Home / Car News / A Look At Small-Town American Car Culture: Ralph, Diane, And The 331,000-Mile Supervan

A Look At Small-Town American Car Culture: Ralph, Diane, And The 331,000-Mile Supervan

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Ralph and Diane wished they had a nicer car. They came of age in the car-crazed fifties, occupied an honorable, middle class social status as adults, and as things worked out over the years, the two found themselves motoring around Sterling, Kansas in a 2003 Toyota Sienna with 331,000 miles.

Cash flow for octogenarians is a bitch, it turns out. Cars aren’t cheap, especially these days. And while that definitely was a factor in Sterling, Kansas residents Ralph and Diane holding onto their old van, the biggest factor was that the car was just a tank — one that the couple dubbed the “Super Van.” Trading the vehicle’s maladies for a new set of problems in a “nicer” ride just never did compute to them.

As sensible midwesterners with highly-evolved cost-benefit detectors, Ralph and Diane never could justify replacing their mechanical wonder with something more stylish. So, the two — as we all must admit to doing at times, in life as in cars — taped over a chronic check engine light, because as Ralph said, “it’s probably a bad sensor.” And they just kept driving.

Before I go on, a little about me: I live in Sterling, Kansas, too. I was born and raised here, and I happen to be the youngest son of Ralph and Diane. As for why I’m writing this, well, I believe in observing nuance and highlighting simple-seeming subjects that might otherwise disappear among flashier things. I believe car culture in Sterling offers a unique view of American life. Thank you for reading my car-culture dispatches from the prairie!

[Editor’s note: Hi, its David. I spent much of my childhood in Kansas, so I have a soft spot for it. And I always felt that rural American car culture was underrepresented in mainstream media, so I’ve given Dave here a column to talk about what’s going on in the bustling, 2,600-resident town of Sterling, Kansas. Random, I know. The first story is about his own family, though subsequent pieces will act to broadly uncover car culture in Sterling. -DT] 

Anyway, back to Ralph and Diane. Let’s do their car-nology, in order of acquisition:

1962 Dodge Lancer, light green

1967 Ford Country Sedan wagon, powder blue

1972 Ford Gran Torino wagon, turd brown

1969 VW Beetle, red, for Diane’s commute to nursing school

1982 Oldsmobile Delta 88 *diesel*, gray with blue pinstripe and navy blue crushed velour

1982 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme sedan, light green

1987 Mercury Sable, light blue and chrome-free

1992 Mercury Grand Marquis, sort of mauve and back to chrome

1995 Chrysler Town and Country, silver (purchased used from a funeral home!)

2003 Toyota Sienna, white

The first new car Ralph and Diane ever acquired was a 1962 Dodge Lancer, which they bought as newlyweds when newly-employed Ralph was earning a steady check teaching high school social studies. This was an A-body Chrysler like the Dodge Dart and David Tracy’s old Plymouth Valiant, and it was one of the two vehicles in which the slant-six “Leaning Tower of Power” debuted for the 1960 model year. It’s a beautiful machine.

Ralph and Diane’s Ford Country Sedan

A succession of family cars ensued as the couple raised three sons. A 1967 Ford Country Sedan station wagon in bathtub blue, then a 1972 Ford Torino wagon in (decidedly) turd brown. Those cars live on in Super 8 home movies, but they are at best minor characters in the story-telling of Ralph and Diane’s lives as young parents — except for one calamity in the brown wagon. Towing a new camper on a family vacation through Colorado, they nearly didn’t reach the summit of Pitkin Pass.  “No one told me I had to have the carburetor adjusted for altitude,” Ralph explained. “I would rev it up, drive for a few feet, then have to repeat the cycle. It was a narrow road and for a while I thought “‘There’s no way I can back this thing, with a trailer, down the mountain.’’”

The residual anxiety of a malaise-era, pre-cell-phone, pre-seatbelts, kids-squirreling-around-everywhere car emergency showed up again in Ralph’s face as he described it. But, he explained, he eventually nursed the car to the top and then let gravity guide him back down the other side to a mechanic.

