I Took A Minivan On An Off-Road Adventure, Then It Tried Burning Itself To The Ground


As you’ve probably gathered by now, I have a knack for taking regular cars out into the wilderness. I enjoy the challenge of making a car do something that it wasn’t designed to do. That’s part of the reason why my last two off-road vehicle choices weren’t burly 4x4s, but worn out former family-hauling Dodge minivans. On Memorial Day, I took a 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan places where no van should go. Then it caught fire on the drive home.

Four years ago I introduced myself to the world of off-road antics through the Gambler 500. My vehicle for that event was supposed to be a scooter, but ended up being a Smart Fortwo. That event changed my life, and now the Gambler will forever be a part of me. It was so much fun off-roading my little Smart that I made it a goal to wheel in as many regular cars as possible. Since then, I’ve embarked on rallies in a Ford Festiva turned into a go-kart, a Honda Elite 150D scooter, a Mercedes-Benz 240D, a Ford E-350 Power Stroke van, and most recently, a pair of Dodge minivans.

The first of the pair was a 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan. My fiancée and I paid a whole $900 and what we got was an amazing pile of junk. Every single warning light was illuminated on the dash, the HVAC system didn’t work, and the van was astonishingly rusty. Somehow it still survived three rallies.

Mercedes Streeter

On that third, the transmission lost reverse and first, and a branch somehow punctured the radiator, which was able to be patched; the transmission, however, was done. It was a giggle seeing fluid that was almost more shavings than ATF.

That van was so fun that we decided to get another Caravan. In May, we found a 1994 Grand Caravan. It was much older than the last van, but how can you say no to looks like these?

Meet My Second-Gen Dodge Caravan

Mercedes Streeter

The icing on the cake was that my partner Sheryl and I both grew up riding in the back of second-gen Caravans. So we’d be taking a childhood time machine off-road.

We drove a couple of hours north to meet the seller and a van that seemed to be in even better condition than expected. I mean, when was the last time that you’ve seen a mid-1990s car with this clean of an interior?

Mercedes Streeter

Apparently, this van was used to haul a small band around the country for years. The band had spent some good money keeping the machine on the road; it showed. The transmission was new and shifted as smooth as butter, and the 3.3-liter V6 under the hood offered sharp throttle response. I could find only two problems: a whining power steering pump and non-functional air-conditioning.

But meh, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a car this old with both of those working perfectly.

Mercedes Streeter

The van had over 200,000 miles on the odometer and at least to me, seemed like it was ready to go another 200,000. This van was more money at $1,200, but it seemed that the additional $300 was getting us a better vehicle.

Yet, just ten miles into the drive home we learned about the van’s worst quirks. The first was that the fuel gauge only works when the fuel tank is full. And the second is that the tank could be filled only to half before the gas pump auto shut-off. We’re talking about a 20-gallon tank, here. Getting the other 10 gallons in took maybe 30 minutes each time.

I figured, if the worst of our problems was having to take 30 minutes to fill, then the van’s a win.

To prep for its first rally I gave the van the beginnings of what would have been a parody Camel Trophy Land Rover Discovery livery.

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Mercedes Streeter

My plan was to include a Dodge logo where the Land Rover logo would be, our names on the sides, and of course, Gambler stickers. Sadly, I never got to finish the livery before the van’s first trip, but the machine still looked pretty cool.

The van’s first trip saw it taking us on a 600-mile drive south to a rally in Tennessee. Unfortunately, we made it just 300 miles down before I got a call from police that informed me that someone was snooping around my Smarts. We had to turn back and head home, but at least we knew that the van could actually handle a road trip.

The van’s second trip would be closer: just 320 miles to southern Illinois for a small Gambler run with friends. Once again, the van made the trip with ease. This van got just 19 mpg–far less than the 28 that its predecessor got–but man, it was really comfortable in there.

Headed To The Off-Road Park

The event was held at Hillbillie Off-Road in Jerseyville, Illinois. It’s an awesome and expansive off-road park.

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Mercedes Streeter

How expansive? I’ve been going there for three years and I still haven’t gone down all of its trails.

Unfortunately, another tradeoff made itself really apparent the moment that we got it into the rough. This van high-centers on everything. While the 2006 certainly didn’t have much in the way of ground clearance, it sort of skipped through ruts and right over obstacles. This van didn’t do that. Instead, that belly got caught on everything.

Getting Stuck. OftenImg 7013

Mercedes StreeterOur van seemingly got stuck every 500 feet. But you know what? It was still a blast. There’s a load of exhilaration that I get with off-roading an incapable vehicle that I don’t get in something like a lifted 4×4 truck with chunky tires. Besides, for Gambler 500 people half of the fun is showing off how good your crapbox is at rescuing other crapboxes.

