COAL #9: ’90 Dodge Caravan

While the Cougar wasn’t the worst family car, the birth of our son made it clear that something bigger was needed. We were already a family of three, our daughter was already of grammar school age, but the addition of a baby made quite a difference. The baby seat could only be installed in the back seat, not easy in a coupe.

The process of strapping the kid required my wife to squat partially inside the car as she placed the baby in the seat. She had her head buried in the rear compartment. It was inconvenient at best, and uncomfortable all the time. She also had some valid concerns about her safety and security while being so distracted.

I had initially thought about a Taurus wagon, I thought that they looked pretty aerodynamic and a bit futuristic. My wife was never a wagon fan, and after checking one out, I thought that it was too similar to the Cougar. Maybe it was best to try something different, There was no argument from her.

These were trim little vehicles. All photos from the Web.


She suggested that we look at a minivan, the Dodge dealer was just down the street from the Ford store. The reader might be surprised to learn that at this time the minivan was not considered the “lame” option. When Chrysler introduced these vans they were acclaimed by the automotive media and were extremely popular. They became a part of the “ideal” suburban middle class family persona, much like the SUV that would come to replace it.

The dealer had a Caravan in the showroom that had a TV/VCR unit mounted behind the driver’s seat. When we took our two year old son to the open door he climbed inside and plopped himself into the second row seat and promptly made himself at home! This left the entire third row for our daughter. Being able to separate the kids is always a good option. What sealed the deal was that my wife could let the kids in, then get in herself and close the door. Then she could attend to strapping our son in the car seat, She could then walk up between the seats to get behind the wheel. This was not only convenient, it was also much safer. Those early minivans were so usable and handy, later they would grow much bigger in size.

So much light. So much room!


This was a comfy place to rack up the miles.


We selected an SE model which came equipped with the 3.0 V6  Mitsubishi engine and three speed automatic transmission. It was dark gray (again!) with a light gray cloth interior. It was very light inside with all the windows. Visibility was excellent. I’m not sure if the longer wheelbase versions were available at this time. However, I didn’t want to spend more than I had to, for a vehicle that I wasn’t that enthusiastic about, so the shorter version would be fine. Either way both versions only came with a single sliding side door. By the time our third child appeared, there was still plenty of room to spread the kids out. We found that it was easy to access the younger kids in the back, oftentimes while still in motion.

My favorite instrument set up. Nice round legible gauges.


Several years later we bought a points based vacation timeshare program that allowed us to choose between any of their locations. There were easily accessible locations all over California and the West Coast. The timeshare provided the framework for our vacation plans. Those would include locations within easy driving distance like: Anaheim, Monterey, Lake Tahoe, Pismo Beach, Yosemite, and Clear Lake. Longer trips would be to Depoe Bay in Oregon, then the Washington coast and even up to Whistler British Columbia.

The Caravan was very comfortable for the whole family, it was capable of relaxed cruising at 75-80 mph. Fuel economy stayed around 20-22 mpg. The Mitsubishi V6 was a willing partner, gathering revs rapidly, and providing satisfactory performance. I always found the handling to be secure, even when driving on two lane mountain roads. Of course, with my family as passengers, I always maintained a safe speed and drove carefully.

The Caravan was great for passengers, but carrying large items was a bit of a problem. The seats had to be completely removed from the interior to provide enough room. Sometimes I’d fit the three-passenger third-row seat in the second-row position, giving more space for cargo in the rear. Or I’d remove the second-row seat, leaving the middle area open for large items. There was a lot of room when all the seats were out. I once transported the ailing Hydramatic transmission out of my  ’56 Cadillac down to Pacoima’s Cadillac King,  to exchange for a rebuilt unit. I let my young son skip school that day for a memorable round trip to Southern California. Another time I carried my engine hoist and a small block Chevy engine that I bought off of CraigsList. Both times I laid down several layers of cardboard covered by a couple of layers of plastic sheeting and rags. Never stained the carpets!

Carrying long items, like a couple of 8ft. 2x4s could be handled by sliding them under the seats all the way up to the dash. A big load of 2x4s would require the removal of both seats. The second row didn’t fold flat. It was tiring to remove the seats but I was still a youngster in my early Forties. You couldn’t easily accommodate an impulse purchase at a swap meet or Antique fair if the seats were installed. There was always the problem of where to put the seats that I had removed. Sometimes they went in the garage, other times I left them on the porch. Luckily they were always there when we returned!

Once I borrowed the third-row seat from my Brother’s Grand Caravan and installed it in the middle position. We were planning a trip to Disneyland. We carried our two young kids with our older daughter and her cousin. This still provided an empty spot between each passenger. There was barely enough room to squeeze past the second row to the back. They made it work by folding the back of the second seat. I had devised a setup with a platform between the front seats for a TV/VCR combo that the kids could watch during the trip. This was luxury motoring at its finest!

The face of a trusted automotive friend.


We kept this minivan for almost ten years, It didn’t give us much trouble except for a transmission rebuild at 130K. By this time the paint on the top blistered and cracked off, so I sanded it smooth and sprayed on a coat of gray rattle can primer. You couldn’t easily see the top anyway! A more serious problem was that the valve guides were getting worn by then, as they started to burn a bit of oil. This was most noticeable with a puff of smoke on initial acceleration.

As the mileage passed the 160k mark, I thought that it might be wise to get something new, or at least with lower mileage. I started to think of a replacement. There had been so many improvements made to minivans over that last decade. A longer wheelbase, second-row Capt’s Chairs, rear air, and two sliding doors. We had bought an inexpensive model and had been quite satisfied. This time I wanted a fancy model. I liked the new style Chrysler Town and Country vans, so I started looking for a replacement.

I was never bothered by the minivan stigma. We used the van to take a lot of family road trips and I found that very enjoyable. It’s true that it was the ultimate family guy machine. The Oak Ridge Boys released a funny video for their song, “It’s hard to be cool in a minivan!”  Of course, making the driver look cool was never its mission.

I’m sure that one of the reasons that I was happy with the minivan was because of the Harley that I still had in the garage.

I sold my Caravan to my BIL, who loved it. However his wife hated it, Minivans weren’t the hot setup anymore.