Diane entered nursing school when her two older sons were well-along in school, so the family acquired a 1969 VW Beetle for her to commute to classes 25 miles away. The Beetle remains Diane’s favorite car to this day, and a powerful source of nostalgia. The fun-driving nature of the Beetle combined in her memory with her growing economic independence, intellectual stimulation, and personal growth at the time. “I loved the stick shift,” she said. “And the gas mileage was great.”

In 1982 Ralph and Diane fell victim to a devastating siren clatter — that of the notorious Oldsmobile Diesel. While preparing to take their oldest son to college in D.C. from Kansas, the allure of new-car comfort and gas-crunch-era diesel fuel economy for the long road trip won them over. Ralph described the gray (with navy pinstripes and navy crushed velour interior) Delta 88, as “hands-down the most comfortable car I ever had.”

But all Olds diesels live in infamy, justifiably. The car belched sooty fumes. And the reliability issues of the under-engineered and rushed-to-market Olds manifested in dramatic fashion on that very delivery trip to college.

“Here we were, emotional about taking our son to college, and the car kept breaking down on the way. It was so stressful. We weren’t sure we would get him there on time,”  Ralph explained. “And each mechanic we visited would open the hood, take a quick glance, and say ‘Oh God, it’s a diesel.’”

Ralph unloaded that car, which was — hilariously — just a year old, as soon as he got back from that trip. It was a humiliating defeat, ridiculed with good-natured jest among friends and neighbors, and a lesson in risk versus reward that resonated later. 

The next twenty years brought a succession of fairly nondescript people-haulers. The most compelling of these cars was a Mercury Sable, with its European handling, firm seats, and aero styling. But something about the swoopy Sable and Ralph’s and Diane’s station in life by then — prairie fifty-somethings with fellow empty-nesters to haul to social dinners — never really jibed. So the Sable left the stable for larger size and more “comfort.”

Sterling has its automobile version of Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree . . . at the community cemetery.
Many diminutive drivers have been victimized by the blind curb protrusion. It almost cost Super Van its life years ago when the van was fairly new and Diane cut the corner short. Timing was on the Van’s side back then; Ralph and Diane paid a hefty repair bill and kept the car going.
The notorious blind-curb hazard

All roads eventually led to the Sienna of 2003. Having once owned an Olds diesel, and having endured decades of “buy American” domestic-car dysfunction . . . well, by that time one could say there were trauma-induced ailments in the household that Toyota was well-poised to heal.

Ralph had left the teaching profession early on and became a banker — a loan officer occupying the tense chasm between debtor and creditor for 39 years. He was a middleman trying to satisfy the bank owner and the customer — an incredibly challenging job that, he felt, he did well and with decency.

He always wanted a nicer car than he had at any given time, and his 50s-era adolescent car-crazy fantasies never quite subsided. But in Sterling, Kansas, in general, and more specifically when you lend your boss’s money to friends and neighbors, it’s not great to be ostentatious. The Sienna — acquired new, white with gray leather — occupied its dual role of form and function with incredible effectiveness.

Diane never forgot the independence and empowerment of her little VW bug, but the Super Van, in her evolved situation today and 331,000 miles in, fulfills that mission, too.  Ralph passed away last May, and every day now for Diane is a juggling exercise: self-care, caring for others (for a nurse like her, that’s part of self-care), and living independently–shifting her own gears–for as long as possible.

She’s doing great, and Super Van’s unkillable 3.0-liter V6 helps. Diane is comfortable in the driver’s seat (not unlike *that slooooooooow driving lady in Ferris Bueller* who peers over the dash, barely), commuting less than a mile to her part-time job to earn some spending money and, perhaps more importantly, to feel useful because “they need me,” she says. 

Super Van parked at Diane’s part-time job

The van still looks nice outside. Inside, covers adorn the front seats to conceal cracked leather. The CD player won’t eject the recording of their granddaughter’s a capella group. And an optional running board to help friends with ingress/egress has fallen completely off the driver’s side (the one on the passenger side remains, and according to Ralph:  “It’s okay. No one can see both sides of the car at the same time.”)

Deck screws in use “temporarily” after the Amazon replacement mirror was incompatible.

That check engine light signals a chronic issue with the exhaust system. A perfectly square patch of electrical tape on the instrument panel obscures it. The car still starts reliably, runs comfortably, and given its advanced age and limited scope of operation, does not warrant either a new catalytic converter or new struts to correct the other chronic issue — suspension fatigue.

