When it was introduced for the 1986 model year, Ford proudly compared the polarizing styling of its first minivan to that of the reusable space shuttle, welcoming the world to the “Age of Aerostar”. Truthfully, the low-slung, sloped nose of the Aerostar, necessary front quarter window and all, coupled with its horizontally-sliding rear windows, tall stance, and wheels pushed to its corners was quite polarizing… so much so that Ford felt its design fit enough to withstand some twelve years on the market with barely any changes.
Much like GM’s Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari duo, the Ford Aerostar was somewhat of a “midi-van”, never making a noticeable dent in the popularity of Chrysler’s smaller front-wheel drive minivans. As a result, Ford Motor Company introduced both the Nissan Quest-related Mercury Villager in 1992, as well as the homegrown true Chrysler competitor Ford Windstar in 1995, while still selling the Aerostar through 1997.
Although its transmissions did not have the same tendency to self destruct as in the Windstar, these days the Aerostar is equally, if not more so, a rare sight on the roads. In any event, its design is still as polarizing as it was in 1986, especially with most Aerostars having moved on to another galaxy by now.
Photographed in Braintree, Massachusetts – July 2019
It is amazing to see one so rust-free in Massachusetts. These were ferocious rusters in salty climes. It has to be an import.
A guy I worked with leased one when it first came out. It was a loaded-up family wagon, complete with the digital gauge cluster. I remember being impressed with the quality of the interior (common for Fords then). He had it for only a year or two before he was seduced by a loaded black Taurus (complete with leather and sunroof).
There seemed to be two kinds of Aerostars. Those that broke every six months in some innovative way or other, and those that soldiered on (despite their rust) for years as good basic transportation.
Great (brief) look at these, Brendan. The thing that turned me off the most about these was the frontal styling, which appeared to make these look like they were frowning like “Droopy” the cartoon character.
I also remember those “Age Of The Aerostar” TV commercials, and didn’t understand why my older brother thought it was lame (being a rip-off of “Age of Aquarius” from the musical “Hair”).
Now that you mention it, I remember those ads too. That really was exceptionally lame. I guess they were trying to appeal to former hippies or counterculture types who were then middle aged parents by taking a beloved song, changing the lyrics and making a commercial out of it. Exactly what would appeal to hippies!
I also remember it, but being 12 when the ads came out, I had never heard “Age of Aquarius” before. Sometime later, when I did hear the actual song, I remember thinking “Hey, that’s the Aerostar ad!”
Lame or not, those ads certainly did stick with you. “This the Aggggeeee of the AEROSTAR…” was the first thing I thought of when seeing this post.
Exceptionally stupid campaign, but impossible to forget, even if this vehicle was actually one of the least “aero” of all the 80’s Ford designs.
Just a continuation of the Robert Strange McNamara frown:
Great find, and in Massachusetts of all places. I don’t see any rust in the pictures, so perhaps it is not native.
I had forgotten that these came out for 1986. My foggy memory of these was that they came out at the same time as the Chevy Astro, which was 1985, but I see you are correct. Chevy and Ford both had kind of the same approach to taking on the Voyager/Caravan by having a mechanically more conventional van just in a smaller size. They obviously made different decisions on the styling, with GM going conservative and Ford going funky futuristic.
Polarizing is one word to use, but that would imply that some people love it and some hate it. I never heard anybody say he or she loved the looks of the Aerostar.
It was a calculated gamble. Rather than making the quite sizable investment in creating a FWD minivan to compete head-on with the Chrysler T-115 (GM actually came very close to doing exactly that; there’s production-ready prototype photo somewhere), both GM and Ford decided to take a different, more cost-effective approach with much more traditional RWD, truck-based ‘smaller’ (as opposed to ‘mini’) vans.
Yeah, they weren’t anything spectacular in the civilian market, but with their higher cargo/towing capacity, seemed to do quite well in commercial fleets. I dare say it was the start of the small, ‘city’ van used by businesses in urban areas.
What’s interesting is that when it became apparent that the FWD minivan wasn’t a fad but here to stay, and a wholesale switch to FWD in car lines taking place, both GM and Ford eventually went the FWD minivan route, too, but still kept their RWD ‘midivans’ in production (and I think the GM ones even stayed in production after their FWD minivans died, too).
It’s pretty interesting to do a postmortem on the carmakers’ attempts at minivans. Ford was so slapdash, with 3 unrelated vehicles. GM went full-on engineering with the dustbusters, and they were too weird. Then, they went conventional but pricebusters, with the major drawback of the skinny Euro-ready body (which brought no returns), and Toyota went crazy with the mid-engined Previa, before going utterly conventional with the Camry-based Sienna. Even the first-gen Kia Sedona was a bit odd, with its separate frame and piggish weight. And Mazda knocked together the almost truck like first-gen MPV, then went conventional but with a light, small, sporty layout that didn’t land. Meanwhile, Chrysler developed the market in North America, and Chrysler/Chrysler clones are all that’s left. The Astro ran from ’85-05, while the U-vans ran from ’90-09 in North America, and a Buick version is still in production, still using the U Body, in China.
