COAL: 1994 Ford Club Wagon Chateau – Chapter 18, Let’s Go Clubbing

Because each chapter has been published in the order the cars came into my life, it may have been difficult to keep track of their comings and goings, so let’s back out and recap.  We moved in June of 1993.  At that time our drivers were the ’88 Accord and the ’86 Marquis Wagon (the smaller one, like a Fairmont.)  The Imperial had left our care before this and the Model A left soon after we moved, which was also right around the time The Vic (’85 Crown Vic) replaced the Marquis. It was very early in the spring of 1994 when I was finally rid of the ThunderTurd.  With that, we became more-or-less normal people again with two drivers and two cars: the Accord and The Vic.

After a long distance trip (Indianapolis to Dallas to Indianapolis) with two toddlers, I became convinced that life with two sedans had become untenable, even if one of the sedans (The Vic) was reasonably large.  The situation went from untenable to impossible in early 1995 when we learned that Marianne was expecting Cavanaugh kid #3.  Going from a family of  four to a family of five was going to require several adjustments and one of them would be with our car fleet.

By early 1995, there were two well-trod paths for vehicle upsizing to deal with a plus-size family.  One of those paths was the burgeoning market in SUVs.  Ford Explorers and Jeep Cherokees (Grand or otherwise) had become hot commodities.  A size up required either a Tahoe or a Suburban, and those had also become quite popular.  The other path was the minivan.  Ever since Chrysler had popularized the category a decade earlier, minivans were everywhere.  But as those of you who have followed this series have likely concluded, I am not very good at following well-trod paths.

My sister had bought a 1993 Cherokee Sport and I had ridden in a couple of Explorers.  I learned a curious fact – they were roughly the same size inside as my late, lamented Fox-body Marquis Wagon (except with less cargo area in the way-back). And as commodious as the Suburban was, they were really, really expensive (as the most popular vehicles always seem to be).  It was about then that I remembered back to my adolescence.

When I first met my friend Dan in the fall of 1972, is father (and my eventual car-mentor) Howard had two vehicles for their family of five – a 1971 International Travelall and a ’72 Chrysler Newport 2 door.  The family owned a getaway property in Michigan and I was invited along for a weekend with them.  I made six, to fill out the Travelall’s two wide bench seats.  I had thought of the Travelall as a great family car, but quickly realized that nobody really liked three-abreast seating no matter how big the car was.  I certainly didn’t.  Howard evidently figured this out too, because the next year he traded the Travelall on a 1973 Dodge Royal Sportsman Maxiwagon.  Now we were talkin’.  That big Top Banana yellow-and-white 8 passenger Dodge had plenty of room.  On subsequent trips we still sometimes sat three-abreast in the two rear seats, but there was room to get up and move around between seats on the move and an area for a full-sized cooler full of drinks and sandwiches.  This was also the vehicle on which I learned about rolling driver changes where the cruise control held speed while the front passenger held the wheel so that driver 1 could slide out of the pilot’s seat and driver 2 could slide in and belt up.  But that’s another story.  The point of THIS story is that the big Dodge banana van turned me into a Van Guy.

By 1994, there was a really wide choice in minivans.  Many still had that trait that, had I been a vampire, would have been as repellent to me as silver crosses dipped in garlic: the combo of a 4 cylinder engine and an automatic transmission.  Larger minivans were seeing V6 power more frequently by then, but I noticed another curious thing – minivans and big vans cost the same for any given level of trim and equipment.  Do you see the recurring theme?  On a per-pound basis, there was no beating the value of a full-sized van.  I decided right there that since I had become a grown-up and all, I was now entitled to own that ultimate 1970’s Dad-mobile.

I did not want a custom or conversion van, which was the only kind found at dealers in any numbers at all.  I wanted the high-trim passenger van right from the factory, reminiscent of Howard’s ’73 Dodge.  I tried hard to find the Royal Sportsman’s 1995 equivalent, but that was impossible.  Chrysler had stubbornly refused to bring its B series passenger van much out of the 1970’s, and creature comforts were at a minimum.  I actually found one at an area dealer – a dark green Ram Wagon, high trim “SLT”, and with a 360 V8.

