Curbside Classic: 1989 Ford Club Wagon – In Life, Hope Springs Eternal

An admission:  This two-tone Ford van is a surrogate for my original target, but a fantastic and fitting one nonetheless.

It’s not often a thirty-one year old Ford Econoline, arguably one of the least inspiring vehicles ever built, will inspire much verbiage but stranger things have happened.

This had been my initial target, captured here via the graciousness of Google.  This old dry-cleaning van had been comatose in this spot for years, a spot down the hill and across the street from the hospital where I was born.

Yet before a recent visit that would allow some suitable picture taking, the old Ford disappeared.  Google traversed the area to capture these two images a month prior to my last visit.

A safe assumption would be the life of this vintage Econoline has officially ended, having presumably been hauled to that automotive morgue otherwise known as the salvage yard.  This van had been silently sitting here deteriorating, languishing, and utterly ignored for years, a death that was slow and torturous.  I can vividly remember it looking much more vibrant when I was a lively high school student in the late 1980s.  While I cannot see the front to verify, I believe this may have been a round headlight model Econoline from the 1970s.

A part of me was hoping this third generation Econoline would be one of the rare birds with a three-on-the-tree.   Death arrived before its secrets could be told.  C’est la vie, old Ford van.

The discovery of the white Ford having taken its one-way voyage to that great highway in the sky was during a journey with my parents.  The passing of this van was appropriately fitting as we visited Lightner Cemetery, a final resting place populated with both sides of my family, including two sets of both great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, a cemetery in which my parents have already erected a headstone.

It was a living genealogy lesson as I learned the first resident of Lightner Cemetery was my great-great grandfather, who died in 1915.  Toward the end, he requested to be buried in the about-to-be-birthed cemetery but his timing was off.  He had been gone for several months when cemetery opened, so the family had him exhumed and relocated to honor his wishes.

This funereal story was included due to its remarkable consistency with this outing; it is also fitting, as our journey culminated in finding this heavy-duty Club Wagon, unearthed a few blocks from my first house.  While this Club Wagon has escaped an automotive purgatory comparable to the albino Ford, this one is still tenaciously clinging to life despite its sedentary lifestyle.  Given the expiration date of its newly minted license plates, it has moved recently enough to visit the automotive hospital for a safety inspection, an inspection that appears to have yielded a clean bill of health.

Movement does indicate life.

Instead of being abandoned in front of a defunct dry cleaning business, this two-tone Ford was parked at a church that was equally defunct, the property about to be auctioned.  This Club Wagon appears to have outlived its usefulness to Burfordville Baptist Church as Burfordville was twenty miles away.  It has certainly outlived the now former Red Star Baptist Church where it was parked.

The promise of eternal life apparently doesn’t apply to church buildings .  This church is a reflection of its neighborhood, a neighborhood that has been quietly dying for twenty years.  It is now awaiting some industrious person’s conceiving a grand idea about neighborhood rebirth.  It seems such is the natural cycle of things.

Even though this Ford has been lively enough to have moved at some point in the semi-recent past, it’s been napping for an undeterminable duration.  The interior of the windshield had heavy condensation, making a good accompaniment to the soggy innards of the headlights.

In times past, I have disclosed my dearth of fondness for vans.  Ponderous, oafish, and of limited versatility they are; opining about their abundant limitations is invariably accompanied by a certain degree of irony that borders upon hypocritical to me.  Why?  For nearly a decade I have owned a much newer example of Ford’s long lived and hard-to-kill Econoline.  Perhaps my Econoline is simply 5,500 pounds worth of proof of opinion; perhaps, as the late Packard brand said in an advertising slogan, “ask the man who owns one”.

As of late, for reasons inexplicable, a bizarre infatuation with vans has been born and demonstrated unwelcome growth within my brain.  Wishing it were attributable only to inferior quality sleep, the infatuation has been so lively as to prompt me to create new ones on manufacturer websites.

