Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler minivans form the late 1990s and early 2000s tend to have a problem in which the instrument cluster tends to malfunction. (The instrument cluster includes the speedometer, tachometer [if so equipped], and heat, gas gauge and several of the indicator lights.) Sometimes this even prevents the car from starting. To determine if this is your problem, perform this simple test: the next time the car doesn’t start, bang your hand with a medium-hard wallop on the dashboard. If the car starts, then you probably have this problem. If not, the problem may lie with the starter wiring harness (in the steering column) or else the battery and starter.
My own 1998 Grand Caravan had this problem, and I documented the repair job. Most involves removing trim, and a little bit of soldering.
Tools. To accomplish this job, you’ll need:
• one long Phillips screwdriver for the majority of the trim screws.
• one stubby Phillips screwdriver for the a couple of the righter-fit screws.
• A smaller flat screwdriver for releasing the tabs off of the wiring harness.
• a clean soldering iron and a bit of solder
• Patience. Sometimes, I have a lot of patience—and sometimes I don’t. If it’s a week in which I have a lot of patience, I can sell you some of mine in a half-gallon jug--but note that it will take 6 months to reach you.
How long does this job take?
• If you’re a novice at this, give yourself a half-day.
• If you have moderate experience, allow two and a half hours.
• If you’re an expert, let me know.
First, remove the screws that hold the plastic panel underneath the steering wheel:
Then pry off the side ventilation panel to access the trim screws underneath. Remove the screws on the side:
Don’t forget the two screws tucked underneath the parking brake release handle. Also remove the plastic housing surrounding the steering column. The screws on the bottom are deeply recessed into the plastic. Then remove the bottom trim panel.
After removing the screws that hold the lights in, you should be able to pull the panel forward to reach the wiring harnesses. Admittedly, it’s difficult to reach these. Use a small, flat-blad screwdriver to release the tabs to get them out. Good luck. The only good thing is that installation is easier than removal. Don’t break anything! The tabs that hold in the wiring harness are somewhat fragile—especially as they age.
Find the screws that hold in the trim to the left and right of the steering wheel. When you find a screw on one side, make a mental note that there’s probably a mirror-image screw on the opposite side, as well.
Remove the black “traction control” panel that sits between the top of the steering column and the bottom of the front of the instrument cluster. If you have a tilt-wheel steering wheel, tilt it all the way down to allow the panel to come out. Aside from the two screws at the bottom, the panel is held in place by two friction clips.
Guess what? Removing that panel reveals even more screws! Finally, remove the top trim. It’s held in place by some adhesive tape, too. Pry it off carefully using only your fingers. (If you use a screwdriver, use it carefully!) Note that the vents (on the 1998 model) to NOT need to be removed.
Finally! Now you can access the screws that hold the instrument cluster in place.
I’ve circled the holes:
Lastly, remove the red wiring harness in the back of the instrument cluster. The cluster should be able to be carefully & gently removed from the dashboard. Note that this red wiring harness is part of the problem: it’s the female socket into which is plugs where the bad/cracked solder joint is located. Don’t stress the joint.
Now you can set yourself up in a more comfortable location for the sake of disassembling the instrument cluster and fixing the bad solder joint. I just used our kitchen table. On the back of the cluster are screws that hold the cardboard insulating panel in place.
Then remove the white connector on the back of the board. Note that the problem lies with the red connector, but we have to access it from the opposite side of the board. Remove the screws on the front of the instrument cluster. Remove the clear plastic cover.
Now you can access the instrument gauges themselves. They are held in place by friction. Remove them carefully.
Don’t forget the two screws on either side of the red wiring harness. Now you can finally remove the PCB board!
Again, here’s the problematic red wiring harness. The bad soldering joints are on the Opposite side of the board:
Here are the pins you need to inspect.
It’s probably the upper-left-hand soldering joint that goes bad, probably because it carries a lot of current through it. I haven’t measured its voltage; it’s probably either the positive voltage supply or the ground. During the normal function of the car, the amount of current goes up and down, causing the joint to swell and shrink with changes in temperature. Then it cracks.
Solder the joint carefully. Be sure to use a hot, clean soldering iron. You may want to add a tiny bit of solder to beef up the joint. Be sure to keep your joint clean and tidy.
And here’s the easy part for me: Installation is the reverse of removal. (Has someone trademarked this sentence yet?) Good luck. Be patient with yourself. The reassembly is much more rewarding.
If you’re unsure of your work, you can always carefully test out the cluster by plugging in only the red wiring harness, and then turning the ignition on (but don’t bother to start the engine). Verify the gauges show signs of life.
At the end, I only had one screw left over. I happen to know where it came from, and it’s not a structural screw, so I’ll let it slide.
I haven't had a starting problem since I did this repair, but it's not been a full year yet. So far, so good.