Rocky vs Apollo Creed

My parents and their car were a good match. Ralph and Diane got it right, together, as they got many things right over the years. Although, getting things right is rarely the same thing as getting them the way you want them. A nicer car would be great, sure. But for now a little tape over the Check Engine Light makes more sense.

Images: David Wilson (Sienna), Automakers (Remainder)
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33 Responses

  1. Loved the story, David. Keep them coming. I’m sorry to hear about your Dad’s passing. He reminds me of my own father.

    He is probably one of the reasons this old Missouri boy is still driving the 22 year old, F-150 I bought, almost new in 2000. That, and the fact that by then I had moved to Arizona, and it hasn’t rusted to shit. (That helps a lot too, I guess).

  2. This is fantastic! As a frugal former Midwesterner myself, I can appreciate the mindset. So much of this rings true. And my ex-girlfriend’s mother once made the exact same “can’t see both sides at once” comment about mismatched left-and-right pinstripes on her Bronco. Looking forward to the next installment!

    1. Sometimes that can be used to one’s advantage. For instance if you happen to have 3 ’92 wheel covers and 3 from ’95 for your Camry.

      It helps if you swap the trunk lid to a ’95 as well. That way the casual but knowledgeable observer can’t immediately be sure which set is incorrect.

  3. This is eerily similar to my grandparents’ story. They had ’60s Olds, Buicks, and Chevys when my dad was growing up which they’d use to tow a 22 ft RV trailer back and forth across the country from Buffalo, NY to Napa, CA. They eventually settled in Napa where my grandfather had a fling with a Jag before settling in with Toyotas. First a Tercel, then a truck, and now finally a 2005 Camry V6 that they’ll probably never get rid of.

    1. Reminds me of my parents’ cars. From GM station wagons (a white Buick and a “willow gold” Olds Vista Cruiser that was used in some kind of crime after my parents got rid of it to full-sized Dodge vans (this was before the minivan era) and a VW Beetle with automatic stick that my dad almost got killed in that was replaced by a CJ-7 when my sisters and I learned to drive. Those were the days!

  4. A great story about the automotive history of an American couple. Forgive me, but the whole way through reading it, there was a song playing in my head…
    Little ditty ’bout Ralph and Dianne
    Two American kids doin’ the best they can.

  5. Wonderful piece!
    In my small town experience there were two paths you could go down but in the long run they end up in the same place.
    The young guys – always guys – who had a bit of money bought fast cars. A Boss 429 appeared in the one car showroom of our Farm Town Ford Dealer. Speculation over who would buy it ran rampant. The buyer – well known to both the community and Law Enforcement in that rural way – thrashed it. I’ll bet he wished he still had that one!
    Two sons of business owners duked it out with small block Mustangs, one with a very radical for the area custom paint job. Then there was Butch who cut a hole in the hood of his car, cut open the big end of a paint pan and screwed it on as a defacto scoop. One day he filled his washer bottle with Mystery Oil, put the tubes in the carb throat and ran around town laying smoke screens. Good times!

    The adults drove sensible cars. Those with a bit more money had the up market versions. Dad bought a Cutlass in ’71. Nice car. Didn’t go for the AC because this was Wisconsin. Owned it up till ’96, overlapping the ’78 Mercury Marquis. In the Marquis he was stylin’. Midnight Blue – Pearl Grey top and Interior – loaded with options. But true to form he didn’t have the dealer install side mouldings to prevent door dings. He was going to do that himself. That’s how he found out about high tensile steel and regular drill bits.

    There were others..the ’67 Tempest with the 326 on which I learned to drive..and a few other things. Beautiful car. Of course it came with dog dish hubcaps and radio delete. That’s how he and his did things in those days. Of course he never had a car payment either so there’s that.

  6. As a resident of Kansas (sorta, I left in 1965 and returned in 1995), I can definitely relate to this story. Yes, things are really that slow and bucolic. Here people don’t like to be rushed. Buying a long series of non-descript American sedans exemplifies that mind set. To finally end up with a Toyota Sienna is a sign of the times here. Over the last 20 years Japanese and Korean cars have become ever more ubiquitous around here.

    Looking forward to more pieces like this. Let’s hear more from the far reaches of our country.

