• May 9, 2008
Think of what the automotive landscape looked like nigh on 25 years ago. Mentioning "family car" in 1983 would have conjured a station wagon. Some of us dig wagons, while others think we're daft because of the stigma they still carry. There's no denying that a wagon is an excellent way to transport kids and stuff, but those beasts of yesteryear often led to yearnings for an alternative. We all remember getting carsick while sitting in the rear-facing third row torture chamber, cut off from the rest of the family and their future-looking vantage point. The tailgunner position was a great way to test out new hand gestures on following motorists, though.

When the Chrysler minivans were revealed to the world in 1983 as 1984 models, they were a revelation. The Caravan and Voyager were not the first vans based on compact chassis, but they were such a successful combination of the elements that sales took off and imitators sprang up only after Chrysler had firmly established its status as the segment trendsetter. Continued after the jump.





It's taken 25 years for cracks in the armor to appear; Chrysler's newly redone vans are fighting for their lives against the formidably excellent Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey after years of dominance. While they may not have originated the idea, Chrysler's minis certainly moved the segment from niche vehicle to the pinnacle of the mainstream. Chrysler was selling a lot of full size vans in the 1970s, and many to families because they'd equipped them with carlike features. An A-series van equipped with such luxuries as full carpeting, power windows, air conditioning, and 8-track stereos (matchbook optional) was a comfortable way to cover long stretches in the 1970s.

The success of the big vans led to the idea of a smaller, more garage-friendly van, especially since Chrysler was faced with a paucity of wagon choices. While the excitement led to an initial flurry of work, there just wasn't room for a unique platform and its attendant tooling costs. The mid-1970s were not kind to Chrysler - the company landed in dire financial straits by the end of the decade. Oddly enough, in the late '70s, a second whack was taken at what was to become the minivan. By that time, there were front-wheel-drive components to be had from the Omni/Horizon, and initial concepts look like a van box with an Omni nose. Eventually, K-Car underpinnings served as the basis of the Minvans, and the price of the program had grown considerably from the first round. Lee Iacocca saw the value, though, and had the intestinal fortitude to green-light the T-115 vans.

The 1984 model year wasn't even a complete one for the new Minvans, but even so, 209,000 found buyers. Amazingly versatile cargo haulers, able to swallow sheets of plywood as well as carry the entire family on vacation, it's easy to see why the public fell in love with Chrysler's new phenomenon. Three rows of seats fit into a compact wheelbase, while the car-based chassis offered a lower ride height than truck-based vans, which made entry and exit supremely easy. The car platform also imbued the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager with an easy-driving demeanor, far less intimidating than the bigger vans. The whole package was no longer than a K-Car wagon, fitting easily in suburban garages, too.

One area where the vans were lacking was powertrains. While modern minivans are not very mini, they're also faster than even some sports cars were back in the 1980s. A lot faster. All minivans now carry V6s that kick out more horsepower than a Mustang GT did in 1984. A modest selection of four-cylinder engines with less than 100 horsepower were all you could initially get to power your wood-sided box, though turbocharged engines offered some more oomph, and V6 engines eventually found their way between the strut towers.

At a time when the Volkswagen Vanagon was about the only vehicle that might be considered a direct competitor, Chrysler's minivans were a revelation. Interiors were filled with innovative ideas, and every successive generation saw further refinement, ensuring that Chrysler minis maintained their position as the bogey to beat. Novel thinking continues to manifest itself in Chrysler's vans, and the arrival of the minivan also accomplished something else - it shifted the stigma off station wagons, giving the shooting brake a little breathing room to learn how to be cool.

We have yet to see a concours-quality first-generation minivan. For that matter, it's getting hard to find one that hasn't been attacked by the tinworm, but the fact remains that the minivans are going to be old enough to actually show up at a "classic car" event with credibility. They may have been the scourge of the road before attention was redirected to SUVs, but they were the vehicle that kicked off a paradigm shift in the marketplace, and they continue to get better with every revision. When GM and Ford have bowed out after receiving a considerable drubbing, Chrysler remains the sole domestic brand in the fight.

Allpar's excellent history was immensely helpful in researching this post.





