I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany

Art by Jason Torchinsky
Art by Jason Torchinsky
Photo: Andreas Aron

I’m flying to Germany today to prepare a $600 Chrysler Voyager (manual, diesel!) to act as a mobile apartment for a month-long, car-themed road trip through Europe. The second-gen Chrysler minivan, which I bought sight unseen, doesn’t run; it’s located over 4,000 miles from my Michigan home, in Nuremberg, Germany; and it has 250,000 miles on what many consider a highly unreliable engine. Oh boy.

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I have for many years been drooling over manual transmission Chrysler minivans, possibly because my dad brought me home from the hospital in one after my birth (it was a first-gen 1990 Plymouth Voyager). That may have had some sort of effect on my subconscious, because I’ve been writing about rare manual Chrysler minivans for far too long; it was only a matter of time before I finally broke down and bought one of my own.

The Search For The Minivan Of My Dreams

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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That happened earlier this summer, though I didn’t just buy one of the gas-powered manual transmission models available in the U.S. No, I wanted the holy grail of Chrysler minivans—something that I find cooler than even the 2.5-liter turbo gas model. I wanted a turbodiesel, and luckily, I knew just the place to find one for dirt cheap: my birthplace, Germany.

Fortunately, since I’ve spent so much time there visiting my parents (whom I’m excited to see next week!), I’ve made some great friends in the country who, perhaps because of quarantine-delirium, responded to my inquiry about diesel manual minivans with alacrity. My friend Andreas, in particular, was so thrilled to help with my search, he found a number of listings for diesel manual Chrysler Voyagers (these were called Dodge Caravans, Chrysler Town & Countries, and Plymouth Voyagers in the U.S.), and even called sellers on my behalf to get more information and to negotiate.

Andreas and I admittedly nearly got side-tracked by a $100 Pontiac Trans Sport. While it’s essentially the same machine as the supremely-wacky Oldsmobile Silhouette offered in the U.S., it’s actually even more interesting. That’s because under the hood is an awesome Quad-4 (at the time of its release, this was a revolutionary dual overhead-cam engine for GM, as I wrote in my Quad-4 deep-dive) bolted to a five-speed manual transmission, neither of which GM offered in its U.S.-market minivans.

So if you were wondering what inspired that ridiculously random (but strangely well-read?) article about the “Holy Grail of GM Minivans” back in February, it was the fact that I was legitimately close to purchasing the non-running $100 GM Space Van you see below (Note: My brother photoshopped on the wing. This is the only picture I have of the van from the listing, because I intentionally excluded it from my “Holy Grail of GM Minivans” article out of fear that someone might swoop in and buy the broken $100 van from under me—a totally absurd thought now that I’ve typed it.).

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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron

Anyway, somehow, with counseling, Andreas and I resisted the temptation of the Trans Sport, and of the many third and fourth-generation bubble-style diesel Chrysler Voyagers for sale at unbelievably low prices. So low that I even wrote a rather cryptic post on Jalopnik’s Facebook page in February, asking readers which bubble van I should buy:

Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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In the end, though, my heart wanted what it wanted. I knew I yearned for a boxy, early-generation Chrysler minivan similar to the one my dad owned all those years ago. But since the first-gens weren’t offered with diesels, I set my sights on the second-gen model (which itself is just a lightly-modified first-gen. Both are built on the maligned K-car platform. In fact, the 1995 second-gen Chrysler minivan is essentially the very last vehicle built on the K-platform).

One of the most fascinating things about the second-gen diesel Chrysler Voyagers is that, though they were engineered in Michigan, they were actually assembled in Graz, Austria. It was there in the early 1990s that Chrysler established “Eurostar Motors,” a partnership with Austrian engineering firm/auto supplier Steyr-Daimler-Puch established specifically to build the Voyager for the European market, though the outfit later went on to build PT Cruisers before ultimately being sold to Magna (who later built Jeep Commanders, Grand Cherokees, Chrysler 300s, and Chrysler minivans in Graz).

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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: eBay

Andreas had been courting the seller of a beautiful, blue second-gen Voyager. The asking price, as I recall, was a bit steep at 1,200 Euros, but the machine looked good. “[The van] came from Italy two years ago, so it’s essentially rust-free,” the listing read. “Valve cover gasket is new,” it continued.