  7. First story I’ve read on the new website and it was wonderful. (with the exception that Ralph is no longer with us. Condolences on his passing) May the Sienna keep on keeping on for Diane. Now would someone please go attach an ATV flag to that damn cemetery curb for the sake of all the short people in our lives?

  8. Great article David. Thank you!

    “having endured decades of “buy American” ”

    My Dad grew up a car-crazy kid in western Kansas and he was apparently renowned for knowing the model and remembering the license plate of every car that went past him. He served in the Pacific in WW2, then spent the better part of his adult life selling Fords and disparaging Japanese-made cars. Given that, I’m pretty sure the sight of the Toyota dealership I saw while driving through Hays, KS last summer would have the man rolling over in his grave…

  9. Great story. My father bought American cars and serviced them at the dealership faithfully. When I got older I convinced him to buy a boring, used, white & tan 2004 Toyota Highlander for transporting the grandchildren. My boys are now getting their own cars and yet that dull Toyota is still going strong. I did warn him when he got it that he would be tired of it long before it ever stopped running.

  10. excellent !
    as an immigrant in 1990, I started with an 80 Ford Escort wagon, then a 82 Econoline 150.
    Once the kids were born, 1998 Sienna, got it to 2017 and 300 000miles. The running boards disintegrated some time before that, fell through them while putting a canoe on the roof. Engine was still running great but everything around it fell to pieces.
    Now I’m back to Ford Sport Trac, the underbody is one solid piece of rust. Since the frame is now a rust monolith I expect it to go until the engine dies..

  11. Neighbor across the street owned an early 2000s Sienna for-ever + day and ~300K miles. They finally traded it in for a Rav4 since their kids moved out. They said that in spite of it being boringly great, they still count an early 1990s Saturn sedan as their most favorite. Not because it was any more reliable or well built as any other domestic car, but because it was the car they brought home all their kids from the hospital.

    I kinda feel the same about my 2004 Acura TSX. The car racked up a hellish warranty repair record and a couple thousand more after the warranty period till 98K miles, but I still remember both my kids strapped into car seats in the back. Memories.

    Its not the car, but the experiences in the car that make it special.

  12. Charming little story about regular, decent folks. I love that the Mercury Sable was just too continental for them – the kind of car someone who orders cappuccinos would drive, but not right for an upstanding citizen of Sterling.

  13. > “sensible midwesterners with highly-evolved cost-benefit detectors”

    I felt this in my heart. I appreciate the Davids shedding more light on midwestern car culture, which I think gets overlooked.

    My parents (MI bred) still refer to their 1997 Volvo V90 as “the new car”. The 1986 Volvo 245 was the “old car” until it eventually disappeared into a pile of iron oxide on the driveway.

    My mom still laments how much they spent on “the new car” and thinks that they should have gotten a cheaper model.

  14. Great story David, hope to hear more soon. I learned to drive – and rally – a 1962 Valiant wagon with the Leaning Tower of Power, and an airplane landing light in the high beam. Now living in the country and driving Toyota T-100 with only 438000 miles.

  15. The closing shot of “Rocky vs. Apollo Creed” makes it for me. So cool that your mom is a fighter. It is a lovely story, well told.

    I am glad that it didn’t take too long for me to find The Autopian. You guys are on to something special here.

  16. I am extremely happy I spent my first night “off” in ages catching up on this since the launch.
    This is all exactly the reads I was looking for to keep my enthusiasm alive. All the enthusiasm, I don’t care if you’re talking about a minivan that got a bajillion miles or a Tansanian electric chruck, just keep bringing all the enthusiasm.

  17. Hi, David

    The next time you visit, bring an OBD bluetooth dongle and an app on your phone (I use and am happy with Torque). In less than 5 minutes, you can confirm which sensor is causing the check-engine light to be on. Or, maybe they didn’t tighten the gas cap all the way once, you can clear the code and be a hero 🙂


      1. Has to be easier that getting a European spec Chrysler diesel mini van through the German TMU, TMV or whatever the hell it is…or a crapped out Postal Jeep DJ to Moab. Come on, D.T., make a stop in Kansas on your way back from Australia. Maybe you could even install just a little hidden rust to help Diane ward off evil spirits.

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