1994 Ford Aerostar XLT, the soccer mobile.
Mrs. W, proud mom of two boys, wanted a minivan; only a minivan would do. Mr. W did not want a minivan, a station wagon would do. But Mr. W was willing to compromise: “How about a full size conversion van? We have a detached garage that is big enough and you won’t be driving it yourself anyway.”- “No,” the lady demanded, “a minivan!”
I heard Caravans had finicky transmissions.
I took two used Grand Caravans for a drive and both of them made the same clunking noise in the back. I guess it was the hatch, but I am not sure. Yet I knew I did not want to hear this for the next ten years or so. Besides, these vans were known to eat transmissions for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But more so, I had already decided to get the largest beast possible that went under the term minivan.
Chevrolet Astro featured a Tupperware style interior
That led me to Chevrolet’s Astro and Ford’s Aerostar. The Astro I took for a spin was ponderous and sported the cheapest looking interior of all. The instrument panel seemed to come out of the Cavalier and the plastic panels around the cabin had the look and feel of cheap Tupperware knock-offs. No way.
Shorty will chirp the tires if equipped with the 4.0 engine.
I visited the Ford dealer in neighboring Boone and had a look at a silver Aerostar with the 4.0 engine. It was the short version. Upon stepping on the pedal the rear tires chirped and I thought: now that’s a minivan I can live with. I also was pleasantly surprised that the steering wheel was not bumping around much at all, something the early Aerostars did. The interior was head and shoulders above the GM’s and it was available as an extended van with a 15” longer rear section. The long version looked quite impressive. Sure, you had to get used to the looks of the front but overall it was a decent looking box. Now I knew: Ford Aerostar, extended, in mocha, green or red, and it must have rear heat and air conditioning and the 4.0 V6 engine so I can chirp the tires when I want to. The Boone dealer only had the shorty in stock. The classifieds of the Des Moines Register had an ad for a green one. I called and it had the 3.0 engine. “It’s really great on gas!” she said, but I did not want it.
A dealer in Newton, IA. had exactly what I wanted and in my price range. My neighbor bought his Lincoln Town Car at that dealership. He was a very picky guy and that lent credibility to the dealer.
A not-so-mini van.
I drove my beloved Mazda 323 there on a Saturday and heated the clutch one more time to make it behave before going on the lot. The salesman offered an alternative: a 4WD model or a RWD model. The 4WD was out of my budget. So he took me to the RWD. I liked it with the dark (electric?) red and medium grey interior, plenty of space, nice seats, a middle bench and a rear bench and space behind the 3rd row. I took it for a drive and it went well too. It had about 23000 miles. The tires did not chirp but it felt poised at highway speeds and nothing negative popped out at me.
It was dirty inside. There was a black stain on the rear bench and dirt footprints on the carpet in the trunk area. He apologized and explained it was their rental unit. But they have a man who does a great job detailing. The asking price was $17,000, but it dropped right away. He got the mechanic’s report on the 323 and said: “It has some miles but it is a good car.” I suppose the clutch behaved well. In the end he applied a trade-in of $2800.
Thursday night that week I took the 323 on my last drive and came back with a red, shiny Ford Aerostar XLT. The detailer did a great job as promised and Mrs. W was happy with our new soccer mom status symbol.
Next morning I took No. 1 son to preschool. I opened the garage door and he looked at that big red thing. His wide eyes turned to me with question marks all over. Then he bent down and looked under the van. “Well, we don’t have the blue car anymore. This is our van from now on.” He was visibly disappointed. Mazdas can do that to you.
Velour seats, rear A/C and heat vents, remote radio controls.
Some of the same folks that approved of my Mazda were now approving of my Aerostar. A colleague was driving one too and he pulled his boat all over the interstates with it. His friend too had one and had no trouble with it at all. Remember, not very long ago there was a kernel of truth in the FORD acronym: Found On the Road Dead.
FoMoCo’s “premium” minivan. “Thanks. But No Thanks, Jac!”