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  • 75 Comments
      • 6 Years Ago
      May God's wrath torment the man who invented the minivan.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I wouldn't call the original Chrysler minivans classic, but they were groundbreaking and seminal. Created a market segment that is still important today. In 25 years though, the creator and leader has fallen to 3rd/4th in the minivan race in terms of leadership.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Well i do have a kid, and will probably have one or two more but I have NO intention in buying a minivan. The reasons you give are pretenses. There are mere conveniences, but certainly no needs. This means the marketing people have done a good job.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The problem with minivans is that people think they need one as soon as they have one kid. Whereas, realistically, if you don't have 4 kids or more, you don't need one. But then, people rarely buy what they need, they just go with what the advertisement people want them to need.
          • 6 Years Ago
          Minivans are useful even when you have 2 kids...try stuffing 2 kids with car seats, 2 weeks worth of clothes and toys for a roadtrip, and a good sized dog into a small or mid-sized SUV (forget trying it with a mid or large sedan).

          What is nice about a minivan is that you get a ton of room, decent gas mileage, and a comfy ride for half the price of a luxury SUV.
        • 6 Years Ago
        You know what? My family had a station wagon, even with 4 kids. One of us had to lay down in the cargo area with no seatbelt because it didn't have a 3rd seat. When the 5th kid came around, we had to get a new vehicle. Thank God for the minivan! The Ford Aerostar served us very very well, and was much easier to drive (and on gas and purchase price) than a full size van (which we did have shortly).

        The minivan was a godsend to a family with 6 kids. These new ones are luxurious, are much sleeker than brick-like SUV's, and certainly aren't pretentious like SUV's and the mindset of those driving them (who could just use a minivan). Minivans are great, and if I have more than 3 kids someday (don't plan on it), I'd love to get one.

        I have a feeling that people who hate minivans have never had one. Or if they have, they are so concerned with image and looking cool to their neighbors that they "have" to have an over-the-top SUV.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I'm on my second minivan. Dad passed down his '88 Grand Caravan (with big 160 HP V6) to us early in our marriage and we traded it 7 years ago on a Honda Odyssey. With 3 kids, the day to day would be OK with a car or wagon, but our 2-3 times per year trips to grandma's 600 miles away would be much more difficult and towing our pop up camper would be impossible.

        I'm a huge fan, there's no other vehicle that can do all a minivan can do for the price and with the MPG a van gets. Fashionable? Nope, but immensely practical.

        Our family van history: Dad's had a '72 Chevy window van, '74 Dodge Maxi van TEC camper, '88 Grand Caravan, '97 Grand Caravan and now '07 Town & Country. I've had just the two - so far. My sister has an '01 Odyssey and Dad's old '97 (They have 5 kids).
        • 6 Years Ago
        Why? They have proven themselves to be excellent family haulers. As gas prices increases and people shy away from third-row SUVs, they'll start to look favorably on minivans again as a more fuel efficient alternative. Besides, our blogger Dan might be in the market for one!
        • 6 Years Ago
        I have 3 kids and went from a Suburban to a Corolla. It was a little scary making the jump but once you get pasting _thinking_ you need something large you find that you get around just fine. Camping trips, softball, scouts, no problem.
        • 6 Years Ago
        You'll have to get past Snoop Dogg first.

        http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/ap/dt10208042345.h2.jpg
        • 6 Years Ago
        When you're at the store in the crowded parking lot trying to buckle a kid that can't walk yet into a carseat in a van with sliding doors you'll NEVER want to go back to a 'normal' car again.
        • 6 Years Ago
        By that logic you really dont *need* a car.

        And that one kid has friends, soccer teams, scout troops, etc. Not to mention space for all his crap to keep him quiet on long trips.

        Even with one kid the mini has its use.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The minivan was not invented by a man, but a demon, sent here to defile the car world for decades to come.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I had an 89 work van. It was reliable, tough as nails and simply unbeatable. What has happened to those tough vans?
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'll take mine in maroon with wood paneling, please.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I wish there was still a decent RWD version, ala Chevy Astro/GMC Safari, available.

      The current crop of Chryslers have an "OK" tow rating, once you add the $600 towing pre-package, and then go get a hitch system installed, but it still a far cry from a body on frame RWD haulin' machine. Today's minivan's are kidhaulers
      • 6 Years Ago
      Chrysler did invent that segment. It will probably say that on Chrysler's tombstone in the near future.
      • 6 Years Ago
      not every old car can become a "classic". This one is difinietely not.
      • 6 Years Ago
      it's great to see an article like this!

      as a single guy (always), I've had 14 Chrysler minivans, starting with the first one on 1984.

      mine have come in all flavors; four cylinder, six cylinder, automatics, 5 speeds, turbos, short-wheelbase, long-wheelbase, basic, top-of-the-line, and cargo.

      the one thing they all share in common is their utter indestructibility. I kept many for only a year, but have always sold them to people I know. it's rather interesting to see how many now have surpassed the 500,000 mile mark, and are still running strong.

