The Chrysler Group this week marked the 30th anniversary of its launch of the minivan, a vehicle that struck a chord with Baby Boomers in the midst of their child-rearing years.
The vehicle has become closely identified with “soccer moms” who have used it to haul children to all manner of activities. And while Chrysler certainly put its stamp on the vehicle type, beginning in 1983, the minivan actually goes back much farther.
Volkswagen introduced the minivan in 1950, only it called it the “Transporter” and “Minibus.” It not only inspired the later minivans, but also the cargo vans that appeared on U.S. highways in the 1960s.
What it provided was three rows of seating, meaning it could accommodate a large number of passengers. With the seats removed it could be used to haul cargo. Because it was cheap and versatile, the VW Minibus was a counter-culture favorite, perhaps as closely associated with hippies of the late 60s and early 70s as the later minivan is with suburban housewives.
Chrysler and Iacocca
In the 1980s Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who took over the carmaker when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, presided over the launch of the minivan – the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. The vans featured a boxy design and three rows of seats, which could seat up to seven people.
The middle and rear rows were removable, turning the roomy passenger vehicle into a versatile cargo-hauler. A sliding side door and a rear cargo hatch provided easy access to the rear area, whether for people or cargo.
The Chrysler minivans proved both a popular and critical success. Sales surged and Car and Driver named it 1985's Car of the Year.
By then, however, other carmakers had been awakened to the minivan's potential. In fact, Toyota introduced its first minivan in the U.S. at the same time as Chrysler. It just didn't get the same buzz, or the same sales.
Toyota's minivan, the MasterAce, was replaced with the sleeker, more refined Previa in 1990.
In 1986 Ford, which reportedly rejected the minivan concept when Iacocca first pitched it there in the 1970s, introduced a minivan of its own, the Aerostar. It made both a passenger and a cargo version of the vehicle, with the passenger version evolving into the Windstar in the 1995 model year.
General Motors also entered the fray, offering the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari. Nissan and Mitsubishi imported minivans to the U.S. market in the mid to late 1980s to take advantage of America's growing infatuation with this vehicle type.
Honda's entry into the minivan wars, the Odyssey, had what automotive site Edmunds.com com calls “a rather humble debut” in 1995. For example, it didn't have sliding doors as other minivans had, but rather four conventional swing-out doors with roll-down windows. Since then, however, its Odyssey has become a leader in the vehicle type.
Competition from the SUV
By the 1990s the sport utility vehicle (SUV) was beginning to replace the minivan in popularity as a family car. They were seen as sexier and promoted for their ruggedness, though most drivers never left the asphalt with them.
Despite the fact that some models have disappeared from the highway over the years, the minivan has endured over the last three decades. Families still value them, as do fleet operators who have people and cargo-hauling needs.
Along the way there have been a number of improvements, from automatic cargo doors on both sides of the vehicle and middle and rear seats that fold into the floor, making it easier to switch from passengers to cargo.