(first posted 8/10/2011)
“Memo to Chevrolet Product Planning from GM Central Committee, January 1984: Gentlemen, it appears that Chrysler has stumbled upon something with its Hail Mary minivan. Poor, desperate, stupid Chrysler. They jerry-rigged a K car and actually hit on an idea. Even a blind pig finds an acorn every once in a while. Although we are still not sure that these are really necessary, if this is what people want, our Astro/Safari program will give them a real one. Our mini-van must be bigger and more powerful, which is what people REALLY want. How hard can it be to make a minivan?”
I made this memo up, of course, but it seems that this is exactly what went through the minds of GM product planners during the gestation period of the Chevrolet Astro. As was becoming a habit, GM couldn’t have been more wrong.
It is familiar history that when Chrysler introduced the minivan in 1984, we were all introduced to a new concept – the small car-based van. Although there had been many people-moving variations on small commercial vans in the past, nobody before Chrysler designed a vehicle with the utility of a van and the driving ease and comfort of a passenger car. This was some new thinking in response to CAFE and the high fuel prices that were fresh in everyone’s memory. The question faced by everyone else in the auto industry was this: Was the Chrysler concept really an answer to a question that nobody had considered but that everyone would be asking? Or was Chrysler’s minivan a desperate company’s doomed attempt to build a small van off of an unsuitable platform because it was the only one available? GM went with the second option.
Vans had become very popular in the 1970s, but were limited in their appeal due to their large size and truck-like ride and handling. After 1979, their fuel-guzzling ways began the vehicles’ slow demise. So, for engineers and product planners steeped in the old paradigms, the 1985 Astro almost designed itself. Take all the features of the popular Chevy van and make it 25% smaller. The unit structure was a clean sheet design, to which the engineers attached a subframe with a front suspension largely borrowed from the B body station wagon. Although the Iron Duke 4 cylinder was offered, the mainstay would be the 4.3 liter Vortec V6, which was itself 3/4 of the venerable 350 V8.
The 1985 Astro (and its twin, the GMC Safari) turned out to be everything that the Caravan/Voyager was not. It was larger, came with V6 power and a traditional rear drive platform, and had a substantially higher tow and payload capacity (it was rated to tow up to 6,000 pounds vs. 2,000 for the Chrysler twins). In short, instead of a minivan, it was a mini-Van.
This distinction was not lost on Lee Iacocca, who drove the point home in a confrontational 1985 print ad. Although Chrysler was making the hard hits in its advertising, it needn’t have: The Caravan and Voyager continued to be the Magic Wagon by hitting a real sweet spot in the marketplace, and the Astro would never give it a serious challenge. Once the sales numbers started to roll in, GM hit the reset button and started work on a passenger car-based minivan to finally put that upstart Chrysler back in its place.
Sales and production figures are hard to come by on these, but a January 19, 1994 article from the Baltimore Sun indicated that Chrysler’s share of the minivan market was 48% in 1992, while the GM vans reached 24%. The problem was that this figure included both this vehicle AND the dustbuster triplets (Lumina APV, Trans Sport and Silhouette), then in their third year. Worse, Chrysler could have sold more but for capacity constraints.
Our younger readers may not have any idea how humiliating this must have been to GM. In the early 1980s, GM was the 800 pound gorilla of the U.S. auto industry. The Chevrolet Division had a dealer network second to none, and was the beneficiary of the widespread belief (particularly in the middle 2/3 of the U.S.) that nobody built a vehicle as well as GM did. For Chrysler to overcome a much smaller dealer network and a 25 year reputation for inferior quality and bad resale value and STILL outsell GM’s offering (and by a lot) must have been seen as the car industry’s equivalent of Barney Fife administering a beat down to Hulk Hogan.
A funny thing happened, though. As with the Suburban that was beginning to catch fire in the mid ’80s, the Astro/Safari sort of backed into a small but significant niche. Although never really competitive with Chrysler’s concept of a minivan, the Astro and Safari became a steady seller to those who needed most of the capability of a large van or Suburban but in a more compact size. As both a passenger and a cargo vehicle, this little truck was built for 21 model years with but a single significant refresh in 1995.
The Astro reminds me of the GM B body in a lot of ways. First, it was a solid, durable vehicle. The inherent goodness of the Chevrolet small block V8 came through the translation into Vortec pretty much intact. The structure was reasonably solid, and these were quite resistant to corrosion (much moreso than the big Chevy van or the competing Aerostar). There are still a lot of these on the road. I found both of these very nice examples within days of each other. This little van became almost Ford-like in its long life with basically zero investment from its maker. It is virtually impossible to distinguish an ’85 from a ’94. The blue one is probably a ’93 or ’94 due to the steering wheel with an airbag. The gray one – who knows? – although the ABS badge on the rear probably puts it into the early 90s.
We cannot ignore the Astro’s one glaring weakness, real or perceived – the 1996 crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Let’s just say that the vehicle did not do well. But in fairness, there were very few vehicles tested in the mid 1990s that had been designed to truck standards of the early ’80s. The test result did the Astro no favors, but the little truck still managed to hang around for another 9 model years (through 2005).
The Astro became GM’s first failed attempt to go man on man with the Chrysler minivan. But still, GM’s approach was not an unreasonable one in 1985 when the target had not really come into focus yet. The Astro was both a unique vehicle and a good one that charmed a lot of owners over its many years. There are a lot of these still out in daily service where most of the other contemporary minivans (including the Chryslers) have all but disappeared. The Astro was a failure as a minivan, but had a long and successful career as a little-big van. I wonder if Lee Iacocca would be so hard on it now?