Maybe even Ford wasn’t quite sure about their creation. A few months later I received a postcard inviting me to check out their “premium” minivan Mercury Villager. Two years before that I had a look at one. I opened the door, saw the automatic seat belt and then I closed the door. The salesman couldn’t even make me sit in it.
Ford Aerostar in “Swordfish”.
My colleague recommended I have the body soundproofed because today’s vehicles are made of such thin sheet metal. I took it to the Ziebart place that just opened that very day and asked for a soundproofing. When I came back 2 days later, I was greeted and cheerfully informed that the rustproofing was done and the van was ready. “Rustproofing?! I asked for soundproofing!” They apologized profusely and added soundproofing after rustproofing free of charge. Of course soundproofing is most effective when you apply it directly to the sheet metal, not over rust proofing. But the worst thing was that they stripped a few holes for the panel screws. I had to re-tighten them every other month.
In November Mrs.W had a professional conference in Rapid City, SD and the Aerostar got its first long ride with us.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
We took the scenic highway 240 through the Badlands and stopped at Wall Drug. Of course we combined the trip with visiting Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse monument in its beginning phase and the town of Lead. There was no problem putting the little ones in their seats and the requisite gear in the back. Driving went well. I even got to experience the first ride on packed snow in the Black Hills. I was a little nervous at first but nothing scary happened. This van came with rear wheel ABS which helped a lot with conditions like that.
Aerostar in “The Bodyguard”.
But some shortcomings became evident. The seating position was not ideal. There was a draft coming in through the front door seals. In the front the floor sloped down towards the doors. Anything that dropped on the floor during the ride fell out of the van as soon as I opened the door. Noise levels were ok except for the rear HVAC ducts. They were running up the B pillar next to my left ear and across the ceiling. They had their own fan and the air rushing through the ducts was tortuously loud. Talking about torture: I found molten crayons on the carpet behind the driver’s seat. The rear heat was that hot! That was balanced by a freezing cold rear AC. Obviously the engineers had trouble to get the rear heat/AC tweaked just right. I cooked or froze my boys depending on the season.
Sitting high gave me good command vision. However I had to adjust to the fact that regular cars could be to my right and completely hidden from my sight. I caused two or three situations trying to move into the right lane when this happened and the drivers honked at me. Adjusting the mirror and paying close attention avoided further trouble.
In North Carolina we had one fun excursion with the van. We filled the van with our boys and five more cousins and took them to the North Carolina Aquarium, Kitty Hawk and the beach. None of the kids had been to the beach before. They were chasing the edge of the water, backing out and running from it when the next wave came in while screaming on the top of their lungs.
Overwhelming displays at the House on the Rock.
To entertain the kids I bought a 12V powered TV/VCR. I cut a piece of plywood and used some bungee cords to mount it across the armrests of the front seats. It worked quite well but this primitive system provided only the choice of two evils: listen to the movies’ soundtracks through a squeaky low quality speaker or deal with cranky kids. Oma and Opa came from Germany to visit us for spring vacation and Opa got the worst of it: the TV’s speaker was pointing to the right side and cranked up loud, so the kids in the back could hear something. He was exposed to the constant noise coming from the crappy speaker and in a language he did not know. This trip took us to the Wisconsin Dells, to the Barnum & Barnum Circus Museum in Baraboo, and The House on the Rock.
Animated in “The Fast and the Furry.”It came also in Four Wheel Drive. Really!
The van needed the 30,000 mile transmission service. K-Mart relocated to a new building and the automotive department was now run by Penske. When I took it there they told me about a newfangled way of servicing transmissions. They will use a machine that pushes all of the old fluid out as the new fluid gets pumped in. Hooked up to my van, the pump blew a line and spilled half a gallon of fluid on the floor. What a mess. They mopped it up and fixed the machine with a proper hose clamp. Then they got the van taken care of with a two hour delay.
