Home » There Was A Time When You Could Get A Ford Minivan With Rear-Wheel-Drive And A Manual Transmission: Holy Grails

There Was A Time When You Could Get A Ford Minivan With Rear-Wheel-Drive And A Manual Transmission: Holy Grails

Aerostartop

Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where you show off some of the coolest, most underrated cars that you love. Since starting this series, we’ve received requests to write about truckloads of obscure, forgotten machines with something special about them. Some of these cars haven’t even been on this continent! Today, we have a Grail recommended by a Minnesotan named CJ, who showed David Tracy his incredible stickshift Aerostar last year. Well, now he’s purchased another. Here’s why it’s special.

Today we talk about Ford’s first minivan, the Aerostar — The Blue Oval’s answer to Chrysler’s powerhouse minivans. Ford didn’t copy Chrysler, instead it built a futuristic rear-wheel-drive van that could carry lots of people while towing a camper behind it. And if you look hard enough, you can find one of these with a manual transmission.

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Last time, reader JamesRL sparked quite the discussion about the Dodge Spirit R/T. Most enthusiasts today may see a Dodge Spirit and dismiss it as a disposable pile of trash. However, JamesRL says that there is a version of the Spirit worth looking at, and it’s the Spirit R/T. The Spirit R/T is a sedan motivated by a 2.2-liter turbo four making 224 horsepower and 217 lb-ft torque. That engine and the vehicle’s small size made the Spirit the fastest sedan built in America at the time. It outgunned the Taurus SHO and Chevy Lumina Z34, and Dodge was so confident in its performance, its ads dared you to buy a Spirit R/T and go after the European imports, too.

Today’s Holy Grail is a departure from most of the vehicles featured in this series thus far. This van isn’t the fastest thing on the road or a secret hot rod. It wasn’t built out of a need to solve a silly issue or the most important vehicle built by its brand. Instead, it’s a first-generation minivan. Chrysler kicked off a craze with the 1983 introduction of its minivans. Families now had a comfortable way to transport seven people with a vehicle that got good fuel economy, carried lots of cargo, and could be parked in a garage. Other automakers put their own interpretations of the idea to market, and soon, America was in love with the minivan. The Ford Aerostar was one of those different takes on the minivan concept, and Ford’s idea was for a van with even more capability.

Screenshot (94)
Ford

As Hagerty writes, the beginnings of the Ford Aerostar come from one of those responsible for Chrysler’s minivans: Lee Iacocca. In the early 1970s, Iacocca was an executive at Ford, and he had ideas for products that Ford should put to market next. One of them was for a van that sat no higher than six feet, or short enough to fit in an American 7-foot garage. Iacocca saw sales in a vehicle with the practicality of an Econoline but in a smaller form factor. In 1972, Iacocca’s idea became a prototype called the Carousel. It was smaller than a Volkswagen Bus, but maintained the body-on-frame construction and massive 460 V8 of the Econoline.

Carousel
Ford

Then the 1973 Oil Crisis rolled around, and Ford pumped the brakes on the project. In 1978 Iacocca would find himself at Chrysler, where the garage-able minivan would become reality.

Back at Ford, the smaller van concept didn’t die, and the concept evolved. Now in tune with the times, Ford’s van concept would now focus on fuel economy, targeting the same fuel economy as a compact car. This van wouldn’t just target compact car fuel economy, but Ford also wanted it to seat seven people in luxury sedan comfort, carry cargo, and have a tow rating similar to a full-size vehicle. Oh, and the van would be all of that and still fit in a garage.

Ford would spend more than $300 million putting this van together. This was a ton of money, but not as much as the Blue Oval spent on other projects at the time. The Ford Taurus cost $3.5 billion and the Fiesta $870 million. And Chrysler committed $700 million towards its minivans.

Brochure
Brochure

 

Despite the smaller investment, the Aerostar was unique. Departing from the norms of the Econoline, the Aerostar would be a unibody van reinforced with frame rails, and instead of metal bumpers, it would get integrated plastic bumpers. Plastic would also be incorporated into the hood and tailgate. It would carry seven people, 4×8 sheets of plywood, and more with its 2,000-pound payload. And important to Ford, it could still park in a garage and haul a trailer. The fact that it could tow a trailer was a selling point.

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In 1985, Popular Science wrote a showdown of all of the American minivans on the market and coming to market at the time. In that comparison, the Chrysler minivans went up to bat against the Chevrolet Astro, the then-upcoming Aerostar, and what was supposed to be American Motors’ effort, the Renault Espace.

