24 hours after John told me he was a week away from literally sleeping on the street, I launched my first crowdfunding campaign. 48 hours later, we had more than twice what I originally asked. Once the funds cleared (and I got over the Flu), JP and I went car shopping. Here’s what it was like.
YOU LOSE IF YOU TALK ABOUT IT
But this is one of those things you want to talk about. John told me Buddy would be leaving him high and dry – read: literally on the street – in “about a week or so” on New Year’s Eve. The next day, I’d started crowdfunding on GoFundMe. Less than 24 hours after that, we had $2260 raised between GoFundMe and PayPal.
I made the withdrawal request first thing the next morning. GoFundMe said the money would be in my account in 2-5 business days. I called the guy selling the “unicorn” – a positively cherry, 1997 Dodge conversion van – and explained the situation.
The seller told me how the van was his grandfather’s and just about perfect. Grandpa had moved back to Michigan and left him the van. Now he was moving and didn’t have room for it. He wished me luck and said he would save my number on his phone so he’d see me when I called back to come see the van.
I figured I’d be calling him back Tuesday to follow up with cash-in-hand. I hoped so, anyway. By my estimates, Buddy would be leaving John high and dry by Thursday, so it would be right down to the wire. The money hit my account Monday, but by then, I was a sniffling, coughing mess, pushing a 102°F / 39°C fever, and barely functioning. I made a doctor’s appointment for first thing Tuesday morning, where I learned I had the flu.
UNDER PRESSURE (AND THE WEATHER)
By Wednesday, I was really struggling with the pressure. It was my third straight day with a fever. I couldn’t go to work. I was having to avoid contact with my 2-year old daughter, who just wanted hugs and kisses all the time. And I knew John could very well be out on the street any day now. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise, but I needed some intel. I decided to email John for a sitrep (situation report).
You lose if you talk about it. Hemingway said that. I didn’t want to blow the big surprise, but I needed to know how much time we had left to get John into his own wheels. In my email, I told John JP and I were working on getting him a car – and that it was really going to happen – but I was sick with the flu and it probably wouldn’t happen before the weekend. I asked how much time we had left before he was up shit creek.
THE HUNT BEGINS
Understandably, John was excited to get the news. He told us Buddy had run into some paperwork delays and wouldn’t be leaving town for another week or two. We’d bought some time. I got in touch with JP back at work, asking if he could assist with the vehicle hunt that weekend. He agreed, and we planned to get started early – 8AM – Saturday morning.
By Saturday, I was no longer contagious, and JP picked me up in the TJ to begin the hunt. If you’ve ever bought or sold a vehicle on Craigslist, you know it’s not exactly the sort of thing that works around your immediate schedule. Once you find something interesting, you have to setup a meeting with the seller. Sometimes you can call or text, but a lot of people prefer email. (Personally, I prefer email, as it prevents my phone blowing up.)
JP and I got coffee and donuts at the local QT (QuikTrip, the finest convenience chain in the country), and began dialing and emailing sellers. After about six or seven attempts, we got our first reply. We were off to meet Angelo in El Mirage, who was selling a 1997 Dodge Grand Caravan for $1600.
THE UNOFFICIAL CHECKLIST
“Beggars can’t be choosers” isn’t quite the phrase I’m after, but we knew our budget meant we’d be coming across some pretty rough rides. As we made the 30 minute drive across town to check out the green minivan, we got to talking about realistic targets and what constituted a deal breaker.
We knew we wanted something big enough John could stretch out in for sleeping. When a buddy tells you he has dreams about simple things like lying down flat to sleep or taking a shower – and you’ve raised a couple grand to buy him a vehicle to sleep in – you kinda want to make this a priority. So we were actively searching for vans of all sizes.
Now, $2000 vehicles are easily 10 times nicer than their $1000 counterparts, but any gearhead who’s had one will tell you – it’s always a crap shoot. Mechanical problems are to expected at this price point, so we were particularly keen to find something we could reasonably expect to not need any real repairs for at least 3-6 months while John landed a better paying job. Let’s be honest. We want to get our buddy some basic shelter and transport, but we don’t want to spend every weekend for the next year fixing it for him.
