(First Published 3/20/2014) It’s no secret that of the Big Three, Chrysler seems to have the worst luck with extreme ups and downs. Throughout nearly every decade of its ninety-year history, the company has looked death in the eye, rebounded to prosperity, then faced sharp decline again. The mid Nineties were some of the best years for Chrysler, and the crowning achievement of this era was the first total redesign of the vehicle it popularized–the minivan.
Backtrack to the early Nineties however, and Chrysler was in another state of crisis. During the final years under Lee Iacocca’s leadership, dysfunction was high. Focused on short-term profit, penny-pinching upper-level executives were neglecting what would ensure Chrysler’s future–new vehicle development.
With the continued peddling of gussied-up K-cars, sales were tanking and market share eroding. The few projects then under development were constantly being delayed due to perpetual back-and-forth bickering among endless committees and the
Le barons of Highland Park. With a total of fourteen separate departments almost totally isolated from one another below executive level, the start-to-finish process of building cohesive, competitive and high-quality automobiles was a near-impossible task.
Additionally, chairman Iacocca’s squandering of cash was diverting urgently needed money from a requirement far more important: improving the cars. (To be fair, some of Iacocca’s unwise spending was in fact vehicle-related: For example, in an eleventh-hour decision, he demanded that the curved corners of the upcoming new 1991 minivans’ rear-quarter windows come to a sharper point–at a cost of $100 million.)
More troubling, however, were the millions going towards assets having nothing to do with the automobile business. Like a teenager who’d been given Daddy’s credit cards, Iacocca went on a reckless spending spree, purchasing such automotive-unrelated companies as Gulfstream Aerospace, and the defense contractor Electrospace Systems.
The one lucrative result of this shop-‘til-you-drop experiment turned out to be the purchase of AMC. In addition to their valuable Jeep brand and plans for the new Grand Cherokee, Chrysler acquired from AMC a group of individuals who brought along their working style of “cross-functional teams.” Modeled after the concept successfully used by Japanese car companies, these cross-functional teams brought together members representing various departments and stages of the development process and opened up interdepartmental lines of communication while encouraging teamwork and cooperation.
While this cross-functional approach certainly played a role in the development of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the LH sedans, not everyone within the organization was so quick to adopt it. Under Chrysler’s team of younger, more open-minded leadership, the cross-functional method would not be applied until the first ground-up redesign of what became Chrysler Corporation’s most valuable asset – the T115 minivans. Planned for a mid-’90s introduction, the fate of the entire corporation was riding—quite literally—on these completely new minivans, which were codenamed NS.
With over 4 million units sold since their introduction for the 1984 model year, minivan sales accounted for no less than half of Chrysler’s annual profits. Although Chrysler was still dominating with their second-generation “AS” minivans, viable competition was finally beginning to emerge, meaning Chrysler couldn’t continue to push their K-based boxes around much longer. The NS team was about to take on the most critical redesign in the company’s post-bankruptcy history—failure would spell certain disaster.
The working concept of the cross-functional teams included the carrying out of efforts at every level. Within the “minivan platform team” of personnel assigned specifically to the task of creating the next-generation minivan were sub-teams, each dedicated exclusively to one of seven key strategic areas: Design; Finance; Marketing, Manufacturing, Product Planning, Purchasing and Sales.
Similarly, five dedicated corporation-wide teams were formed to focus on Body Interior; Bodies-in-White; Chassis; Electrical and Electronics; and Exteriors. Each of these teams was responsible for designing various components for all Chrysler vehicles. Within these five general teams were smaller, more sharply-focused teams that had responsibility for specific tasks.
There also was direct input and communication from outside suppliers, the factory workers who’d actually build the minivans, and various other Chrysler departments. As confusing as all that sounds on paper, in practice it was a much more effective and holistic approach to vehicle design than the isolationist, one- department-versus-another ways of the past. The cross-functional approach allowed for a shorter start-to-finish project time as well as crucial and substantial cost savings.
In terms of primary market research, Chrysler conducted numerous focus-group studies of randomly selected current Chrysler minivan owners during 1990 and 1991, in order to help determine what should and shouldn’t be changed on the upcoming vans. Generally speaking, owners liked the setup, versatility and features of their current vans; somewhat unsurprisingly, their main quibbles regarded poor build quality.
From the beginning, designers toyed with the idea of adding a driver’s-side sliding door – something that had been featured on some Japanese minivans, but never on a domestic van. The potential drawbacks of adding this feature included loss of structural rigidity and, naturally, greater expense. At any rate, the focus group studies revealed that an additional sliding door was not a crucial feature. Ultimately, it was decided that dual sliding doors would be implemented, although as an optional feature in order to reduce build costs.
One of the four final prototypes.
Designing the new minivans involved the building of four prototypes, each having a unique appearance, wheelbase, and setup. It was a true collaborative effort: no single designer was responsible for one prototype. In the end, elements of all four prototypes were combined into the ultimate design. Computers played a substantially greater role in the design process, yielding significant time and cost savings.
The overall shape of the final exterior design was far more fluid and aerodynamic than that of the outgoing boxes. In your humble author’s opinion, these were the most attractive minivans ever: thoroughly modern, but not futuristic like the GM “Dustbusters” or Toyota Previa.
Engineers worked hard to achieve better quality— a major area for improvement in the current AS minivans. While its predecessor had been criticized for its loose-fitting panels, all of the body panels and doors on the new NS would adhere to the strict “one-millimeter” standards used by most European and Japanese brands.
