Against All Oddities: My van down by the river

Not bad for a Michigan car. Matthew Anderson

This story is a bit old, but it deserves telling. That’s partly because it involves the kind of crapcan vehicles many of us love, and for me personally, it told me a lot about my future. Operating in my general orbit means friends and family are subjected to decrepit cars, hare-brained (mis)adventures, and occasional bodily injury. Some moments herein set the tone for what my then-girlfriend-now-wife Dana’s family could expect from me.

Now, please, join me in 2016…


My buddy David and I met while I was working as an engineer in Detroit. Nearly that whole time, he had an 1985 Plymouth Voyager painted the color of raw tofu. It was shockingly clean, especially for being from rust-prone Michigan. (The rockers were, unavoidably, trashed.) The appeal of this van was, however, not related to its uncommon intactness, or even in its pristine velour interior. The gem was its turbine whistle, audible via the straight-piped exhaust and triple-pedal setup. Yes, this beige beauty was both turbocharged and equipped with a manual gearbox.

When David decided to move to the U.K., the van was left to rot at his father’s home and cry viscous hydrocarbon tears all over the driveway. Ultimately, his father took pity on the thing and auctioned it off to the highest bidder on his Facebook friend list.

Complete with picnic plate hubcaps. Matthew Anderson

A few hundred of my very own dollars was all it took. Though I had left Detroit and since moved to Charleston, South Carolina, the whole idea seemed bad enough to actually work out.

And thus, we a plan was hatched. David’s father, Chuck, would drive the van from Detroit to Washington, D.C., where he would visit family, spend the night in a hotel airport, and take a return flight to DTW the next morning. I would meanwhile fly in to Dulles, take the hotel courtesy shuttle to the van, unload my tools and camping gear, and start the drive home to Charleston via a stop to meet my now-wife’s parents at a vacation cabin in Luray, Virginia. If all were to go well (ha!) it would be logistical perfection.

Chuck launched into the trip with an optimistic assessment of the van’s reliability. By mile 100, however, his outlook changed. It become apparent that although the Voyager was cruising along the highway at reasonable speed, consumption of both fuel and oil were enough to sustain a government coup in certain countries. Despite the need for a steady influx of cash per mile, the Voyager’s voyaging was still fairly smooth, if a little sleepy with its side-dump exhaust. Spewing plumes of blue smoke, with no help from the turbo, the van climbed through the mountains … until the crossover shift cable snapped, leaving only third and fourth gear. That was a pretty sustainable setup for mountain driving, really, save for the clutch-melting hill starts.

Not pictured: Oil retention on par with rotted cheesecloth. Matthew Anderson

As this all went down, Chuck and I maintained close contact via phone. With each voicemail, it sounded more and more likely that I would land in D.C. and have to ride-share from Dulles to Luray, then take a long Amtrak ride home completely van-less. Upon touching down, the hotel shuttle operator watched me disembark the courtesy van, drag my bag full of clothes and tools to the decrepit Voyager—itself the color of shame—and fire it up to produce a large cloud of milky-blue exhaust. Not through with embarrassing myself, I tried and failed to get the Plymouth into reverse, which meant getting out and pushing the heap backwards out of the parking spot under the confused gaze of hotel staff and lobby guests.

Following a drive that lasted approximately 2-3 quarts of oil, a riverside campground in the hills of the Commonwealth served as refuge for my tent and hammock for the night. Sitting there with a six-pack of Natty Boh and some rudimentary tools, I produced a to-do list on the hood, in Sharpie, adorning the car with vague-yet-daunting tasks like “oil pressure light” and “wipers.” Tomorrow was going to be a long day, so I hit the hammock early.

The next morning, as I was packing up my literal van-down-by-the-river camp site, two grade-school girls crept over silently from their camp site across the gravel road. “Mister, are you hungry?” they asked, their proud parents beaming from the picnic table as they handed me a plate of sausage scramble. I was actually a bit famished, and after saying thanks I soon wolfed down the plate’s contents.

The dad sauntered over next: “So, buddy. What’s your story? How long have you been living like this?”

Apparently my answer of “Oh, I guess about a day or so now, I’m a motorsport engineer on a stupid road trip,” wasn’t exactly what this guy was expected. He didn’t say so, but his face made it pretty clear he would have preferred I give him back his goddamn sausage. Not wanting to spoil the lesson for the girls, I loudly reiterated how satiated and thankful I was, while cautiously backing away.