In reality, this troubling infatuation is due to my ever increasing amount of life experience.  I’ve welcomed the concept of retiring one day and further traveling North America in the modest, self-contained way of doing so that only a van can provide.  Thus, in this van owner’s mind, the potential uses for vans might exceed my number of thumbs.

Beyond that, it seems vans remain conveyances remarkably unencumbered by diversity of purpose despite mine starting to show some modicum of latent talent other than for taking up space.

By genetic predisposition I’m a tightwad; I’ll never buy a new van.  Many vans, particularly of the commercial variety, have the life wrung from them only to be tossed aside like yesterday’s underwear.  However there are some great catches if one is judicious in their searches.  As a case in point, this 2010 Econoline was found at a dealer in the same town as these other two vans.

Offered for a mere $2,900, this 4.6 liter powered Ford has over 377,000 miles on the odometer; despite this lofty and rarely seen number, odds are it has a lot of life left.  It makes me wonder how quickly the next owner could double that.  That $2,900 is about equal to the immediate depreciation of driving a new Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, or Chrysler Town & Country off the dealer’s lot.

People wax poetic about getting 200,000 miles out of their whatever-branded sedan.  If you want some real mileage out of a vehicle, get a Ford light truck.  They are the mechanical equivalent of eternal life.

But I digress.

When our featured van was born in 1989, Ford provided a delectable menu of drivetrain options.  By the time one ponied up to the one-ton chassis, which is what our featured Club Wagon rests upon, the only engine excised from the option list (from what can be ascertained) was the nearly eternal 302 cubic inch V8.  The 300 straight-six was standard equipment with the 5.8 liter (351), 7.5 liter (460), and the naturally aspirated 7.3 liter diesel all being optional; the 302 was available on lighter rated chassis.

As my grandmother once told me, nothing is meant to live forever.  All those engine options have long been scrubbed from Ford’s options list.  As for the 300, some people love it and are correct about it being a durable, reliable, and generally smooth-running engine.  But for most it’s life, power output was the definition of despair.  From the early to mid-1970s to about 1983 or 1984 it coughed out 114 horsepower from 4.9 liters, with each of those poor horses being chased by the grim reaper.  Power grew to 145 or 150 (depending upon application) when fuel injection came along in 1988.

For perspective, Ford’s abysmal and maligned into perpetuity 255 cubic inch V8 cranked out comparable horsepower from 5/6 the amount of displacement during the time both could be found in Ford showrooms.  My hope is to be so lucky as to have a life long enough to encounter a factory tuned 300 that predates the strangulation.

Hope springs eternal.  Therefore, let us also hope whomever purchased this van after its birth in 1989 was knowing enough to purchase something better suited for the task, such as the 460 cubic inch, 7.5 liter, cast iron V8, for this 15 passenger church-bound chariot.  If not the 460, the 351 would have been a shrewd choice.  It’s not like the consuming of juice from dead dinosaurs would have varied much among these three engines.

From the 1990 Ford catalog; these torque graphs are very intriguing

Like so many things in life, caution should be exercised when making observations that will linger for perpetuity.  In 1990, the 460 was rated at 230 horsepower, a figure exactly half its displacement and equal to the terminally vaunted 300 in horsepower per cubic inch. Therefore one cannot credibly state the 460 was intrinsically more powerful than the 300 at this point in time.  The versatile 351 surpassed both by providing more power, both horsepower and torque, per unit displacement than the 300 and 460.  A 351 would have been my preference for a church van application.

One can certainly imagine two otherwise identical Club Wagons, one powered by a 300 and the other a 460, would have been as different as….life and death.

It’s no exaggeration when I state vans have needled their way into my consciousness.  Perhaps this van has occupied this esteemed place due to its physical size being almost larger than life.  Anyone currently subscribing to the van-life phenomenon could find this particular Ford to be a virtual palace.  A Taj Mahal it is not.

While the church at which this Club Wagon is parked has died, there is little doubt it will be living a lot more life before its days are over.  We should all be so lucky as to have the promise of a long, productive life.

Found February 6, 2020

Cape Girardeau, Missouri