You mean this article?
I loved the looks, especially when matched against what else was available at the time.
My all-time favorite (of what we got in the US) was the Previa. Still want one of those.
An in-law told me that he saw a rolled-over Aerostar, apparently front-heavy enough that it came to rest on its windshield.
My Dad had an Aerostar, purchased used from a Ford dealer. It seemed okay but the Chrysler minivans rode smoother and quieter, handled much better, and had superior interior appontments and creature comfort. This Aerostar had the optional V6 which felt like a stronger engine than the Mitsu V6 in the Chryslers, and unlike the contemporary Taurus with its pre-electronic AXOD transaxle, shifted firmly. For reasons unknown, a quarter-sized rust spot appeared on the hood…this is in rust-free California…we sanded it down, then primed and touched it up with rattle-cans. Dad tended to ride the brakes and two-foot drive; in hilly San Francisco he wore THROUGH a brake disc, after replacing worn-out pads (I suspect he’d worn them through to the rivets) and not the rotors.
Even as a kid I thought that marketing was silly, since it wasn’t really aerodynamic anyway. But I did kind of like them. Their interiors were a step above Astros and Chryslers IMO, modern and sturdily built.
I remember most of them being silver and blue.
.37 is fairly aerodynamic for the time (or any time).
Was the Aerostar really released for the 1986 model year? The ad mentions the optional 2.8 computer controlled V6. I had a 1986 Ranger, with the then-new 2.9 EFI V6, which at least in the Ranger (and I think also Bronco II), replaced the 2.8. It was a similar 60° Köln V6 (actually made in Germany), had port injection and offered the 4 speed A4LD trans which worked very well. I would have thought that the Aerostar would use the same powertrain. EDIT: Well, rather than just delete my comment, I’m editing it to say mea culpa, I looked it up and the Aerostar did indeed use the carb’ed 2.8 before switching to the Vulcan 3.0, though also offering the 4.0 Köln motor a few years later. I should never have questioned Brendan’s mastery of the facts. Why Ford did that is a mystery though.
I’m speculating, but it was probably for the same reason I had a fox body Mustang with a straight 6: perhaps the plant that made the 2.8 had extra capacity, and the other plants didn’t. (In fact, Wikipedia says the straight 6 was used in the Mustang because the supply of 2.8s was constrained.)
Introduced for the 1986 model year you say? Around the same time Ford also launched their all-new, sloped-nose Transit generation.
Funny enough I just saw one of these this morning, pretty sure it was the same color even. What had to be a rare model as it was a GTRV conversion. Basically think westfalia but with an Aerostar and not a Volkswagen.
All I remember about these was the accountant I worked for bought one and as a fresh faced twenty something part of my job was to drive his wife and four little girls to Toronto when needed as she didn’t like freeway driving.
There was an accident one trip and I did a dramatic swerve to avoid it (Think moose test).
I thought it was going to roll. I’d have sworn it had gone up on two wheels but someone else that stopped to help said no but he’d definitely seen daylight under one of the back wheels!
Never trusted them to drive again and his wife had it very shortly replaced with a full size Dodge van.
These didn’t last. I never see one now. The Chrysler minivans of similar age are still super-common, including a lot of taxis.
I was a parts manager working for a Ford Dealer in Canada during the ’90’s, and had several of the 4.0L 4WD models as ‘demos’. I remember them as being very comfortable with front captains chairs, and handling very well, relatively speaking. I also remember being in Oakville Ontario in ’93 or early ’94 and being shown a prototype van body grafted onto a Taurus nose, which was to become the Windstar..
Excellent find. When these were introduced, I was somewhat let down by their decidedly non-aero styling. The Sierra, Thunderbird, Tempo and Taurus set the table, but these looked more like bricks, even with the deeply sloped hood. Where’s the ‘aero’ I thought. The car mags somewhat prepared us earlier, with photos of the Aerostar prototype, which looked close to the final design. I remember at the time finding the curved ‘B’ pillar, the most interesting styling feature. I know, not saying much. It would have helped if Ford offered some really modern and creatively styled deep dish alloy wheel options.
Like the GM Astro/Safari vans, I thought the extended versions of these looked significantly better when introduced. Proportioned more like traditional vans. Though in the context of current small vans, the short wheelbase versions now look more modern from today’s perspective.
That Space Shuttle advertising was everywhere from the Aerostar’s introduction in mid-1985. But it vanished suddenly after the Challenger disaster in late January, 1986. A tragically unfortunate choice.
Why does Dodge still use the name Challenger?
