Saturday, October 1, 2016

Jumping on the bandwagon, twenty years too late and many miles down the road.

Photo source: Wheels and Deals
I had resisted the lemming like stampede to SUVs, It seemed like hordes of middle class commuters embraced these tall wagons and assumed a smug perspective on traffic below them. This position has now been assumed by Prius drivers.

While they are admittedly versatile and useful I had decided that SUVs were basically nothing more than overgrown station wagons- the darlings of Fifties and Sixties Suburbanites.

photo source: Ford Motor Company. This is one of my favorite advertisement pictures.

I knew all about wagons. My Dad had favored them since 1963, after an unfortunate affair with a Corvair Greenbrier van. My Father never really liked trucks. Of course few in the early 1960s chose pick ups as their primary transportation. The question being raised was "Where do we put the kids?"

The answer for many was the use of the camper shell. The enclosed shell, the addition of a pass thru window and some carpeting provided space to carry a passel of kids. Yours and your neighbors. Now, at the time the safety of this practice wasn't questioned. It seemed that the main concern was that the kids just couldn't leap out of the bed. The question of how they would fare in a serious collision just never came up. Passenger restraint at this time meant keeping your kids quiet and under control, not keeping them from being smashed against the interior bits of your vehicle.

Seatbelts? Who used seatbelts? Did your car even have them? Many drivers would stuff them down into the seatback crack to get them "out of the way!" And the most amazing thing was, we were all okay with that. If you didn't think about the possibility of bad things happening, they probably wouldn't.

During this time our biggest worry was whether or not the Russians were going to drop an Atomic bomb on us- a car accident was a minor concern. Duck under the desks and face away from the windows!

So station wagons reigned supreme as the Suburban Status Statement. Lots of Suburban housewives fulfilled their role as family chauffeur behind the wheel of a Country Squire.

What happened to all those wagons? As the Sixties morphed into the Eighties American automakers  were forced to downsize their fleet in hopes of reducing their fuel consumption. The price of gas had sky rocketed and mostly everyone was forced to downsize their cars in order to afford gas to run them.The big wagons were abandoned, falling to the roadside like so many casualties along the Oregon Trail.

America has always a way of springing back, and the Nineties ushered in a wave of apparent prosperity for the Middle Class. With more active lifestyles and more money to spend, they were looking for new wheels that would fit the bill. Detroit, most notably Ford, provided the solution.

The Sport Utility Vehicle, the ubiquitous SUV. It offered the utility of a wagon, the ruggedness of a truck, the promise of off road adventure, and the cachet of the hot new thing.

photo source; Wikipedia
Actually the minivan offered many, if not more, of the same advantages. Initially the minivan offered superior passenger carrying accommodations, third row seats debuted here and became a standard feature early on. They were quieter, got better fuel economy, and were initially less expensive.

The minivan did have a fatal flaw, it's image. While the driver of an SUV projected the image of the driver as an aggressive, ready for anything, man or woman of action, the driver of the minivan was portrayed as a harried Mom. Transporting kids, groceries and pets from home to school and the Mall. Although in practice both vehicles were probably being used in the same manner. The Oak Ridge Boys got it right.

I made the choice of a minivan-twice. I didn't need 4wd or off road capabilities. I didn't need to carry bulky objects or tow a trailer. I always thought that an SUV was kind of overkill for most drivers. There's a reason they call it "Mall Wheel Drive". I just needed a vehicle that I could use to take my family on trips.

My first was a new 1990 Dodge Caravan. It was the standard wheel base model with the great Mitsubishi 3.0 V6 motor. It turns out that the three speed transmission was much better than Chrysler's Ultradrive four speed. I quickly appreciated the usefulness of the van. One good point is that you can place your small children inside the van, get inside, lock the doors, then fuss with getting the kids strapped into their child seats. My Wife had an uncomfortable incident while she was strapping our infant son in the rear passenger seat of our '85 Cougar. She was outside the car, bent over intent upon her task. When she stood up and turned around there was a homeless guy standing right behind her, who asked for money. This was an unnerving incident for my Wife. Since the van has a pass through that gives access to all three rows of seats you can  take care of the kids while safely inside. You can't do that with an SUV since most have a console between the front seats, and you can only reach the third row through the rear door after folding part of the second row seat forward. Obviously the minivan was especially useful for families with small children.

At least mine didn't have the fake wood grain side panels.

We put about 130,000 miles on it before the transmission needed to be rebuilt. After that we put almost another thirty thousand miles on without any problems. The only real issue was the appearance of Chrysler's famous exploding paint. The paint on the roof blistered and than just exploded off while being run through the car wash. I sanded it down and hit it with some grey spray bomb primer. It looked okay if you didn't look too closely. On the other hand I became a magician, every disappearance was made in a cloud of smoke! The valve guides were worn out by this point, and this became an embarrassing characteristic. It was getting time to look for a replacement.

