Automotive History: One Box To Rule Them All – An Archeology Of The Minivan

Automotive pundits and experts around the world routinely claim that the minivan (a.k.a the MPV, the people-carrier or whatever you wish to call Puff the Magic Wagon over here) was foisted upon an unsuspecting planet in late 1983 by Chrysler in the US and mid-1984 by Renault in Europe. Willfully ignorance of the past, or just plain propaganda? Chrysler and Renault would like us to think they came up with the minivan as if by magic (and simultaneously) through sheer marketing genius and engineering excellence. But surely the one-box shape came before the ‘80s. Let’s take out the picks and spades to have a little dig through the decades.

Almost, but not quite? Above: Nissan Prairie Multi; below: Mitsubishi Space Wagon

Some may interject that the 1982 Nissan Prairie Multi and the 1983 Mitsubishi Space Wagon were there before the Espace and the Voyager, but one could reply that those were really station wagons with a high roof. Japanese MPVs did exist though: there was a multitude of “very narrow van” designs from all of the main automakers, a tradition that lives on to this day.

Top: Suzuki 360 Carry and Honda Life Step Van; bottom: Mazda 800 Bongo and Toyota HiAce.

 

Japan’s kei cars and trucks were virtually all turned into kei vans (or microvans) by the late ‘60s, some rear-engined (Subaru) or FWD (Honda), but most carrying on with the trusted leaf-springs/live axle/RWD layout for the next few decades. Larger one-box designs, such as the Toyota HiAce, also prospered and are still very popular throughout Asia. But the Japanese were pretty late to the party on this one. The one-box design is really a study in parallel evolution, taking place on either side of the Atlantic, much like the honour of having created the first “modern MPV” can be shared between Chrysler and Renault. Let’s start our excavation on the western shores of the pond, digging down through the decades.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the US invents the sumo van — here a 1973 Chevrolet Sportvan.

 

In the ‘70s, American minivans didn’t really exist – they were vans, and there wasn’t anything remotely mini about them. They were tall-ish truck-based RWD affairs with big V8s wedged between the front seats, brick-like aerodynamics and limited export appeal. This developed into a large enough domestic market gap for Chrysler to develop its FWD minivan, which took them about ten years.

But it hadn’t started out that way: in the early ‘60s, the Falcon-based Ford Econoline (top left) and the Corvair-based Chevrolet Greenbrier (top right), both debuting in 1961, were joined by the Dodge A100 (bottom right) in 1964 to form America’s early minivan trio. The Chevy was technically the most interesting, being based on the Corvair, but it failed in the marketplace perhaps due to this very fact. Minivan customers don’t really want “interesting”, they want “reliable and roomy”. GM reacted pretty quickly, launching the more traditionally-engineered Chevy Van (bottom left) in 1964. Earlier one-box American designs were usually truck-based, with a few interesting exceptions.

Pre-war US vans — top: 1939 White “Horse” and 1941 Willys; bottom: 1941 IH Metro and Studebaker.

 

Studebaker, International Harvester, Dodge, GMC and many others were making forward-control versions of their small truck chassis even before the war. One issue is that these were, at heart, conventional trucks: they were heavy and their RWD chassis commanded a higher floor than FWD or rear-engined vans. They did succeed in making the best use of the available wheelbase though, at a time when such matters were not on the forefront of automotive design.

There were a few exceptions of course, such as the Pack-Age-Car, built by, of all companies, Stutz from 1933 to 1937 (and then under the Diamond T badge until about 1941), which had a rear-mounted 4-cyl. But FWD or rear engines were not the usual remit of truck-makers in those days. Automobile engineers and designers were more adventurous though.

The ‘30s streamlining fad brought us a few interesting one-box (or rather one-bubble) cars, on either side of the Atlantic. I’ve touched on some of these before in a previous post. One of the most iconic was the Stout Scarab, a handful of which were built in the mid-‘30s with tail-mounted Ford V8 power. The Scarab’s modular interior layout was incredibly advanced for the time and may have inspired Matra when they designed the Renault Espace around 45 years later.

Famed designer Brooks Stevens seems to have followed Stout’s lead: he penned several truck-based RVs in the late ‘30s that seem to give more than a slight nod to the Scarabs. Some of the Stevens motorhomes were made on a relatively small wheelbase, giving them a look more akin to what we might call an MPV than a proper RV. At least two of these have survived, but according to this article, details remain rather sketchy.