If the disaster was a poor reference for Ford, why wasn’t it a poor reference for Chrysler products that actually use that shuttle’s name? We don’t see any “Chevrolet Hindenburgs”, or “Studebaker Titanics”, or Fiat “Andrea Doreas”.
Someone at Ford suddenly get all snowflakey?
He’s talking about a marketing campaign, not an established model name. That’s not snowflakey, it’s common sense.
For those of us that lived though it, back in 1986 after Challenger disaster, the nation was very shaken and Ford rightly pulled their advertising that showed and reminded the public of that sad day. The Dodge Challenger was reintroduced years later, not the same impact.
I had a child in grade school at the time, and we were watching the launch on TV since there was a civilian teacher, Christa McAuliffe, on board. It hit us all very hard.
Funny thing is, I’ve never even thought of the Space Shuttle Challenger in connection with the Dodge Challenger. When Dodge came out with this century’s Challenger, I only thought of their early 1970s pony car of the same name. Surely they looked into the question when they decided to reuse the Challenger name.
Challenger’s been a common name for all sorts of things over the years. For instance, my first desktop computer was an Ohio Scientific Challenger. (Now that’ll date me for sure.)
Never seen an Aerostar Ford didnt think were we worthy and probably didnt bother with RHD versions Chrysler did and there are a few around but lost in the ocean of Japanese brand minivans, We got Transits instead.
I love how these came with a 5 speed manual, but really what they should have done is released the Ford Carousel 5 years before and got a jump on Chrysler. Having said that, I love my 5 speed Grand Voyager.
What a horrible name
“Riding along on a Carousel, trying to catch up to you.
Riding along on a Carousel, will I catch up to you?”
I haven’t seen one of these in ages. This was the last car my brother in law bought. White, beige interior, fairly low-line. It served him and later his widow well, lasting for over 150K miles, but it drove like a cheap truck. I always thought it was the very definition of a Frumpmobile. At least the front passenger had more foot room than the Chevy Astro.
I have never been much of a TV watcher, so to see the Aerostar compared to the Space Shuttle is pretty funny.
Ford sold a whole lot of these things and they rusted to nothingness, this being the reason there are so few around. They had nice interiors, they had decent room, the Cologne V-6 was sturdy enough so sales were good. The problem is that Ford lit it wither on the vine. By the time the Freestar came around many customers have left for other brands, as Chrysler really took their vans seriously.
Times sure have changed since this Aerostar was built.
When this van was new, the US makers still had skin in every segment. Then the Aerostar was followed up by the Windstar, which is one of the most horrid devices I have ever had the displeasure of driving. Mine was a rental and it blew up going up the Coquihalla highway. The follow up was just as bad and POOF! All you are making is trucks.
Predictability, FCA is still churning out its Caravan, which is like the official family car of southern Ontario.
“…its design is still as polarizing as it was in 1986, especially with most Aerostars having moved on to another galaxy by now.” My ’96 certainly has, and every day I wish I hadn’t had to let it go; for 5 1/2 years it was like a child or pet to me with that polarizing but innocent “look” on its face. After losing contact with so many of my friends from school it even became like a best friend during my long trips to Piedmont Technical College & back home, in addition to when I began vocational rehab training & got my current job 3 years ago. But transmission failure, scarcity of replacement parts, & one deer hit too many marked the writing on the wall that it would be time to sadly part ways. If it had been maintained better before I found it things might’ve turned out differently; it initially had 75k miles & in hindsight they apparently weren’t earned well. It’s truly a miracle it lasted as long as it did (22 years old, 157k miles) with that questionable service record, and as funny as it may seem I believe one thing that helped it keep going was a cross keychain I hung on the rearview mirror. I have that same keychain on my 2011 Ranger’s mirror & also this picture of my Aerostar–not long after I got it–taped to the interior paneling on the passenger door to remind me of all the good times I had with it. I have another cross in my current van (a 2005 Astro) too. Except for my own home (live with my parents), I have everything I want now.
“…these days the Aerostar is equally, if not more so (than the Windstar), a rare sight on the roads.” YES. But if you look hard enough they’re still out there. Just don’t expect many of them to be for sale! 🙂
I remember when these were new. A buddy’s dad picked one of these up when they first came out. V6 4wd loaded version that was nice inside. Fast forward 6 months later and he had traded it in on a new full size bronco after the engine decided to die. There were some choice new heavily German accented swear words I learned after asking him what had happened to the van. I still see the odd one kicking around Vancouver Island but far more Chevy Astro vans and the odd Chrysler vans of that era.
I dont see any of these on the road anymore, even in relatively rust-free SoCal. There are surviving Astros aplenty.
Indeed. This ’88 I found last week was the first early sealed-beam Aerostar I’d seen in years. I still see some late-model examples here and there but they’re thinning out rapidly. Astros have proved much more durable.
