You may not have ever considered yourself a revolutionary, but if your family ever owned one of Chrysler’s first-generation minivans, then you were part of an automotive revolution. Yes, the ubiquitous Chrysler Minivan – Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan – that carried families on just about every conceivable family adventure, has been honored by the Historic Vehicle Association as one of America’s most historically significant vehicles. With its car-like maneuverability, large interior capacity, and manageable exterior size, Chrysler’s Minivans sold faster than cheese at a mouse convention and revolutionized the American automobile industry by creating an entirely new vehicle category.
A New Kind of Vehicle
“It did change everything,” said Brandt Rosenbusch, Manager for Historical Services, FCA Vehicle Collection of Chrysler’s Minivan. “There was nothing like this when it first came out in 1983. It was radical for its time, really.” The creation of an entirely new kind of vehicle doesn’t happen very often and in the case of Chrysler’s Minivans, it’s very likely that only the stubbornness of a competing automotive executive made it happen at all. In the mid-seventies, the Chrysler design team began preliminary studies for a station wagon type of vehicle that was more compact than existing wagons, had a low, flat floor for easy entry and loading, was easier to drive with car-like ride and handling, and had reconfigurable seating, yet would fit in a standard-sized garage. Vans of the day were primarily for commercial entities and were considered to be too big and inefficient for everyday family use.
The design team’s proposals to Chrysler’s management of the day fell on deaf ears. At the time, Chrysler did not have any front-wheel-drive engine/transmission packages in its arsenal, which meant the proposed vehicle would be a completely unique product among Chrysler’s product offerings and have a tooling bill of over $100 million, a cost that was way beyond Chrysler’s means at the time. Chrysler management could not be convinced of the market for such a vehicle—they believed that if a market existed, Ford and GM would already be building this kind of vehicle. The Chrysler design proposal never progressed beyond clay models and wooden seating bucks.
A decision by Chrysler management in the late seventies to thereafter make all their cars with front-wheel drive, while not specifically directed to the minivan, gave the program some life in that, by using the car front-wheel drive system in the minivan, the tooling costs for the minivan could be significantly reduced. The minivan program remained on life support, but it was still breathing. Now, all it needed was a knight or two in shining armor to come in and convince management the program had a significant market waiting for it. For this, the Chrysler design team had to wait for the knights to be fired from their present jobs at Chrysler’s rival, Ford.
Ford’s “Garagable Family Van” Hits a Roadblock
Unbeknownst to Chrysler, since the early seventies, a group at Ford had been working on its own design for what they called a “Garagable Family Van,” the Ford Carousel. The Ford group was led by Lee Iacocca, then president of Ford Motor Company, Hal Sperlich, vice president of Ford Product Planning, and designer Dick Nesbitt. Their design had progressed to a metal prototype, but the uncertainties of the oil embargo of 1973 put the project in limbo. Sperlich, who hatched the idea for such a vehicle, was convinced of its potential success and continued to champion the project to Ford’s leadership, including Henry Ford II, at every opportunity.
When the program was presented to Ford II one time too many, he, in no uncertain terms, said “No.” When an executive whose name is on the building, such as Henry Ford II, says “no,” the matter usually stops right there. Sperlich continued to pursue the Carousel project and Ford II exercised his executive authority by firing Sperlich in late ’76. Guess where he went? Sperlich was hired as the vice president of product planning and design for Chrysler in ’77, and immediately became an enthusiastic supporter of Chrysler’s Minivan program.
Another minivan knight in shining armor, Lee Iacocca, remained at Ford. However, Iacocca also had his disagreements with Henry Ford II over the years, which reached their peak in 1978, when Iacocca also got the ax from HF II. In short order, Iacocca was hired as the President and CEO of Chrysler Corporation, and the stars finally aligned for Chrysler’s Minivan program. The Chrysler design team, now under the direction of Hal Sperlich, had improved the minivan design and Chrysler was making all its cars with front-wheel drive, using technology that could be readily transferred to the minivan program without high tooling costs. As the new CEO and an unabashed minivan supporter, Iacocca applied pressure to the rest of Chrysler management to take the risk and produce the minivan.