The new vans were painstakingly tested on the road, as well as in Chrysler’s new $22 million sound-deadening lab, in an effort to find and address sources of excessive noise, vibration, and harshness — another complaint common to their immediate predecessors.
When it came to the interior, the primary goal of the NS minivans was increased passenger comfort and convenience. The instrument panel layout and all controls were ergonomically designed. So were the seats, which could accommodate a 95th percentile adult. “Easy Out Roller Seats” greatly simplified rear seat removal, thanks to an easy latching mechanism and added roller wheels.
Storage capacity also grew, thanks to larger wheel arch cubbies, a net between the front seats and an available compartment on the left side of the front passenger’s seat. Finally, to the satisfaction of many soft drink-loving consumers, redesigned and additional cup holders now accommodated 7-Eleven’s then-largest “Big Gulp.”
Versus their predecessors, the new vans were substantially roomier. Hip and shoulder room increased by four and five inches, respectively. Overall interior volume was up by 30% percent in short-wheelbase models and by 27% in long-wheelbase versions. Visibility was also improved, thanks to side glass now three inches taller, a lower hood and a windshield some 32 percent larger.
Mass appeal and class-leading versatility continued to be among the Chrysler minivans’ greatest strengths. With two wheelbases, two body styles, three transmissions, four engines, front- and all-wheel drive—as well as a dizzying array of trim and equipment levels sold under five nameplates across three brands— the 1996-2000 Chrysler minivans truly offered a configuration for virtually everyone, with even more available outside the U.S. and Canada.
(Me behind the wheel of a 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan ES. Even as a kid I was fascinated with these vans.)
Personally speaking, I feel that the NS represents the pinnacle of Chrysler’s mid-Nineties “Renaissance.” Following the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the LH sedans, redesigned Ram pickup, compact Neon, and mid-sized JA cars, the NS minivans completed Chrysler’s transformation from building archaic boxes to stylish, award-winning vehicles. I also feel that the NS represents the high point of the American minivan in general.
Minivans were still relatively “hip” in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the NS vans embodied everything that made them so great both in form and in function. In the new millennium, Japanese minivans would follow Chrysler’s template, with Honda in particular taking the mantle as having the most attractive, cool minivan. As at Ford and GM, though to a lesser degree, SUVs stole the show, relegating the minivan to a lower rung, in terms of status.
In then end, the entire lineup of NS minivans, from their development stage through their swan song in 2000, may be regarded as successful. The vast team comprising Chrysler designers, engineers, technicians, analysts and others succeeded in their mission to create a minivan far superior to not only the model it replaced, but also to most of its competitors—all while keeping manufacturing costs down, streamlining processes, and generally creating a more efficient and effective Chrysler Corporation. An instant sales success, the NS ensured Chrysler’s continued dominance of the minivan segment. That streak of success could have arguably continued were it not for the big elephant in the room, the merger with Daimler, and the many tragedies it brought to Chrysler products. For today though, let’s just focus on one of Chrysler’s most notable comebacks in a series of ups and downs.
Very good article, Brendan.
This might be the pinnacle of minivans; the variety was considerable, the driver comfort was terrific, and the size was just right. Minivans since haven’t quite achieved the same optimum combination of these elements.
+1. If a minivan can actually be “cool”…..these are it. A friend bought one in ’96, and I really liked it, despite the fact I don’t even have any kids that I know about 🙂
Regarding minivan size, I fully agree. Today’s versions have gotten bloated, portly, heavy. Mazda had it’s last gen MPV right sized in MY opinion…and I drove a 2001 version for 150,000 miles. The American public disagreed with me however, and continues to award the lumpen Honda Odyssey with the sales trophy year after year.
Thanks Jason. I honestly can’t think of single car in the recent era that had so much variety. Despite “badge engineering”, Chrysler did a good job giving each model unique styling touches and personality.
Most seem to forget the early-90s crisis Chrysler went through. I know when I learned of it, I thought they were doing just fine, but I wasn’t aware of all the internal drama going on, either.
Lido’s time to go had indeed come, and when he left just as the Intrepid and siblings made their appearance, things seemed to turn around.
Not really blaming Iacocca, as I don’t know if he was the biggest cause of the company’s problems, but there comes a time when even the most effective leader jumps the shark, and therefore becomes a parody of him or herself.
I wish Chrysler could get its act together and return to the days when its cars were renowned for their engineering, ruggedness, class and reliability. I doubt that will ever happen, sadly.
If it weren’t for Iacocca, the minivan probably never would have happened in the first place. Lee wanted them even whilst at Ford in the ’70s, and when he (and Hal Sperlich) moved to Chrysler the minivan was amongst the first things on the to-do list.
Great write-up. More glass for better visibility, who would have thought?
Love the picture of Chrysler Executives, of course Bob Lutz has to be the “different” one and wear a tan suit.
And Mike Garbarino is business at the front, party at the back.
Thank you Principal Dan. Yeah Lutz always liked to do things in his own unique way, like flying his personal helicopter to work. All three of the nonfiction novels I’ve recently read about Chrysler made specific note of his nonconformist style of attire.
Very good article. Just one question “nonfiction novels” ? Isn’t that an oxymoron. What are the titles of these “novels”?
The wife and I traded our 1997 Chrysler Cirrus for a 1999 Dodge Caravan “Platinum Edition” in 2002. Our first child had just arrived and we bought a house in the suburbs. It was a busy two months.
Anyway, the van was quiet, comfortable, and very versatile. Those leaf springs in the back were great for hauling stuff. I remember one time removing all the seats and hauling 1 ton of stuff to the landfill, according to their scale.