Screenshot (93)
Popular Science

In the article, Ford and General Motors touted their rear-wheel-drive minivans as being able to tow 5,000-pound trailers, while the front-wheel-drive Chrysler minivans could at best tow 2,000 pounds. Chrysler fired back, saying: “Ask them how their vans handle in snow and ice.” The Chrysler and Renault vans also offered low floors thanks to their FWD layouts. And no matter which van you chose, you got a variety of seating options from beds, reversible or removable seats, or bucket seats for passengers.

The Aerostar would do it thanks to a thorough parts-bin raiding from Ford, with the Ranger giving up its brakes and looking inside, you’ll spot all sorts of parts that were used elsewhere.

Ferd
Ford

 

At its 1986 launch, you could get an Aerostar fitted with a 2.3-liter Lima four making 100 HP, a 2.8-liter Cologne V6 making 115 HP, or a 3.0-liter Vulcan V6 making 145 HP. The Lima engine shared a home in the Ranger as well as the Mustang. The Cologne V6 was shared with the Ranger and Bronco II. And the Vulcan was found in the Taurus. Later, the Aerostar would get the 4.0-liter Cologne V6 making 160 HP that was shared with the Ranger and the Explorer. The Vulcan would make a later appearance in the Ranger, too. And that’s just a sampling, as these engine families were found in the engine bays of lots of Ford models throughout history.

You could pair these engines to an automatic transmission, but David and reader CJ think the Holy Grails of these vans are the ones with the manuals. Yep, you could get your rear-wheel-drive V6 cargo van with a row-your-own. From an email CJ sent to David:

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CJ

Don’t know if you remember me or not. I showed you my “Holy Grail” manual Aerostar when you stopped off in Minneapolis Last year. Well, I thought I’d share with you my latest purchase (ok I bought it October 2021) but I have added another Manual Ford Aerostar to my fleet.

This one is quite different. It is an extended cargo van with the ‘barn doors’ on the back. I think that makes this one quite unique being extended cargo and not just a standard length one.

It’s very basic, vinyl seats, A/C that sort of works, and no cruise control. Oh, and if you’re wondering, this one has even less rust than the one you looked at.

Now if only I could find a good rear bumper cover 🙂

Anyway, hope you enjoy.

White Van
CJ

We very much enjoyed the photos of his van. For further context, David was bitten by the manual Aerostar bug back in 2018, and he had this to say about it:

Obviously, 145 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque aren’t amazing figures, but come on, it’s a 3,400 pound minivan with rear-wheel drive and Ford’s M5OD five-speed manual—a Mazda-sourced stick that, while maybe not the heaviest-duty trans, is a hell of a lot of fun to row through, and its parts are readily available. (A version of this trans was used in the Ford Ranger, F-150, Bronco, Explorer and a whole bunch of other Fords from the ’80s to the 2000s).

That Vulcan was just five horses short of the 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four that powered the fabled turbocharged Caravan. Though, the Aerostar weighed at least 500 pounds more than the Chrysler. In David’s older piece, readers suggested that the weight wasn’t too much of a hindrance, as there was more than enough power to spin those rear wheels. Apparently, if you try hard enough, you can be a hooligan with an Aerostar.

A total of 2,029,577 Aerostars were produced between 1985 and 1997. How many of them are manuals is unknown. But if you live where I do, these vans have become rare simply because rust has taken so many of them off of the road.

Aero
Ford

David, Jason, and I saw a minty one just outside of our Airbnb during our California stay for the 2022 Los Angeles Auto Show. We couldn’t stop looking at the thing. David wondered if it was a manual, while Jason couldn’t stop looking at some sort of auxiliary light that was added to the van’s side. We briefly thought about knocking on the owner’s door to ask them about it.

In the end, vans like the Aerostar were overshadowed by the powerhouses that were the Chrysler minivans. But the Ford was important, too. It was a different take on the same idea and an interesting evolution in people haulers. Today, these vans probably have limited practicality. The few of them I’ve seen in recent times were junk haulers and Gambler 500 rigs, plus that weirdly minty one in California. The good thing about old minivans is that they’re dirt cheap. So, if you find one of these in your area, chances are they’ll be cheap. Then, you can own a time capsule from a time when SUVs weren’t yet king.

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67 Responses

  1. One of my friend’s dads had a 5-speed manual Aerostar Eddie Bauer. He towed a trailer with it, and when doing a difficult maneuvre I just remember it reeked of clutch burning. The best part was that he was an executive at Ford’s Livonia Transmission plant which only makes automatic transmissions. When he was ordering his company car, he accidentally forgot to check the box for an automatic!

