Picture the American automotive landscape without the minivan. There was a time that no such vehicle existed here, although it's difficult to imagine. Chrysler invented the front-wheel-drive minivan that debuted in the fall of 1983 as the 1984 Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager. Here's the story that led to the creation of this entirely new type of vehicle. As much as the minivan continues to be one of the most important vehicles on the road (over 500,000 minivans are sold in the U.S. each year), it's lost a lot of luster to the popular SUV. Where most people think minivans have become dowdy, we'd prefer to think that they're preparing for their comeback.
Try to imagine (or just remember) life in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. During these decades, families ran daily errands and took driving vacations in sedans and station wagons. Remember broad front bench seats that enabled a sedan to carry six? Or how about those rear-facing seats in the "way back" of huge wagons? Like the third rows of some current SUVs, those jump seats were the penalty boxes of the ancient automotive world, but they did enable full-size wagons to whisk up to eight passengers out Route 66 or down I-75.
During the 1970s, a new trend emerged that gave drivers another option. Families began customized full-size vans to take advantage of their commodious size.
Liabilities followed each choice. Sedans were just dull. Station wagons handled like more ponderous versions of the land-yacht sedans they were based on. Full-size vans drove even worse than the stations wagons. Full-size truck mechanicals underpinned vans of the day, resulting in poor handling. Furthermore, early vans featured awkward interior configurations highlighted by huge engine enclosures between the front seats that compromised front-seat room and all-seat comfort due to the noisy and hot V-8 engines. Additionally, full-size vans of the 1970s were so tall that they wouldn't fit in a standard garage, relegating the embarrassing conveyance to the openness of the driveway.
The failings of sedans, wagons and full-size vans drove one Detroit manufacturer to consider an all-new concept. Two Arab oil embargos (1973-74 and 1979) further energized the development of the minivan by Chrysler engineers. The design promised to be more fuel-efficient than the traditional V-8 powered vehicles that the minivan would eventually replace.
Like the minivan team at Chrysler, American families were also ready for something new.
Minivans Throughout History
Chrysler Corporation certainly popularized the modern minivan, but was the company really the first with the idea?
One can make a case that the Volkswagen pioneered the minivan. VW sold their first-generation compact Microbus from 1950-67. Sharing the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive design of the VW Beetle, Microbuses were much loved but were still under-powered, noisy, ill-handing vehicles. For any number of reasons, most American drivers avoided the Volkswagens. West coasters, travelers and notable fans of The Grateful Dead were the general exception.
However, nearly two decades earlier than Volkswagen's minivan, William Stout built his Scarab. Only eight or nine were produced in the 1930s, but Volkswagen would later mimic the Scarab's one-box, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive design. Stout kept the weight down by skinning the exterior in aircraft aluminum; this was not surprising, since Stout also helped develop the famous Ford Tri-Motor airplane. Inside the spacious Scarab, only the driver's seat was fixed to the floor. The additional unanchored seats (and a folding card table) provided maximum seating flexibility. One can only imagine the carnage following a panic stop.
Given this historical perspective, Chrysler's minivans may not have been "the first," but they were certainly the first commercially successful design. Additionally, Chrysler was the first with front-wheel drive, provided one doesn't count estate versions of the venerable Mini from England.
The First Modern Minivan
Compared to the full-size vans of the same era, the 1984 Caravans and Voyagers were "mini." While the minivans were shorter than the short-wheelbase versions of full-size vans of the early 1980s, the largest differences were in width (narrower by 10 inches) and height (shorter by 14 inches). Length and width more closely resembled a typical sedan, making the new vans easier to drive. The reduced height made them garage-able, so to speak.
The mechanicals under the first Chrysler minivans were based on the Chrysler K-Car (Remember the Dodge Aries and the Plymouth Reliant?). This compact, front-wheel-drive foundation enabled Chrysler to package a spacious and flexible interior behind the engine and transmission, instead of on top of the powertrain like full-size vans of the day.
Seemingly overnight, Chrysler created an entirely new category of vehicle. In its first full year of production, Chrysler sold 210,000 units. The minivan was an instant hit, and Chrysler has gone on to produce over 12 million minivans since, with sales in 80 countries.
Since 1984, most major manufacturers have introduced vans to compete with the offerings from Chrysler. Some have done well, while others have not. Following an explosion in popularity through the 1990s, SUVs and crossover vehicles have coaxed drivers out of minivans, so these family haulers do not sell in the millions per year as they once did. But the contraction in the market has led manufacturers like Chrysler to focus their minivans on a more specific mission; to satisfy families. Today's minivans have never offered more.