COAL: 1996 Ford Windstar – Anomaly‏

10 Grandmas House Falmouth 31-Aug-03 (2)

a·nom·a·ly: something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.

I had a Windstar. I drove it for almost 10 years without major problems. It still had the original transmission when I sold it. It’s still on the road today. That’s an anomaly.

One of the great things about having a father in law who works at a new car dealership is that when we need a vehicle, we just place our order and wait for the great deal on a trade in. If we’re not picky about colors or options it takes my FIL about two weeks to come up with the deal of the century (another anomaly). When our Topaz was getting tired in 2000, we needed a minivan to accommodate our growing family.

Pa did not disappoint. He came up with a red 1996 Windstar (actually built Oct 1995), immaculate with ridiculously low miles. Initially we thought we might have a lemon; within the first week the steering rack failed and we had power steering when the wheel was turned in one direction, and manual steering in the other. This is a very bizarre way to drive if you’ve never experienced it, but Pa personally delivered a new steering rack assembly which we had a local mechanic install.

Ford 1996 windstar red

As everyone knows, the Windstar was Ford’s second stab at a minivan, the Aerostar being the first. From my career in machine design, I know that when you redesign something to solve one problem it’s an easy mistake to cause another. Ford did exactly this, trading premature rust and truck like RWD ergonomics for fragile FWD drivelines and suspension components.

That being said, we still look back on this vehicle fondly. Many people pooh-pooh minivans saying they are not for car enthusiasts, but I beg to differ. If you look at the problem with “best tool for the job” eyes, minivans inspire enthusiasm. Ours brought us to lots of great places, including Vintage Racing camping weekends at Mosport.

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Trackside Camping at Mosport


Most importantly the minivan is the best value for a host of everyday tasks such as commuting, bringing kids to soccer games, birthday parties and camping, and this value frees up capital for more interesting and enthusiast oriented things. The entire time we have owned a minivan we have never been without a vintage car and two motorcycles and an electric guitar.  With all that fun stuff who cares about the van?

We knew a LOT of people with Windstars when we got ours. They were all over school, work, and church parking lots. Then one day we noticed that everyone else’s Windstar was looking kind of ratty with rust in the rocker panels. Shortly afterwards we noticed that everyone else was driving a new Dodge, Honda, or Toyota minivan, and we were the only ones still driving a Windstar.

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Scavenging parts off another victim


Now the reason for this anomaly: Our Windstar stood tall when multitudes were falling away on all sides because of the fact that ours was built with the 3.0 litre Vulcan V6 as opposed to the much more common 3.8 litre Essex V6. The Vulcan shared none of the Essex’s head-gasket-munching tendencies, and being a smaller motor it was easier on the infamously fragile AX4S transaxle. It was completely random that we wound up with this engine, but for once we’d lucked out. Our Windstar avoided the dreaded tinworm because we had it Krown rustproofed annually. $120 a year, and kind of messy, but boy does that stuff ever work.

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The snow keeps covering my tools!


Although we never had major issues, the Windstar did have diabolical timing for irritating random failures, which tended to occur on family trips or vacations with no warning.

One day we were on our way to visit our inlaws when the A/C stopped working. We were still puzzling over this when the ventilation fan stopped working, and then the radio started to fade. At that point I realized that the alternator must have quit without a warning light, and all we could do was drive on while everything shut down one by one. Finally there wasn’t enough juice in the battery to run the fuel pump and the Windstar lurched to a halt. We called Pa, who took the battery out of Ma’s Taurus and came to rescue us. We even got to keep the Taurus for a few days while the Windstar got fixed at the dealership.

Another time we returned from a wilderness canoe trip to find that the Windstar had blown a brake line. By the time we got to an area with cell reception only the handbrake worked, so my wife called Pa at work: “Dad, we’re in Algonquin park with no brakes, where’s the nearest Ford dealership?”.

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No brakes, no traffic, no problem!


Pa found the nearest dealer, called them to say we were (slowly) coming and convinced a mechanic to stay late and fabricate a new brake line on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend.  The Windstar sure looked funny up on the hoist with a canoe on top; they took care not to crush it against the ceiling.

For our trip to the East Coast the following year we rented a Grand Caravan and left the Windstar at home.

The final factor was that for several months my job required me to visit a supplier 150km away, several times a week. By this point the 15 year old Windstar was fine in town but at highway speed felt like a loose flying formation of parts. We either needed to invest in a complete front end overhaul, or just take that money and put it into a newer van.

This decision was helped by Pa of course, who presented two potential used replacements. The first was a well optioned Ford Freestar; we took a test drive and discussed it over dinner before returning it to the dealership.


Freestar – It was just like this, minus the sunflowers


We told Pa it was a nice van, but it somehow rubbed us the wrong way and we preferred the interior in our old Windstar. He explained that was exactly what people always said when he was trying to sell them new, which is why Ford didn’t sell many Freestars.

Weeks later we got a call; “A good Caravan just got traded in, you’ve got second dibs on it but you have to come and see it tonight!” We went and saw it, and although it wasn’t exactly what we wanted, it was cheap enough to be a good stop-gap solution. The person with first dibs didn’t want it, so Pa sold him the Windstar for $500. Win-Win.

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Another red van with no roof rack


So five years later we are still driving the stop gap Caravan, and even more surprisingly, our former Windstar is still on the road. Last we heard a few months ago, it was still doing daily local service; hopefully the new owners didn’t try to take it on vacation.

I sat down here to write a story about a great van, but now I think it’s more a story of a pretty good van and a great father in law. Thanks for all the help with that one, Pa!!