The same shop did a shoddy brake job on Mrs. W’s car and that meant I needed to look for a better place. When the van needed tires I called around the local tire dealers to find a good value offer. The lady at one one shop recognized my name because her daughter was a preschool classmate of our boys. That made the decision a lot easier. I knew they would treat me right and I’ve been a customer ever since. Jason the mechanic would get to know my van rather well. They told me that the original tires were of a special size and they would be horrendously expensive to replace. They suggested the closest standard dimension and saved me a bunch of money right off the bat.
One day on the way home on I 35 the check engine light came on. I had flashbacks to my experience with the oil pressure light in my VW 1302 back in Germany. This was my first encounter with the CEL and I did not know what it meant. I stopped and checked the engine. It was still there. I decided to keep going, but I did not feel good about it. My check engine light went off, who knows why.
I thought I could save a few bucks by doing some of my own maintenance. I bought the spark plugs and opened the hood. I realized I could handle the first plug but then I looked for the others. To get to the rear most plugs you need to remove the dog house and dive in. There was no way for me to get to any of these plugs with the tools I had. At my favorite shop I paid about $180.00 for replacing 6 plugs. Holy Moly! Later I learned that some people drilled a 3″ access hole into the floor pan to get to the most hidden ones.
Meanwhile the boys grew into their cub Scout, Boy Scout and soccer years. Add Suzuki violin, basketball, football, little league, any other ball game you can think of, chess club and bible school. In fact the boys had so much “structured time” I think they lacked “just-being-boys-time”. Hint: if your kids’ schedule does not leave you any time to be an adult person then your kids have no time being kids either.
I took No.1 son to his first soccer practice. The club had divided the participants into teams and asked a parent to be coach of that team. Coach Tom’s finely tuned ears alerted him of my German accent and he immediately announced me a soccer expert. He also made me assistant coach. My German accent was sufficient qualification. It did not matter that I never played soccer nor particularly cared for watching games. But in Germany you will watch soccer by default. After one season he promoted me to head coach while he assisted and one season later he became “color commentator” or something. Well done, Tom!
Coaching soccer turned out to be a great experience. I always wanted to do something for the community I lived in and this worked out really well. One season we had a most diverse group. The kids came from backgrounds that were literally spanning the globe: Korean, Israel-Argentinian, Nigerian, Midwest white American, German-African American. That’s my kind of a team. We were “one for all and all for one”. I looked forward to every practice and every game. They had a great time and it’s nice to hear a kid saying “Coach Wolfgang is my best buddy!”
The van performed nicely hauling kids and gear to all the events. Biking was another activity we enjoyed. I liked fixing bikes as much as I liked riding them. Somebody stole bikes out of the garage when we were out of town. To replace them I purchased used bikes in thrift stores and fixed them up. This turned into a hobby and since then I have fixed bikes up for resale. Once I had seven bikes in this van. On soccer trips out of town I sometimes came back with one or two bikes. It paid for some of the gas money.
Featured in “Wild”: extended Aerostar
It also took us to North Carolina numerous times. One Christmas we had it loaded up with stuff and gifts to the headliner. I couldn’t even look out the back. At a rest stop a couple laughingly took note and told us how much this reminded them of some of their own trips. Another man was reminded of his former Aerostar and how well it served him. It was really good on fuel, he said. When I picked up one of my son’s soccer team mates the boy’s mother admired the interior. “We don’t have such a fancy van.” she remarked. It’s nice to get compliments like that. The folks in NC assumed we rented it and were surprised to learn otherwise. They were accustomed to see us with the same old hatchback for nine years.
This may have been the storm that gave us 800 miles of icy roads.
Going to North Carolina was never a problem. Coming back during one of those winters was a different story. I just bought a pair of wheels with winter tires and that was a good thing. Just west of Winston Salem the rain came down and froze to the pavement. There were cars and pickups slip-sliding around coming down the hill on the eastbound lanes. I braced myself for a long slog home. What followed was a drive of 800 miles of uninterrupted ice and snow over 2 days. Boy, was I tired after that. I think I saw about 20 cars in the ditches. But the Aerostar brought us home safely going no faster than 45 mph.
