Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, American families craved a vehicle that drove like a car, had a ton of space, could achieve decent fuel economy and didn't cost an arm and a leg.
Enter the Dodge Caravan. Designed from the ground up to appeal to families, this vehicle was revolutionary. Its boxy shape provided lots of room, but because it was built on a car's platform it drove nicely and sipped gas the way conventional vans and trucks never could.
Chrysler's foray into minivans ignited the decades-long popularity of these bland family haulers. Minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million in 2000, and have been on a steady decline ever since. In 2013, minivan sales barely hit 500,000 vehicles in the U.S. And although journalists have been writing about the death of the minivan for years now, we may actually have a final date for it: May 6, 2014.
That's when Chrysler announced it would kill off its mainstream minivan, the Dodge Grand Caravan. It plans to stick with the more upscale model in its lineup, the Chrysler Town & Country, which starts a full $10,000 more than the Grand Caravan and likely rakes in more profits. But the Caravan is a staple in Chrysler's troubled history. It became a massive success for Chrysler after the first one rolled off assembly lines in 1983. In fact, it sold so well that it arguably saved the company from bankruptcy in the 1990s. Between the Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country and Plymouth Voyager, the company has sold more than 12 million units over the course of three decades.
On Tuesday Fiat, the Italian automaker that now owns Chrysler, announced its intentions to kill the Dodge Caravan in 2016, closing the book on one of the great automotive stories of the late 20th century. In honor of the vehicle's demise, we've compiled a brief history of the Caravan, highlighting its evolution through each of its five generations.
Head on through to mourn with us.
1985 -1990 Dodge CaravanIn 1974, automotive heavyweight Lee Iacocca pitched the idea of developing a minivan to Henry Ford II, who was then Iacocca's boss, with his partner Hal Sperlich. Ford rejected it. Iacocca and Sperlich then carried the idea over with them to Chrysler, which accepted the idea and created the Caravan and Voyager.
Chrysler discovered its suburban customers had a fondness for the family haulers, which were trendier than boring sedans of the era and smaller than monster vans already on the market. To make the vehicle more accessible to buyers who might have been intimidated by a van, the interior was carried over from Chrysler's cars. When the company introduced the minivan at the end of 1983, it had an instant success on its hands. By the end of the first full year in production, Chrysler sold 210,000 vehicles.
1996-2000 Dodge CaravanThe third-generation Caravan saw a drastic change in exterior design, going from somewhat boxy to bubbly. The minivan also became available in long- and short-wheelbases. Chrysler introduced a new seat management system called as Easy Out Roller Seats, which used a door handle and lock attached to the rear hatch, eliminating the confusing system that had been required on earlier models. The van also employed a driver's side sliding door for the first time.
The van was offered with either a 2.4-liter four cylinder or a 3.0-liter V6, depending on the state in which is was sold. This generation of the Caravan, along with the Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country, won the North American Car of the Year Award in 1996.
Interestingly, Dodge introduced an all-electric version of this minivan in 1999, called the EPIC, which was capable of traveling up to 80 miles on a charge. The project tanked: only a few hundred were sold. Production was discontinued in 2001 and most were crushed. Only about ten of these are in existence today.
2008-2015 Dodge Grand CaravanThe fifth, and now final, generation of the Dodge Caravan is the one we see on the roads today. Chrysler scrapped the short-wheelbase version of the minivan and stuck solely with the Grand Caravan when it was released at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. Chrysler tweaked the appearance to include sharper angles and lines, as well as a new front fascia. Engines included a 3.3-liter V6, a 3.8-liter V6 and a 4.0-liter V6.
The van came with all kinds of tech and comfort features, such as the Swivel 'n Go seat management system, a full entertainment system with second and third row video screens and standard side curtain airbags.
The Grand Caravan received a heavy update in 2011, which included changes in its styling and functionality. The suspension was tweaked to improve fuel economy and all three engines were replaced by a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. The R/T, or "man van," trim was also released this year, which came with a much meaner look.
The Grand Caravan will continue in this form until 2016, when it will go to that great superhighway in the sky.