Curbside Classic: 1984 Dodge Caravan – Chrysler Hits a Grand Slam Homer

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There’s nothing truly original in the car business. Everyone begs, steals and borrows from everyone else. Sometimes, the same (and usually obvious) idea ferments for years in various heads or throughout companies before suddenly appearing, in the same format and at the same time, in totally different places. Consider the modern FWD mini-van: The concept first bubbled up within two totally different branches of Chrysler, sat there for years and then suddenly sprang forth in both the U.S. and France at the same time. Coincidence? Or does every idea simply have its day in the sun? That day came in 1983 for the minivan, as the French Espace and American Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager.

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We’ll return later to the Renault Espace, whose history is convoluted but less historically contested than that of the Chrysler minivans. Lee Iaccoca and Hal Sperlich, who left Ford for Chrysler in 1978, will tell you they conceived the “garageable van” (Ford Carousel) project at Ford in the ’70s and pitched it to Hank II, who turned them down.

Chrysler historians have plenty of evidence of working on a similar project during the early ’70s, something essentially a cross between traditional wagons and contemporary large vans.

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Hal Sperlich was particularly enthusiastic about the concept, although it’s unclear whether that came from his stint at Ford or what he saw later at Chrysler. In any case, development began in earnest in 1978. Customer input dictated the program: mandatories included enough room between the rear wheels for a 4×8 sheet of plywood, removable and flexible seating for up to seven, a sliding door and front bucket seats to allow Mommy to attend to the bawling kids in the back. Now the idea needed a donor platform.

By this time, FWD had been deemed essential, as the slant-six-with-RWD layout of early prototypes intruded excessively into the passenger compartment. Chrysler’s Simca-based Horizon/Omni offered the first opportunity, but Sperlich wisely decided to wait a couple of years for the larger K-car platform.  Additional delays (mostly due to competing demands and Sperlich’s desire to get it right the first time) delayed the final product until the fall of 1983, when it was introduced to a highly receptive market.

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The timing was excellent: the second energy crisis was still just winding down, so efficiency was still big on everyone’s mind. With a body shorter than the K-car sedans and four-cylinder engines only, the Chrysler T-115 vans had efficiency covered pretty well. Also, countless baby boomers were hitting the reproductive phase of life and more than willing to try something different than Ye Olde Country Squire they’d thrown up in. Indeed, these minivans were born under an auspicious sign.

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Before we get into the guts of the so-called Magic Vans, lets quickly pick up the story of that other 1984 minivan pioneer, the Renault Espace, which also started out under a Chrysler roof, this one in England. Before becoming senior design manager at Jaguar, Europe UK (formerly Rootes) designer Fergus Pollock had developed a van project at around the same time as Giorgetto Giugiario’s highly influential 1978 Lancia Megagamma concept.

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While Pollock’s design focused on the one-box approach, the Megagamma retained the vestigial hood that would appear on the Caravan. Of course, one can likely find numerous earlier designs, and even production designs, to be thrown at this argument, but the Megagamma’s FWD layout, package and lines are unmistakably apparent in the Voyager/Caravan and, to some extent, in the Espace. Let’s not forget the title of this article, nor that the Megagamma’s first offshoot saw the light of day as Nissan’s 1981 Prairie/Stanza Wagon, which was one of our first Curbside Classics and predates both “pioneering” minivans by at least three years.

To wrap up the Espace story, Chrysler sold its European ops to Peugeot in 1978, where the Espace, as well as Simcas, was to be rebadged as a Talbot. As Matra was doing the lead work on its development, Peugeot chickened out; Matra then took the project to Renault, which bit. But the first-gen Espace still was full of Chrysler/Talbot parts. You will be tested on this tomorrow.

Dodge Caravan 1984

Enough of the fuzzy early history of the Chrysler Bobsey-twins. What actually and finally appeared in dealer showrooms on January 1984 was a remarkably innovative car, at least for conservative Americans. The first few years of production were strictly short-wheelbase versions, whose seven-passenger seating was a bit iffy all the way around. And lest I forget, there was also an eight-passenger version, with a bench seat(!) in front (1985 only). Try finding one of those now–it’s getting iffier just to find any early version at all.

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The one I found here is a five-passenger, which was not merely a seven-passenger version minus one row of seats. The back seat is full-width, and is placed further back than the middle seat in the three-row version. I seem to recall that the front bench also came with this setup, thus creating a rather traditional six-passenger arrangement straight out of the old days. In any case, the five-seater had a very decent rear cargo area, while the seven had next to nothing. It was a painful compromise, as was painfully short legroom that led to the much happier long-wheelbase Grand versions in 1987.

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Power? What power? These early vans were rather pathetically lacking in that respect, with the standard 2.2-liter Chrysler four belching out all of 84 hp while the optional “Silent Shaft” 2.6-liter Mitsubishi four had 104 hp, more or less, depending on the year. This one has a floor-mounted stick, which was fairly rare, and preferable for adding a bit of zest versus the three-speed Torque-Flite transaxle. At least it was reliable, unlike its self-destructing (but smoother-shifting) A-604 Ultra-Masochistamatic that darkened our skies in 1989.

The little vans that could were a runaway hit for Chrysler, and not just at the beginning. They were still selling at or close to list price into the early ’90s; I know that from personal experience, having written a check for $22,000 for a mid-line Grand Caravan in 1992. That’s solidly over $35K in today’s money. Well, live and learn. And at Chrysler, it was build and earn–by the billions (of dollars). The minivans were the cash cow that made Chrysler into the highly profitable company it once was.

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It didn’t hurt that both GM and Ford bungled their minivan competitors royally–in fact, to the point of finally throwing in their respective towels, which alone is one of the stranger stories in recent automotive history. Instead, it would be Honda and Toyota that took on the Caravan/Voyager and finally destroyed Chrysler’s hegemony in the minivan market. Who could have imagined that in 1984?

The long-wheelbase versions were a big improvement; eventually the short version went bye-bye, to be replaced by vehicles such as today’s Kia Rondo and Mazda5. Along with the extra length, Chrysler finally threw in a V6 engine, even if it was Mitsubishi’s. It would be several more years before Chrysler’s rugged 3.3-liter V6 appeared, and in the meantime the company resorted to some creative moves to satisfy the now power-hungry Mommies.

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Since Mitsubishi could deliver only so many V6s, Chrysler drafted a turbo 2.2-liter four for minivan duty,  creating a rather unlikely combination (CC here). And contrary to those that claim otherwise, the turbo also found its way into the Grand versions; unfortunately, some friends of mine had one. With its turbo-canyon and no low-end torque, it was an improvised stopgap solution that desperate buyers were willing to stomach, if only briefly.

A world without Chrysler minivans is hard to imagine now. They just HAD to happen, as did videotape, the internet, iPods and smartphones. And in each of those cases, the story of their invention wasn’t exactly as simple as Sony, Al Gore and Apple. But in these times of fuzzy history and denial of evolution,  Chrysler duly deserves to join their company as the inventor of the minivan. Amen.

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