However, that van was the single worst reliable vehicle I have ever owned. It was most likely due to it having the 3.0L engine. It used to randomly stall at stop signs. It did it every morning at the end of the highway off ramp close to my office, after a 20 min drive at highway speeds. No one could ever figure it out. If a month went by without that van being in the shop, I don’t remember it. I still regret trading in that Cirrus.
It was written off in an accident on a vacation to Quebec about 9 years ago. The insurance company wanted to fix it, but when I heard how much they thought it was worth, I got them to write me a cheque instead. They paid me twice what a dealer would have given me on trade for it. I swore that I wouldn’t own another Chrysler product after that and eight vehicles later, I have stuck to it.
Yep. I can relate. For a short time, I had a 98 Plymouth Voyager powered by the 3.0 liter. Loved it at first. Versatile, roomy, comfortable. It replaced a 94 Caravan with transmission issues. Anyway, the 98 Voyager was great for about 2 months. Then problems began. First, whenever it rained hard water would cause the alternator belt to slip instantly stranding you. Finally found a TSB recommending an after market cover and new design belt. Shortly after that, the AC, radio, and passenger power window failed. Not long after, a short appeared causing the battery to drain not allowing the van to start. The last straw was when the entire instrument panel shorted out. All gauges dead with a steady Check Engine light. Took it in to have the code read but even that was futile, since no code was registering even though the check engine light was on. We got rid of it after that and have never considered buying another minivan.
Now with all the fallout from Irma and Harvey still fresh on our minds, I wonder if that wasn’t a flood car, what with the electrical issues.
No, just a Chrysler vehicle :p
If there’s one pattern issue that an automaker seems to consistently struggle with, it’s Chrysler (now FCA) and electrical issues. That’s not to say they ALL have electrical problems, as I know plenty with no such problems. But there is definitely a correlation between people with stories like that and it being a Chrysler car. On many of their mid-late 2000s products, the TIPM (Totally Integrated Power Module) is a complete fiasco.
Sad to say, this was much more common of the Chrysler minivan ownership experience than it should have been. Once the Japanese started getting minivans much closer to the Chrysler model (sans quality problems), starting with the 1998 Toyota Sienna and followed by the 1999 Honda Odyssey (the first with the magic folding third row seat), and the 2000 Mazda MPV, Chrysler (finally) had some real minivan competition. For the first time, they were no longer the undisputed minivan king.
It’s simply tragic that Chrysler can never get their quality act together. Even now, they’ve got a great feature in their Stow ‘n Go seating which no one else can match, and all indications are the next generation of Chrysler minivan will be just as innovative with the possibility of a long awaited hybrid version.
If only they were built better…
Sort of like every Mopar since K.T. Keller retired. Like with the old nursery rhyme, when you got a good one, it was very very good, but when one was bad it was horrid. Mine was a 99 T&C that had 187K on the odo when I bought it for not much money. I did have to spend some money on things like a steering rack and CV joints, but gave it to a staffer when the tranny broke. They rebuilt the tranny and it is still on the road at maybe 240K. Even at that mileage, it drives really, really nicely. I cannot say enough good things about the 3.3 V6 that is destined to go down as one of the 10 most durable engines ever built.
Our son is still driving our ’98 GC (3.3L), and is pushing 280,000 miles now.
Not only the minivans, other Chryslers offered the same quality. In late 2002 we bought a new PT Cruiser to be my wife’s daily driver. In all honesty it was an entertaining car to drive; it had the “high output” turbo and it had plenty of pep. Unfortunately the car had mulitple problems that required numerous trips to the dealer; the transmission had to be replaced as it refused to shift out of first gear, the heater motor quit, etc. The last straw was the Airbag warning light coming on; at first it was intermittent but escalated to being on constantly. We took it to the dealer several times for this and the service manager finally admitted that he didn’t know what else he could do. Of course having the Airbag light on didn’t affect how the car ran, but, it did mean the airbags would not have deployed in an accident. After not getting satisfaction at the purchasing dealer, we took the car to two other Chryster stores in our area. All this did was put more miles on the car and make my wife more frustrated as they couldn’t fix the problem either. At this point we just said the hell with it and traded it in on a new Camry; we have owned several Toyotas (before and since then), and the most serious problem we ever had was the radio had to be replaced in our Highlander. There was some justice to this tale; the Chrysler dealer where we bought the PT Cruiser was one who had their franchise pulled during the great purge. They are still in business selling Hyundais and Volvos.
Interesting. I had problems with the radio in my ’04 Highlander. The stereo unit was replaced, and ultimately the rear amplifiers, which solved the problems for a few years. In its later years, the speakers started to have more issues, but it was something I could live with on an 8 year old car.
I still appreciate the JBL radio in my ’94 Lincoln Mark VIII, and stereo system in my ’95 LeSabre, however with cold air out
Drive a post-Marchionne Mopar and see what they can do when someone is actually willing to invest money into their product. Best cars Chrysler ever built.
“post-Marchionne Mopar”? When is he retiring?
lol, I should have said “post Daimler Apocalypse”
DaimlerChrysler deserves blame for a lot of things, but even before the merger, quality was in the toilet, regardless of whatever else people like to say. Everything was done as cheaply as possible; ill defined plastic castings, hard interior pieces which could cut you, unrefined powertrains, soft, insubstantial seats. I never owned a ’90s Chrysler, but the lack of genuine quality was obvious, and I can’t imagine reliability was especially good.