That was pretty much it, though I’ll add we considered OBDII vehicles (1996 and newer) more desirable in this situation, as a functioning – but not active – check engine light would very likely mean the car would pass emissions. For those who don’t have emissions testing where they live, here in Maricopa County, Arizona, pre-OBDII vehicles are subject to a dyno test. See the picture of my own 89 Pajero spinning the rollers. The only way to know if you pass or fail is after the tester drives the living shit out of your vehicle while you watch. So yeah, OBDII was a real selling point.
NOT SO GRAND CARAVAN
Angelo, a slim, slick-looking dude, walked out to meet us at the curb where JP and I were looking over his 97 Grand Caravan. Smoking a Marlboro Red, he unlocked the doors and started it up for us. While it was warming up, we gave it a good walk around. I checked the tires for cracks, bubbles, remaining tread. JP climbed in to see how easy it would be to adjust the rear seats for sleeping.
On the outside, things looked decent, if not exciting. Same went for inside, where the carpet had enough stains to warrant a joke between JP and I regarding body hauling for the mob. Still, it idled smoothly the whole time and had about an eighth of a tank of fuel, so we took it for a spin around the block.
It only had 132,000 miles on it, but we suspect it hadn’t had the easiest life back in SoCal, where the daily commute could be considered wheel-to-wheel combat. The engine pulled strong, the automatic shifted smoothly, yet firmly, and it seemed to track straight. Then we drove through a dip in the road and heard the clunk. “WTF was that?!” we both shouted out.
I stopped fairly aggressively in the middle of the road. Then put my foot in it to hustle it a bit. Maybe it was a motor mount? Nothing but a photo radar truck on the opposite side of the road. Yikes! “Just remember, if you get a photo radar ticket, you can honestly say you have no idea who those two, bearded guys were.” (Not that we were going anywhere near fast enough, by the way.)
No matter what we tried, we couldn’t get the clunk to come back. It was definitely something on the van, so we headed back to Angelo’s. Making the final turn onto his street, CLUNK! WTF! There it is again! We parked and popped the hood to get a closer look at the engine.
First thing we noticed, the valve covers were leaking. Both of them. Everywhere. And, apparently, for much of the van’s life. Greasy sludge was caked everywhere, all the way down to the oil pan, which had fresh drips on it, too. Was the pan cracked? No way of knowing, really.
JP checked the motor mounts while I gave the front right corner a closer look. Didn’t see anything obvious. By now, we’d got a reply on a full-sized conversion van back closer to home, so we thanked Angelo and told him we’d let him know either way because, well, because it’s the courteous thing to do.
A RIGID F-WORD VAN & THE V12 MERC
Trever listed his old school, Chevy conversion van for a mere $900. How old school, you ask? 1989. Shag carpet. The kind of vehicle which, if you see it rockin’, you don’t come knockin’, dig? Originally beige, gold, or tan – as many Chevy vans were back in the day – it had been painted flat black at some point, presumably with whatever old paint brush was found in the garage.
JP and I pulled up across the street and waited for the Saturday morning, door-to-door Jesus salesmen to move along. We noticed the sweet ski boat in the driveway, lifted Silverado on the curb, and immaculate, black Mercedes S600 (V12, W220) parked right in front the van for jump starting duties and I think both our hopes went up a little bit. This guy was obviously a gearhead like us. We hopped out and walked over to say hello to the boxer barking from the bow of the boat.
Trever called us over to the van, which was idling nice and strong as he disconnected the jumper cables. “It’s been sitting a while,” he explained. Meh. No big deal. I’ve got a decent battery in my parts truck if that’s all it needs. JP and I began going over the van while Trever did what anyone selling a $900 vehicle does – casually told us how it was a fun project that never went anywhere, and now that he was moving, had to go.
The carpet inside, leftovers from someone’s home remodeling project, was actually really nice. He’d even installed padding underneath, and there was plenty of room to stretch out in privacy with the curtains closed. The tires were approaching sun rot, cracked fairly extensively, but he only wanted $900. Surely we could pick up a set of good, used tires from a llantera (Spanish, tire shop), with the other $1300 we’d have left after buying this thing.
It was time for the test drive, so I climbed into the driver’s seat and waited for Trever to move the big, black Merc. JP walked over to make sure the TJ was locked, and I eased the now slightly wheezing Chebby into the street. It was almost boat-like as the front tires rolled off the curb. Moments later, the rears made it to the street, and I gave it a little gas to straighten out and wait for JP to hop in.