“To Catch a Yeti”. Three Aerostars in one screen shot!
A few weeks later I had another scare. I was driving alone, van empty and came back into town on a four lane road. I was in the far right lane and coasted at about 35 mph on packed snow. The road goes up a minor hill and as usual I just tipped the accelerator a little bit for the hump. In an instant I did a 180° and came to a stop in the far left lane pointing out of town. Luckily I had the road for myself and I hit nothing. My pulse, though, hit 180 bpm I think.
Was it a reliable van? Yes it was, but it needed its fixes. The radiator leaked and was replaced. The power steering pump leaked. I fixed that with an additive. The oil pan gasket leaked. One lower ball joint wore out. The muffler and catalytic converter rusted out. Oil consumption increased as the miles accumulated. The transmission slipped slightly at times. It was low on fluid because of a leak at the output end. The multi-function switch failed ($300), the clock spring too ($200). The shock absorbers were replaced. They were inexpensive. There was a safety recall related to electrical fires. My van had scorched wires on the firewall. The lower sliding door roller wore out. The rear wiper linkage needed WD-40 on occasion. Headlights were getting yellow and cloudy. I polished them with rubbing compound and got them clear again.
The end of the locust tree. Photobombed by our Aerostar.
And then, there was that strange misfire on the home stretch from a summer vacation in the Wisconsin Dells. It came and went without rhyme and reason. We made it home though and I took it to my trusted garage. Jason’s eyes glazed over when he saw my van. He changed the ignition cables and plugs and cleaned a few things. When I picked it up they told me that it is much better but still not 100%. They thought it was electrical and tried spraying water all over to look for errant sparks. They spent a lot of time but wouldn’t charge me for that. That’s the kind of mechanic I recommend. I did a little internet sleuthing, went out in the night with my water sprayer and repeated the diagnostic procedure. I worked for about 15 minutes and noticed one single spark jumping from that black box thingy on top of the engine to the body. I took it back and told them about it. They changed it out and it ran like a top. The thingy was called a coil pack. I think it shorted out mostly internally and Jason did not think about that possibility.
And the muffler pipe was held up by the rear axle because the hanger broke. In true MacGyver fashion I collected a piece of wire on the side of the road and fixed it temporarily.
Once we came back from another extended vacation trip that went without any automotive glitches. Our neighbor, a young guy with family asked me about our trip and I told him our destinations and those 2500 miles. “Wow”, he said. “And that car trouble.” I was perplexed. “What car trouble? I had none.” Now he was surprised. Then I realized he must have suffered from the Found On the Road Dead syndrome.
In “The Rat Race”
Then one day I saw a guy riding one bike that was taken out of my garage 2 years earlier. I followed him and flagged down an oncoming police car. He turned around and stopped the cyclist. He asked him how he got this bike. “I don’t know how it came to me”, he said. ‘Sure’, I thought. ‘Bikes are like hungry stray dogs. They just come to you when they are hungry.’ The officer addressed me: “Sir, is this your bike?” “It sure is!” I responded. Then he addressed the teenager: “Are you willing to give this bike to the gentleman?” He knocked the bike towards me and said: “Yes!” The officer and I looked at each other and bit our tongues to contain our urge to laugh. That kid went on a looong walk home. That was an excellent piece of police work.
The ’94 Ford Aerostar XLT was certainly not perfect but with proper maintenance it was reliable. After 10 years and reaching 165,000 miles it was time to switch to a newer vehicle. There was rust on the rocker panels (hey, Ziebart?), there was a crack in the engine mount rubber and I wasn’t going to spend money on fixing leaks. The kids started complaining about their bench and I simply grew tired of the beast. Besides, it never chirped the tires for me, not once! In September of 2005 I traded it in. I am sure it went to auction and hopefully continued its career as a family hauler.