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[Note: Before I continue, I have to tell you that the German word for valve cover gasket is “ventildeckeldichtung.” Please, spend the next five minutes attempting to pronounce that word and marveling at its length].

Yes, Chrysler engineered this van in the U.S., assembled it in Austria, and sold it in Italy. In fact, the owner’s manual is in Italian! Here’s a page from it:

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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This page shows some interesting relics of the past, including “Unione Sovietica” and “Cecoslovacchia.” I’m assuming Chrysler didn’t feel like editing this map between when the second-gen Voyager came out for the 1991 model year and when Chrysler built my van in 1994.

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The for-sale listing went on. The diesel pump is currently leaking and the suspension rumbles in potholes,” the listing goes on to say. “Has of course some signs of wear, but that’s normal for this age. The interior is quite clean and not extremely worn.”

The pump and suspension problems didn’t scare us immediately, so Andreas drove up to Lichtenfels, about an hour north of his Nuremberg apartment—and reported to me that the van seemed to be in remarkably decent shape. But between the fact that the vehicle’s battery was too dead to turn the engine over, and the seller’s refusal to budge much on the price, we had to let The Grail go.

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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: eBay

But as time continued on, apparently Germany’s diesel manual Chrysler Voyager market didn’t exactly heat up. You can probably thank COVID-19 for that, and also the fact that Europe’s emissions regulations are only getting stricter. Pretty soon, old, smoggy diesels like this van will be squeezed out of most cities in the western part of the continent, so it’s no wonder the seller had trouble getting rid of this van, despite its awesomeness.

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It’s In Beautiful Shape For 500 Euros

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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Andreas stayed in touch with the seller, and eventually offered 500 Euros. The seller agreed, and in short order, my friend pulled the cash out of his own bank account, and organized for a van and trailer to pick up the loot.

Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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In the U.S., you’d either use an SUV or a pickup to tow a car trailer, but not in Germany. In Germany, a big Ford Transit van isn’t a bad option:

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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Andreas and his friend Tim hauled the van to Andreas’s girlfriend’s (Josi) parents’ property, where the machine now sits.

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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Yes, Josi’s parents (whom I’ve met—they’re great folks) are housing a broken, 25 year-old, 399,000 kilometer, 600 Euro minivan for a car journalist who lives 4,000 miles away. They probably think their daughter’s boyfriend is nuts. They probably think I’m nuts. They’re probably right on both counts.

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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Anyway, there’s a lot more to come from this series. In my next article, to come later this week, I’ll describe my extremely half-baked plan to try to get this machine through Germany’s rigorous inspection and back on the road; I’ll talk about how I’m going to outfit this tiny van so that I can live in it for a month; and I’ll outline my car-themed destinations throughout Europe.

But for now, let’s just take a gander at Andreas’s photos of my new minivan, shown at Josi’s parents’ place in the image below:

Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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I love the driving lights, I love the amber turn signals, I love the blue color—I love everything about this van except for its lack of the Pentastar hood ornament that was standard on U.S. models (this is likely for European pedestrian protection reasons).

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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Andreas put some chicken wire under the engine bay. This apparently keeps away Marder, deceptively-cute ferret-like animals that chew rubber radiator hoses and wiring like bubble gum. Hopefully this works. I hate redoing wiring.

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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Honestly, the van’s body looks great, and that holds true even when you look underneath. Behold:

Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron

And then there’s the interior, which features a five-speed shift lever on the floor between the seats. Gosh this is going to be strange to shift; I can’t wait!

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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron

Here’s a look at the VM Motori 2.5-liter turbodiesel:

Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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This engine has me a bit worried, I must admit. I’ve never worked on a diesel before, and what’s more, this diesel isn’t exactly known for its longevity.

It’s an Italian VM Motori 2.5-liter turbodiesel, and if you google that followed by the word “reliability,” what follows are phrases like “horrid piece of shite” and horror stories like this one posted to the off-road forum Birty Dastards:

i have owned one and paid for it.

the vm lump is great when it is running well. good torque smooth engine and quiet compared to the green oval variety. BUT yest it is a very big BUT, when the engine fails it is a massive hit to the pocket even when you are fixing it yourself.

the heads are interchangeable between the pre and post facelift as the engine change was from a mechanical to an electronic fuel pump. Change the rubber connecting hoses that joint the injectors together as any leaks in these causes the diesel to drain away resulting the engine having to prime itself at each start. Be aware of the individual gaskets as you can buy a one piece variety but the end plates will need to be machined to suit or they will be too tall.

