Of all the automobiles that changed the world, the Chrysler line of minivans is likely to win the award of “least exciting” by most automotive enthusiasts. But that was never the point; the minivan was not intended to be flashy, instead it was a car with a purpose that fulfilled the needs of millions of Americans.
Lee Iococca and Hal Sperlich, of Ford Mustang fame, were the main masterminds behind the Chrysler minivan. They had originally started the project at Ford and thanks to extensive market research, they knew that they had a great opportunity for a new car. Henry Ford II disagreed, however, and had Sperlich fired; Iococca left the following year and they both joined Chrysler.
At the time, Chrysler was failing and close to collapse. Through a stroke of good fortune, Iococca was permitted to take the customer research with him to Chrysler. First released in 1983 for the 1984 model year, the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan (and later the upscale 1990 Chrysler Town & Country) created an entirely new type of vehicle. The success of the minivan and Chrysler’s prominent lead in the new field ultimately saved Chrysler and even helped the company turn a profit a few years after the minivan’s release.
But what made it so successful? There were numerous aspects that came together to make it so revolutionary. With similarities to the station wagon and commercial van, the minivan was the ultimate large, family car. It was comfortable thanks to the higher roofline but still low enough to comfortably enter and exit. Chrysler’s K-car chassis gave a better ride than the truck chassis of traditional vans. The hood was visible to the driver making it more comfortable to drive, especially for women who are shorter on average. The front engine created a safer crush zone. Sliding doors derived from commercial vans were convenient and safer for families and the rear hatch and folding third-row seats created even more flexible space for cargo.
The legacy of the minivan cannot be ignored. While it may be a decidedly unsexy vehicle, it is the vehicle that saved Chrysler. This new range of vehicles also became a cultural icon of suburban families. Unfortunately, the minivan also took on an association with “soccer moms.” The demeaning caricature identified the minivan as a matronly car and men and women alike began to shun the revolutionary vehicle.
As an alternative to the minivan, SUVs and crossovers have gained increasing success since the 2000s, largely due to how the minivan changed the way cars were designed. SUVs became less rugged and more like a minivan with comfortable and family-friendly design.
Whether you personally like them or not, the Chrysler minivan changed the American automotive landscape forever and deserves respect. And if we are lucky, the signs of a come-back from the minivan might just hold true.
About the Author
Carly Starr is the Curator of the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento, California. She is a native or Rocklin, California, and a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. Her previous experience included the California State Railroad Museum and the Otis House Museum. Carly is active in the national Association of Automobile Museum and a member of the Society of Automotive Historians.
Image courtesy of Visit South Bend.