(first posted 11/9/2017) In today’s day and age, minivans are not frequently looked upon in a positive light. Despite being among the most versatile and space-efficient people movers, minivans tend to make both men and women, old and young alike cringe at the very mention of them, for reasons I personally can’t fully understand. While decidedly not an enthusiast vehicle, apart from the fact that some modern minivans such as the Honda Odyssey look more “minibus”-like, I truthfully see the minivan in no worse light than I do mainstream CUVs/SUVs, which is not the case for most — just look at crossover sales versus minivan sales in the U.S. over the past decade.
While most brands have in fact stopped producing minivans altogether in favor of one or several crossovers, it should be noted that Chrysler is the only mainstream brand in the U.S. that does not sell a crossover while still offering a minivan. In fact, Chrysler put in a rather significant amount of investment into its newly-introduced sixth-generation minivan to confidently reclaim its status as the industry benchmark. Somewhat ironically, it is now just sold as the newly reincarnated Chrysler Pacifica, a name last applied to Chrysler’s crossover.
Chrysler’s commitment to the minivan comes as little surprise however, as after all Chrysler created the very first minivan, and crossovers owe a great deal of their very existence to the minivan. The story of the Chrysler minivans’ development, which largely encompasses the modern minivan’s creation as a class of vehicle, is widely known due to its significance, and has been told in great detail here before by Paul.
Released in 1983 as 1984 models, the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan created an entirely new segment in the industry that has had lasting influence, even if the minivan’s popularity and general desirability has declined from its zenith at 1.4 million units in 2001. As North America’s first front-wheel drive minivans, the T-115, as it was known internally during development, offered a trifecta of space efficiency, fuel efficiency, and affordability that full size vans, wagons, and SUVs could not match.
Using the Chrysler K platform as a basis (the minivans’ EEK platform was officially designated the Chrysler S platform), along with K’s powertrain and a large percentage of its components allowed the automaker to keep developmental costs down. The bulk of the minivans’ budget went towards their bodies, which shared no common sheet metal with the K-cars.
A testament to space efficiency, the S-minivans rode on a 12-inch longer wheelbase than a comparable Aries/Reliant wagon, yet were externally several inches shorter, several inches wider, and nearly a foot taller, resulting in greater passenger capacity and nearly double the interior volume with the rear seats removed. Furthermore, the lack of any transmission “hump” intrusion made for an entirely flat floor, something not found in any comparable vehicle.
Standard seating was for five, consisting of two front buckets and a three-person bench in the rear with a foldable seat back. Tracks in the floor allowed the rear bench to be repositioned fore or aft up to 6.5 inches for greater cargo or passenger space, or completely removed via its quick-release latch floor anchors.
Seven-passenger seating in 2+2+3 configuration was optional on midlevel SE and luxury LE models by adding a fixed-back middle-row bench positioned towards the driver’s side for easy third-row access. Beginning in 1985, SE models were available with a front bench seat, making for either six (3+3) or eight (3+2+3) passenger configurations.
Going on sale in the fourth quarter of 1983, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were met with instant success. With the first completed minivan, a Plymouth Voyager, rolling off the assembly line on November 2, 1983, there were 19,397 minivans were delivered in 1983 alone, with another 190,516 in 1984 making for a combined total of 209,895 first-year models sold. Surpassing the automaker’s break-even point of 155,000 units per year, it was clear that Chrysler was onto something with its innovative new vehicle.
The minivan’s success and popularity made it one of the key vehicles to Chrysler’s rebound and profitability during the 1980s, a startling contrast to its situation only a few years prior. In more ways than one, the T-115 was Chrysler’s “Magic Wagon”, a term used in initial press and advertising material, which never caught on in favor of the term “minivan”.
Not taking the minivan’s success for granted, Chrysler made consistent improvements and refinements to the Voyager and Caravan on a regular basis. The aforementioned available front bench came along in 1985, along with the “Convert-a-bed” fully reclining three-person rear bench, and the “Magic Camper” package which added an attachable 8’x10′ tent.
1986 saw the addition of electronic cruise control and a few new colors schemes, but far more significant changes came in 1987, in the form of a substantial mid-cycle refresh. Externally, Voyagers were now distinguished by composite headlamps, along with a new grille, taillights, and wheel options. Inside, a mild refresh included new upholstery fabrics, an available full-height center stack with additional lower storage console, and restyled front door panels which eliminated the “casket handle” door pulls on LE models.
Midway through the 1987 model year, the Voyager’s engine lineup was completely overhauled. A larger 2.5-liter version of Chrysler’s aptly named “K” inline-4 replaced the 2.2L K as the standard engine, for small gains of 4 horsepower and 16 lb-ft of torque. Likewise, the previously optional 2.6L Mitsubishi-sourced I4 gave way to a 3.0L Mitsubishi V6, for gains of 32 horsepower and 26 lb-ft torque, and notable as the first such application of a V6 in a K-car relative.