They might’ve been the most profitable in the industry and were certainly progressive and efficient, but there was no magic involved. I feel like the Iacocca cars–as much as in pains me to say so–were more solid, in terms of build quality (and from what I’ve read, also in terms of reliability, minus the Ultradrive).
I agree. I had an 88 Aries and a 92 Acclaim that were boring but extremely reliable vs. my 94 Caravan and 98 Voyager which we were afraid to drive because they would strand us more often than not!
This jibes with my experience. My dorky handed-down ’91 Dynasty was bulletproof compared to the Intrepid that followed.
Nice article, Brendan. I haven’t paid much attention to minivans, but you bring up some interesting points. $100 mill on a redesigned window contour! Detroit pissing content in excessis. Still, as you say, they did accomplish something here. Did the DC merger kill the cross functional structure or did it just atrophy?
I hope you closed the doors before you took the Caravan for a spin.
DC blew up everything. Despite zero experience in lower priced cars, Daimler came in with the attitude that Chrysler people knew nothing and as a result, there was a mass exodus of some of the most talented people because of the demoralizing atmosphere.
The only reason minivans did not suffer more was that they were so good to start with and there has not really been a clean sheet redesign since the 1996.
An even greater shame then. Just when they found an effective development structure…
Turned out that the large cars came through the process moderately well because Daimler at least had experience building cars of this size. But the small car platforms were essentially farmed out to Mitsubishi. The small cars were all disasters (Sebring, Caliber, etc). Development was slowed and development costs jumped, which resulted in gutting the interiors for cost savings (like in the original Chry 300 and Dodge Magnum).
They did the same with the ’08 vans. Suspension dynamics and interior were definately low-rent. They rectified that in ’11.
I’ve also read that Daimler demanded the Rubbermaid interiors so Chrysler models wouldn’t be competitive with Mercedes on export markets.
You’d think, being European, they’d have learned the lesson from British Leyland of what happens when you enter a merger favoring one of the merged companies’ products over the other.
Don’t blame Mitsubishi entirely. Daimler pillaged them as well.
Cross-functional teams bit the dust as soon as the captains of the old organizational silos figured out how to undercut the team’s effectiveness and efficiency. Once you’ve worked on a cross-functional team, you DON’T want to go back to the old ways. Where I used to work, the teams peaked in the late 90s and are now back to silo development teams.
Thanks Don. I’m not certain about the cross-functional approach under Daimler. Haven’t gotten that far chronologically in my in-depth study of Chrysler. I’m currently reading a book about the Daimler-Chrysler merger.
And sadly I never did take off in that Caravan. The only minivan I’ve ever driven is a 2000 Ford Windstar. Didn’t have the same special feel.
Very nice article. I always thought these were nice but didn’t truly understand their goodness until I owned one. This truly was “peak minivan”. Everything was so wonderfully thought out and gave you stuff you didn’t know you wanted till you had it.
The bodies were fabulous on these too, maybe the best Chrysler ever built. These were very rigid in their structure, much more solid feeling than any V6 Odyssey. Mine had the anvil-like 3.3 engine. Even with Chrysler’s notoriously weak transmissions, these are still on the road in great numbers.
I think their only weaknesses were some cheap components and in their being packaged so tightly that many service operations were major headaches.
“I think their only weaknesses were some cheap components and in their being packaged so tightly that many service operations were major headaches.”
I think you are correct, fuel pumps, for one, according to owners I know, otherwise they love ’em.
I don’t know how the latest generation is doing.
Latest generation are still the best sellers. They come with more features, power, and better handling than ever, but I just don’t like them as well. Less visibility, cramped front seats, awkward looks, harsher ride.
Then again, all minivans seem to be like that today. They’ve lost their way.
From what I understand, Toyota claims “best selling minivan” by nameplate for the Sienna while Grand Caravan and Town & Country sales combined well exceed Toyota’s whether or not you include the Ram C/V.
By model name it varies month to month and the top 4 are very close, within 8,000 units last year-end. In 2013 the Odyssey was #1, Grand Caravan #2, Town & Country #3, and Sienna #4. Town & Country and Grand Caravan combined had just over 46% of the market selling almost a quarter million vans.
Assuming the Ram C/V isn’t in those numbers, considering they specifically say “Grand Caravan”. Probably not a big seller anyway.
Minivans in general continue to slip, with just 3.4% of the market.
Supposedly, the ‘best selling minivan’ problem is going to be corrected by Marchionne with the next generation when the Chrysler Town & Country becomes the sole ‘true’ Chrysler minivan and the Dodge Caravan turns into some sort of minivan crossover. Hopefully, this minivan crossover will work out better than the last one, i.e., Aztek.
I’m also a little fuzzy on how that will ultimately work out with Dodge dealers no longer selling a ‘real’ minivan, but that’s the game plan.
They have been saying one or the other will be cancelled since 2009, but last I heard the next refresh due for release in 2015 will include both versions.
Well you got me curious and I managed to find this info:
I love the improved seats and AWD. Not so hot on that CUV-look and plunging rear roofline. Design renderings are all speculation right now as far as I can tell. I sure hope they are.
Sales tanked (by Mopar minivan standards, anyway) with the debut of the current model in 2008, so much so that the St. Louis South Assembly Plant which had been the second source for the vans closed at the end of the ’08 model run and all production moved to the original minivan plant in Windsor.
Chrysler’s bankruptcy and the decline in Ram sales resulted in the closure of the STL North plant next door in 2009. Both plants were demolished in 2011.
