(first posted 6/21/2013) Why the endless questions and arguments about the origins of the Chrysler minivans? It’s the old story: “success has a thousand fathers”. You don’t see designers and execs fighting about the paternity of the Aztek. We’ve already taken a wild (and disputed) stab at finding the maternal lineage of European minivans, but the American minivan paternity wars go on.
Its origins clearly go back to the early seventies, when both Chrysler and Ford developers claim to have been working on “garageable vans”. Meanwhile, the commonly held story is that Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca’s Minimax concept was spurned by Henry Ford II, and they took it with them to bring to fruition at Chrysler. And as usual, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Before we jump into the Ford side of the story, lets quickly recap Chrysler’s. In an article at Allpar, Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler’s Director of Product Planning at the time, makes the claim that Chrysler was working on a RWD “garageable van” in the early and mid seventies, but were unable to get the funding to take it beyond the clay model and seating buck stage. It wasn’t until Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca arrived from Ford, that the general idea was put on the front burner again, but this time in a more compact FWD package that eventually became the production Chrysler minivan.
It would be fair to say that those early explorations at Chrysler were likely no more than many manufacturers did: ponder various concepts then yet unbuilt. And likewise, it doesn’t seem fair to credit them for any more than that; if Sperlich and Iacocca hadn’t come with their pre-existing ideas from Ford, there likely wouldn’t have ever been a Chrysler minivan.
The story that is generally circulated is that Sperlich’s idea for a small van at Ford was rebuffed by Henry Ford II, implying that Ford blew the opportunity to develop the first small van. But like most stories of the kind, it wasn’t nearly that simple. Hank II strongly endorsed a “garageable van”, and the Carousel concept was built in 1972 and was almost production ready. As can be seen in the image at the very top, the Carousel wasn’t really a minivan; it was just a somewhat cut-down version of the new generation Econoline that went into production in 1974.
The key differences were a lower roof and of course more station wagon styling, to differentiate it from the more utilitarian Econoline.
A thread at fomoconews.com on the origins of the American minivan brought the designer of the above pictured Ford Carousel concept, and some very enlightening facts about it and the Minimax (no pictures available, but perhaps a bit like a smaller Xb). Dick Nesbitt was a designer at Ford in the early 1970s, and in his words he describes the circumstances:
… when I was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor studio, we received a product planning directive to develop a derivative of the upcoming new Ford Econoline Van, code named “Nantucket” and due for release in 1975. The derivative was code named “Carousel” and was intended to attract station wagon buyers with more car-like styling combined with the added appeal of van utility.
From hundreds of concept sketches created by staff designers in this studio during 1972, one of mine was selected by Hal Sperlich, Director of Product Planning, and Lee Iacocca as the approved design direction. I directed the construction of a full-size clay model, and the vehicle received a great deal of interest from Henry Ford II. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 halted further development after a drivable, fabricated metal prototype (top) had been built.
The Carousel was specifically designed as a “Garageable Family Van” alternative to the traditional station wagon market segment. This concept later became one of the most successful and enduring product innovations ever created when Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca launched the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan in 1984. (from automotivechronicles.com)
Nesbitt goes to clarify that the “Garageable Family Van” and the Minimax were not at all one and the same, but that the Minimax was a very compact four-seater FWD boxy car designed for congested urban settings:
The Carousel significantly influenced the Chrysler Minivan success story, Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca have often referred to the MiniMax as being the inspiration for the Voyager/Caravan although it was a very small urban vehicle created as a possible solution to overcrowded city traffic problems. The MiniMax concept was a four passenger front wheel drive commuter vehicle with almost no luggage storage capacity and no real future. The significance of the Carousel proposal was that it offered a dramatically improved alternative to the typical interior-space-restricted station wagons of the 1970′s. The key “Nantucket Family Van” variation design and marketing directive was to create a lower “garageable” overall height compared to the Econoline van range from which it was derived, combined with more automotive-like styling.
The non-garageable height and truck-like styling of the Econoline Club Wagon series were seen as major obstacles to any kind of high volume sales characteristic of contemporary station wagons–but the interior room available in a van had obvious advantages. The Carousel Family Van was intended to represent the best of both worlds, and was seen by Ford as a major marketing breakthrough opportunity. Chrysler’s Minivans were and are not really “Mini” at all–and achieved monumental success as a more space efficient “Family Van” alternative to contemporary station wagons combined with “garageable” height and automotive-like styling as a direct extension of the original Carousel idea back in 1972.
This account clarifies that the Ford Garageable Van and Minimax concepts were two totally different vehicles; the Carousel being a bit larger than the original Chrysler minivans, but in the same general vein. The Minimax really doesn’t belong in the discussion, except for the fact that it tried to maximize interior space by using FWD, but was otherwise a diminutive vehicle.
It also makes it quite clear that what was developed at Chrysler was something on the larger side of the middle of the two, which was clearly a more pragmatic solution in response to both the energy crisis and the availability of the K-car platform. It also makes it clear that Ford took the “garageable van” concept much closer to production than Chrysler’s early clays of theirs, as well as being highly predictive of the RWD Ford Aerostar that was hurriedly put into production to do battle with Chrysler’s minivans. So now we just need a picture of the early 1970s Minimax to make that family tree, and close the door on this subject.