Home » Old-School Rear-Drive Minivans: 1986 GMC Safari vs 1993 Ford Aerostar

Old-School Rear-Drive Minivans: 1986 GMC Safari vs 1993 Ford Aerostar

Sbsd 11 27 2023
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Good morning, and welcome back! I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving holiday. Today, we’re getting right back to it with a couple of old rear-wheel-drive minivans. There’s a lot to be said for a good cheap box-on-wheels, and these are both definitely cheap. Are they any good, though? We’ll find out in a minute.

First, though, we have not one, but two sets of results to look at. On Thanksgiving Day, it was MG versus Fiat. Neither one was without its issues, but the Brava’s US-market-friendly automatic transmission turned a lot of you off, and the MGB GT won in a landslide. I can’t say I disagree – I own one, after all – but I certainly don’t need two of them, so my imaginary internet money is going to the Fiat.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

On Black Friday, I gave you all a glimpse at the hobby that occupies most of my free time: old RC cars. Lots of you shared your own stories about the hobby, and they were wonderful to hear. I’d like to do more RC-related pieces here when I have time; it’s good to hear there’s some call for it. Our Showdown was between two old rivals: the Associated RC10 and the Kyosho Ultima. Neither is a bad choice, but the RC10 seemed to drag up more old fond memories and took the lion’s share of the votes.

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All right; let’s check out some vans. Chrysler’s front-wheel-drive minivans caught GM and Ford flat-footed in 1984, leaving them scrambling to catch up. Both chose to enter the market with rear-wheel-drive vans, both borrowing heavily from their respective compact pickup trucks for drivetrain components. They weren’t as nimble or as car-like as the Caravan and Voyager, but they could tow and haul more, and seemed less alien to traditional buyers. Ford and GM both eventually went front-drive, but not before selling a ton of both of these vans. Most are gone now, but today we have one of each, and for bargain prices. Let’s see which one you prefer.

1986 GMC Safari – $1,850

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter overhead valve inline 4, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Washougal, WA

Odometer reading: 97,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep, but needs exhaust welded back on

GM’s entry into the minivan wars arrived in 1985, and it was a bit of a parts-bin special: it used suspension parts from full-size sedans and the drivetrain from the S-series pickups. Nearly every Chevy Astro and GMC Safari was powered by a 4.3 liter V6, but some early cargo models were equipped with a 2.5 liter “Iron Duke” four-cylinder. This is one of those.

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This Safari has very low miles, only 97,000. It was owned by a school district, and probably spent its life puttering around various school grounds at 20 mph. The little four-banger is plenty of power for such use, I suppose. Astros and Safaris were technically available with manual transmissions, but I’ve only ever seen one of those in person. This one is, as you would expect for fleet use, equipped with a TH700R4 four-speed automatic.

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The seller says it runs and drives fine, but some tweaker tried to steal the catalytic converter and failed, but managed to sever one exhaust pipe. It will need a little welding to put the exhaust gasses back where they belong. Apart from that, though, it sounds like it’ll go anywhere you want it to go – just not quickly.

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Apart from a plywood divider behind the seats, this van is an empty vessel. Outfit it as a camper, or use it for work, or whatever. The Iron Duke may not have a lot of power, but it should return a lot better gas mileage than the notoriously thirsty 4.3 liter V6.

1993 Ford Aerostar – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter (probably) or 4.0 liter (maybe) overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, RWD

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Location: Clackamas, OR

Odometer reading: 150,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

And here we have the Aerostar van, introduced by crosstown rivals Ford in 1986. It was more of a clean-sheet design than the Astro/Safari was, but still used some off-the-shelf Ford parts. In 1993, two V6 engines were offered: the 3.0 liter “Vulcan” V6 from the Taurus, turned ninety degrees to power the rear wheels, or the 4.0 liter “Cologne” V6 used in the Ranger and Explorer. The seller doesn’t specify which engine is in this one; the 4.0 was standard with all-wheel-drive, but this one is 2WD, and only a low-level XL model, so I’m guessing it has the Vulcan. Ford offered a stick in the Aerostar all the way up until 1995, but this one is an automatic.

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The seller says it runs and drives well, and has been kept up-to-date on maintenance. It has 150,000 miles on the clock, which is pretty low, but it’s also around the time that Ford 4R44E/4R55E transmissions decide they’ve had enough if they haven’t been maintained. Make sure that fluid is nice and pink.

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Unlike the Safari, this Aerostar is a passenger model, seven passengers, to be exact. The interior looks all right, except for some wear on the driver’s seat. If you don’t need or want the extra seats, it’s easy enough to take them out, and then you can do whatever you want with it. It’s the extended model, with an extra foot or so behind the rear wheels, so there’s plenty of room to work.

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The one thing that does bear mentioning is the difference in color on the driver’s side. Usually that’s the sign of repair from a wreck. It has a clean title, but we all know that doesn’t mean much; lots of shoddy repairs get done off the books. That color difference could just be a trick of the light in the photo, but a close inspection is warranted, I think.

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Old vans get a bad rap; too many of them have creepy owners or end up getting lived in, or both. But I can’t think of a more useful vehicle than a small van. Use it as a truck, or a station wagon. Commute in it, and go play on the weekends. And these two are cheap enough to leave room in the budget for whatever modifications or additions you care to make. All that’s left for you to do is choose.

