(first posted 5/20/2016) GM struggled in many market sectors during its decades-long decline, but none more than the minivan segment. Given that this segment was expanding rapidly, had high transaction prices and healthy profit potential, GM’s utter failure to find any success in it is almost bizarre and inexplicable, but GM ended up walking away from the minivan market after consistently under-performing. Why?
There are two primary reasons GM vehicles have failed. They either arrived with deadly flaws in their quality/reliability, like the Vega, Citation and quite a few other models. Or they were conceived in GM’s notorious bubble of hubris, where its product planners and designers were seemingly perpetually stuck in a Jetsons-Futurama mind set, convinced that they could wow Americans with more advanced design and technology. What Americans really want is a minivan that looks like a space shuttle! Not.
It’s not like minivans or compact vans were an alien concept to GM. In fact GM pioneered the idea of the modern American FWD minivan, way back in 1955 with their GMC L’Universelle concept (DKW had been building their FWD Schnellaster minivan since 1949). It was shown in GM’s traveling three-ring circus, the 1955 Motorama. Like so many GM concepts, it had lots of wow factor, but was intrinsically and profoundly flawed. As in: it couldn’t even move under its own power.
The L’Universelle had a front-mid mounted Pontiac V8 engine, which in theory drove the front wheels through a transaxle. Said transaxle was actually non-functioning, so the L’Universelle was a “pusher”, meaning it had to be pushed from its transporter into the Motorama exhibit hall,
just like GM’s other FWD concept in 1955, the LaSalle II roadster. Look America; we already have two non-functioning FWD vehicles! Just wait until 1980 when we start building non-functional FWD cars by the millions!
The L’Universelle’s lack of a working transaxle was just as well. Its roof-mounted intakes for the inboard radiators was undoubtedly equally impractical. It’s not like it ever had a chance to be tested…
What shall we make of the 1961 Corvair Greenbrier? It too was a commercial dud, but it’s story is a bit more complicated. It had many redeeming qualities, and we sang its praise here. But it wasn’t what the van market was asking for, which was then focused on more utilitarian truck-like vans, rather than refined passenger-car like ones. The Ford Econoline had the right idea, if not the right dynamic qualities. But during the 60s and 70s, if Americans wanted a big, roomy family hauler, they turned to station wagons.
That all changed explosively, beginning in 1984, thanks to Chrysler’s new minivans. The combination of higher gas prices and a new generation of young baby boomer parents who didn’t want to drive the wagons they grew up in made these very compelling, and Chrysler struggled for years to keep up with demand.
Clearly the appeal of the Chrysler minivans was their unparalleled space utilization and flexibility combined with genuine passenger-car dynamics and economy. This was the recipe; and their styling was as utilitarian as their function.
And no major maker could afford to not compete in this explosive new segment; most of all, GM.
So what did they come up with? A classic GM Motorama solution, and about as practical as the glass-bubbled turbine-engined Firebird II. The 1986 Pontiac Trans Sport concept was a space cadet’s version of a minivan, with a giant glass bubble front end, and…
Fold-up gull wing doors! Ask Tesla how good of an idea those are. Ok, it was a classic GM show-circuit concept, but the direction it pointed to in terms of their eventual production minivan was highly questionable.
Needless to say, some of those features didn’t exactly make it into the production minivans, which arrived in the fall of 1989 for the 1990 model year. But some did, all too obviously. There were three versions: Chevy’s Lumina APV,
Pontiac’s Trans Sport,
and the Olds Silhouette.
They were clearly all the same except for slight changes to the front end styling and other details, like Pontiac’s trademark exaggerated side cladding of the times.
The most obvious feature of these vans are their extremely long noses, the huge low-slope windshield, and the set-back front seats. The combination of the three created a very distinctive visual effect from the outside that caused them almost instantly to be dubbed “Dustbusters”.