I just opened this article to comment that I haven’t seen a sealed-beam Aerostar in years. Hmmm.
Given their reputation for being problematic, I actually see more Aerostars than I’d expect, including a cargo version that lives near me. Now the version I’d really love to see is a conversion van Aerostar. Early in their run, while conversion vans were at their peak, several of the big van conversion companies offered Aerostar models. I know Bivouac did, and there were others. I wonder if any of them still exist?
” I wonder if any of them still exist?”
If someone finds one, I say we take up a collection, buy it, and present it to Jason Shafer so that he can accumulate the entire set. 🙂
The Aerostar did more than put a dent in the Chrysler minivan it was the best selling single name plate for a couple of years. Yes Chrysler sold more vans in those years but splitting them up between two “low priced” brands meant that neither was number #1 in sales. Once the Windstar came on line Ford sold more minivans than any other mfg for a couple of years, between the Aero-, Wind-, and Villager.
Interesting, I didn’t realize that.
Drove one for work in the early-mid 1990’s. It was the only radio station van I never minded having to take home and drive around. It was a short wheelbase XL passenger version and it drove well, was reasonably quick and, more importantly, withstood the beatings a bunch of radio staffers could give a van.
It replaced a 1982 Econoline-based conversion van that had vague, loose steering and that we had nick-named “The Death Star” since the station was called Star and we all thought we were going to be killed driving it.
Thankfully the age of Aerostar ad aired at a time when my television viewing was limited – I don’t remember it.
I liked the Aerostar, but I was rather pro-Ford during it’s production run. I never liked the GM Toaster Vans (Astro/Safari), which did have a twenty year run 1985-2005. The GM RWD Minivans always seemed to outnumber Aerostars by a wide margin in Chicago.
Other than one I see at work occasionally, I don’t recall seeing any of these in quite some time.
My folks bought one in ’91. At the time it seemed like the Goldilocks van. The Dodge was a little small and light, and the Astro was clearly more trucklike.
I inherited it, and drove the ’91 until a small accident in 1998. With more than 200K miles the insurance company wrote that one off, and I replaced it with a used ’93 that went over 300K in 2007. By that time it needed a fair amount of work, and was just too rusty to be worth it.
By that time clean Aerostars were pretty much impossible to find in Michigan, and other things in my life had changed, so I went back to a sedan, but I still like these a lot.
Hey, somebody wrote a COAL on the Aerostar: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=12&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjAxIDHz-HjAhVNMqwKHTwYB-4QFjALegQIAhAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.curbsideclassic.com%2Fcars-of-a-lifetime%2Fcoal-1994-ford-aerostar-xlt-lots-of-space%2F&usg=AOvVaw0QxlTnzfxAf9P9Z3r4cFst
Budget rented these while I worked there and they were all very good vans that handled lots of abuse as people and stuff haulers. Budget kept thousands of Aerostars longer than they do other rental vehicles. I have a buddy that just got rid of his 1991.
As to seeing more GM vans – GM kept the Astro and Safari vans around many years longer.
I drove an ’86 as a work vehicle, back when new, and remember it being comfortable and roomy but underpowered.
Although not many survive, at least one does right outside in my driveway. Its a ’96 short WB cargo van, 3.0 V6 with 178k on it. Has been my daily driver for the last three years. Never been in the salt so not a spec of rust anywhere. It gives me 26+ mpg on the highway and quite honestly, at 23 years of age, still drives like a new one.
If there is anything polarizing about these the term should really refer to the year when built. The earliest ones were pretty bad, the latest ones bulletproof. Their reputation lingers from when first introduced, when the most publicity surrounded them, hiding the gems they ultimately turned out to be.
Being RWD they can actually do real work like towing and hauling. The Chrysler template (and all that followed in this vein) are mainly people carriers, squared off and more useful than a sedan, but still primarily a sedan.
RWD also generally simplifies maintenance, provided you don’t have to change the spark plugs (definitely install the 100k variety) or do any serious work on the engine.
The preview concept Aerostar was a bit more attractive but alas, it was just a concept!
I briefly drove one as a cab. It fell apart in short order,. Ac compressor, mass air flow meter, ,water pump and fan, freeze plugs, shifter linkage transmission all failed in a month then the engine started knocking on way to tranny shop. They was the end.
I purchased one back in 2005 in Ohio for 600 usd. It was on its second drive train swapped in at circa 200k miles and at the time had around 440k miles. Yeah that’s right, had lot of miles but were driving great except hole in exhaust, so so brakes (no technical inspection in OH). One morning it refused to start after heavy rain. Following day I and bunch of other kids from Ceders point amusement park where we worked that summer, took it for great trip to Washington D.C., Niagarra Falls and back. Aerostar made it without issue. It was long and loaded version xlt? Being from Europe, I first time experienced the mamma van stigma jokes from locals, but going in 7 people for trips indeed was fun!