Making an old car more reliable

We own a 1993 Plymouth Voyager minivan with 163,000 miles. My college age son wants the use of this car for weekend travel and vacation trips this summer. I want to make the car as reliable as possible for him. Are there parts that are appropriate to replace (if they are still original equipment) before they fail? My husband insists that this never makes sense, because it is impossible to predict what will fail next. I want to minimize the risk that my son will be stuck on the side of a highway far from home.

I would advise checking all of the hoses (including the heater hoses) to be sure that they are in decent condition. If there is any doubt about their condition, replace them. A visual check of drive belts is not necessarily adequate to determine their condition, but I want to point out that the belts are another item to check and replace if there is any question regarding their condition. Both hoses and belts must have been replaced more than once already on this 16 year old vehicle, but the “new” belts and hoses could already be candidates for replacement.

Also, if the coolant, transmission fluid, and brake fluid are more than 3 years old, they should be replaced as well. Additionally, I think that it is a good idea to carry a tire inflator that plugs into the cigarette lighter. These are invaluable in the event of a tire puncture, in order to help you get to a safe place for tire changing and repair.

You can reduce the risks, but never down to zero. Therefore to ease your mind spend some money on AAA or another road service policy to cover your son. AAA is good whether your son is in his car or another person’s car so it is a good idea for him if being stranded is your big concern.

As for the car the items that fail on trips are most often radiator hoses, heater hoses, and drive belts. The heat of a long day on the road and use of AC in the summer cause the hoses to soften up and if they are old sometimes they just blow out. A check of the coolant and replacing it if it is over 2 years old can help make sure the car’s cooling system is ready to handle the trip. New spark plugs and other tune up items will help reduce the fuel used, but don’t decrease the risk of being stranded that much. Saving fuel saves money so a tune up is a good idea if it has been 30K miles since the last one.

Long hot trips can finish off a transmission that is getting tired. If the transmission pan hasn’t been dropped in the last 30K miles and refilled with fresh fluid with a clean screen and/or new filter that is a good idea too.

Bottom line if the car is being maintained properly and is up to date on maintenance then you have nothing to worry about. If the car has been neglected and some service is overdue then get it serviced properly prior to the trip.

Get the owners manual out and go through all recommended services - is it up to date? By this time all fluids should have been replaced one or more times. If it’s been a while, do the coolant, transmission, brake fluid, and oil, along with filters (oil, gas, tranny) as needed. Has the timing belt been replaced (if it has one)? If it’s close, you might want to do that, too. Are the tires in good shape (including the spare)? Have the plugs, cap, rotor, and spark plug wires been replaced?

Agree with Uncle Turbo; you can, with suitable preparation, safely take a long trip in an old car; I once took a 7000 mile vacation in a 12 year old Buick while towing a camper trailer. We checked out all the items mentioned and did the front brakes since they were getting thin.

You need a cell phone, credit cards, and an AMA or similar membership. We have a poster who lives in rural Mexico and has a Toyota Sienna. He does what you are proposing, because he can’t get his vehicle repaired quickly in case of a failure. You don’t have that necessity. Any shop in the USA can repair a 1993 Plymouth minivan and parts are universally available.

If your son was planning this trip in a 1993 Jaguar, I would advise against it since you could easily be laid up a week if something went wrong with it.

After innumerable trips both cross country and shorter, I have only had three breakdowns over the last 42 years. In all cases, the vehicle I was driving could be easily repaired, and it did not disrupt our trip unduly.

When changing the transmission fluid make sure they use the correct fluid (ATF+4). Using the wrong fluid can be very detrimental to the performance and lifespan of the transmission–this and other forums will attest to this. Some places will blend a different fluid with a friction modifier that is supposed to make it perform like ATF+4 but this is not the case–the performance specs aren’t very close. Make sure that they use the real stuff.