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Mercedes Streeter

Getting stuck over and over did get to me a little during that weekend, and eventually I just started hitting obstacles with the skinny pedal welded to the floor and that 3.3 singing. Doing things like that meant that the van actually did make its way through rough areas, but it came at a detriment. Soon, I had obliterated the engine mounts, the ball joints took an absolute battering, and even the CV axles started making noise.

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Mercedes Streeter

The van survived some incredible abuse. Someone even attempted to recover the van from the front using its a-pillars. But despite it all the van still ran and drove well. It even still achieved 19 mpg like it did on the way down.

For a brief moment we thought that we had chosen the right one.

Nobody was in the van when this bad idea was attempted. Mercedes Streeter

The Fire

That was until we got 157 miles into the drive home. While driving through the dark of night the cabin suddenly filled with black smoke. Neither Sheryl nor myself could see or breathe. We just barely got the car to the side of the road, where the smoke suddenly stopped and disappeared. I couldn’t find the source, either. Sheryl thought that since the smoke came through the vents, perhaps it was the HVAC blower motor? That was a better guess than I had.

We turned off the blower and kept going. We were smoke-free for just two miles. Then it happened again, and this time it was far worse than the last time. Smoke billowed in through the vents and the windows. We couldn’t see and we were actively choking. To me, it smelled like an electrical fire.

Sure enough, we pulled over and saw a blaze underneath the engine.

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Mercedes Streeter

I still had no idea what was burning, but it was creating those thick, black, and toxic fumes that you wanted nothing to do with.

It soon hit me that not only were we standing next to an active fire, but I had a giant lithium battery “generator” power bank in the van, something that would have made an even uglier fire. I quickly removed some accelerants from the van and we both took off, expecting the whole thing to go up in flames. Sheryl called 911, asking for fire department assistance.

Police showed up first, and the first thing they did was not make sure that we were safe, but demand identification. I wasn’t even driving!

That was when I learned that my purse wasn’t on me anymore. Remember how we stopped about three miles before? Yeah, I took my purse out then, and apparently left it on the side of the road. The officer wasn’t amused, but it was the truth. And he was entirely unwilling to help me find my purse, telling me “tough luck.” At some point, the firefighters did show up, but by that time the fire had already gone out.

The source of the fire was so deep in the engine that the firefighters couldn’t guess what the cause was. But what they did see was a wiring harness that was so burned out that it had fallen apart entirely.

Sheryl was clearly somewhat traumatized from the event and honestly I can’t blame her. That smoke was thick and for a brief moment I thought it was going to engulf us. My heart seemingly stopped. So, we did the right thing and called a tow truck then booked a hotel room.

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Mercedes Streeter

At the hotel, I decided to test the van. Everything worked but the power steering. And I mean everything worked, even the central locking system. The radio still worked, the 12V sockets all worked, and the transmission still shifted smoothly.

One clue about the source came in the form of transmission fluid on the ground. Combine that with non-working power steering you could put the pieces together. The power steering likely sprung a leak on the highway, then ignited on something real hot. The fire stopped when it ran out of ATF to burn. These second-generation Caravans aren’t supposed to use ATF as power steering fluid, but it looks like someone did it, anyway — supporting my idea was a completely empty power steering reservoir. [Editor’s note: ATF is a fairly conventional thing to use as power steering fluid. But yeah MOPARs generally use a dedicated power steering fluid instead.  -DT]

The next morning, we rented a U-Haul truck and dolly, then went on a search for my purse. I had nailed its location down perfectly, and it sat waiting for me.

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Mercedes Streeter

After picking up the purse we loaded the van, then hauled it the rest of the 160 miles home. Along the way we debated fixing the van and continuing to use it, but the fire weighed on us both. Sheryl didn’t want anything to do with the van that caught on fire at 70 mph, and I wasn’t looking forward to cleaning up fire damage on a $1,200 crapbox. Our only motivation to keep it was that we had it for only less than a month, not that either of us thought it was worth repairing.

So, she decided to put it up for sale. Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to buy a 28-year-old rusty van with fire damage for anything more than scrap value. We ended up holding out until we found a buyer who wanted to do something other than just scrap the old rig. The new owner will use it for dirt racing, and he won’t even fix the power steering. I ended up making about half of my money back.

Next time we won’t be doing another van. We’re thinking about getting something all-wheel-drive for next time, but something still offbeat. Maybe I’ll find a wrecked Audi TT Quattro or a Subaru B9 Tribeca with a ton of miles.

When you think about it, I spent about $600 to have an unforgettable off-roading weekend with my pals and the love of my life. Yeah, I think it was worth it.

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60 Responses

  1. I am a big fan of taking “normal” cars into the back woods, logging roads, whatever.

    Honestly, when you look at the farm vehicles from the 1940s–1950s, they were way less capable than, say, a 1990 honda accord.