The first time around I had taken the low buck route and bought a pretty basic little van. This time I decided to buy used, and I went totally upscale. I found a wisteria grey '96 Chyrsler Town and Country LXI.

photo source: wikipedia

photo source: old cars monthly
This was just a beautiful plush van. Grey leather, Captain's chairs, dual sliding doors, rear air, 16 speaker Infinity sound system, gold alloy wheels and more. We took a lot of family trips and vacations in this van. All the way up to Whistler in British Columbia. It was a great driving, extremely comfortable vehicle.The large 3.8 litre V6 could cruise at high speeds easily and 85 mph. cruising speeds were common. We put about 70,000 miles on this van until the transmission acted up. It was rebuilt and went through many problems before it was back in active service. Finally, it just sat for about a year before it received some needed repairs. The second time the transmission went bad was the end of the line. I didn't want to put any more money in it, and I felt that we didn't need a multi passenger vehicle anymore. This experience soured me on Chrysler products and I haven't wanted to take another chance on one. The pictures above are not of my specific van, but after ten years mine looked just as good, in and out. Chrysler got the paint right this time.

The only real problem was that the seats had to be removed to have all the interior space available. So where do you put the seats? Generally in the garage, but when there wasn't space there I would leave them on the front porch, luckily they were never stolen.

How did I deal with the Mommy Van stigma? Easy, I never bought into that. The van suited my needs and I always enjoyed driving it. It allowed us to take many enjoyable family trips and contributed to some great memories. Sometimes I still wish I had a van.

As always circumstances in life dictate your choices. I needed a vehicle that my Daughter and Wife could use for their businesses. I knew that my Wife did not want to drive my truck and I don't think that my Daughter could really handle it, so I decided that a smaller SUV might fill the bill.

Since I have become a Ford truck guy, I decided that an Explorer would be my choice. Money is limited so I was looking for something old but hopefully well maintained. Something that would actually be a Better Beater. I found my Explorer  at Wheels and Deals in Santa Clara. It is a 1996 model in very presentable shape, with only a few dings, scratches and scrapes, and the original paint is still shiny. The bumpers, trim, and lights are all in good shape. It was only missing one wheel center cap and both the fender V8 badges and the rear Ford Oval. These shouldn't be hard to replace. The interior is clean and in pretty good condition, except for the front seats. There are some horrendous seat covers on them at the moment. This is a highly optioned vehicle with leather seats, a/c with rear a/c vents, keyless entry, and ABS. It is two wheel drive with a 5.0 V8. I didn't want the extra complications of four wheel drive in such an old vehicle. It even has a DrawTite hitch and a six disc CD player. The placard in the window  stated that it had a recently rebuilt transmission, new a/c compressor, new alternator, and new rear brakes. It had just been smogged. The tires are very good, with well over half the tread still available. There wasn't any evidence of oil or coolant leaks. So far it was looking pretty good.

Well, it does have a lot of miles. 247,000 miles to be exact. So how did it drive? It started right up and settled into a steady, quiet idle. I tried the a/c and found that it worked quite well. After checking out the lights. power equipment and radio I shut it down after about ten minutes. I restarted it and it fired up with ease. I went home to tell my wife about it, and think it over.

My wife and I returned a few days later and we both took it for a test drive. We found that the steering was positive and secure feeling, the brakes were smooth, quiet and worked well. I thought that it was a good vehicle, and a good deal. We also tried another newer small SUV but it had more problems and my wife was disappointed. I decided I would go home and think it over some more, maybe not a good idea, as it could very well be sold before my next visit. I did a little research in the '96 Consumers Union Buyer's guide. The review was quite positive ans it was rated a recommended buy.  I took a quick look on some forums and found that the two wheel drive V8 models were pretty well regarded. The next day I returned to the lot and couldn't find the Explorer! Had it been sold? I was kicking myself when I found it waaay in the back. Okay. I took one final test drive and was sold. I put down a deposit and told the dealer that I would be back on Sunday to pick it up. At this time he pulled the file and I found that he was selling it as a donated vehicle for his church. Besides the repairs listed on the placard, he told me that they had performed a safety check, oil change and replaced a strut rod. I think I really scored with this one, it seems like I should be able to get some use out of this SUV.

Nice and straight, just a little faded

Paint is intact, but chipped and cracked.

Paint is faded and worn. Not too hard to fix.

The worst damage, This scrape can't buff out. I'll try to minimize it.

Badges are missing on both fenders.

The Ford Oval will be replaced.

This is the only wheel center missing. Not too bad.

I like the color.  Blue is a dignified hue.

The scrape on the rt. rear door isn't too noticeable in this shot.
There are plenty of little projects to improve this truck. Outside, I can touch up the scrape on the rt. rear door, replace the badges, and find a better set of seat covers. The paint was polished with a power buffer and there is a lot of polish residue in the panel seams, and around the emblems and lenses, The plastic covers on the bumpers can be treated with Armorall or another protectant., I can really scrub the wheels and tires, straighten the front license plate and buff out the lenses. Overall a good cleaning and detail. At least the interior smells nice and clean to begin with. I've been driving the truck for a few days and I like it. It sounds nice and throaty, kind of like my Mustang, Pretty good for a single little exhaust pipe! Hey, it is the venerated Five- point- oh. It is comfortable and very versatile for carrying passengers and cargo- just like it was designed to do. I know that it can't carry the load that my F150 can, but it is more versatile and can probably handle 90% of my needs. Now to see if my Wife and Daughter can warm up to it.

The Oak Ridge Boys are still right!

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