  2. Had a 97 F150 V6 with a M5OD. It was rebuilt while under warranty. You’re not missing much by not driving one. Very vague, super long throw shifter, just a very light duty unit.

    1. They even showed it at the Chicago Auto Show too! I remember first reading that PM article a couple years ago and tried to think how it would have done.

      Swing-out doors wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, because the “rules” for minivans weren’t really set yet here. Powertrains might have been – not that the Chryslers were powerhouses, but they did have the V6 show up almost by the time the Espace would’ve gone on sale. And Wiki suggests the gen-1 Espace was manual-only – that would’ve been an issue.

      The Espace Quadra could’ve piggybacked on the AMC 4wd reputation and really capitalized on the AWD/4WD push at the time. Toyota had 4WD in the Van by the late 80s, but GM/Ford/Chrysler wouldn’t have it in their vans til ’90.

  3. My dad had one with the automatic. It had a bad differential he had to get replaced and the transmission that lazily shifted from R to D in cold weather.

    The most memorable experience with that van was when he ran it out of gas on a camping trip. The gas gauge didn’t work too well either. For some reason we had two gallons of white gas for the Coleman stove packed away. He dumped it in and away we went. Well, slowly. The 3.0 V6 ran, but not well. The knock was audible in the second tow. Thankfully the route was flat and we limped into a gas station 10 miles away. The van wasn’t any worse for the wear once it got a full tank of 87 octane to dilute the white gas.

  4. Maybe it was because I lived in a town with a devoted Chrysler following (or access to discounts) because of they owned the local transmission/transfer case plant for a long while, but I rarely saw Aerostars growing up. The only kid I remember having one was a neighbor who only bought Fords. They owned an Aerostar, they owned a Windstar, and a succession of Tauruses parked alongside them over the years.

    The Chrysler vans were the kings. Probably followed by Astro/Safari vans.

  5. The problem with the RWD Aerostar and Astro vans is that they drive like more like trucks. The Chrystler minivans were based on a car chassis and drove more like it. There were fans of both vehicle designs.

    I’m glad there were choices for whatever people wanted.

  6. My father had a ’94 Aerostar back in the late nineties and according to the local Ford dealer, it had a combination of options that technically shouldn’t have been possible. It was an extended version passenger van, but in mid-level XL trim. It had the 4.0 V6 sourced from the Explorer and the HD trailer towing package, but it was 2wd. And it had the built-in child seats in the middle row! According to the brochure, you’d have to step up to the XLT or Eddie Bauer to get that combo of options. At the time Dad had an acquaintance with the identical van, except with the Vulcan 3.0, and the difference was night and day. The van met its end quite spectacularly in 2003, after my then 16 year old brother decided to see if it could fly – he took a 90 degree country road turn at better than 140 kph and rolled it into the woods multiple times, taking out four big trees and breaking three ribs. The van came to rest on its wheels, engine still running, and nary a pane of glass intact. It had better than 400K of Atlantic Canadian highway kilometers on it.

    I’ve driven a few Aerostars with manual transmissions, and the most memorable belonged to a church member. A ’93 short wheelbase passenger van with the 3.0 – made quite an impression on me, given that this was a full-on family truckster.

  7. “Holy Grail” Can we stop with this already?

    There is only one supposed Holy Grail, and it is an ultimate artifact that may be sought after by, but it’s virtually impossible that it will be found.

    Autopian invents a new “Holy Grail” vehicle every week. Holy Grail doesn’t just mean that it’s a little rare.

    1. I mostly agree. The term “Holy Grail” seems to either fit something unobtainable, or something that when you find it, you stop looking forever. People who bought manual trans Aerostars didn’t stop buying cars. David sure didn’t stop buying Jeeps when he found his “Holy Grail”.

      Then again, popular culture appropriates all kinds of language in ways I don’t approve of. If most people know what “Holy Grail” is supposed to mean in modern culture, I guess it works well-enough.

    2. The way Holy Grail is used here is lazy shorthand, and adopted mainly because that’s David Tracy’s pet phrase. I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it either. I prefer it as a David Tracy quirk rather than have it become a site-wide Autopian meme.

    3. I don’t mind it, but I certainly understand what you’re getting at. “Hidden Gems” may be a better term that seems to fit the theme of the series.

    4. This isn’t nearly as bad as the general cultural obsession and overuse of the term “GOAT”.

      “Greatest of All Time” is supposed to be what it says…the greatest of all time. Not complicated right?

      Instead you have some person no one has ever heard of get their 15 minutes of fame and people post “GOAT” under their stories like they’ve been at the top of their game for 20 years.

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