And there he is, the man (with the van) down by the river. Matthew Anderson

A parking lot in the small mountain town of Luray was my home base the next day. It was a Voyager’s oasis, by comparison, complete with an auto parts store, a Wal-Mart, and a Taco Bell. Even better, I was crossing items off the fender list with impressive efficiency. That JB Weld holding the wiper linkage to the motor? I replaced it with actual bushings. The up-pipe from the intercooler that kept popping off, due to being lubricated by blow-by? Fixed with a beer bottle cap under a hose clamp. Pesky oil lamp? Nothing a jug of Rotella 20W-50 couldn’t handle. And, with some light wiring work, the gauges zinged back to life one by one.

I impressed even myself with that parking-lot alignment job. Matthew Anderson

One piece of the puzzle, however, seemed unsolvable. That crossover cable, which would ordinarily control lateral movement of the shifter was broken in a very bad way. As you may imagine, the local parts house doesn’t get a lot of requests for five-speed transmission bits for mid-’80s Caravan derivatives, so I was S.O.L.

But then, the five-pointed stars aligned; a truck full of welders pulled in for lunch, taking a break from brazing I-beams together for a new Circle K across the street. I offered them $20 but it soon turned into a competition among competitive steel workers for who got the chance to work on this thrilling project. Before I knew it, my broken linkage eyelet was welded up and ground to fit. Alas, five gears and reverse were available for the choosing.

I couldn’t wait to tell my girlfriend’s parents just how thrifty and resourceful I was!

Probably the luckiest I ever got on a roadside repair. Just dumb, dumb luck. Matthew Anderson

After about seven hours and $74.26 lost to the parts store, plus whatever a plate of Nachos Bell Grande cost in 2016, my then-girlfriend Dana and her mother, whom I’d met briefly under much different circumstances, showed up in Luray at the parking lot to do the week’s shopping. There I stood, future son-in-law, with two greasy hands full of Food Lion grocery bags for our week in the mountains, ready to give out gear-oil-scented hugs to any other willing relatives.

The rest of the week was incredibly relaxing. Of course, up until the day before I left the Luray cabin to return home, during which I remembered that this Voyager still had to make it 400 or so more miles without falling apart. Luckily, the return trip was less eventful thanks to my efforts. I didn’t even have to stretch pee breaks due to that hourly reminder from the flickering oil lamp, and all I suffered was one flat tire and a few blown-off boost hoses from overzealous third-gear pulls.

Over the next couple months I fixed most of the annoyances on the van, though eventually I traded it off for something else. My wife and her family though? They put up with me, relished in the adventures, and loved the stories. Total keepers, the lot of them.

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    Very cool story but I think I’d have had to keep it…after a great bonding experience like that it would be kinda hard to let it go!

    My 1st adult car was an 1986 Plymouth Voyager with the fake woodgrain trim on the side. Drove it until 1994 when I upgraded to a Grand Voyager “Gold Edition”. Best family cars ever as long as you had the extended warranties!!!

    I bought one of these turbo 5 speed vans new in 1989, albeit a Caravan. It was a lot of fun for a year until the wife decided that she was never gonna drive it again after stalling it out on a hill for the umpteenth time. Traded it in on a Civic 4 door….

    There were a few guys I saw with turbo Caravan’s that would show up to drag races and destroy lots of cars on the strip. That was fun to watch.

    *Snort* That’s the fourth time during the consumption of this article and comments I have LOL’d!! Thanks Gary – I would love to see a video of the loser’s faces during those trips back to the pits…

    Matthew, your writing ALWAYS makes me smile, but your descriptive explanations during this article, especially the story of the breakfast ‘down by the river’ and the dad’s assumption made me laugh out loud!! I didn’t see that one coming and then I saw the whole thing come to life in my mind. Can you imagine what the husband and wife were talking about when they hatched the plan to take care of the poor young man living out of his van?! Priceless stuff. Thank you for your writing.

    Great story. Some of my earliest memories involve my parents’ 1986 Caravan, although theirs was neither turbo nor 5 speed. Towing a tent trailer uphill while 6 people were aboard definitely overtaxed the 3 speed transaxle and 105 hp carburated 2.6. I can’t really blame Chrysler for the gearbox failing by 75k miles.

    I’m relatively certain that the Voyager pictured here has at least the front clip of a 1987-1989. 1985 would’ve had the stacked quad sealed beam headlights, which, to my biased eyes, suit the van better.

    Great story. As a huge fan of 1980s-1990s Mopars, I came close to getting a turbo van. I will just add that this is actually a 1989 model. The turbo vans were available for 2 years, 1989-1990, and I believe the 5 speed stick in the turbo was only offered in 1989. Either way, great story.

    It’s possible I’m mistaken on the year. But I should add that this wasn’t a factory turbo but it was a factory 5 speed. All of the front sheet metal had been swapped over.

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