I went so far as to bring it home on a test drive to make sure it wasn’t too tall to fit in my garage – and it wasn’t.  It was a delight to drive, every bit as taut in its structure as I remembered, and the 360 was lovely.  Sadly, the inside was a total fail.  Marianne has always been a practical girl, but I could tell as she looked around the van’s insides that her willingness to be practical only went so far.  The thing that killed that deal was that only 2 of the 6 rear seat passengers got 3-point seat belts.  Yes, I was the guy who had driven a Model A with a tyke in Mom’s unbelted lap, but this was different.  I expected to get many years and many miles out of our next vehicle, and I had been sobered by the experience of the collision in the Colt.

I will confess that I never really looked at a Chevy/GMC.  I had driven a couple of them back in my days of summer jobs.  I found them unpleasant and rattly.  I will admit that old prejudices bubbled to the surface, but there was nothing compelling enough about the GM van to make me consider buying one.  The Ford, however, was another matter.  Ford had always been the leader in selling vans with all the creature comforts.  I had driven several of them and, other than their somewhat willowy structures (compared with the Dodges) they were a good solution.  What’s more, Ford had done a thorough updating of the E series van in 1992, making it the only really modern entrant in the category.

Our van, the day we bought it, stopping to show it off at Grandma’s house.

One day in March of 1995 I was driving past a local Ford dealer (yes, the same one that had overcharged me on the Crown Vic’s water pump) and saw something that made me turn in.  In their used car lot were TWO (count ’em) late model Ford Club Wagons in Chateau trim.  Both were one-year-old 1994 models.  Both had the frosty mocha lower paint and mocha interiors.  One was metallic red and had the 5.0/302 while the other was emerald green and was powered by the 5.8/351.  As soon as time allowed I took Marianne there and we drove one.  Where she had been very guarded about the Dodge we had tried, she was all in for one of these, given the luxurious interiors that generated surprise and delight for almost anyone who ever rode in it.

An interior virtually identical to the one in our van. It was a lovely place to spend time – except when cleaning up after an occasional barfing child. More than once during such a clean-up I threatened to trade it on a van with rubber floors and vinyl seats.


In a rare alignment of the planets, the one that was equipped with the engine I wanted was also painted the color we preferred.  Having spent far too many hours in the sluggish Vic, I was ready for the big engine, and both of us liked the green paint. Actually, this was the first used car since my ’77 New Yorker that was equipped, painted and trimmed almost exactly how I would have spec’d it out had I been buying it new as a special order.  It lacked some of the “truck” options (like the hitch bumper and the sliding side door) but carried virtually every other option from the catalog.

Yes, Marianne was excited about it, but I wanted to be sure.  We all know that there are few things worse than spousal remorse when Hubby is too quick on the draw when choosing a vehicle.  So, just to be safe I took her to a Mopar dealer and we drove a new ’95 Grand Voyagavan (I can no longer remember if the dealer sign was red or blue).  After the drive, she asked if we could look at the extended version.  I saw her face when I said “this IS the extended version,” I knew right then that I would soon own a big, big van.  And I was also reminded that I had picked the right girl.

The transaction for the van was not at all like it was when I had bought the used Marquis wagon.  This time, I really, really wanted this van.  Not one like this, but this very, actual one.  It was essentially one of a kind, a thing the law calls sui generis.  And not only did I want this van more than the salesman needed to sell it, I had a Crown Vic with freshly changed oil (therefore a minimum of anti-freeze in it) that I needed to get rid of.  Let’s just say that the payments were a lot higher than the $50-something a month when I signed the papers on the Marquis.  But on the other hand, this was the nicest, most expensive vehicle I had ever owned.  Everyone was happy.