Chrysler’s Minivans Take the Market by Storm
The first of Chrysler’s Minivans, a Plymouth Voyager, rolled of the assembly line on November 2, 1983. Lee Iacocca, who was known as the “Father of the Mustang” while at Ford, had this to say in his speech at the minivan roll-out: “You know, the Mustang became both a sales legend and a classic car in its own time. But I feel that our minivan vehicles will do all of that, too – this design frankly is more revolutionary than the Mustang was…” And it was – Chrysler’s Minivans not only created an entirely new vehicle category but sold 209,895 units in the first year, more than sufficient to cover Chrysler’s break-even sales point of 155,000 minivans.
And the initial sales were not a fluke – by 1987, the total cumulative sales of Chrysler’s Minivans exceeded the one million mark. Without a doubt, the success of Chrysler’s Minivans was key to Chrysler’s financial survival and to its profitability rebound during the ’80s. One important reason for the minivan’s success is Chrysler didn’t rest on its laurels but continued to make improvements in the design and features of the minivan. By the 1987 model year, Chrysler added “Grand” Minivans to their lineup with a wheelbase seven inches longer and an overall length 15 inches greater than the standard minivan. Mid-1987 saw new engines make their appearance. A new 2.5L inline four-cylinder engine replaced the 2.2L four as the standard engine, while an optional 3.0L V6 replaced the Mitsubishi 2.6L inline-four. This marked the first application of a V6 engine in a K-car relative.
The arrival of the minivans changed the landscape for family vehicles by effectively replacing full-size station wagons. Constituting almost 20% of total U.S. vehicle sales in the early 1960s, sales of station wagons declined to begin in the mid-seventies and plummeted upon the arrival of the minivan. Road & Track magazine called the Chrysler Minivan “A straightforward, honest vehicle. Honest in the sense that it is designed to be utilitarian. Yet it is clean and pleasant to look at. It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not.” Despite the humble and simplistic origins, competitors had a difficult time replicating Chrysler’s Minivans. They continued to apply their “bigger is better” design philosophy, producing wider and taller rear-wheel-drive vans, letting Chrysler increase its lead in the minivan category.
The Historical Vehicle Association Honors Chrysler’s Minivans
The Historical Vehicle Association (HVA) expanded its Cars at the Capital program for 2018 to include an exhibition of five historically significant automobiles during April. The five vehicles were displayed in a one-of-a-kind exhibition in the HVA’s lighted glass display case located in Washington DC on the walkway between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
Chrysler’s first Minivan, a Plymouth Voyager, was selected as one of the five historically significant vehicles. Sharing the spotlight with the Voyager were the “Fifteen Millionth Ford Model T,” the Ferrari look-alike featured in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (Modena Design Spyder), the 1968 Ford Mustang piloted by Steve McQueen in the movie Bullet, and a 1918 Cadillac Type 57, a seven-passenger touring car that served with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
Hobnobbing with movie stars and historically famous cars is pretty fast company for our family hauler minivan, but when you create an entirely new vehicle category and rewrite the history books, you just can’t avoid a well-deserved spotlight.
The Historical Vehicle Association: https://www.historicvehicle.org/showtime-national-mall-star-cast-five-wont-want-miss/
The Historical Vehicle Association: https://www.historicvehicle.org/minivans-before-minivans/
National Historic Vehicle Register: https://www.historicvehicle.org/national-historic-vehicle-register/vehicles/
N.Y. Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/business/driving-down-memory-lane-in-the-original-minivan.html
Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-minivan-turns-30-9706409/
Automotive News: http://www.autonews.com/article/20030616/SUB/306160774/passing-up-the-minivan-was-a-maxi-mistake
This Day in History: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/henry-ford-ii-fires-lee-iacocca
Curbside Classic: http://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1990-plymouth-grand-voyager-le-chrysler-rides-the-fantastic-voyage/
PHOTOS: Credit to Historic Vehicle Association
VIDEO: Credit to Chrysler Corporation