I really love my ’02 Grand Carvan despite its leaking steering rack and groaning front sway bar bushings. I enjoy driving it which is something I never expected to do in a mini van.
I know the ’08 redesign is supposed to be an improvement, but I just didn’t care for it – too boxy, ‘specially the back. At least in later years they softened that with a redesigned bumper cover.
I don’t like the gear shift in the dashboard (only on a Corvair, baby!) and WTF happened to tilt steering wheels in newer cars? Big, clunky latch and the whole column moves a few degrees? Same thing on my mom’s Camaro.
I have one of the “good” ones….except for rust, in that regard mine is not fairing so well – another Chrysler hit or miss.
The 4th gen vans are proving to be much more prolific rusters than these 3rd gen vans.
It’s the European idea of a tilt steering wheel. You can move the whole column at best 4 centimeters…
I thought that was due to the St. Louis plant only producing the base non-Stow&Go models, which were discontinued with the remodel. I could be mistaken on that?
They did take a big sales hit though, down about 30%. It was a disappointment for sure, but not a disaster. Keep in mind the ’07s were selling pretty much on price alone, they weren’t very competitive at that point.
Up until the ’08s that was true. St. Louis only made short wheelbase vans, for which the Stow n Go option wasn’t available. Ma Mopar pumped a lot of money into both plants toward the end, including converting the South plant to build the LWB-only ’08 models.
Thanks for the claification, I didn’t know they made the 08’s there. That had to be quite a hit on the bottom line to abandon that investment after just a year.
That was a shame, too, for those plants went great guns for many years and an old friend worked there for a time in the early 1970s. Some of the stories he told me are hilarious, but sad at the same time.
Being from the STL area, one of my aunt and uncle lived in Kirkwood, and on our way to the Museum of Transport, you could look over to the south on Big Bend Road for a time and see the entire complex.
My roommate in the Air Force was from St. Louis and had worked at the South plant before getting laid off and joining the service. He would talk about having to work on the undercoating line and how disgusting that was. Apparently the undercoaters worked in a pit so that they could spray the “gunk” up onto the undersides of the cars. Naturally this meant eight hours of undercoating dripping onto you. It must not have been too bad though; when the Air Force offered early outs to people who had a job to go back to, he was quick to take advantage of it.
The plants are gone, but they’ve left a legacy in the form of one word – Hoosier.
For those not from the STL area, an explanation. To anyone outside of St. Louis, “Hoosier” means someone from or something related to Indiana. It is a badge of pride and honor for a native of that state. In St. Louis, and it seems only in St. Louis, Hoosier means something VERY different. It means “redneck”, “hillbiilly” etc, and is the supreme local insult.
According to local legend, the STL definition of Hoosier dates back to the 1930s, when a group of non-union workers from Indiana were supposedly brought in to replace locked-out strikers. However, there’s no historical record of that ever happening.
Many local historians attribute the term, and specifically its reference to denizens of far south St. Louis City, south St. Louis County, and Jefferson County to the opening of the Fenton Chrysler plant (later known as STL North) in 1959. It was built as a state of the art replacement for an old Plymouth plant in Evansville, Indiana which couldn’t be converted to built unibodies. Then as now, UAW work rules stipulated that the workers from the plant being closed had dibs on jobs at the new factory. Given that Evansville is only a few hours’ drive from St. Louis, most of the workers there took Chrysler up on the offer and moved west.
Needless to say, the locals who were expecting high-paying jobs were not happy. They became increasingly resentful as they saw brand new neighborhoods spring up around Fenton and elsewhere in the area populated largely by “those @#$%* Hoosiers”. (there’s even one subdivision in Fenton with street names like Fury Drive and Valiant Lane) Then there was the fact that a number of the Chrysler transplants were black at a time when that just didn’t happen in South County.
In 1966, the STL South plant opened to build Dodge trucks, (the roles were reversed in the mid ’90s) which finally gave local residents the opportunity to work for Ma Mopar. However, Hoosier as a term of derision has gone on to not only apply to points south in the STL metro area, but to anyone who, shall we say, might end up featured on “People of Walmart”.
Ironically, the same sort of issues (including, unfortunately, the racial tension) that existed in South County in 1960 when the Chrysler workers arrived also existed in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1981 when an influx of GM transplants from the old Corvette plant in North St. Louis took GM up on its offer to transfer. What really set off the locals in Bowling Green was the fact that GM had partnered with the local government to set up job training programs, only to all but shut out locals from employment at the Corvette plant.
Good to know, mark p, that St Louis folks reaction to my Indiana Hoosiers sweatshrts may not be what I expect.
I will echo Mark’s statement; I have heard it used in a derogatory manner well west and south of St. Louis. The first time I heard “Hoosier” it was in this manner, thus my initial impression as to its meaning.
Thankfully, I have learned otherwise since then.
I learned about the St. Louis use of “Hoosier” in a novel set there, White Palace by Glenn Savan, about a difficult romance between a widowed Jewish guy in his late 20s and a Hoosier lady past 40. (Adapted into a movie in the early ’90s starring Susan Sarandon, totally the wrong physical type, and James Spader.)
Behold….Riverside Subdivision, Fenton, Missouri…..
It’s a crying shame too. Those jobs would have helped the St. Louis economy. Let’s not forget that decades ago STL was also the place of corvettes. Now we have the Colorado building plant in wentzville and that is that. The Chrysler plant is all an industrial wasteland. I always thought they would at least tear up the concrete and plant some grass rather then leave a scar on the landscape.
