Every so often, an idea comes along that has staying power, such as Chrysler’s original minivan. Seeing a first-generation Dodge Caravan passing by a brand-new Honda Odyssey reminds us that the general concept has remained remarkably true over the past three decades. Yes, modern vans are wider, longer and (slightly) swoopier, but all current minivans in North America can trace their spiritual heritage back to these early Chryslers.
Minivans disrupted the automotive market in the 1980s, though they’ve hardly formed a booming market segment lately. While as recently as 2006 more than 1 million new minivans found homes in US driveways, that number has tumbled to about 600,000 in recent years. But stop by any elementary school parking lot, and you’d be hard-pressed to call minivans a decimated market. These cars have a devoted following; for folks who prioritize passenger and cargo capacity at a reasonable cost, minivans can’t be beat. They may not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but a versatile, efficient package carried strong appeal in the 1980s and continues to do so today. I should know, we just bought our second minivan last year.
I have an affinity for early Chrysler minivans because my own parents bought one of the first examples in 1984. Dad wasn’t exactly an early adopter of newfangled things, but he was enthralled by the space-efficiency of these vehicles. When he was looking to replace his 1976 Buick Century wagon, he drove a minivan and then never bothered test-driving anything else. Initially, he had planned to order a blue Dodge Caravan SE just like our featured car, but somehow he wound up with a fully-loaded woodgrain-sided Plymouth Voyager LE instead (above). The fact that my parents splurged for a top-of-the-line anything astonished 11-year-old me – I loved everything about that van, and eventually, dad gave me my first driving lessons in it. The Voyager served our family well for five years.
This particular van is a 1989 model, though first-generation Caravans and Voyagers changed relatively little between their 1984 introduction and 1990. This is a short-wheelbase model (the longer-wheelbase Grand Caravan came along as an option starting in ’87), but has the optional 3.0L Mitsubishi-sourced V-6 instead of the standard four-cylinder engine. Mid-level SE’s like this one benefited from an upgraded interior (high-back cloth seats instead of the base-model’s low-back vinyl), additional trim, and the availability of more options. Chances are, the SE was the sales volume leader for 1980s Caravans and Voyagers.
Early minivans aren’t exactly common any longer; I probably see one or two a year now, but I was glad to see this one still performing its job admirably. And even more impressively, it can be considered an ancestor to every minivan that it passes.
Photographed in Falls Church, Virginia in July 2019.