Speaking of the good Mr. Stevens, he reiterated this experiment 20 years later on a very modern-looking 1958 Jeep FC Commuter wagon (top picture, three units built by Reutter), as well as an enclosed version of the 1960 Jeep FC “Wide-Trac” prototype. Had either of these two been produced, perhaps the VW Transporter’s star would have shone less brightly.

The Dymaxion was another stunning rear-engined oddity of the ‘30s, though that one made do with just three wheels. The peculiar rear-engine / front-wheel drive, the single-wheel rear steering and the massive front overhang made for some pretty entertaining handling characteristics.

Streamlined boxes – top: 1934 McQuay-Norris, Riley-Head; bottom: 1942 Norton-Oldfield, 1945 Checker.

 

Clearly, some experiments are best left on the drawing board. There were a number of other one-off one-box attempts up to 1945, but aside from the Stout, the Stevens designs and the Checker shown above, practicality was not exactly the order of the day.

It seems that we are hitting the bedrock of the minivan’s American ancestry in the ‘20s. The 1928 Martin Aerodynamic has something of a foretaste of the modern MPV in its overall shape. Being a product of an aircraft company, there were no hang-ups about creating a completely novel shape over a (then most uncommon) rear-engine chassis. Only three of these were made, but the Martin (along with the likes of Paul Jaray in Europe) clearly foreshadowed the ‘30s “Plague of Teardroppers” era.

Even before this, though, the Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company (Divco) Model A was launched in the mid-‘20s. It was the brainchild of engineer George Bacon, who came up with the design while working for an electric truck company. The Divco delivery truck was designed to be driven standing up, and crucially, they had a gasoline engine (a Continental 4-cyl., just like the Martin): electric trucks were notoriously limited in their range, especially in Michigan winters. Is this the oldest minivan ancestor that can be found?

Let’s look at what we can dig up in Europe.

Long before the Renault Espace, the undisputed European King of Minivans was perhaps VW – and there is something to be said for the Typ 2 Kombi / Transporter as the first MPV. It was launched in 1949 after all and conquered European, Asian and American markets throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Indeed, had it not been for the Transporter’s success in the US, the Big Three might not have designed the car-based vans of the early ‘60s. As we acknowledge VW’s iconic Typ 2, let’s take a look at other interesting European proto-MPVs.

One designer, Pio Manzù, did envision the minivan in the ‘60s: he conceived the Autonova Fam, using the relatively traditional (RWD) frame of the Glas 1304. This modern-looking Italo-German effort was presented to the public at the 1965 Frankfurt Motor Show, garnering a number of positive mentions in the press. Alas, the project went nowhere. Folks would have to make do with the VW Transporter for another couple of decades. Or did they have other options?

Top: 1953 Goliath Express, 1954 Alfa Romeo Romeo; bottom: 1958 Standard Atlas, 1959 Renault Estafette

 

There were several small (less than 2 litre) European forward-control vans launched in the ‘50s. Ford UK, Commer (Rootes), Standard, Borgward, Fiat, Peugeot and others had developed these types by then. The great majority were used for cargo rather than people, but there usually was a “minibus” version available. Vans were sometimes the occasion for technological leaps: the first FWD vehicles produced by Alfa Romeo, Peugeot and Renault were small vans.

Siata did build some Fiat 1100-based forward-control vans as early as 1940, but the first series-produced Italian one-box van was the ground-braking 1955 Fiat 600 Multipla. It was perhaps the first microvan ever conceived, with its clever / oddball looks, tiny rear engine and superb utilization of a very limited space. The Multipla had a relatively successful life as a cheap urban taxi in Italy, but ultimately, it had no successor in Europe.

The 600 Multipla was replaced by the Fiat 850T, which looked like a VW Typ 2 that shrank in the wash. The microvan concept was more or less completely been taken over by the Japanese by the late ‘60s, although Bertone did produce an interesting Fiat 850T-based design study in 1975 that looked very much like the MPVs we would come to know. This could have been the Multipla for the ‘70s, but Fiat decided to pass.

The Germans seem to have had a spate of MPV madness after the Second World War. Alongside the VW Transporter, DKW launched its FWD Schnellaster van in late 1949 (top left). A few months later, the Gutbrod Atlas (bottom left) went on sale, as did the Tempo Matador (top right), which had a mid-front-engine design and FWD – using a VW flat-4. In 1951, Goliath came out with its GV800 van, which had to make do with a two-stroke 500cc twin (and RWD). So if the VW Typ 2 is the granddaddy of all MPVs, there were at least four great-uncles born in Germany around the same time.

