,” which is an appropriate name given their versatility.  In fact, the Dodge Grand Caravan still shares many of the characteristics that made my van extremely useful and versatile.  How hard is it to make a minivan?  Not hard when you know what you are doing!!