COAL: 1998 Plymouth Voyager & 1997 Ford Crown Victoria – Wake Up Calls

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After my last experience, I had hit automotive rock bottom (again!). Here and here, my dad shared his surplus vehicles with me, and he would help me out one more time. This time, help would come in the form of a 1998 Plymouth Voyager.


Ours was the short wheelbase version. A TSB (Technical Service Bulletin) had been released about the accessory drive belt. Apparently there was a good chance of the drive belt slipping off whenever you drove through a puddle because of placement of said belt. Unfortunately, my dad had been stranded many times because of this design flaw.  Fortunately for us, the TSB was released shortly before we took ownership of the van and Dad had the water guard and reinforced belt suggested by the TSB installed by the time we took over, effectively solving the problem.

Mechanically, the van was actually very reliable, the engine ran very strongly and the transmission shifted smoothly. We enjoyed the cargo room and versatility, and it became our default family vehicle along with our Caprice wagon.


It was a series of cascading electrical failures that proved to be this van’s undoing. First, the passenger-side power window stopped operating.  A few days later, before we could even address the window problem, I turned on the radio. I heard a pop and was confronted by an electrical burning smell. Needless to say, the radio was dead. I replaced the fuse but the radio did not come back–it was fried. I found out soon enough that the radio was not the only problem. All the lights on the climate control panel were blinking simultaneously. I searched online and found that it was in diagnostics mode. I learned how to reset it, but unfortunately it looked like the panel and the air conditioning were fried as well.  For added fun, this occurred at the beginning of summer, leaving me a van with no air conditioning and a passenger window that would not roll down. Soon, the battery would drain whenever it was parked for a long time. The mechanic traced this to a resistor under the hood that was draining the battery. Finally, the entire instrument cluster shorted out, leaving us no warning lights and no instruments. It was time to find another vehicle.


With very little money left because of my past adventures, the plan was to buy basically a beater whose only role would be to take me to the train station so I could just take the train to work from then on. A search on revealed a very nice looking 1997 Ford Crown Victoria at a dealer less than five miles from home. Since I had experience with B Bodies, I thought I’d give the Panther platform a try.  It was a hot day in late July, the sales person handed me the keys and I took it for a test drive. The 4.6 liter V8 ran smoothly, but the suspension felt a bit tired and there were some squeaks and rattles. I remember coming back from the test drive and the sales person asking me “How was the AC? Did it freeze you out?” I had to tell her the truth. The air conditioning did cool the car, but it did not “freeze me out.” She said, “let me see what else we have. ” Truth be told, I was willing to go with the Crown Vic but I thought it was nice of her to look.


She came up with a 1990 Volvo 700 series wagon. She did not walk me out to see the car. Instead, she just gave me the keys and told me the Volvo was right outside. I know nothing about Volvos. I can’t tell one Volvo wagon from another. My last experience with a European car was my ill-fated Saab but I was willing to give it a try and was so glad I did. The car was loaded with everything, including a sun roof and really nice leather seats.  As a bonus, in the cargo area I found two brand new tires already mounted on factory rims. The car had about 130,000 miles on it, about 30,000 less than on the Crown Vic. I took it for a test drive, and what a difference from the Crown Vic. Strong acceleration and very tight suspension, it felt very much like my 9C1. When I got back, she asked me again “How was the AC? Did it freeze you out?” This time the answer was, “the AC was cold….meat locker cold!” With a delighted smile she said, “…so I guess you’ll be taking this car home today.” I said absolutely and we agreed that it would be $500 plus the van in trade just like the Crown Vic. I thought it was too good to be true but there it was…I gave her the money and they began to fill out the registration papers. All of a sudden, the sales person was gone. I sat there waiting for probably 45 minutes. I couldn’t really leave because I had already given her my money and signed over the van’s title. She reappeared later with an anguished look on her face.


Apparently, the 1990 Volvo 700 series wagon that she thought that she had sold me for $500 was already sold. Through some inventory error, the Volvo I had test driven was actually a 1998 Volvo 960 which cost $3,000 more!  As I said, I know nothing about Volvos.  She told me she would help me get financing so that I could take the Volvo home, but this simply was not in my plan so I refused. So, she said she had one more car she wanted me to look at for the agreed upon $500 plus trade.


The vehicle in question was a 1997 Lincoln Mk VIII. The car was a blue color with blue leather seats. I took it for a spin and definitely felt the power of the 280 horsepower DOHC V8. However: 1) The AC didn’t “freeze me out” 2) The beautiful dash had pieces missing 3) The Check Engine Light was on 4) I had seen too many Mk VIIIs with suspension sag and feared that this may be what was awaiting me and that correcting it would not be cheap. The Crown Vic was squeaky but it had no warning lights and because it was only $500, and because I was buying any of these cars “as is,” I ended up going with the big Ford.  After all, I just needed it to get myself to the train station. Plus, I looked in the glove box and found that the engine was replaced at 100,000 miles, so I was really buying a 60,000 mile car.  I also discovered that it had previously failed NJ State Inspection due to an illuminated Check Engine light, but since it was no longer illuminated, I assumed the problem was solved. Happily, I took it home.


I drove it blissfully for about a week. Despite the squeaks and rattles of the tired suspension, it felt smooth and powerful and was actually getting good highway gas mileage for a V8 (between 25-28 mpg without traffic). The trunk was also much deeper than my previous Caprice sedan’s, and it had remote keyless entry.


The next week, it was time to get it inspected in order to get the permanent registration and plates. In New Jersey, an illuminated Check Engine light means an automatic fail, this is why I passed on the MK VIII. No inspection=no plates. I was right about the Crown Vic: the Check Engine Light was not illuminated. There was a reason for that–the previous owner had removed the bulb! In actuality there were four trouble codes, the most expensive of which were two catalytic (cat) converter codes. This meant, of course, that the car failed inspection and that I would not be able to permanently register it until I got the items in question fixed. The estimates were between $700-$900. I discovered soon after that according to the VIN number, it was equipped with the California emissions package and would thus cost slightly more to get the cats fixed. Great–I had just gotten myself into another situation. So what did I do? I turned to Mr. C. of course. You all remember Mr. C. right? He was the one who helped me out with the body mounts on the ill fated Suburban.  Here was his solution: 1) The computer was setting two catalytic (cat) converter codes 2) He could clear the codes but the inspection computer would still not be able to pass the car since the car needed to be “driven” for a period of time after the codes are reset to prevent people from cheating by just clearing the codes. 3) His solution was for me to drive the car until it passed the threshold for being  “driven” and run the inspection program before the car’s computer flashed the bad code again. He reasoned that the car’s computer may be too “sensitive” and there may be nothing wrong with the cats….Suuuure.  At this point, I was up for anything; so I would drive the car for a few hours and return to Mr. C. to see if we had achieved our objective of “sweet talking” the computer.  Back and fourth I went; I must have driven over 300 miles that day. Needless, to say, this was yet another on my long list of stupid, boneheaded ideas that wasted time and yielded no results. Try as we might, the trouble codes stayed and the only way to fix it would be new cats.  I did not have anything close to the amount required, so I began researching waivers to the New Jersey State Inspection. I found that I had a good case to get the waiver so I began to prepare the paperwork.


That is, until the next day when it refused to start. Turns out the fuel pump had quit… an extra $700 repair right there. Total time of ownership: five weeks. And another one bites the dust…

This vehicle is actually the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I knew it was time to rethink how and what kind of vehicles I would be buying from now on. After many years with basically the same car buying philosophy, my experiences with these cars were what finally convinced me to go in a different direction. You will see the result in my final COALs over the next two weeks.