Grand Caravan: our personal odyssey, part 4

A comedy of errors in which we learn the hard way to never, ever, ever take a used vehicle on a cross country road trip within 48 hours of purchase.  Please, learn from our mistakes.

part 1

part 2

part 3

The diagnosis was a bad alternator.  Perry had never replaced an alternator before but my dad assured him it wasn’t too hard.  He had done plenty of alternators on his own vehicles.  They could handle this.

On Wednesday, we bought the parts and Perry got to work with the help of my 17yo brother.  They managed to break loose the alternator without too much trouble and compared the old part to the new one.  Aha!  There was a difference.  There was a pulley on the old one that was not included on the rebuilt part they had purchased.  A phone call to the auto parts store confirmed this.  They were supposed to detach the pulley and use it with the new alternator.

This was more easily said than done.  They tried a variety of tools and positions and plans, but it just wouldn’t budge.  The auto parts store offered to break it loose for them, so they hopped in Dad’s van.  When they got there, the men on duty tried their best but had to admit defeat.  They suggested another place that would be better equipped, so Perry and Kyle headed out again.  This scenario was repeated several times over the course of the day before they finally found a shop that was able to break the pulley loose.

One simple step had turned into an all-day affair, but finally the pulley was attached to the new alternator and ready to install.  Perry and Kyle decided to call it a day and finish the job the following day.

For once, the job went as planned.  On Thursday, the alternator was installed.  The van started.  The brakes worked.  The sun was shining and birds were singing.  I may have seen a rainbow in the sky.

We all celebrated by going out to see a movie.  This was the vacation we had planned. We were all together.  We were relaxing.  We were having fun.  The van was running beautifully.

The next day, our vacation was over.  It was time to leave.

After the fiasco we had experienced, we were more than a little nervous about taking the van on the road.  It was one thing to drive to and from the theatre with Dad and Mom in their big van behind us.  It was another to set out on the 1,400 mile return trip.  We decided to leave Friday evening and drive straight through.

We drove for 28 hours, never turning off the engine.  We even filled the gas tank with the engine running.  I know, I know.  We were young, foolish, and paranoid.

But we made it home safely, pulling the van right into the yard.  It was late, and we were exhausted.  We stumbled into the house, tucked the kids into bed, and fell asleep.

The next morning, the van wouldn’t start.

We left the van there in the yard for 6 weeks while we saved our pennies, then finally had it hauled to a nearby garage.  We told him we didn’t need a complete fix; we just needed it to start so that we could trade it in.  I called periodically for updates, and each time the mechanic assured me he was trying but just couldn’t find the problem.  He tried replacing the neutral safety switch which keeps the vehicle from starting unless it is in park or neutral, but that didn’t help.  He tried a few other ideas, all to no avail.  After 3 weeks and $300 in failed repairs he finally told us, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but if you wiggle this wire right here, sometimes it will start.”

I proposed to Perry that we dispute the bill, but he had already had enough trouble with this van and wasn’t about to make more now that there was an end in sight.  “He did what we asked.  Pay it,” he said.  We were going to get rid of it as quickly and cleanly as possible, and we would never make another mistake like this again.

No, we would make an entirely different mistake the next time.


  1. LOL- we have led similar lives at times- we bought a Dodge Caravan and set out to drive from CA to IN. The van caught on fire before we got out of town.

    Although ours had a happy ending- we got it out quickly and it turned out the cause was just some spilled oil on the engine. The van lasted through two more kids, six years, and trips to Alaska and back.

  2. I can’t even begin to guess how this continues. Did you actually sell this creature? If so, did you recoup your money? What’s next?

    • Actually, I realized after scheduling these 4 posts that although I wrote the series 2 years ago, I never finished it. That was the last post. It was meant to lead up to a story of our folly and God’s providence, but I haven’t written it yet. I’ll try to do it soon!

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