The biggest change reserved for a late-1987 introduction was the addition of an extended-length body style, christened the Grand Voyager. Riding on a 7-inch longer wheelbase with a length increase of 15 inches overall, the Grand Voyager, available only in SE and LE trims, added 15 additional cubic feet of cargo volume for seven-passenger models with seats in-place and a total of 25 cubic feet of cargo volume with all rear seats removed.
1987 also marked the year when total cumulative sales of Chrysler’s minivans reached and surpassed the one million mark — a substantial feat for only four years on the market. Adding the Grand Voyager and Grand Caravan helped total Chrysler minivan sales increase by roughly 30 percent in 1988, their first full year on the market. 1988 also saw combined Dodge/Plymouth sales top 400,000 units for the first time ever.
Despite their humble and rather simplistic origins, the funny thing about Chrysler’s minivans is that their formula and success was something competitors found very difficult to replicate. General Motors and FordMoCo quickly responded to the Voyager/Caravan with their Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari and Ford Aerostar competitors, but in typical American fashion, pursued the “bigger is better approach”, with significantly wider and taller rear-wheel drive competitors.
Lacking the car-like handling, space-efficiency, and maneuverability, these “shrunken full size vans” barely made a dent in Chrysler’s dominance of the segment. Later front-wheel drive entries from GM, Ford, and other manufacturers had slightly more success, but still did little to topple Chrysler’s leadership and popularity in the minivan segment, a segment which Chrysler virtually created and one that was becoming ever-important to the U.S. automobile industry.
Along with sport utility vehicles, which were slowly rising in popularity over the course of the 1980s, the minivan completely changed the landscape of family vehicles in the United States. Most popular with adults 35-50 year of age with children, the minivan effectively replaced the full size station wagon as the preferred and soon somewhat stereotypical “soccer mom/dad car” in the U.S.
Constituting nearly 20 percent of total vehicle sales in the U.S. in the early 1960s, sales of station wagons, particularly full size station wagons, had been on the decline since the mid-1970s. This was largely a result of the fluctuating gas prices, manufacturers including Chrysler reducing their station wagon offerings, and above all, the desire of the baby boomer generation to drive something different than what their parents drove.
In 1982, “minivan” sales in the U.S. totaled only 12,847, consisting of the very un-minivan like Volkswagen’s Vanagon, which was rear-engined, rear-wheel drive. By 1984, after the introduction of the Voyager/Caravan duo, as well as the much un-minivan like Toyota Van, minivan sales in the U.S. totaled 257,196. By 1990, minivan sales in the U.S. had reached 933,630 units, with 40.1 percent of those coming from Chrysler.
While the early-1990s recession reduced all new vehicle sales in the U.S., the ensuing booming economy, continuous improvement of the minivan formula, and greater amount of competitive offerings than ever helped minivan sales in the U.S. steadily rise throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, peaking at just under 1.4 million in 2001.
Despite high sales of both the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, it should be noted that the Voyager was one of the first Plymouths outsold by its Dodge counterpart. Historically, Plymouth, as Chrysler’s value-oriented brand always outsold Dodge by a large amount. As the years progressed, however, with Dodges and Plymouths becoming more and more similar to the point of existing as identical products with a different badge, Dodge began outselling Plymouth, largely a result of its more effective marketing and perceived higher status and thus value proposition.
1982 was the last year in which more Plymouths were sold than Dodges, with the gap between the two brands, as well as the Voyager and Caravan, widening as the decade progressed. The fact that minivans were classified by the EPA as light trucks and not cars makes it more difficult to obtain exact sales figures, especially as it’s often hard to distinguish if numbers are production numbers, model year sales or calendar year sales.
However, through an achieved study on 1990 model year vehicle fuel efficiency conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1991, sales figures appear consistent with other sales and production figures found from other sources. By this featured car’s 1990 model year, the last of the first generation, Chrysler sold a total of 390,306 of its S-minivans, consisting of 200,450 Caravans/Grand Caravans, 175,518 Voyagers/Grand Voyagers, 11,287 of cargo-only Dodge Mini Ram Van, and just 3,051 examples of the newly-introduced Chrysler Town & Country, the latter an even lower number than the amount of Chrysler’s TC by Maserati roadsters sold that year.
In today’s age of minivan aversion, the sheer significance and lasting influence of the minivan is something that’s oft forgotten. In truth, however, the minivan was nothing short of monumental. A car that completely revolutionized the automobile industry, with its innovative combination of compact car-like maneuverability and exterior size, full size van-like versatility, and full size station wagon-like interior capacity, the minivan’s most lasting effect is what’s now the hottest vehicle segment in the United States: crossover utility vehicles.
Combining the versatility and functionality of a minivan with the more macho looks, and sometimes, the capability of a traditional SUV, crossovers are fast becoming the most popular type of vehicle, at least in the United States. One has to wonder how the modern crossover would differ, had it not been for the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, the original minivans.
Photographed: South Weymouth, Massachusetts – October 2017