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Here's My Idiotic Plan To Drive A Broken 250,000-Mile Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan Around Europe

Illustration for article titled Heres My Idiotic Plan To Drive A Broken 250,000-Mile Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan Around Europe
Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

I’m planning a road trip through Europe in a 250,000 mile diesel, manual Chrysler Voyager minivan that I bought sight unseen for $600 from a seller near Nürnberg, Germany. That’s over 4,000 miles from my Michigan house. My plan to fix the broken machine and turn it into a mobile apartment isn’t exactly what I’d call “failure proof,” as you will surmise upon reading the rest of this article.

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If, after reading my introduction post for my glorious 1994 Chrysler Voyager, you thought to yourself “If he spent $600 on a car, and at least that amount on the plane ticket to Germany, surely he has an airtight plan in place” then you almost certainly haven’t read any of my other work. I am a fool, you see.

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The full extent of my thought process for this project was:

  1. Do I want to buy a diesel manual Chrysler Voyager?
  2. How is that even a question? Of course I do!
  3. Okay, I’ll buy one and road trip it.

That’s it. That’s the full logic-train, pulling into the station. I then bought the van and a ticket to Germany, and now I’m here with a broken automobile, a deeply-flawed dream, and honestly, not a whole lot else.

Getting To Germany

I should probably address how I got to Germany, since so many readers asked about it after reading my last article. Right now, there’s a travel ban prohibiting Americans from entering Germany. I wasn’t subject to this ban, since I’m a U.S.-German citizen.

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Flying to Germany was simple, and it “felt” safe. (I do recognize that traveling carries with it a risk greater than simply staying alone in one’s house.) After I’d taken a number of precautions to stay away from large groups while living in Michigan (a state that’s been handling the coronavirus relatively well), my brother drove me to the airport, where I dropped off my bag at a line-less ticket counter and walked through a completely empty security check. Wearing a mask, I flew to Chicago and then to Munich on a relatively empty plane.

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Upon arriving in Munich on Thursday, I grabbed my car part-filled check-in bag, and immediately walked to a clinic, where a doctor tested me for the SARS-CoV-2 virus by shoving a swab down my throat. It was a painless two-second process. I took a taxi to my hotel, and waited there until I’d received the results:

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After about six hours, I received the “all clear,” meaning I no longer had to partake in a mandatory two-week quarantine. The next day, Friday, I boarded a train to Nürnberg, where I checked into an AirBnB in the heart of downtown. I’ll be staying there for a month as I work on the van, fixing its numerous ailments and preparing it for an epic road trip.

The Road Trip

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Engineered in the U.S., built in Austria, and sold in Italy, my Chrysler minivan is one of the most fascinating machines I’ve ever owned. There was no way I could resist its lure, with its torquey turbodiesel engine, its weird manual shifter located on the floor between the two front seats, its boxy and strangely-proportioned design (the K-car-based body just sort of... stops after the rear wheels), and its hilariously low price tag.

I had to come up with a reason to buy the van, and what better reason than a road trip through Europe? I have a bunch of sources on the continent whom I’ve been wanting to interview anyway, so this gives me a great excuse to visit them in person.

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The Route

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I don’t have a full route planned yet, but here’s an abbreviated list of places I’ll visit, assuming all the other questionable parts of this plan come together—and that’s a big assumption:

  • Interview one of the original Mercedes C111 engineers near Frankfurt.
  • Interview a man on the Isle of Wight in England about his absolutely absurd off-road vehicle builds.
  • Visit an incredible Jeep collection in Italy.
  • Off-road the Voyager in Italy with a Jalopnik reader.
  • Stop by the Graz, Austria factory where my van was built.

Since writing my intro post, I’ve received a number of invites from readers located all over Europe, and I plan to take many of them up on those offers, because why the hell not? I’ve never been to Zilina, Slovakia or Toulouse, France, and lord knows I’m curious to learn about car culture there and throughout Europe.

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One thing I will note is that several cities around Europe have banned older, polluting diesel vehicles like this van from entering city centers. So if I want to visit downtown Stuttgart, for example, I’ll have to park in the suburbs and take a train into town. This is as annoying as it is fascinating.

Turning The Van Into An Apartment

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I plan to work (i.e. write articles) and sleep in my van for a month as I travel through Europe. This means I’ll have to figure out how to turn this little vehicle into decent living quarters.

Though “Vanlife” is essentially a well-established art form at this point, and there are plenty of online resources from which to draw inspiration, I haven’t decided what I’m going to do on this front, yet.

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Right now, I’m focusing on fixing the van and getting in through Germany’s absurdly rigorous inspection process. It seems a bit silly for me to put much thought into interior decor. Plus, my budget is rather low, so ornate in-van living setups are not options.

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I do have a vision, though. Obviously, I’m going to yank out the back two rows, and I’ll likely build some sort of bed platform with storage underneath, as that seems to be what most van-lifers do. I’ll also figure out some sort of food containment solution, and I’ll install some curtains. I did meet a carpenter the other day near my workshop (more on the shop next), and I’m a bit curious to see what sort of madness he can come up with if I throw him a few Euros.

There’s obviously so much more that I’ll need to devise, but I’ve got bigger issues right now. The van doesn’t even run.

