If one were to document the most significant cars in the history of the automotive business, near the top would be the Chrysler minivan. Although it may seem incomprehensible to those who are younger than 40, there was a time that minivans didn’t exist. Before the 1980s, there were standard sedans (and station wagons) being produced for general transportation and “Cargo vans” if you wanted to carry a lot of people and gear. The idea of a smaller “car-like van” simply hadn’t hit the whiteboard (blackboard?) yet?
The idea for a vehicle that combined the two, the concept of a passenger car with that of a cargo van, can be identified with Chrysler Corporation, and during one darkest times too. In the late 1970s, decades of haphazard product quality, design miscues and poor leadership had left Chrysler Corporation close to death. Sales were terrible and the company was running out of cash. The board of directors of Chrysler desperately needed a savior and asked the legendary Lee Iacocca to take over the helm of the company. Fortunately, he accepted. Luckily for Chrysler and Iacocca they had just finished the design of their new front wheel K car models; the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. Although the company was in financial trouble, a great deal of R&D on their new front wheel drive systems had already been finished and the company simply needed cash flow to get these new models into production. Iaccocca did obtain financing and he did so in partnership with the US government.
But Iaccoca knew they needed more than just these models to make Chrysler truly healthy again. They needed something special. Working with his design engineers, Iacocca supported the idea of “car-like van” but knew there was no budget, or time, for a new powertrain for this vehicle. The only option was to use their existing front-wheel drive K-car powertrain technology and adapt it to this new car. Many Chrysler executive and analysts did not think this was a good idea at the time.
But it turned out it was. A front wheel drive minivan offers lots of interior room because there is no driveshaft. It offers superior gas mileage and it can be built cheaper than heavy duty vans can. And minivans can carry a lot of people. Chrysler went into full production in 1985.
The results of this were spectacular. During its first year of sales, Chrysler sold a stunning 209,895 minivans under the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager brand names. The entire automobile industry quickly took notice. Soon thereafter, General motors responded with scaled down conventional vans, the Astro and GMC Safari, and Ford countered with the Aerostar. Both of these vans we based on rear wheel drive truck components and did not offer the advantages of the Chrysler minivans. They failed to capture anyway near the sales of the Chrysler vehicles.
Today almost every manufacturer has a mini-van to offer but none can say they have been building them as long as Chrysler has. After all, Chrysler invented the concept and has continuously improved it. If you live in the Chicago area, visit Feeny Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Elgin to see what 30 years of being in the minivan business has produced. The 2013 Chrysler Town and Country is simply one of the finest there is.