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Introducing My Winter Beater: 1991 Dodge Caravan AWD Woody With Just 49,000 Miles!

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author photo by Tyler Hoover December 2016

The Chrysler minivan. It's likely no single vehicle led to such a massive transformation of American roadways since the 1908 Ford Model T. Minivans established their dominance in the early 1980s as the best family haulers and helped send the full-size station wagon to an early grave. And as the pioneer of this new style of people carrier, Chrysler was the dominant force in minivan sales.

This 20-year love affair Americans had with the minivan came to an abrupt end with the crossover SUV. Suddenly, minivans became uncool; the symbol of domestic boredom. To drive a minivan meant you had given up your dreams. Minivan marketing certainly didn't help with this. With celebrities driving Escalades and Range Rovers, no Kardashian wannabe would be caught dead piloting a minivan.

While vans still have their devoted following, they're subjected to a very hard life and thrown away with little thought. Given that an '80s-to-early-'90s minivan is worth about the same as a Blockbuster Video stock certificate, it makes sense to junk them rather than keep them running.

To think of a minivan being a rare collector car seems hilarious, but consider this: When is the last time you saw an early Chrysler minivan going down the road?

Currently, on Autotrader, there are only 14 Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans made before 1996 offered for sale. Only 14!!! In other words: You have a much better selection of pre-1996 Lamborghinis available on Autotrader than Chrysler minivans!

As I've become more aware of the scarcity of this iconic van, I was shocked when I came across my latest purchase: a 1991 Dodge Caravan in very good condition with 49,000 original miles -- being offered by the family of the elderly original owner. To find a minivan with a story like this was unheard of -- but there are even more things that made this van very special.

First, it's a short-wheelbase model. By 1991, most were going for the longer body, deviating from the original iconic shape. Next is the faux wood paneling, a styling choice that was rapidly going out of fashion. To purchase one of these with wood paneling in 1991 was like refusing give up your mullet.

The coolest optional equipment that made me unable to resist purchasing this van was the rare all-wheel-drive system. It turns out that 1991 was the first year Chrysler offered AWD in its minivans -- and I never even knew such a thing existed until I came across this one.

When I found this van, it was located almost 1,000 miles away from me. Since I couldn't look it over in person, I wanted the seller to take the van to a mechanic for a prepurchase inspection. The owner's son was handling the sale -- and while he seemed a nice enough guy, he said he was too busy to drop the car off at a shop for an inspection. His occupation? A car salesman.

How someone who works at a dealership doesn't have time to drive the van to his workplace and walk a few steps to his service department made no sense. He also said he was getting lots of phone calls and higher offers on the van -- but, in the end, he was willing to sell it to me for the low price of $2800.

Why would you sell it to me for less if you're getting higher offers? Naturally, I didn't think he was telling the truth. I worked in the car business myself for over a decade, and I cringe when someone gives me the obvious lines. My first instinct was to run far, far away, but then I realized: Where was I going to find another one?

The other reason I was willing to roll the dice is the cost of repairing this thing. Even if the engine and transmission were near death, these are widely available in junk yards across the country for about $300. Just for reference, a good used motor for my 1999 Porsche costs $8000. Since anything on this van can be fixed cheaply, mechanical issues didn't really matter. The most important part of this purchase was the cosmetic condition.

The seller was very willing to show off the fantastic condition of the van, taking detailed photos and sending several videos. Throughout all of this, his young children were alongside, driving him nuts. When he popped the hood to make a video of the engine bay, one of the kids climbed to the driver's seat and honked the horn. Exasperated, the seller grumbled a few swear words describing his kid, and left it in the video for me.

To his credit, the salesman seller fully disclosed the minor issues he knew about, and he described the van accurately. He did a great job of making me comfortable with the purchase and closing the sale, just like anyone should. I liked him well enough at the end of the transaction that I became his friend on Facebook.

I shipped the van home and was relieved to discover that the van is in great shape overall -- outside of some minor leaks and easily repairable issues. The most shocking discovery was inside the locking file cabinet under the passenger seat.

Much to my surprise, my purchase came with a full pedigree, including the original window sticker, all the books and service records. The previous owner might be one of Doug's distant relatives, because they purchased a bumper-to-bumper extended warranty for their van. Like DeMuro's Range Rover, it also paid out, covering a complete transmission replacement at 30,000 miles.

The coolest item found in the underseat time capsule was a cassette tape introducing the van to its new owner and showcasing the optional Infinity sound system. While there's plenty of '90s synthesizer music accompanying the narrator describing the features, the recording finished with a pretty period-awesome mix tape -- including "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins, "Rhythm is Going to Get You" by Gloria Estefan and "The Way You Make Me Feel" by Michael Jackson.

Do I possess the only surviving Infinity sound system mix tape? Do I currently own the nicest early Chrysler minivan, other than the one on display at the Smithsonian museum? I don't know, but I'm going to use it for my "winter beater" and see how it does.

As it's a short wheelbase, all-wheel-drive model with a very easy-to-lift suspension setup, I've decided to make some improvements to this van's off-road capability. Time to turn this minivan into the Mighty-Van.

Yes, the first build project on Oversteer involves a minivan. Stay tuned.

1991 Dodge Caravan

Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Introducing My Winter Beater: 1991 Dodge Caravan AWD Woody With Just 49,000 Miles! - Autotrader