That’s when it died. Now, a big ass van doesn’t coast very far when it dies; especially when it wasn’t doing but 1-2mph when it did. All the same, I rolled out of the middle of the road, and sat there as Trever ran back to get the Merc. A quick jump, and it died again. A second jump, and the engine sounded strong again.
The cables were disconnected and I’d decided it was best to just put it back in the driveway. I shifted into reverse, gave it a little gas, and it died again. This time, JP Trever put their shoulders into it and pushed it back into its parking spot. In a moment, JP and I made eye contact through the windshield. “No fucking way, dude.” We told Trever we agreed it would make for a fun project, but we had to find something a little more confidence inspiring on the test drive. He understood, and we were on our way.
THE DREAM DIES
At this point, JP got a call from a lady who had listed another old Chrysler minivan, supposedly setup for sleeping. The pictures, though a couple years old, showed a clean, white, early 90s Caravan, side door open wide to reveal a specially made futon and blankets. It was parked next to a barn on a bright, sunny day. Or among the evergreens somewhere in the forest.
The listing talked about how the seller had moved into the van for an epic road trip down from the Pacific Northwest, en route to Mexico. The plan was to sell the van, cross the border, and buy new wheels once settled. I want to say the final destination would be a peaceful, beach paradise somewhere in Baja or the Yucatan, but I don’t think we ever found out. In any case, we were actually kind of excited about this one. I mean, it kind of sounded like this was a low budget, overlanding project, which could turn out to be perfect.
Or it could have turned out to be some kind of crack head on the run from the law. We’ll never know. As JP listened, she explained how she was staying at a Day’s Inn an hour south of us and would need to unload it before we could see it. With barely 90 minutes left before JP had to be somewhere else, we told her we’d have to come see it the next morning.
Meanwhile, I got a text back from the guy with the unicorn Dodge conversion van telling me it was sold.
JP dropped me off and, since we didn’t need to be at the Day’s Inn until 10AM the next morning, we decided to start with coffee and donuts at 9. I walked into a quiet, empty house, as V & P were out to lunch with Aunt Shannon. I’d barely kicked off my shoes when another guy named Angelo texted me back about a 97 Chevy Venture out by University of Phoenix stadium.
With nothing better to do, I put my shoes back on and hopped in Rocinante. 30 minutes later, I was standing in front of a very clean Chevy Venture. It had dual, sliding side doors, one of which was powered. Front and rear heat and AC worked. And I could only find a couple small stains on the interior fabrics.
It started right away and idled smoothly. As I pulled out of the seller’s driveway for a quick spin, I thought, “This is the nicest thing I’ve driven all day. I’ll have to get JP back out to look at it in the morning on our way to the Day’s Inn.” It had more miles on it – 190k – and the tires were a little on the thin side, but he only wanted $1400. Any of these vehicles would run us less than $100 for title and tags, so we’d still have over $500 left to put some tires on this thing. I’d found a real contender.
SOME REAL TURDS
Shopping for a vehicle on Craigslist is a special thing. Despite driving some real turds, we had a lot of fun. Things weren’t turning out as we’d originally planned, but I drove home that afternoon optimistic that we’d find something we could be really excited about gifting to John. Sunday morning, if the Day’s Inn camper turned out to be a bust, we could swing by and likely buy the Venture. We were going to find something nice for John.
When I started typing this up, I wanted to be thorough. I wanted to share as much of the experience JP and I had shopping as possible. We were after a $2000 beater for a buddy to live in, but you never know when you – or someone you know – might be looking for dirt cheap wheels. (Perhaps they’re thinking about entering the GBXM Death Valley Adventure Rally later this year?) This one’s run a little long.
I feel the people who gave so generously deserve a full report of how their money was spent. We didn’t buy the first thing we looked at and, as Part 3 is going to demonstrate in coming days, we didn’t end up buying anything I just told you about! Sometimes, you just get lucky. I’m chalking it up to Karma. We’re going to wrap this up in the next installment with full details of the vehicle we ended up getting for John and how we surprised him with it.
One more time, to be continued… next installment WILL be the final one, with details of John’s Suburban and how we surprised him. Thanks for reading the whole thing!