This is pretty much the end of MPV top-soil. From then on, the digging gets a little more complex. The VW Transporter and its German competitors combined the van’s cargo-carrying capabilities with the station wagon’s seating within a one-box design with a small (usually car-sourced) engine. Before these, it seems most one-box cars were designed as either light trucks or passenger vehicles. Let’s look at the trucks first.

Above: 1939 Morris PV; below: 1948 Morris J-Type (1954 model pictured)

British industry made a good number of series-produced one-box vans from the ‘50s onwards, but Morris-Commercial were pretty much alone in that niche before that. Their first foray into forward-control vans was the 1939 Morris Parcel Van (PV), a relatively large vehicle powered by a 2 litre engine. The war caused a production hiatus, but the PV came back afterwards and became an instant hit. By 1948, the J-Type replaced it at the smallest van in the range, with the new Morris Oxford’s 1.5 litre engine.

Above: Austin K8; below: Renault 1000kg

In a somewhat higher class, the Austin K8 “three way” van and the Renault 1000kg van were launched the same year (1947), with similar engines (2.2 litre 4-cyl. for the Austin and a range of 2 to 2.3 litre fours for the Renault) and chassis that were decidedly truck-like, with leaf-sprung solid axles front and rear.

Citroën H van mock-up, circa 1946.

 

By contrast, the iconic Citroën H van, also launched in 1947 with a 2-litre 4-cyl., had FWD and was far more lightly built than the Renault, Austin or Morris vans. The H van was produced for over 30 years, with few changes along the way. Some were converted to minibus duties, but the majority were used as food trucks, moving vans or other cargo-carrying tasks. The corrugated panels gave its body extra strength, but it also gave it its unique look. As did its pronounced angular schnoz, which almost disqualifies it from this post.

But this was Citroën’s second attempt at a one-box van, essentially a rehash of their first effort, the 1939 Citroën TUB. The TUB was also based on the Traction Avant, but used the smaller 1.6 litre “7” engine, which was discontinued after the war. One feature already present on the TUB that would prove very influential was the sliding rear door. The TUB was built until early 1941, when it was succeeded by a slightly revamped TUC model, but by this time, Citroën had to curtail virtually all production. Not many TUBs survived, but the moniker stuck: it was not uncommon to hear folks refer to the H van as a “TUB Citroën”.

Not that the TUB was the only pre-war FWD “monospace” (French for one-box). Chenard-Walcker, which had fallen on hard times but were still active under the aegis of industrial body-maker Chausson, introduced their own design, the CHE, in 1941. This little van was powered by a 700cc two-stroke twin. Chenard-Walcker teamed up with SOVEL, who specialized in electric trucks, to make an electric CHE van – quite an essential feature in those dark days of restrictions.

Not unlike Citroën, Chenard-Walcker redesigned their minivan after the war, launching the CHT with a 1-litre two-stroke engine powering a new, wider monocoque shell. In 1948, the little FWD van came to Peugeot’s attention. Chenard-Walcker started using Peugeot’s 1.5 litre four-stroke engines on a new line, the CHV, which eventually became known as the Peugeot J3. The larger water-cooled engine imposed a noticeable change in the van’s front fascia: a radiator was now sticking out, earning this successful family of vans the nickname “nez de cochon” (pig nose).

Let’s hop back across the Channel just to mention Holland Coachcraft, a Scottish firm that specialized in ultra-streamlined delivery vans from 1933 to their closure in 1940. The design was so successful in Britain that they licensed it to other coachbuilders. Albion (top picture), Foden, Guy, Commer (bottom picture) and other chassis were used, with modifications for some (Albions were already cab-over-engine).

Sometimes, truck and bus body-makers were ahead of the curve and created some interesting ones of their own. The influence of bus designs, which started to become ever more streamlined and often used cab-over-engine chassis for obvious packaging reasons, was essential to the development of the minivan. After all, some early minivans were called “microbuses”.  The main differences are obviously scale, wheelbase length and the fact that buses were all coachbuilt.

There may have been several earlier one-box European trucks, but I have only identified the 1932-35 Goliath Atlas, built in Germany by Carl Borgward. Goliath’s main output had been three-wheelers up to that point, but the Atlas was a decidedly novel design, with its Isetta-like front door. Alas, I have not managed to dig up much info on this particular vehicle. It probably had a two-stroke engine (less than 1 litre), but I have no idea what body variants were made. There were others before Goliath – just not in the truck world. So let’s focus on cars, shall we?