    People think they need some ridiculous giant jacked up truck to go off-roading, but a small car without too much overhang will do fine. Especially if it’s new enough to have traction control.

    We did a lot of mild offroading in a 1st gen scion xb. It was awesome.

    1. Yeah my little Accent has gotten itself up more rutted out and rock-covered fire roads than it should. If you know where to place the tires, and are cognizant of the open diff/front wheel drive, you can get just about anywhere. Plus, tiny cars have great wheelbases and overhangs for the most part, even if their geometry isn’t all that good overall. Helps if you bought the car with scratches and curb rash, makes you feel better when it crunches on something. Only issue that I’ve found is that higher speed will do a number on your shocks, but…I drive a cheap car, so parts are cheap lol.

      Only been stuck once–made it one way following some dirt bikes up, but not the return. Was about 4 inches from where I wanted to be and left a front tire spinning when the frame got caught on a washed out section. Still, only took about 20 minutes to dig out, and airing the tire down/chucking a couple big rocks under fixed it. Wouldn’t do it in an automatic, but with some clutch slip was able to move it well enough. Now I bring a tire pump with me if I’m doing something stupid. Always fun to see the lifted Tacomas picking their lines slowly as I use the narrow width to swing by on the outside!

      1. Edit–you mentioned traction control. Maybe it’s just me driving mostly older cars with bad implementations, but traction control is mostly useless at best, and downright unhelpful at worst. If you’re keeping your speed up to get through things, having it brus the brakes or cut power is pretty annoying.

    2. Can confirm that a Mk1/2 VW Polo is fantastic offroad, and particularly in the snow. Those skinny tires just cut right through to find grip. I’d drive up hills that stumped 4×4 BMW’s.
      (Though that might have been down to the driver of said BMW, trying to use MORE POWAH! when all four wheels were already spinning)

    3. A 1990 Accord? You couldn’t pick a car with lower ground clearance?

      I have a 1950s tractor. If I take the belly mower off, I’m quite sure I could get farther with it than a 1990 Accord.

      I’ve never found traction control useful in a low traction situation. In fact, it can be quite the hindrance. It’s not like having AWD.

  2. She was born bad. Plain and Simple.
    Christine. A ’94 Dodge Caravan possessed by Hell.
    She’s taken control of her owner Mercedes.
    Her previous owner is not around to warn her.
    And now she’s steering straight for the one person in her way.
    Mercedes’ fiance, Sheryl. The other woman.

  3. B9 Tribeca is a good one, but there’s plenty of other weird and mostly forgotten mid 00s SUVs that would be offbeat and interesting. Note: this is just off the top of my head, I probably missed a bunch, and I have no idea if any of these are in budget or if any even still exist:

    -Chrysler Aspen
    -Kia Borrego
    -Saab 9-7X
    -GMC Envoy XUV
    -Lincoln Aviator (1st one)
    -Jeep Commander
    -Isuzu Vehicross
    -Suzuki XL7

    1. All good choices! Last year I almost bought a $1,500 Aviator for the cross-country trip that I took to get my Honda Beat. Someone beat me by just an hour!

      There’s also the first-gen Kia Sportage, which had a two-door convertible variant:

      I’ve seen one of those on mudders and the little trucklet just did not get stuck.

      1. Find a trashed Infiniti G35 xdrive and then find an EX35/FX35 in a junk yard and do a suspension swap to add a couple of inches to the G35 so it doesn’t high-center every 100 feet. They are all on the same platform, so it should be relatively easy.

        1. +1 on the G35x. These things are great off-road. You can also put XJ rims and tires on with very little effort. Could use a bit more ground clearance and I’ve thought about trying to do the FX35 suspension swap but have been doing fine as-is. Only major suspension upgrade I did was to remove both anti-sway bars. I also did some modifications to the transfer case controller to give more control over the torque going to the front axle, but it really seems to do exactly the right things in full auto mode with traction control on….even crossing obstacles with diagonal wheels off the ground. I had no problems doing the endurance trail at Holly Oaks (SE Michigan) on Sunday.

  4. I smiled when I first saw that you are on Autopian Mercedes, but after this article, well, I realized what a perfect fit you are here…. welcome home, Mercedes, welcome home.

    One thing that I would like to ask of you though – do as David and Jason have done, and continue to decline treatment – we all need another enabler around to keep us from going sane.

    … I always enjoy your adventures… please have many more.

  5. a 1986 Dodge Omni GLH is quite an adept off road machine as well. I could go anywhere the 4x4s went and never had any issues besides the occasional clutch smell.
    The most fun I had with it was at the beach. I would routinely scootch past stuck 4 wheel drives in my little blue hatch, and I can tell you that doing reverse donuts in the sand in a front wheel drive is hilarious.