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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It'll buff out
It'll buff out
4 months ago

Beautiful red velvet seating for eight? Count me in on the AeroStar. Who cares if it runs? Does the cassette player work? Put a disco ball in that thing, and a pony keg in the back. $2 cover charge gets you a red solo cup, free refills, and maybe a even a ride around the parking lot. It will pay for itself!

Timothy Swanson
Timothy Swanson
4 months ago

The Iron Dookie would be a great engine….in a Chevette. (I did my drivers training in an automatic Chevette, and it was horrible if indestructible…) The 4.3 is a solid engine.

However, the Aerostar is pretty cool styling, and that red interior…

Daniel Franco
Daniel Franco
4 months ago

Hello Autopians. I had a 1989 XLT Aerostar, it was shockingly reliable. At 34 years and 212000+ miles, it was stolen. I’m sure someone just could not contain their jealousy, and said to themselves, “I and I alone must have this, the coolest of all minivans.” Or something like that.

At any rate, my point in posting: if any Aerostar owners are near or in the SF Bay Area, I still have the bench seats. And they can be had for the low, low price of FREE. Just come get them.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
4 months ago

Fond memories of driving my Father-in-law’s Aerostar of this vintage the first time I visited him on Vancouver Island. Learned several things:

1) my wife drives vans like they are sports cars and it’s very scary, especially on the mountain twisties with no guardrails, took note for all future car purchases

2) the rear seats are great places to nap after eating too much greasy food from “The Clam Bucket”

3) the RWD version is horrible in snow. Good thing we had a brother-in-law along for that leg of the trip for added pushing power

Timothy Swanson
Timothy Swanson
4 months ago
Reply to  Frank Wrench

I admit to hooning our Sienna…

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
4 months ago

Safari! Easy vote today…now going back to actually read article ha ha
Never liked the look of the Aerostar plus it’s a Fix Or Repair Daily

Dirk from metro Atlanta
Dirk from metro Atlanta
4 months ago

That Ford triggered a godawful memory of their ad campaign jingle, which was set to a very Up With People-esque rendering of “Aquarius,” informing that this was, in fact, “the dawning of the age of the Aerostar.”

But I’d had that 3.0 Vulcan in a 90s Taurus and it ain’t bad, so that’s my pick.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
4 months ago

I am a pretty big fan of the Astro/Safari family but, Iron Duke? Naw, thanks but no thanks – plus the short wheelbase and cargo configuration isn’t helpful. It pains me to say it but the Aerostar is the better choice here.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
4 months ago

Aerostar, provided it is the 4.0L. I had a ’93 Ranger with the 3.0L and that engine just loved eating it’s valvetrain. The ’95 Explorer I replaced it with had the OHV 4.0L, and while not powerful, it was still charging hard(ish) at 230,000 miles when I sold it.

I enjoy an Astro, but as others have noted, not with the Iron Duke.

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
4 months ago

There is a shocking amount of Astro/Safari vans still on the road here in L.A., but almost no Aerostars. The GM twins seem quite durable, so normally that would be my pick — but with an Iron Duke instead of the Vortec V6?! NO thank you.

My buddy had a bog-standard 1986 Aerostar cargo van with the 4-cylinder and manual transmission, which he had purchased new as a gig vehicle for his musical equipment. In that form, it was not a pleasant vehicle. However, my other friend’s mom had a fully-loaded ’86 Aerostar passenger van that was much like the one shown here, and that was a surprisingly decent ride. In this specific showdown, I would take the Aerostar.

One thing about the Aerostar that always made me smirk was the floor shifters. The original Aerostar had a very low floor and no center console, so both the manual and automatic versions had floor shifters that were like two feet tall. It was like driving a UPS van. They could have at least put in a column shifter for the automatic, but nope, it was just an incredibly long stick with the PRNDL indicator way down on the floor. At some point they must have come to their senses, because the 1993 model shown here looks to have a console mounted on the transmission hump, resulting in a shorter shift lever.

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Ah, even better. I couldn’t make it out based on the images in the article.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
4 months ago

Know nothing about these, but the Aerostar is newer, doesn’t have a janky plywood divider in it, and has a V6 instead of the Iron Duke 4.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
4 months ago

As an Astro aficionado (SEXY… I know…), and as someone who worked on plenty of Aerostars of this vintage, I’m going with Aerostar. The Astro has the 4 cylinder and it’s the shorter body size… so… would not be a great ride. You could engine swap the Astro and do some cool stuff with it though.

If we are comparing awd to awd of the same year, then I’d go Astro all day.

But, Aerostars held up very well (for the time), massively better reliability than the shitbox Windstars that came out to replace the Aerostar.

God damn do I hate Windstars…

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
4 months ago

My parents moved to Tennessee in an Aerostar and had nothing nice to say about it. Slow Astro it is.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
4 months ago

The Iron Duke will be horrible in a vehicle as big and heavy as the Astro. So the Aerostar with the V6 is an easy pick.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
4 months ago

I’m biased since I own a lifted AWD astro, but in this case I’m giving it to the aerostar, looks far nicer condition. And Astros are godawful slow with the 4.3, cannot imagine it with a 4 cyl.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
4 months ago

All I can say is that I still see tons of Astro/Safari vans chugging around town, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a running Aerostar. That alone made me vote for Team GM.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
4 months ago

Hell, if I had the money, I’d buy that Aerostar. I grew up with them and ours were pretty solid. The first ones that came out were awful but our replacement from 89 was a tank. I would totally drive that thing!

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