My off-roading season has finally begun, and this Friday I will be embarking on yet another silly road trip. Yesterday, I picked up my steed for this adventure, and I paid just $1,200 for it. This 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan is an example of what you could get in today’s used car market when you don’t have a lot of cash to spend.
I know that some of you are scratching your head at the idea of an old front-wheel-drive minivan as an off-road vehicle. Ever since I started off-roading in the Gambler 500, my preferred choice of vehicles have been ones not built for the job. I’m talking vehicles like a Smart Fortwo that I bought new, a Honda Elite scooter with a bent frame, another Smart Fortwo, and a rotted out Ford Festiva. Last year, I decided to toss the tent in the trash, and I got an off-roader that I could sleep in: a minivan!
Unfortunately, that 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan’s life came to an end when its transmission blew its first and reverse gears on a forest trail. The engine later overheated. Along the way, the construction foam that the previous owner used to cover up rust went up in flames. The cooked van was done. Sheryl and I loved running that van, even if it wasn’t super capable off-road.
With my Discovery idea shelved, we began looking for fuel-efficient wagons and small SUVs like a first-generation Ford Escape. We found a number of cheap rides from a $1,000 Pontiac Vibe with broken door handles and bad tires to a $900 Mazda Tribute with frankly amazing levels of rust rot. These cars all sold before we could get at them, and we started getting so desperate that we began considering cars with obvious drivability issues like Sheryl’s recently resurfaced Chevy HHR.
Then this white van showed up for sale.
We both got excited because a second-generation Caravan was a vehicle that we both grew up with. Both of us were carted around in these vans as kids and have developed fond memories of them. And I like the style of these older vans way more than the newer ones, too. The decision to go with a van again was easy.
So, what did we get for $1,200? Let’s start with the outside.
This 28-year-old van’s exterior is in surprisingly decent shape for having spent its life in the Midwest. The rockers are both accounted for, and the majority of the rust is on the rear quarter.
I did the scary thing and poked at the rust with a screwdriver, and it didn’t go through. There might still be some strength left there! No, probably not.
Underneath, I found gobs of rust. But once again, I found nothing too alarming for a vehicle that will be primarily beaten off-road. I’m not a fan of that rusty and old spare tire, so we’ll pick up another one.
Things are even better inside, where it looks like this van’s previous caretakers really tried to keep it in good condition. The seller told us that her uncle used this van for his band, and they took this thing all over the country.
Clearly, they tried to keep it in good enough shape not to leave them stranded.
Everything works in here, save for the air-conditioner and the cruise control. I’m only upset by the lack of cruise.
Under the hood is a Chrysler 3.3-liter EGA V6. This made 162 horsepower and 194 lb-ft torque when new. I have no idea how many horses are still in the stable today, but it runs well and maintains good oil pressure, which is good enough for me. That’s paired to a four-speed automatic. An important note from the previous owner is that the transmission is new. Speed builds gradually, but it cruises on the highway with ease.
Of course, being a dirt cheap vehicle does mean problems, and this one has its share. The leaf sprung suspension out back has seen better days, and the van will ponder about on bumpy curves. One of the ball joints up front also sounds like it’s towards the end of its life. The power steering also makes noise, but at this point I can’t remember when was the last time I’ve seen a 1994 anything without power steering noise.
And that’s it. The van drove 150 miles back home—mostly on the highway and at 80 mph—just fine. All gauges were nominal, and as I wanted, it appears to be getting better than 20 mpg. We hope to keep this one around for longer than the last one. I’m already planning on dolling it up in a parody Camel Trophy Land Rover livery.
As I prep this van for the trip, I’m reminded that you can still get a vehicle for cheap in this market. You may have to learn how to change a leaf spring pack, but you can still get something that runs, drives and will go on the interstate for dirt cheap.