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This Hero Takes His Kids To School In A Manual 1994 Dodge Caravan

All photos: Bob Swanson
All photos: Bob Swanson

I have a fascination with cars that make smart use of space through clever packaging and intelligent overall design. For this reason, I’m a huge fan of minivans, and since I love rare manual transmission versions of cars that you wouldn’t expect to have manual transmissions, this 1994 Dodge Caravan—owned and still used for its intended function of shuttling kids to school by Michigander Bob Swanson—has me entranced.

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“I have really enjoyed your articles lately about manual transmission minivans and thought I would share some pics and info about mine. It’s a 94 dodge caravan 2.5 with a manual transmission,” Swanson’s email begins, before he tells me how much work this old human-hauler needed to get into the shape that it’s in now.

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“I absolutely love this van and just rescued it from the woods in hesperia[, Michigan],” he told me. “It sat for 3 years before I got it. It needed a bunch of work but I got it up and running. It was my friends and he stopped driving it after the exhaust rotted out of it.”

Swanson swapped out the whole exhaust system minus the catalytic converter, and he had to throw on some new brake and fuel lines. On top of that, the van needed new front struts and wheel bearings, axle seals, and—and this one is my favorite—he “had to repair the rear dummy axle tube with a pipe.”

Bob still has to throw in a new fuel tank, since his current one leaks. And he needs new rear leaf springs and eventually a clutch, since the one currently riding on the transmission input shaft is wearing thin.

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Bob is a mechanic who owns his own shop in Muskegon, Michigan. He says he knew the van was rare and special so he “had to save it.” The downside to this rarity is that he’s having some trouble sourcing an affordable clutch for the thing.

“It is currently my daily driver,” he told me. “I bought it as a winter beater to save [my] 87 Buick electra estate wagon from any more rust. That was my daily driver and that has a 94 350 lt1 out of a caprice in it.”

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“I love this [van] so much I think I might just keep driving it though.”

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That’s what’s so great about this van. It’s rare, but Bob’s using it for its intended purpose, and he’s not just doing it during the summer. Yes, it’s going to rust, but he’ll fix it as it comes, and do so in a way that’s quick and keeps the van on the road. The existing rust, he told me, he plans to cover up with some diamond plating:

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“I drive [the van] every day bring the kids to school even though my oldest stepdaughter is embarrassed by it,” he admits of the 177,000 van—the only car he’s ever owned that—surprisingly—doesn’t leak oil.

Swanson bought the car from his friend, who apparently got it from the original owner who ordered it specifically with the five-speed. “It sat for 3 years after the exhaust broke at the flange. [My friend] wanted me to fix it but did not have money to fix it,” Swanson wrote me. “I was looking for a winter beater and [knew] it was sitting in hesperia at his cabin in the woods.”

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Swanson said he was planning to offer his buddy $500, but since the van needed so much work, he proposed an idea. “I told him to give it to me and I promise I won’t sell it to anyone else. He would just have to pay me what I got into which is way more than I wanted to spend.”

Sound like a good trade. Labor in exchange for the use of a minivan to take kids to school. And not just any minivan, an awesome, rare five-speed. Anyone who limps along a beat up old minivan, and still uses it to take kids to school is a hero in my eyes.

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

First off, why the hell are you suddenly obsessed with minivans with manuals on Feb 29th?

Second, the change in front of the stick is probably worth more than the whole car.

Third and last, if “Swanson swapped out the whole exhaust system minus the catalytic converter”, then I already dislike him. I would be hating him, but I understand he’s skipping on the cat because of budget constraints. Keep it legal. Keep it safe, especially because you’re driving your kids to school in this shoebox daily.