      I always smile to see those folks who "hate" minivans. for the guys, it appears they somehow consider this an affront to their manhood. it's never been a problem for me, as their utter convenience and the fact that all cargo is secure from thieves and bad weather, unlike a pickup.

      in a Chrysler minivan, there isn't a bad seat in the house. I sat in the second seat of a Suburban last week, and it felt like I was sitting on a leather-upholstered marshmallow, with my knees higher than my ass. I can only imagine what that third row would be like.

      the Suburban is not alone; the concept of making a passenger-carrying vehicle out of anything rear-wheel drive is ridiculous. there is no question that front-drive is by far the most efficient way to package any vehicle that will be carrying more than two people.

      I collect cars, and have been actively looking for an '84-'86 Voyager/Caravan LE with the 2.6L Mitsubishi engine. definitely a classic.

      AZMike
      • 6 Years Ago
      Anyone want to tell me why there is zero mention of the man who made it happen? The four most amazing syllables in American automotive history: Iacocca.
        • 6 Years Ago
        "Lee Iacocca saw the value, though, and had the intestinal fortitude to green-light the T-115 vans."

        And I agree that he deserves props. I learned to drive in a '99 Caravan, and in high school I was very appreciative of the fold-flat back seat ;)
        • 6 Years Ago
        The minivans
        K-Cars
        LH Cars
        Cloud Cars
        Prowler

        Is that enough for you?

        A return to profitability, and innovation.

        Chrysler was in damn good shape when they were sold to ze Germans.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Maybe because he was a racist in disguise, and besides the mild success of the "K-car" and the Caravan/Voyager he really did not do much afterwards to sustain the company momentum. He's living the halo effect based on this early success.
        All I remember is that in one Chryslers badly thought out marketing commercials, he said "if you can find a better car, buy it..." we'll, many people did find better cars in Toyota and Honda and bought plenty of them and never looked back.
        Fortunately, unfortunately, after two Voyagers, we left and never went back, and never will with the current crop of Chrysler crap.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Respect the van. Buy an Odyssey.
        • 6 Years Ago
        But will Honda respect you and replace the now defunct PAX wheels with 17x7 wheels from the current Odyssey Touring, for free?

        (and maybe retrofit a spare wheel storage space)
      • 6 Years Ago
      In short, I think minivans are great and fulfill the needs of a large market (a market that seems to be moving to crossovers unfortunately).

      Hats off to the original
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have a 05 Chrysler van my 2nd one. Tried the SUV test drive as possible replacement for our 99 Voyager. SUVs are nowhere near as nice as the Minivan. The Swiss army knife of vehicles is the minivan. The Chrysler vans are every bit as good as the Sienna or Odyssey. Go ahead and pretend to look cool in a cross over or SUV, I got the better deal with the Minivan.
      • 6 Years Ago
      In 1990, my parents were the talk of the neighborhood when they bought a brand-new 1990 Chrysler Town & Country. It was the first minivan Town & Country, and was only produced for one year until the new, more aerodynamic second-gen vans were introduced.

      Usually very modest with their purchases, it was quite out of character for them to make such a flashy purchase: white van, V6, wood paneling (of course), leather interior (not sure if you could really call it leather), white snowflake rims (that spent most of the time black with brake dust), waterfall grille, Infinity stereo system, and GLASS pentastar hood ornament (the lowly Voyagers and Caravans had a metal ornament).

      My favorite feature, as a kid, was the automatic window vents in the third row that you could control from overhead switches in the front row. I remember always playing with those and thought there were the coolest things ever, because the base model minivans had round switches in the roof that you had to manually crank to open and close the vents (man...anyone else remember those?).

      Looking back, the minivan craze was pretty insane. Out of my group of friends growing up, I think our moms represented all minivans for sale at the time: Vanagon (with the longest shifter I've ever seen coming up out of the floor...thought that was so weird as a kid), Aerostar, Caravans/Voyagers (regular and Grand), Toyota Van, Astro.

      Looking back, it's probably a good thing that craze has passed...we went through three transmissions, a water pump and God knows what else on that van. But I still have a soft spot for those rare first T&Cs whenever I see them.
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