Thanks JP. An aunt of mine owned a ’99 Grand Voyager base model for a number of years, and I always appreciated so many of the clever touches they incorporated into these vans.
I remember reading about some of those difficulties. If I recall, the Cloud Cars were even worse for minor service operations. And there definitely were some cheap components throughout.
One thing I will say as those were some really comfortable seats. Even in the base models, the contoured seats were supportive, with soft, attractive cloth seat surfaces. The cloth seats in the 4th generation models I like to call “easy clean rental cloth”. Much less comfortable.
Great post, Brendan! I fully agree that these were “peak minivan.”
Love the shot of the Gen 3 prototype – had never seen that before.
Thank you Ed. Yeah I actually scanned that picture from a book I read on these vans as a secondary source to my prior knowledge. You can see the production version in the windshield. The sheet metal looks suspiciously Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager, which were hitting the market right around the time the prototype was created.
When is this “prototype” from? The Quest and Villager were unveiled in January 1992, while the NS design concept was approved on September 23, 1991. The final production appearance was frozen in May 1992 and is seen in clay form from that period in the “Reinventing Chrysler” documentary.
It takes a talented writer to make a minivan piece interesting, which you certainly did. Nice work, Brendan!
Thank-you Tony. Thanks for looking it over for me too!
Sigh. My ’96 Intrepid had the same maddening mix of smart, original design and iffy execution as these vans. Broke me of the modern Mopar habit forever.
In retrospect, those nifty cross-dept teams didn’t focus enough on mass production. Can we make this frimble valve work? Yes. Can we make ten million of them work perfectly a hundred million times? No. I suspect that the competition just had more people and capital to throw at mundane problem-solving, and that’s where the battle is won, especially for something as prosaic as a minivan.
Ok, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who was fascinated with these vans as a kid! There was a Dodge dealer across the street from my piano teacher’s house, and I was mesmerized by the vans, trucks, Durangos, and Intrepids (and, of course, the rare Viper). Needless to say, my piano teacher wasn’t always too happy. As a child of the ’90s, I spent LOTS of time in these vans – from basic “shorty” Voyagers to loaded Town and Countries.
These really were the best looking vans. Very well-proportioned and modern, without too much fuss or extreme elements which wouldn’t age well. I still think they look great, and better than the next generation, which morphed some of the details into cartoonish proportions.
They also had a truly fantastic ad campaign. I well remember the simple billboards which just had that side-view shot on a white background, where you could see through both open doors. No words were needed. That photo instantly sent the message that every other van was now obsolete. So effective.
Our second kid prompted us to buy a 98 Grand Voyager (first kid had prompted changing the Mustang into a Cherokee. Putting one car seat in the back of a Cherokee is just feasible, but two was just too much…)
We really liked the van. Not perfect, but nothing terminal either. Had to replace the solenoid pack on the transmission, and had something with a coolant hose coming loose, but that’s about it. We traded it in with 90k miles on an Odyssey in 2007, mostly out of fear of the transmission. (Of course, Honda’s minivan transmissions are suspect too, but we did not know that at the time.) The Odyssey was a fine vehicle for a long road trip, but my wife actually missed the Voyager, preferring how it drove on her usual around town trips. And the Voyager got (much!) better mileage on those short trips too.
Brendan, I enjoyed this write-up a lot. Very informative. I’m wondering where the $100m figure come from to change the curve of the window. That seems hard to believe!
Speaking of window curves, the shape of the rear liftgate window has always been the only exterior design flaw I have noticed on these vehicles. The 90 degree corners are an aesthetic mismatch to the rest of the car, whereby the curved windows and curved taillights reinforce an overall aesthetic idea of a smooth-flowing shell.
This problem was somewhat corrected on the subsequent generation, although interestingly not by rounding the corners. Instead, the back window is treated as a void between the two vertical rails extending from the bumper up through the roof. If my computer was working correctly today I could draw a diagram of this to make the point clearer. Then again, why bother, as the subsequent generation had so many other distracting design flaws.
The grammar Nazi in me must pick a nit with your use of “literally”: You wrote “the fate of the entire corporation was riding—quite literally—on these completely new minivans.” This means the fate of the corporation was TRULY sitting inside the cargo bay or on the roof of the vans. Sorry, but using “literally” to give emphasis to a point ain’t right!
Well as fate is not a physical item, but an essence, and class-leading interior volume was one of the things that was going to make these minivans succeed, and therefore the corporation succeed, I guess you can say it was riding in the cargo bay of the vans.
It was figuratively riding in the cargo bay, not literally. 🙂
Maybe, maybe not. If you extrapolate from the image of the young Brendan in the driver’s seat, and assume (correctly) that he was at some point in the cargo bay when conducting his forensic examination of said vehicle for future articles, then consider how significant this article actually is in sustaining the goodwill towards Chrysler, then you could say that the fate of the corporation was literally in the cargo bay.
My head just figuratively exploded.
Great read, and I agree that this was the high point for the minivan, from any maker. I’ve never been a minivan person, but this one was so nice looking and thoughtfully designed, it’s literally the only minivan that ever would have tempted me. Too bad subsequent generations couldn’t hit the same high notes. Also I really enjoyed the pictures, from the prototype that I’ve never seen to the happy kid behind the wheel!
Thank-you. Yeah it was time consuming (but fun) digging up the best pictures I could find for this. My scanner became my new best friend.