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And this:

I had the cylinder head problem when i first got it , cured by lobbing in some expensive chemical thats done the job real well....I have had the hydraulic adjusters on the pushrods collapse twice , and at the moment its going through a don,t really want to start when cold phrase , but when its going right its great...
[...]

Would i buy another Jeep..for sure i would...would i buy another one with a VM engine...errrr maybe not....

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The engine can also found under the hood of older Land Rovers, and oh my this story on the LR4x4 forum daunting:

Compared to a TDI - well there is no comparison the VM is hard work, I once actually refused to open the yard gates to allow a VM engined RRc in.If you get involved with them you get stuck with them.You only have to look at the prices of engines on E-Bay to get the picture.I gave up on VM’s many years ago after a complete rebuild on a 2.5 when 3 of the 4 rocker pillar studs pulled their threads out of the heads and needed inserts.

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Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron

The biggest issue seems to be with cylinder heads cracking—apparently this is a rampant problem, as user DeezelWeazel from the Ausjeepoffroad forum describes:

All heads need to be bolted down on a jig and done at the same time rather than each individual head as is commonly done. Lining them up to the gasket and the block is extremly important as partially covering holes leads to failure.

If you can’t afford a good oil and filter and a frequent change within the interval, do not drive a Diesel.

2) The cooling system

Head cracks develop between the valves and at the side of the heads were are no water cooling gallerys.
The engine is tilted upwards towards the front that causes the air being caught in the front of the heads, causing hot spots.

Engine coolant must be refilled while the rear of the Jeep is on a ramp or you have access on a vaccum coolant refill. Otherwise you ask for trouble.

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If you read some of those comments and thought to yourself “Does this thing really have four individual cylinder heads?” then you’re going to want to witness the madness for yourself:

So yes, I plan to temporarily “live in” and road trip a minivan that has 250,000 miles on an engine that is almost certainly on borrowed time. I am a fool.

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There is hope, though. Back in June, I posted in a German Chrysler Voyager Facebook page, asking how grave of a mistake I’d made, and the responses weren’t all doom and gloom. The contrary, actually!

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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I’ll translate what Martin Gloning wrote. It’s positive!:

Good selection, you will definitely not have any further problems with this vehicle. I do not think that the pump is leaking ... It will probably just be the leak oil line (return) is defective costs 1 m max. € 10

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And here’s what Sabrina Goldenpfennig had to say:

Don’t worry ... the fat one will never let you down .... drives on french fry grease and without water ...

Only with the hoses .... Keep them pressurized ... if something pulls somewhere [it won’t be good]... but otherwise it’s a good one

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Am I a bit confused that everyone keeps saying this engine is a piece of junk, but the German Voyager owners have full faith in this Italian 2.5-liter turbodiesel? Yes, I’m definitely confused. Are the Germans somehow gleefully optimistic all of a sudden?

What gives me hope is that Andreas took a photo of my van’s dipstick, and the oil level looks good:

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Photo: Andreas Aron
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The top of the oil cap doesn’t show any signs of a coolant-into-oil leak:

Illustration for article titled I Just Bought A $600 Diesel Manual Chrysler Minivan But It Has 250,000 Miles And Is Broken In Germany
Photo: Andreas Aron
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And hell, while we’re at it, listen to this thing crank over!:

I will be laying eyes on this Italian/Austrian/American machine hopefully on Friday. But for now, I have to board this flight. It’s going to be odd with all the COVID-related checks, but I’ll describe how all of that goes—and my (deeply flawed) plans for this road-trip—in the next article.

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As of right now, I have tentative destinations in England, Italy, Austria, and France, as there are people in those locations whom I want to interview for car-related stories. But it seems a bit early to be talking about the route; I have a minivan to fix! Expect an update here on Monday. And if you can’t wait until then, you can follow my Instagram for a play-by-play of the full journey.

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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ROBOT TURDS

How did you get permission to go to Germany? I thought we were all banned?