We would own the Club Wagon for the next eleven years.  It had 20k on it at purchase and about 165k when we were through with it.  Overall, there were more plusses than minuses in that time.  The electronic shifting on the E4OD transmission was the polar opposite of that on the herky-jerky AOD in the Vic, with the torque converter lockup now coming at higher speed, well after the 2-3 shift.  And the added servings of torque from the tailshaft of the 351 made it one of the most pleasant powertrains I have owned.  I was less enthralled with the 3:55 axle that Ford mated to all vans with the 5.8 L engine, but I lived with it. This van had the tightest MPG range of anything I have ever owned.  Until the last couple of years when age and miles were catching up to it, I never got under 12 mpg and I never got over 16, no matter the terrain, load or style of driving.  But gas was cheap so filling the 35 gallon tank was not traumatic.

It was the opposite of the Vic in another way – it became the best trip-and-vacation car in the history of the world.  Right after kiddo #3 was born, our eldest was drafted to be a ring bearer for my brother’s wedding in Pennsylvania.  Along with me were Son No. 1 and my sister’s family of four,  We filled out the six seats and everyone traveled in supreme comfort.  And once back, three kids in child seats was no problem at all, with plenty of room for more.

I felt really smug when I looked at the creative packing people had to do in their Suburbans when the rear seat was up, and we became quite undisciplined in our packing habits.  When it came time to haul stuff, the load area was cavernous.  Other than wrestling seats that seemed to weigh about as much as I did, the process to turn the cargo area from cavernous to infinity (and beyond) wasn’t bad.  But the van’s main duty was hauling kids.  Lots and lots of kids.  Carpools, Cub Scouts, Brownies, sports teams, movie matinees and sleepovers, it didn’t matter because the big Ford delivered.  Literally.

This van also took care of us during a tough time after our daughter had been diagnosed with a nasty hearing loss.  That hearing loss eventually led to the need for a cochlear implant, which was done at a university clinic in Champaign, Illinois, and we made many trips there and back until Indianapolis caught up to a level of care we were happy with.  The big green machine did its job during that stressful time, and that daughter has now completed college and gotten married to start the love-marriage-family cycle anew.

This was, without doubt, the best snow car I have ever owned.  It weighed about 5,000 pounds, and had plenty of weight over the rear wheels, especially with passengers.  The combination of ABS brakes, the limited slip differential, high ground clearance and the light truck radial tires with a fairly open tread pattern allowed the big Clubber to power through almost any weather conditions that didn’t call for something with tracks instead of wheels.  I have always maintained that a well-balanced RWD vehicle was just fine in snow country, and this one proved me right.

But our Clubbing life was not without issues.  Almost immediately I discovered (by setting off the alarm multiple times) that there was no  power lock actuator in the rear door.  Warranty.  The lower ball joints wore out.  Warranty.  The upper ball joints were replaced after warranty in a compromise where I paid either parts or labor only, I forget.  All 4 Ford ball joints would be replaced once more by the time we hit 80k, but through the modern miracle of grease fittings we had no trouble with them after that.  This was the first year of R-134 a/c refrigerant, and the system struggled to cool the big hot box in city driving, even with rear air and a warranty compressor replacement.  We also did a fuel pump – the good indy mechanic I finally found never let me forget how not-fun it was to remove that 35 gallon tank when the pump failed right after a fill-up.  Let’s see, what else.  A radiator.  And we had the torque converter rebuilt due to some chatter/shudder.  The radio quit and started draining the battery – fixed by a factory replacement from eBay.

Front brakes and tires were never really long-lived items, and I lost track of the number of pads and rotors we went through.  Tires were the same way.  I eventually concluded that the van may have had more than its indicated 20k miles at purchase.  This van and the other one in the lot had been owned by the dealer since new as part of a rental sideline.  I got a printout of the service history and saw two or three complaints about the cruse control not working and no problem found – which I read somewhere could have been a side-effect of disconnecting the odometer.  Or maybe our service woes were just the typical U.S. car experience by then.  The good news was that the factory exhaust system stayed with us for the life of the van.  Really, the first 80k (60k put on by us) brought more problems than we should have seen, but the second 80k was pretty uneventful.  OK, other than the need to replace the rusty coolant lines that fed the rear heater core.  And the vacuum actuator for the rear heat/ac control that seemed to break at 40k mile intervals.

