For the second time in my life, a car I had become quite fond of was taken out by the combination of a careless driver and an insurance company. My faithful little Honda Odyssey had been totaled and, after a sustained application of the skills I had picked up in 20+ years in insurance law, I (finally) had a check that was in an amount at the low end of reasonable (instead of at the middle of ridiculous). You know by now what that meant. Yes, I needed another car.
I had become quite used to the utility of the Odyssey and decided that maybe another minivan might be the play. I had a new Town & Country rental, but its time was coming to an end and I had to get a move on. After failing to find another Odyssey like mine, I widened my search criteria. I remembered the words of my friend Ed, who had groused about how buying a car when you really needed to buy a car was a terrible experience – you either settle for something you don’t want or you pay too much. Or both. I wished someone like me would come along with a car like my old Scamp to provide a buffer and the luxury of some time for deliberate car shopping. But I had no such luck. I needed a vehicle and needed one pretty quickly.
The first decent candidate was a 2001 Chrysler Town & Country I found on the List of Craig. Marianne and I made arrangements to meet the owner and we did, at around 4:30 pm on the Thursday before Easter of 2010. This car wasn’t really up to my standards. It needed a good cleaning inside, but the owner claimed that he had a friend who was a Chrysler dealer mechanic who had maintained it well. This was the first year of the 4th generation van, and I quickly discovered a problem – these things liked to rust. As I walked around the van after a brief test drive, it was apparent that every single panel was showing the little paint bubbles that marked the beginnings of some nasty rust – something not easy to disguise or remedy on a silver vehicle. I ran a CarFax report and I could see that the thing had spent its early life in Wisconsin and Michigan, which explained why it was rustier than I was used to seeing. I hit him with a lowball offer and kind of hoped he wouldn’t take it. He didn’t. So Marianne and I got back in the car and drove – not home. While test-driving the silver Rust & Country, we had passed a house where another Chrysler minivan was sitting in the front yard with a “For Sale” sign in the windshield. So we went there.
Van #2 was everything Van #1 was not. It was not rusty, but was clean and straight both inside and out. I recognized that this was a later Gen 3 van and was especially delighted at the price in the window – which I think was just a bit over $2k. The van was like my Odyssey in that it had really high miles but didn’t look like it. The owner walked out and told me that he had owned it since it was 2 or 3 years old and had put most of the miles on. The van had made a long daily loop running kids from their rural home to one of the Catholic high schools in Indianapolis, and regular trips two-plus hours north to a lake house. The car had clearly been well maintained, but the owner had bought a newer vehicle so this one had to go.
The moment I drove it I realized that it was just right. Like the Honda, it would have passed for a vehicle with half the miles it showed (which was, I think, about 187k). The 3.3 V6 was smooth and the 4 speed automatic (with the bad reputation) shifted beautifully. I had cash in my pocket and when the guy got down to $1800 I bought a car. And guess what happened on the drive home. Yes, the owner of the rusty silver minivan called to tell me that he had thought it over and maybe he would accept my offer. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, because I just bought another Chrysler minivan.” Yes, that kind of conversation on the telephone was still a great feeling.
There were some things to do to the T&C, and I had the budget for it because it had cost well under what I got for the Oddy. My mechanic told me it was ready for brakes, so we did that. He did a headlight rejuvenation treatment because those on the car were really cloudy. And the passenger window regulator was shot so we did that too. I went to a junkyard to replace a a broken outside mirror and to a Chrysler dealer to buy a vacuum actuator for one of the HVAC controls, which I installed myself. Those things plus a new set of Michelins and I was in business, with under $3,500 all in.
From the moment I first drove it, I suddenly understood why Chrysler’s minivans had ruled the U.S. market. Its structure was taut. This made it squeak and rattle free, like the Mopars of my younger days. A co-worker had a 2004 Odyssey (the last year of the 2nd generation van) that twisted and creaked worse than my ’59 Plymouth, and made me feel all the better about mine. The 3.3 was not overly strong, but it was OK – and far better than the overmatched 4 in my prior van. The driving position fit me perfectly, just as all of my favorite Chrysler-built cars had done.
It had been a long time since the 70’s and I was quite happy with the not-common light green paint, which looked really good with the monochrome treatment on the Chryslers – far nicer than it did on the low level Plymouths or Dodges with the gray plastic bumpers. This one even had the up-level wheels that dressed it up nicely. But for all that, the interior was where the good stuff really was. Mine was the low-level LX trim, but I was soon spoiled by the dozens of thoughtful little touches that Chrysler had put into these. The little cargo net bag between the front seats, the dual-zone HVAC system, the built-in garage door button and so much else. The car had the top-level (Infinity, I think) stereo, which sounded really great, and best of all, it had the light grayish green interior and not one that was plain gray or tan.
This was actually one of the most satisfying vehicles I could recall driving. The outside door handle was an ergonomic gem, and the door both opened and closed with the most reassuring sounds and sensations. Chrysler had really sweat the details on these because all of the controls and switchgear felt positively luxurious. There had been much to love about my prior vans, which had been kind of opposites on the van spectrum. The oversized Club Wagon was roomy, luxurious and powerful, if a little crude in some ways. The undersized Odyssey was a touch cramped and was both plain and slow, but it did its job with unusual finesse. This Chrysler reminded me of Baby Bear’s porridge from the children’s story – it was juuuust right. It was roomy enough, powerful enough, attractive enough and luxurious enough. It was kind of like an automotive Swiss Army Knife that did almost everything well.
