On November 2nd, 1983, the world's first minivan rolled off of Chrysler's assembly line. It was the vehicle that saved Chrysler from financial doom — and in the process, shaped the automotive landscape for thirty years to come.
In the late 1970's and early 1980's, there wasn't really an ideal vehicle for families. Sedans and station wagons were shrinking to save fuel in the wake of two oil crises. Full-size vans were built on pickup underpinnings, with truck-like driving characteristics and poor fuel economy. The term "sport utility vehicle" hadn't been coined yet, but the four-wheel-drive vehicles that would later take on that name were rough, unrefined off-roaders, best suited for snowy or rural parts.
What was missing from the market was a family vehicle that drove like a car, got good fuel economy, and had room enough for a family. Chrysler's minivan was the first vehicle designed from the ground up to fit that need, and it was a revelation.
The boxy design and high roof maximized interior space. A sliding side door made stuffing kids in the back a breeze. Since it was built on a small car platform, it sat lower than a trucklike full-size van, and the front-wheel-drive architecture gave a flat floor for passengers and cargo. It fit in the same parking spaces as a car, but the huge cargo area and rear hatch let it carry everything a suburban family might want to haul around. With the seats removed, it could even haul 4'x8' plywood sheets laying flat, something no sedan or station wagon could do.
Chrysler's van triplets — the Chrysler Town and Country, Dodge Caravan, and Plymouth Voyager — sold like mad. Even after competing American and Japanese brands caught on, Chrysler's minivans still dominated the segment they invented. The success brought Chrysler back from the verge of extinction and into profitability in the 1990's; in 2008, with the company once again teetering, Chrysler still held 41% of the US minivan market.
First-generation Dodge Caravan on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Just as Chrysler became synonymous with minivans, minivans became synonymous with 1990's suburbia. But even as the craze died down, the influence of Chrysler's original minivan shaped car design.
In the 90's, with gasoline prices dropping to baffling lows, families turned to sport utility vehicles. SUVs had the same rear hatch, cargo capacity and passenger space buyers had come to love in minivans, with a macho image no frumpy Caravan could touch. But the smooth ride of a car-based people hauler was hard to part with. In a weird form of automotive evolution, SUVs started getting lower to the ground, less threateningly truckish and more comfortable for errand running. In short, they were turning into minivans.
Take a walk down any suburban street today. Look at what most families drive their kids around in. Chances are it's roomy, carlike, low enough to the ground for short legs to hop in, but with a roof high enough that mom and dad won't hit their heads adjusting a car seat. It's likely got a hatch at the rear, and with the seats folded down it'll swallow up all the sports equipment, camping gear, and kid detritus a parent could want to haul around.
Depending on the make and model, it might be termed a sport utility vehicle, a crossover, a wagon, or a people hauler. No matter what people call it, it's been shaped by Chrysler's minivan.
Image: Wikimedia / CZmarlin