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.
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