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I will say that my goal is to head out with a rather bare van. Instead of simply outfitting the vehicle in Germany, I’d like to decorate the vehicle as I travel, picking up furniture and artwork specific to each country that I visit. By the time I finish this trip, I’d like the inside of this van to be an eclectic showcase of European culture and interior decor.

But again, right now, I have bigger issues to solve.

I At Least Have A Workshop Planned Out

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The good news is that, as little thought as I’ve put into this whole operation, my friend Andreas—who bought the van on my behalf—is German. As such, he naturally always has a plan.

To pick up the van from the seller in Lichtenfels, about an hour north of his house in Nürnberg, Andreas borrowed his friend’s dad’s Ford Transit van. After yanking the Voyager onto a rented trailer, my friend towed the American-Austrian-Italian human-hauler to his girlfriend’s parents’ house where the vehicle sat for a few months.

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From there, the plan was for me to fly to Germany as soon as I could (as soon as I got my 11 vehicles to comply with the “vehicles must be operable and registered” city ordinance that I was breaking), and somehow tow the car from Josi’s (that’s Andreas’s girlfriend) parents’ house to a workshop.

Specifically, I’m talking about a workshop that Andreas shares with his friends Tim and Toby. Shown above, it’s a tall, two-bay garage with a hydraulic lift and a custom-built loft. It’s located in Erlangen, about 25 minutes from Nürnberg. There’s enough room for about four cars, and so long as I contributed to rent, my Voyager can be one of them.

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Fixing The Van Isn’t Going To Be Easy

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After hauling the van to the shop, the plan was to get the van baselined. The man who sold the van to Andreas, Bjorn, recently reached out to me on Instagram, and told me that, as far as he knew, the only major problems were the wheel bearing and the diesel injection pump.

Finding new parts for an American car could be difficult, and it doesn’t help that, while my my German skills are decent, they’re definitely not good enough for me to know the words for “control arm” and “ball joint.” (I look forward to teaching you all the German words for these parts, because I’m sure the terms are hilariously long and ridiculous-sounding.)

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Sourcing parts is one concern, but so is that damn diesel injection pump. I’ve done some cursory research on rebuilding a Bosch injection pump, and to be frank, I’m intimidated. These things look like carburetors on steroids (seriously, just watch that video below), requiring advanced degrees in astrophysics to understand their intricacies.

Farming out the work would probably upwards of $500, so I’m going to have to somehow figure out how to become a rocket scientist in a matter of weeks. Even if I do pull that off, who knows what else will be wrong with the van. For all I know, the clutch could be bad or the throwout bearing could be on its way out.

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With a $600 vehicle, you can never really know.

German Vehicle Inspection Is Going To Kick My Arse

This is all especially problematic given that Germany’s vehicle inspection process, called TÜV, is incredibly rigorous. Not only does an inspector check all the chassis parts for wear, and the body for rust (even a small hole in the outside usually has to be repaired), but TÜV actually includes hooking the test vehicle up to machines that measure brake torque and headlight aim and brightness. It’s some nerdy, thoroughly-German stuff

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And of course, there’s emissions testing, though I think early diesels like my old Voyager have lax requirements. (That’s also why I can’t drive into many European city centers.)

I have to say, the challenge of getting a $600 shitbox through one of the most rigorous vehicle inspection programs on earth excites me. Bring it on, TÜV; you are no match for my wrenching skills. I think.

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What About Registration And Insurance?

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I’ve put very little thought into registering and insuring this van. I don’t have a permanent address in Germany, nor do I have a German driver’s license, so I’m pretty sure I can’t register the vehicle myself. I may have to leverage my parents, but even then, how long will registration take given COVID restrictions?

This is just one of many areas that I haven’t put enough thought into.

I’m Going To Have To Solve A Lot Of Problems

By now, you’ve likely surmised that I’ve pretty much YOLO’d myself into my current situation as a 1994 Chrysler Voyager owner staying in an AirBnB in downtown Nürnberg and wrenching in a shared workshop in nearby Erlangen. Indeed, I’ll admit that there wasn’t a ton of preparation that went into this trip. That’s pretty much my M.O. these days—basically just go for it, and figure things out from there.

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So far, this strategy seems to be working. I find myself staying in a beautiful city, hanging out with cool friends, and fixing a fascinating, rust-free van in a wrenching oasis filled with creative young people working on their own projects. (I’ll give you all a tour of the workshop later.)

But there’s lots of room for things to go wrong. That diesel injection pump has me deeply concerned, because even if I do manage to get that mysterious contraption working, by the time I do, will there be enough time to address whatever other problems driving the car will uncover? Will I be able to find all the parts I need to fix this van? How will I register and insure it? Will Germany’s TÜV inspection kick my butt? Will I be able to drive in any of the cities I plan to visit given diesel pollution restrictions? Will I be able to travel freely to these countries or will COVID flares cause shutdowns? How will I pull this off while working my standard eight-to-five workday? Will this project put me in the poor house? What will I do with the van when I’m done?

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Dang, that’s a lot of questions that I wish I hadn’t just thought of. I’m a little worried now.

But only a little.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

Maybe as a side article you could explain the unbelievably lax vehicle inspection routines in the US, for the readers in Europe, and elsewhere, for whom the description of TÜW sounds pretty standard?

Do they really not check the brakes and lights when inspecting a vehicle for roadworthyness in the US?!