I had a new’99 T&C LX that ironically we picked over a same year Ford Windstar as we thought the Windstar too noisy. We always thought it was hard to converse with the kids over the general road noise in our T&C. It was a competent people mover that looked a bit too much like my daughter’s Little Family minivan. My wife and I had a hard time getting much out of it emotionally, and traded it for a 2002 Durango, in part to get into boat towing.
We still have the Durango. The T&C was an unusually short ownership period for us. For the record, the Durango is much quieter inside.
No kids, and I still love my golden grocery-getter. Hauls big-screens relatively easily, can take me and a group of people on an outing, and takes just me where I need to go in relative comfort and serenity-all while handling like a decent car and achieving decent gas mileage. Yessir, my fat bottomed girl takes whatever I dish out to her with aplomb. My 1999 Chrysler Town & Country Limited is my second NS, but far and away my favorite (the former being a ’97 Voyager SE). My only complaints are with the coolant lines to the rear heat, the strut-tower rust problem, and the alt belt slipping off in wet weather. All easily fixed, however. The tranny has performed flawlessly, as has the 3.8 liter V6 itself. I don’t really have any anecdotes to share about it, which I guess is a mixed blessing; no interesting stories, but no problems either.
All-in-all, great write-up, Brendan.
I love it! The ’98-’00 “winged” Town & Country always looked best in gold. And those seats in the Limited. Very befitting thrones, down to the “bucket-like” 3rd row bench.
Mine was almost equal, only grey. I loved it, but i had to sell it because of a broken transmission. It was very expensive to fix. Nice minivans, except for that, in my experience.
From the side view, they remind me of the pictures of woman’s womb in the biology textbooks in high school and college.
When we first moved to Atlanta, my father-in-law had a T-115 as a third car, we got to borrow it frequently. I fell in love with that generation of Chrysler minivan. When we moved to Grand Rapids, our kids were 5 and 8, and it was clear our extended cab Dakota and Mercury Topaz were not going to be adequate transportation for all of us. I really wanted a four door pickup truck, my wife wanted an Aztek. Guess who won?
Good friends of ours up here had these when new. He worked for a subsidiary of Daimler Chrysler (at the time) and got the good employee discount on Mopar products. He had a 1999 and a 2002(?) IIRC, both well equipped. We all hung out together, all of our kids were in the same church, soccer, scouts, band, etc. together. I spent a lot of time in their vans and really grew to like them. Even more so than our Azteks.
They liked them so much that when their kids moved out, my buddy’s wife got ANOTHER minivan, this time a 1999 Plymouth Voyager. I had to borrow it last spring, to pick up a large item and for a then-14 year old car, it ran and drove pretty well. They had purchased the car off of Craigslist and it had a few mechanical issues, but they were rectified and the van has been a good runner for them. It looks exactly like the van in the last picture in the post.
I had not been in one for several years and it was something of a revelation to drive it, in the realm of how everything fell to hand instantly. With the 3.3 V6, it had plenty of power and with all of the seats out even the SWB model was positively cavernous. I forgot how much I liked being in and driving them. They were really well thought out vehicles and it showed.
FWIW, I really like the newest version of these vans. I had rented one several years ago for airport duty when my oldest graduated high school. It drove and handled well, I thought for a vehicle with that purpose. I’d have one in a heartbeat, but there are so many other choices out there for empty nesters now. Besides, the wife wants another SUV/CUV once the Aztek dies…
Excellent article Brendan, I figure we must be around the same age. Rather found myself astounded by these upon first sight in 1995 as a kid. My parents were NS owners through about a decade ago and I was photographed (in a Dracula Halloween costume) on the same exact day as your own photo (10/31/1998), standing beside their 1997 Grand Caravan in Deep Amethyst.
What interests me more than anything is that prototype photograph. I figure that photo is from sometime in late 1991. NS development began in early 1990, just as the AS program was in pilot production. On September 23, 1991, the basic NS design concept was approved. The production NS design as we know it, was apparently frozen in May 1992 and 32 months spent on further development and testing through December 26, 1994 (originally discovered this all by myself, not through Wikipedia).
Here’s a video from a 1992 Chrysler documentary “Reinventing Chrysler”, that previewed the NS to the unsuspecting public as a nearly finished clay model! https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=8hVdrBEJILA#t=532.
This footage was nearly 3 years before introduction in 1995, being also about 2 years after upcoming Ford’s WIN88 (Windstar) design was approved and as the Quest/Villager (VX54) went into production. Chrysler designer Don Renkert, is seen sketching it in on paper and might be the guy responsible for it and moreover the 1996 Grand Caravan ES appearance.
Interestingly enough, NS design patents (http://www.google.com/patents/USD360606) filed on November 30, 1993 list so many designers as responsible, so I can see how your claim above makes sense on the melding of “prototypes”/clay models. I actually now work in the automotive industry (hasn’t been a full year yet!) and was somewhat inspired by the initial impression the NS left me as a 4-year old to do so.
Another thing I noticed about the prototype was that it has Viper style taillights! Chrysler really focused on the existent design cues of the Viper, Intrepid, and Stratus when designing the NS in 1991.
Having a transmission fail in my father’s brand new 1999 Chrysler LHS was beyond belief! Here’s a car with less than 4,000 miles on the odometer and the transmission fails shifting from reverse to drive. It’s fortunate that this happened in front of my dad’s house and not on the road somewhere. That LHS was a pretty car but boy was it crappily built. There were a myriad of electrical issues with that car, soft trim that all fell off around the doors and headlights, oil leaks, brake issues, etc. My father traded his LHS three years later for a Toyota Avalon that never skipped a beat. My father always owned American made cars in the past, but after that fiasco with his Chrysler LHS he swore off American made cars for good. He now drives a 2010 Toyota Sienna which is easier to get in and out of.