But. Not everything was rainbows and lollipops. I learned that a high-mile Chrysler was not the same as a high-mile Honda. Yes, I had known this on some level, but the point was driven home in many small ways. Bit by bit little things needed attention. I had to recharge the a/c each spring. The inner CV joints started to cause vibrations and had to get replaced. It started running terribly and needed plugs, which I discovered is a horrible job on these, something I decided to let my mechanic do. He suspected that the back 3 plugs had never been changed. I didn’t like spending more money on it, but liked the car so much that I did. It tricked me, really, into treating it like a good car instead of like the cheap utility beater I had bought when I had a tight deadline for finding a car. My investment crept up and up, but I was rewarded by a really pleasing minivan.
It came in quite handy when our eldest headed off to college in the fall of 2010. The light green Chrysler was bigger than the Odyssey and swallowed all of the supplies and equipment required for dorm living, and easily hauled it the hour and a half drive that separated that dorm room from our home. And it converted back to passenger duty for our now-smaller family.
This was another vehicle that I drove all over the place. I also noticed something interesting: There have been two kinds of cars that I have used as daily drivers. Some of them were cars that, when given the opportunity, I left parked as I drove the car that was Marianne’s usual ride. The Oldsmobile and the Cadillac were nice, but I still liked the Club Wagon and looked forward to driving it. This Town & Country was the opposite. I enjoyed driving our Honda Fit but I enjoyed this T&C so much that I seldom made the switch purely out of my own preference. Also, this was the car that photobombed some of my earliest CC photos
A few weeks after our second annual Move Your Kid To College Day, we were preparing to make a Sunday visit to see the lad when tragedy struck. By this time my office location was a mere mile from my home. Marianne had been working there part-time in an admin capacity and she had run there and back to do something. Because the van was out, she took it. When she came home, she said something wasn’t right with it. “Nonsense”, I thought, “the van is fine”. Backing out of the driveway and progressing about ten feet towards Bloomington, Indiana was long enough to tell me that she was right. It was a sensation I had never experienced, it was like something was alternatively locking up and letting go in the drive train. We parked the van and took another car. I resisted the urge to ask “Just WHAT did YOU do to my car!?!?”
I had to get it to my mechanic, and it would have to be towed. Which seemed like a good time to join AAA. The fine print said that the free towing benefit would not kick in for 5 days. On day 6 my van was towed to my mechanic for a diagnosis. “It’s your transmission. Something inside it broke.” He told me that it appeared to be original and un-messed-with. Which, if true, would make it perhaps the longest one of those units had ever lasted in a Chrysler minivan. I had been paying attention to the transmissions shifts since I first bought the van, knowing that when it started acting funny it would be time to sell. I did not, however, expect a catastrophic failure with no warning. The verdict was that they could rebuild it there for about $2500. I was still occasionally reminded at home about the transmission rebuild I had paid for on the Oldsmobile a little more than a decade earlier. But that had been a really sweet car with under 55k miles. This was an aging Chrysler minivan with maybe 225k on it. One look at Marianne’s face told me that the finance committee would turn down any request for a repair.
After thinking on it for a few days, it was clear that the van was going to have to go and would have to do so without a new transmission from me. The sad part was that everything else about that van was really right, right down to the 3.3 V6 that had not used a drop of oil since I had owned it. Somehow a conversation got started with a staffer at the office, and a deal was struck. I would give her the van, and she would pay to have the transmission done. Thus, the investment-meter would reset for her and she would have a really nice old minivan with a freshly rebuilt transmission, all for $2,500. Me? After a happy year-and-a-half, I was again in need of another car.
That minivan had a whole lot of good in it. It was the first product of Chrysler built after Lee Iacocca was handed the keys to the company that I had really come to love. And I did love it. I loved how solid it was, how beautifully it drove, and how quiet and comfortable it was. It dawned on me that the thing weighed at least as much as my long-gone ’68 Chrysler Newport, and I came to appreciate the minivan as the new American big car. And in case you are wondering, its next owner got several more good years out of it, eventually getting close to (or exceeding) the 300k miles I had been quietly gunning for.
I also realized around this time that I had made a tremendous turnaround in the way I approached cars. Where I had once bought for love in a series of quickly-fading infatuations, I had gone to the other extreme – finding a vehicle I really liked and sticking with it, probably longer than made good sense. But to this day I still light up a little on the increasingly rare occasions when I see one of these Gen 3 vans on the road. It was good to be able to look back on the realization that I had experienced “Peak Chrysler Minivan”. We don’t learn things like this until much time has passed into the rear view. But when we find that we lucked into a particular vehicle when its manufacturer had things humming just right, we can smile with a warm feeling inside as we realize just how lucky we were.
But I certainly did not feel lucky in early September of 2011 because I had to find some new wheels, and fast. Only this time, Marianne was determined to play more of a role in our choice.