If you haven’t noticed, buying a car pretty much universally sucks right now. It seems like everything is outrageously expensive, but if you dig deep enough you can still have some fun for under a thousand dollars. I bought a $900 Dodge Grand Caravan from Facebook Marketplace and took it on a 1,500-mile adventure to the Gambler 500 Tennessee.
Every fall I make a 600-mile trek down to Crossville, Tennessee where I meet up with old friends and make some new ones playing with beaters and picking up trash off road. The Gambler 500 Tennessee is one of my favorite car events.
The formula is simple: buy a crapbox that’s on its last legs, give it a theme, slap some off-road tires on it, then take it on an off-road adventure and pick up trash along the way. Ideally, your vehicle should be roughly $500, but this hot car market has made that target a little optimistic.
I was originally going to use my Volkswagen Touareg VR6 for this rally, but it’s been such a reliable daily and tow vehicle that the thought of jumping it through a mud bowl seemed wrong. So I began a search for some terrible car to take its place. I wanted to off road a convertible or a sports car while my fiancée, noting how much I hate sleeping in wet tents, suggested a van. We set a budget of $1,000 then hit Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.
I’ve purchased a number of decent vehicles for $1,000 in the past.
One of my Smart Fortwos was that cheap, and one time I bought a Ford Ranger for all of $800. That thing had the 4.0-liter V6, a lift kit, four wheel drive and only needed a new battery.
Sadly, it seems to be getting harder to find such deals. Most of the $1,000 cars on my local Facebook Marketplace won’t even make it home under their own power. And when a running and driving $1,000 car does show up, it sells before I could even fire off a message. Such was the case with easily a few dozen or more cars that we tried to buy over the past couple of months. Eventually, time ran out and it was the night before the rally and we still didn’t have a car. That’s when a 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan popped up for sale for $1,300. A Caravan wasn’t even in my top ten list of choices, but screw it, I was willing to take anything at that point.
I took a short test drive, ignoring the Christmas tree of warning lights on the dashboard. Ultimately, we negotiated the seller down to $900 and drove homebound with our new adventure vehicle.
This Grand Caravan is a true beater in every sense of the word. There isn’t a single panel without rust, the paint is wrecked and the hood can’t even open and close without raining rust down into the engine bay.
Oh, and the tires? Hot garbage. The date codes on them indicate that they’re six years old.
The interior is in pretty good shape, all things considered, and the van’s trademark Stow ’n Go storage is epic for hiding tools and baggage away.
I’ve always wondered how Chrysler made this system and it’s actually pretty simple. The area that the third row folds into is just the floorboard formed into a bin.
Things are a little chaotic at the helm. A 3.3-liter V6 making 180 horsepower moves the van, and it’s connected to a four-speed automatic. Not a whole lot works up front. The driver side window needs help getting up, the radio’s volume knob requires finesse to turn and the HVAC only blows hot and only out of the top vents.
Just about every warning light is on in this thing, including the oil pressure light. I didn’t have time to run an oil pressure test so I just ran it as-is, hoping a sensor is to blame.
In fact, the only preparation I did was mount a basket onto the roof rack and grab a set of Ford Ranger tires from my deck.
And after only a 30-mile shakedown run, we piled our gear into the van and set out for Tennessee.
Our $900 purchase gave us our first problem when my fiancée tried to use the parking brake. Naturally, it got stuck and even though the pedal released, the brake was left partially engaged. She didn’t notice until smoke billowed from the rear wheels.
That mishap aside, the van made the 600-mile drive to Tennessee without issue, even scoring 26 mpg along the way.
The forecast predicted rain all weekend. Calling it a deluge would be an understatement. It often rained so hard that we couldn’t see past the hood, and it was at those moments that I was thankful for not getting a convertible. This van offered great shelter from the downpours.
The route for this Gambler 500 took us through tight, winding mountain curves, technical trails and mud deep enough to swallow trucks.
Caravans have some comically terrible handling. This one happens to have a recently refreshed suspension, so it was tight. Still, the van cornered so badly that understeer proved unavoidable. In a way, that was fun on its own. It was hilarious wrestling the Caravan through mountain curves at 30 mph, tires screeching in protest.
But the van was surprisingly decent when the going got tough. The bins that make the Stow ’n Go system frequently bottomed out, but the van stopped for nothing. Finding the Caravan surrounded by side-by-sides and Jeeps in front of an abandoned train deep in the forest was an amusing visual, to say the least.
Of course, a van on street tires isn’t going to go everywhere. It handled the mud decently on flat ground with the throttle pinned, but any sort of incline and gravity took control.
Also, this thing doesn’t have any recovery points, so you’ll have to get creative.
And when the fun comes to an end, you get to retire to a space large enough for some comfortable sleep. Can’t do that in a convertible.
This is part of what makes these Gambler events so fun. You’re challenged to find the cheapest bucket of bolts to go play in the dirt with. Plus, you get to see some of the greatest locales that the country has to offer, while doing good picking up trash, too.
The van did earn a couple new issues getting beaten up off road, including a light coolant reservoir leak. Also, a chunk of the serpentine belt is now missing.
Still, this $900 minivan surpassed our expectations.
It’s genuinely a pile of crap, but it’s a pile of crap that drove 1,500 miles without any major issue. I’m also impressed with the utility of the thing. It has a million places to store stuff, can be slept in and does pretty ok off pavement. And did I mention the great visibility on account of the massive greenhouse?
I never expected a minivan to be so fun, but I enjoyed it so much that we’re going to keep it around for future Gambler 500s. Maybe we’ll give it some knobby tires and an obnoxious theme. One thing’s for sure: Minivans are great.
And I know it’s just a sample size of exactly one, but it demonstrates you can still get basic transportation for under a grand. It’ll just be a pile of rust.