Great read Brendan, quite literally :). I always wondered why they flipped the taillight from the 99 upside down when they introduced the 2001 model. They had it just right on the 99. The 96:
Haha, that’s my picture I took and used in an article on the Town & Country last winter!
There is a white 2000 short-wheelbase Caravan in our family fleet – my 79 year-old Dad bought it this past spring in order to have a fourth vehicle available. I am currently daily-driving the borrowed Average White Van due to the fact that I purchased a 2006 Nissan Pathfinder last fall without doing my due diligence. Gonna have to suck it up and order that transmission and radiator pretty soon.
The van is a white one with a grey interior, and spent its previous life as an agency-owned hauler-around of people with needs – so it was maintained very well. I agree with everyone above that these continue to be one of the best-looking designs of the minivan era, and it still enjoy its lines as I walk up to it to get in. And it still runs and drives very well – this must have been one of the good ones – and I like the interior space and outward visibility, as well as the fuel mileage. I am actually poking around on the List of Craig these days,, wondering if there are any clean, unrusted ones extant, that sport the factory moonroof . . .
Too bad none of that ballyhooed R&D was applied to the (notoriously pathetic) headlamps.
One other side benefit of the AMC takeover was Francois Castaing and his platform teams. That helped reshape Chrysler’s product development teams to what was described in this article.
Still driving my 1995 Plymouth Voyager, as it beats any SUV on the road with it’s versatility to haul loads.
Mine was comfortable and relatively quiet. I pulled out all the seats, loaded it with my son’s stuff and drove it from coast to coast to coast in six days.
Quality may have improved over previous models, but it was still problematic, even at the end of the model run. Engineering could have been more thought out too. Replacing the cabin air filters (a routine maintenance item) required disassembling the entire windshield wiper linkage.
I owned a 2000 T&C, that model’s fifth year of production, and stuff broke on it that never broke on anything else I ever owned. The leather-wrapped steering wheel and the radio were replaced under warranty. An exterior door handle broke. The plastic skirt around the bottom of the driver’s seat cracked. The AC compressor failed. A couple of interior parts just fell off. Brake wear was atrocious. And, the flywheel! I promise you, I never drag raced the car, but I had to replace the flywheel.
If it worked as well as it looked, it might have been my favorite vehicle ever. Sadly, it didn’t.
While I love me some T115, the NS was absolutely an improvement in just about all facets. Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, the quality just wasn’t there. Of particular note is the 4-speed Ultradrive automatic, which got a bad reputation mainly because of a self-inflicted wound by Chrysler recommending the wrong transmission fluid. It’s amazing with the problems associated with that transmission that it didn’t kill Chrysler outright.
But, for years, because the competition still hadn’t gotten with the program, sub-par Mopar minivans carried the day. Even today, with the admittedly better built Sienna and Odyssey, the now ancient (10 year old) Dodge Grand Caravan continues to sell well with a price thousands less for those on a tight budget.
I see a made a comment on this a few years ago, and since then I’ve rented three minivans on family vacations. With the rental price of three row SUV’s through the roof, the plenty too expensive minivans have been our current go to.
I’ve had two Toyota Siennas, and just a few months ago the all new Chrysler Pacifica. While the NS minivan was an excellent design in its time, there is no doubt the state of the art has moved.
It’s hard to describe how much the 1996 NS was the darling of the upper middle class family set. A staff attorney in our office was one of the first I knew to buy one, his wife loved it. As noted above, I bought new a 1999 T&C and had a mixed bag of impressions. Noisy, no roll down rear door windows, and a third row bench seat that had to be lifted out of the van to move large cargo. Even my 35 year old back hated that seat, I can’t imagine it 20 years later.
Toyota is clearly the van king right now, even in appliance grade rental spec trim it is an amazing vehicle. Truly quiet, awesome spacious interior layout, room for six full-size roller bags in the far back with all the seats in use, and a smooth and bloody powerful V-6.
On one of our several treks on I-15 between Vegas and LA, there was a conversation in the Sienna about how fast I’ve ever driven. (If you’ve never been on I-15, it is America’s Autobahn, the State Patrol itself must realize that the trek across the desert is about dull as it gets.) So, my son asks if I’ve ever driven over 100 mph, and I was in the delicate position of potentially talking about youthful exploits. So, I pointed out that a few minutes earlier we had been at 100 mph and were now cruising at 97 mph. My son was fascinated that we were flying at three figures in a minivan, and my wife had no idea. Looking out the windows, it was apparent that we were merely keeping up with thick traffic – heavy on Suburbans, pick-ups and generally upper price range cars.
The Sienna’s third row seat folds neatly into a deep floor well, making most cargo tasks a breeze. Toyota eschews the Chrysler Stow & Go for the middle row and has much more comfortable second row captain’s chairs. A perfect compromise.
The new Pacifica? Not bad. But it ain’t no Toyota in terms of quality feel. My initial impression was almost that I needed to turn back to the rental garage – my first experience with auto start / stop. That was just miserable in Las Vegas traffic, and the delay made you feel like you might die in a left turn disaster. I didn’t run it long enough to know for sure, but I think it killed the AC compressor as well, but not the fan. In Vegas in July? No thanks. Thankfully, it took just a minute to figure out that one of the dash buttons turned off the start / stop. Unfortunately, each time you started the car, you had to add hitting the shut off to the routine.