Car-based European one-box people-carriers remained pretty experimental before the advent of the VW Typ 2. Here are a few examples, again going from 1949 down to the dawn of automotive history. First up, the 1948 Renault Juvaquatre taxi, which was made by Renault in an attempt to provide Paris with a new cab design. Taxi companies were not enthralled by the Juvaquatre’s anemic 1 litre sidevalve engine and preferred to keep their old Vivaquatres, with their equally anemic but more torquey 2.3 litre sidevalve engine. The Juvaquatre taxi remained a lone prototype, a distant forefather to the Espace.

Karl Schlör’s “Pillbug” car, with its incredibly advanced aerodynamics, looked like a promising contender for Germany’s new Autobahns when it hit the pavement in 1939. Good wind penetration did not make up for the car’s allegedly unbalanced suspension, which apparently led to its sensitivity to side winds and poor overall handling characteristics. Photos also exist of the Schlörwagen with a big rear-mounted engine and propeller combo, which seems to have been made by the Soviets when they captured the car.

Unlike the Pilbug, the 1935 Citroën 22 CV “bubble wagon” never even got beyond the drawing board, it seems. A paper dream with the mythical Citroën 2.8 litre V8 in its tail (yet perhaps FWD, had it gone into prototype testing?), this strange vehicle was destined to be the luxury liner of proto-MPVs. Michelin took control of the company before anything approaching a finished prototype could be built; the entire Citroën V8 programme was cancelled very soon after the takeover.

We’ll leave the Burney Streamline and the Rumpler Tropfenwagen aside due to their prominent rear engine compartment and skip to the first car of Emile Claveau, who created several over the years – without actually selling any. Before his conversion to FWD, Claveau created this arresting mid-engined saloon (a roadster also existed) and displayed it at the 1926 Paris Motor Show. Claveau called his creations “rational automobiles” – he was, unfortunately for him, perhaps not living in a rational world.

The influence of aircraft design began to be felt in the automotive world almost as soon as planes started to fly. Never was this clearer than in the Hélica, which was actually produced (as an all-enclosed saloon or a roadster) by Marcel Leyat. He started developing this “plane without wings” in 1913, although production only started in 1919. This plywood contraption featured cable-operated rear-wheel steering and could reach speeds in excess of 60 mph. Between 20 and 30 of these were actually built, bought and driven in France in the ‘20s.

But there were at least two very early examples of fully-enclosed one-box cars, both of which should get a mention here as the grandmothers of the MPV species – at least as far as gasoline-powered cars are concerned. The 1914 A.L.F.A (pre-Romeo) 40/60 HP aerodynamic limousine is relatively well-known, for the simple reason that it still exists. This unique automobile, which looks like it came out of a Jules Verne novel, is the work of renowned Italian coachbuilder Castagna.

But the stunning Italian was preceded by this equally bizarre (and far more obscure) huge CGV 75 HP limousine, with coachwork by Czerny of Vienna dating back to 1913. CGV, later known as Charron, were a relatively important French firm before the First World War (more info on them and their 12-litre 75HP car here). Not unlike contemporary Renaults, CGVs had the radiator behind the engine, which might explain why this chassis was selected, as opposed to an Austrian marque.

Still from the movie Help! (1965)

 

Is this the bottom strata of the proto-minivan? As I was writing this post, I recalled the quirky Harrod’s van driven by the baddies in the Beatles movie Help!. It turns out these electric delivery vans were built by Harrod’s themselves in the ‘30s, based on an American design.

Above: Walker van charging in Norway (undated); below: restored 1909 Walker bread van.

The American company in question was Walker Electric of Chicago, which started operating in 1907. As early as 1909, they were making bakery vans that pretty much fit the one-box definition to a T. The Walker company continued making electric vans and trucks up to 1942. As far as I know, this is the Lucy of minivans. There may be a few other brass era one-box vans, but there were very few fully enclosed vehicles in the 1900s, so perhaps this is the Ur-van. It’s an EV, but then that’s also coming back strong these days.

 

Above: 1927 British RV on an unidentified chassis; below: 1984 Renault Espace – Source: Wikipedia

So if anyone asks you what the ancestor of the minivan is, you’ll know what to say now. For my money though, the Stout Scarab is probably the most relevant, due to its modular interior. And the 1939 Citroën TUB should get an honourable mention for introducing another key feature: the large sliding cargo door. I’m sure I will have skipped quite a number of interesting and/or obscure one-box designs in this post, but I leave it to you, CComrades, CConnoisseurs and CCritics, to fill in any glaring gaps in the comments section, as per usual.