With the birth of our twin daughters in July of 1996, another upgrade to the fleet was needed. We had replaced our Camry wagon with a first gen Subaru Legacy Outback 6 months earlier, but with both of us working and taking turns hauling kids around, we needed something a bit more flexible and roomy than the Subaru.
We said goodbye to our Mazda B2600i and traded it for a new 1996 Mercury Village GS. Our new minivan would be charged with primary day care duty along with occasional road trips to the Wisconsin Dells and similar vacation spots.
But before we get started with today’s COAL, a word from our sponsors – Geography and Coincidence. I’m writing this from a Starbucks near the Ford Rawsonville Plant, just east of Ann Arbor, MI. Rawsonville is the home of one of Ford’s component plants. As I drove by this morning, I saw the lots surrounding the plant filled with F150 trucks, presumably waiting for chips or batteries or something. My wife and I have been on the road for almost 6 weeks towing our 16′ Scamp with a 2018 F150. We started our trip in St Paul, former home of a Ford Ranger production plant. Along the way we picked up my older brother and his wife, both formerly of Avon Lake, OH, former home of the Villager/Quest twins. The F150 we’re driving will be a future COAL.
Now back to our regular programming. The Villager/Quest twins were a joint venture project initiated by Ford and Nissan in the late 1980s to come up with a competitive minivan to the dominating Chrysler products. Designed around the current Nissan Maxima chassis and VG30E engine along with their 4 speed automatic transmission, the plan was to out-minivan the Chrysler. Unfortunately, Chrysler had other plans. Nissan provided most of the exterior design in addition to the mechanicals while Ford contributed interior fitments and switchgear. The result was a very attractive design, perhaps the best looking of that generation of minivan.
Interesting (and perplexing to me) is that Ford was designing the Windstar at the same time using completely different underpinnings. Why not follow the Taurus/Sable strategy and just slap a light bar on the front of the Windstar and call it good enough? Maybe this was Ford just throwing everything at the minivan wall to see what would stick.
Oh well, on with our story. Our GS was equipped with the LS alloy wheels, a big improvement over the standard plastic wheel covers that came with the GS.
The rear 3/4 view was just about perfect with a very slight downward rake to the front. The integration of the hatch, windows and taillights combined with the recessed door handles provided a sporty enough look that you could pretend (in your mind’s eye anyway) that you were driving one of those fancy European sport wagons, sort of.
Our 1996 benefitted from a mid-model refresh that removed that awful Sable-esque lightbar, greatly improving the front end look. Our solid red Villager featured a gray cloth interior that almost felt sprayed on to the foam foundations. While not uncomfortable, the seats didn’t really conform to your body as you might expect. It was more like sitting on bleachers or something.
Our GS came with a middle bench seat as opposed to the optional captains chairs available in LS trim. While the middle bench was removable with some effort, the rear bench was more or less permanent, so cargo hauling was limited. Both seats did fold flat to form a nice level platform however, so not all was lost. As noted, the Villager/Quest twins offered just a passenger side sliding door, a major design flaw you noticed once you started to load up the car seats everyday.
The Villager was my primary vehicle throughout the 4 years I had it. I had no mechanical issues over those four years and no real complaints, except that lack of a driver’s side sliding door. Midway through ownership, my wife and I separated and the minivan became my only ride. I was doing daily daycare pick up at this time, a 25 mile drive from work, followed by a drop off at their mother’s house and then a 20 mile drive home. So my last couple of years of ownership became a sort of blur.
I did have one accident. A woman distracted by something made a left turn in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and saw to my horror that I was about to hit her amidships where a child was strapped into a car seat. I managed to slow enough that no airbags were deployed and I jumped out to check on the kid. Fortunately there were no injuries, but I’ll never forget the look on the mom’s face as I pulled open the rear car door to check her kid. The Villager sustained minor injuries to the bumper and headlights. Insurance covered everything and I was soon back on the road.
Not long after the accident, a relationship I was in began to turn serious. She had a couple of kids of her own, about the same age as mine and the minivan became essential for getting all seven of us around. While I had no complaints about the Villager, she started to hint that perhaps we might want to start looking for something a bit more modern, perhaps with dual sliding doors even. So in 2000 I started looking for my next minivan. Something even sportier, if such a thing even existed in minivans.