  6. May I suggest a van I took off road successfully not realizing the road was more suited for lifted 4WD vehicles. A Previa! Yeah, those rear shock mounts reduce the usable width underneath, but it did really well. And if you want AWD, they were available that way as well. Tons of room inside for camping as well. We sold it at 300k miles and was still quite well running.

    1. A friend of mine had Previa with AWD system, and we had done lot of camping trips in Colorado. The van was sooooo much fun beside having to clear out the floor as to access the engine bay once in a while.

      Without my awareness, my friend sold his Previa due to the “mechanical issues”. From what he described, the mechanical issue wasn’t going to cost arms and legs. Now, he regretted selling it and missed the van ever since.

  7. YES! More minivan content please! I’m not joking, these old beasts are a great value for dirt road adventures and are still cheap even in this crazy used car market. Off road tires and momentum go a long way….also I think the pre-stow and go models from 2001+ may have a little more usable ground clearance.

  8. Awesome. We used to take just about anything (that our parents would allow us to drive) down old abandoned logging roads or worse, as a yute. Mazda RX-3 station wagon. ’70s Ford Torino station wagon (ex Brinks delivery vehicle with over 300,000 miles on it). ’70 Opel GT (mine). 60-something stock VW bug. ’76 Corolla (brother’s). Rarely got stuck…such fun.

      1. Thanks, I must have missed that one. Not gonna lie, since Tracy and Torch launched the Autopian, I have spent waaaaay less time on the other site. Now that Mercedes is here too, I have even less reason to go back. I don’t really know anything about the authors there now.

  9. Oh goodie.
    ProTip: not only is ATF extremely flammable, ATF causes chemical breakdown of the high pressure power steering lines. Which yep, causes them to blow out, right on the exhaust manifold and catalytic converter. This is why I lose my shit at parts counters claiming you just use ATF+4.
    NO! You use a power steering fluid that lists compliance with MS-5931. Anything else will destroy the power steering and cause a fire. Hint: MS-5931 has properties in common with brake fluid, but brake fluid is too hygroscopic.

    You do not want to know how many Mopars burned down because the owners were misled or assumed that ATF+4 was approved power steering fluid. In anything. Ever.

    1. Many Subarus, Hondas, Mazdas I had over the years specify the ATF in their owner’s manual for power steering fluid. I never had an issue with the hoses leaking or rotting out. I had a Town and Country that had the transmission cooler lines rot causing it to lose most of the tranny fluid. Maybe Mopar is just doing crap for hoses. I heard from some friends that they had similar issues with their Chrysler products

  10. I feel so alone in this marriage. My husband is an addict. I didn’t realize the depths of it until after marriage..the lying, manipulation, stealing from me and cheating emotionally with other women.hello, my husband cheated on me. It was a miracle when priest love helped me restored back my broken marriage in the next seven days… [Whats [App] +..234 .. 961.. ..570….504 just in case you have similar issues, capable of solving any kind of life problem etc

  11. Glad to hear you made it out okay!

    What about snapping up the little Tracker that David just bought? It’ll go to a good home, be used in its natural element, and give him more funds to fix one of his Jeeps. Plus, think of the clicks!

  12. Many years ago my Step dad owned a Ferrari 308. It looked exactly like the one from Magnum PI. One day I got a call from my mom. They needed a jump. So I drove to the coffee shop where they were stuck and we jump started the car. We let it idle for a few minutes to charge the battery a bit and get on the road. I followed them home to make sure they got home OK.

    Several miles later as we pulled up to a light I saw smoke and an orange glow coming from the back. Remember this is a mid engine car so I had a good view as I was directly behind. I laid on my horn to let them know something was wrong and within a few minutes my step dad had borrowed an extinguisher from a nearby gas station and put out the fire. We were VERY lucky in that the fire had been too small and short to do any damage.

    What I’m certain happened is that the 25 yo alternator was weak. It made just enough power to run the car but the dead battery was too much for it. That weakened the spark such that the combustion was incomplete. The fuel rich exhaust sent the catalytic converter temperature skyrocketing which ignited 25 years of nearby grease and grime. The Ferrari mechanic who looked over the car afterwards independently came to the same conclusion.

    I think you may have had a similar thing happen. You noted your MPG was low, that could have been a symptom of weak spark.

  13. “The officer wasn’t amused, but it was the truth. And he was entirely unwilling to help me find my purse, telling me “tough luck.” – this is exactly the kind of institutional racism bullshit behavior that just makes my blood boil. Lady’s car just caught fire and you cant be bothered to make a 6 mile round tripper so she can get her ID? seriously, i hope this guys mom sees this so she can find out what a pile of crap she raised.

  14. I’ve had a couple instances of ATF-related dangerous smoke. Luckily nothing has caught on fire.
    Having it happen to you can damn near make you want to switch to manual transmissions solely to eliminate ATF from your vehicle.

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