The Minivan Craze - How it All Began

1984 Plymouth Voyager 1 photo
Photo: Chrysler
Minivans... you must have heard about them. Those plain looking vehicles that are powered by boring engines that can't growl and can't burn too much gasoline (or diesel) unless they catch a cold or the gas tank calls it quits and blows a hole right through its heart. Minivans... they're not as cool as the newly-launched Porsche Panamera Turbo S facelift that comes with a 4.8-liter biturbo V8 and 570 horsepower. And not as good looking as the 2014 BMW 4 Series Convertible everyone is getting all excited about. Minivans... they can cost a measly 20 grand with a Dodge badge and around $30,000 if the plants that build them have huge Honda or Toyota signs at the entrance. It means you won't be getting the luxurious interiors that come with German sedans or Cadillacs, no rear diffusers and no carbon fiber splitters. They're not fancy, they're not cute and they're known to feature in loads of "soccer mom" and "driving 40 mph in the left lane" jokes. So what are they good for? Well, they're the most useful vehicles to have been invented since the pickup truck and while they can't haul as much as a Ford F-150, they're very good at moving people around. They're roomy enough for a basketball team and its coach and perfect for a family of four. The latter fit into an SUV, some would say, but don't forget that family of four means two children and all the baby stuff that comes with them. An SUV just won't do it unless image is all you care about and you're that person who thinks a Nissan Micra is a sportscar once it gets a rear diffuser and a Nismo badge. Yes, you can shave my legs and call me grandpa, I'm the silly, grumpy man who'd trade in a BMW X5 for a Chrysler Town & Country. Now that my cover's blown to bits, I guess it's time to explain what's with the van talk all of a sudden (there are plenty of cool Ferraris and Lamborghinis to talk about, no?). Well, thirty years ago this month Chrysler began production of the Dodge Caravan - the world's first minivan. Developed by Hal Sperlich and backed by Lee Iacocca, both having arrived at Chrysler after working for Detroit rivals Ford, the Dodge Caravan promised a "Transportation Revolution" and became an instant hit as it reached its first customers in early 1984. But was it really that revolutionary? Was it really the first production minivan? After all it's a boxy vehicle that offers seating for seven, something that the Volkswagen Microbus introduced back in 1950, 33 years before the Caravan was unveiled... The answer to this question lies beyond the body and the seating layout. You see, the Microbus was all rugged, rear-engined and had rear-wheel drive, whereas the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager was built in a totally different configuration - with the engine at the front and front-wheel drive, thus allowing for a flat inner floor which also increased interior space. Moreover, it had a lower load height and was easy to get in and out of. It was shorter than a station wagon, which made it easier to maneuver, but had more room than an SUV. More importantly, it drove like a car and not like a truck, because the Caravan's S platform was based on Chrysler's proven K-car platform that underpinned vehicles such as the Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant and the Chrysler LeBaron. All of them sold very well in the 1980s and were very profitable, helping Chrysler's return to profitability after being on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1970s. Successful with the Caravan/Voyager as well, the K-car platform put Chrysler at the top of the minivan chain, a position the Detroit-headquartered manufacturer still attains after 30 years. Simply put, the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler's minivan concept came out of nowhere in 1984. It had no actual rival except Toyota's "donkey kick" Van that year and left Ford and General Motors scratching their heads until the end of the decade. Actually, some say the two automakers never got this minivan thing Chrysler had struck gold with. It took GM one year to introduce the Chevrolet Astro and Ford two years to come up with the Aerostar, both with rear-wheel drive, compact truck-based platforms and slightly larger than the Caravan. General Motors finally woke up to smell the front-wheel drive coffee in the early 1990s, when the Chevrolet Lumina APV/Oldsmobile Silhouette/Pontiac Trans Sport "dustbusters", but it was a little too late. Ford jumped in two years later with the Nissan Quest-based Mercury Villager, followed by the Ford Windstar in 1995. To Ford's credit, the latter sold more than 200,000 examples per year in its first three years and took a significant share in the minivan market. Meanwhile, Chrysler was marketing the second-generation Dodge Caravan in both short- and long-wheelbase version, the Town & Country, the Mini Ram Van and was already working on a brand new iteration of its minivan family. The 2.2-liter inline-four that used to return a cool 26 mpg was discontinued, while a 3.8-liter V6 was added to the 3.0-liter Mitsubishi-sourced unit. The third-generation minivans gained a new platform, a new 4-door body style was added, and powertrains included compressed natural gas and even an electric fleet-only lease version, the latter available for about three years with most examples crushed by Chrysler after leases expired. The fourth-generation came without a Plymouth variant, as the brand was axed in 2001, and the Mitsubishi-sourced engine was offered only in Chinese market vehicles. All models became 4-door minivans and 2007 saw the introduction of the innovative Stow'Go seating. The current-generation Grand Caravan/Town & Country was launched in 2008 and the rest is history... and numbers. Chrysler minivans sold more than 13 million examples (for the record - Chevrolet sold 13 million Impalas between 1958-1985 and 1994-1996) and have been the best-selling minivans in the United States since their introduction. In fact, Chrysler sold twice as many minivans as any other manufacturer. Last year, the Dodge Grand Caravan was the top selling minivan in the world, while Chrysler Group's minivans accounted for nearly half of all minivan sales in the United States. It remains to be seen whether Chrysler will continue to top the segment or a new player will jump in and take the minivan crown - it will all depend on what Fiat wants - but the Dodge Caravan will remain a benchmark to the automotive industry. P.S.: Before you say anything, I haven't forgotten about the Renault Espace and that it was designed in the late 1970s, with production delayed as Matra-Simca was acquired by PSA. However, the Espace was launched a few months after the Dodge Caravan, which means Chrysler gets all the credit for the minivan in my book. It isn't enough to be the first with an idea, you need to be gutsy enough to put that idea on the assembly line and know how to market the product successfully. Chrysler did both!
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About the author: Ciprian Florea
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Ask Ciprian about cars and he'll reveal an obsession with classics and an annoyance with modern design cues. Read his articles and you'll understand why his ideal SUV is the 1969 Chevrolet K5 Blazer.
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