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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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. Often
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.