One problem that was not the van’s fault came from the way we parked it.  The van almost always shared a standard-width garage with a series of other cars in varying states of wide-ness.  We coped by snuggling the driver’s side up to the garage wall, then doing all entries/exits aircraft style through the rear passenger doors.  The van was equipped with six individual reading lights in the ceiling that were turned on by tilting them.  Or by bumping them with a coat hood or a backpack when getting out of the van.  And the combination of the darkly tinted windows and the placement of the garage door light prevented us from noticing the shining reading light until Marianne would call me the next morning asking me to come home to jump-start the van.  Fortunately, by that time my office was just a mile or two away from home.  Damn kids.

In the winter of 2006 the a/c compressor seized when I turned on the defroster.  Which was pretty dramatic.  The van was getting old, but I sucked it up and paid for a replacement.  We had replaced so much that I figured surely we were in for another good stretch of trouble-free miles.  Besides, I had become really attached to that van.  It was another one of those vehicles that really fit me, both physically and emotionally, and I was successful in deflecting the occasional mentions (with increasing frequency) that perhaps it was time for a new car.  There was plenty to justify paying the periodic repairs, like the way the 351 never seemed to use a single drop of oil during the entire time we owned it.

But finally, two things happened that made the van a short-timer with us.  First, the van started randomly shifting into neutral.  I took it to a transmission shop (over the objections of Marianne, who was tiring of these periodic “investments”).  It was – – – the differential.  Huh?  A gear tooth had broken off and it snapped off a piece of a “reluctor” wheel, a spinning thing that fed data to the vehicle speed sensor.  There was also a second vehicle speed sensor input and the poor processor for the electronically-controlled transmission started getting conflicting data between the good one and the damaged one.  The result was that the transmission would periodically throw up its hands and say “OK Bub, just what the hell do you want me to do?” and would sit in neutral with its arms crossed until it decided to stop sulking and go back to work after 10 or 20 seconds.  I was actually really impressed that the transmission shop had been able to come up with the diagnosis which did not involve rebuilding the transmission.  But the van was going to need either a rebuild or a swap-out of the differential to fix that one.

The second thing that happened was that it was the summer of 2006 and gas prices had shot up to $4/gallon.  I told Marianne about the need to either rebuild or replace the rear diff and she put her foot down – that was it, I. T. IT.  We were not putting any more money in that van.  We kept it until we bought a replacement, and by then it had become “my car”.  Other than the occasional terror from its shifting into neutral at 70 mph on the highway with traffic on my tail, I still loved the way it drove.  We ended up donating it to St. Vincent DePaul, with full disclosure on the need for a used diff to make it right, because beyond that it was still a really good car.  And tell me again how my distrust of vehicle electronics that screw up a perfectly functional car is irrational.

The Club Wagon is another vehicle that I look back on with real fondness.  I loved driving it and I loved the comfort and the sense of self-sufficiency that it brought us.  It took us from the beginnings of a family of five up to the oldest getting ready to start high school.  Honestly, I would have loved another 4 or 5 years out of it, and hindsight tells me that I should have just parked it and taken my time looking for a good used differential.  But we did not do that.  That may be the one vehicle that made me the saddest when it left our lives.  It was the one used vehicle I owned that was EXACTLY what I wanted when we got it.  And unlike the old New Yorker that had been close on that score, this one made me happy while driving it.  And more than just its characteristics as a car, I associated it with my favorite parts of being a Dad.

The big Clubber left us with one other legacy: To this day, my children automatically head for the passenger side when we all go to get into a car.  So many years without a rear door on the drivers side has hardwired them to avoid such a door on virtually every other vehicle in the world.

The big Ford’s replacement would be with us for quite a long time too, but would be about as far in concept from the Club Wagon as it was possible to get.