The effect from the front seats was also disconcerting, as there was a ledge in front of the dashboard that seemed to go on for eternity, creating the feeling of sitting in the second row of more typical minivan. It would have made a nice platform for a bed if these were autonomous.
OK; from the perspective of today, none of this seems quite so radical anymore, but the key thing is that most car buyers are actually rather conservative. They’ll get there eventually, but don’t rush them. Which is exactly what GM was doing. And buyers resisted it.
It was the 1934 Chrysler Airflow all over, a mistake all of Detroit vowed never to make again. But GM just couldn’t resist.
Fortunately, GM committed only one of its two typical deadly sins with these, as they are generally considered to be reasonably reliable, given their source. The plastic exterior body panels don’t rust, and the GM V6 engines and transaxles of this era are mostly free of serious issues. The first few years were only available with the 120 hp 3.1 L V6, making them none to exciting or sporty, despite their looks or names. The 3800 V6 came along a few years later, which made them about as well-powered as any of the minivans of the times.
The negative reaction to the exaggerated long nose was all-too obvious, and GM made a rather desperate attempt to make the front end look a bit more conventional with a 1994 restyle on the Lumina and Trans Sport, cutting their noses by three inches and grafting more upright Bonneville-type lights to them. But look how utterly disjointed that only slightly-changed front bumper looks. This came from the GM Design Center?
GM knew these were a (dust)bust, and made one of the most resolute 180 degree turns in design history. Don’t like adventuresome styling in a minivan? We’ll give you the most conservative, dull and boring minivan the world has ever seen! And so they did, with the new 1997 generation, which gave the Chevy version the new name of Venture. As if. These are the most forgettable, generic boxes on wheels ever made. When is the last time you noticed one?
These new U-platform minivans were designed in conjunction with Opel, as the Chrysler minivans were hot in Europe, along with the Renault Espace and even the Euro-version of the Trans Sport.
That was actually a Olds Silhouette with Pontiac badging, and with four cylinder gas and diesel engines. Of course the French loved it; GM was barking right up their tree.
Opel wanted in too, with the Sintra, so with their input, this new generation was narrower than would have been otherwise the case. That did not help in the US, as everything was inevitably getting bigger. But the poor passive safety ratings of these new GM vans in Europe and the US tanked the Sintra in safety-conscious Germany all-too quickly, and now GM was stuck with an overly-narrow van for the US.
With perfect GM timing, this all happened one year after Chrysler unleashed their new minivans for 1996, which went in exactly the opposite direction. They were much more dynamically styled, with a more aerodynamic sloped hood and windshield, and they were decidedly larger (and wider) too. But incrementally so, not radically. GM had totally screwed themselves by trying to imitate a more than ten-year old design. It’s comparable to GM benchmarking the gen1 Honda Accord for their new J-Car Cavalier, which then came out after the much improved gen2 Accord came out. Not they came close to matching the gen1, for that matter.
It was a death spiral that kept repeating at GM: failing to grasp the real reason why the market leaders were successful, desperately imitating certain aspects of them, falling well short, then making it even worse by retreating to a more defensive position.
The Venture eventually lost its Pep-Boys worthy cheap bright grille, but it was dead meat. It could be found on rental car lots, but who bought a Venture retail? Don’t answer…we don’t disparage owners of cars here.
In 2005, trying (vainly) to catch some of the hot new crossover fever sweeping the land, GM grafted huge new noses on the U-boats, and had the temerity to dub them “Crossover Sport Vans”. Nobody bought into that pathetic ruse. And no need to go into that here, as Brendan Saur has already covered that in GM’s Deadly Sin #24, the Buick Terraza.
The U-Platform also spawned the Buick Rendezvous and Pontiac Aztek; the less said about those two, the better, although the Aztek has become quite fashionable again in certain quarters, thanks to Breaking Bad and the perspective of time. Stephanie now wants one.
We may have seen the last of the U-Platform vans in the US, but they’re still going strong in China, as the Buick GL8. Isn’t it GR8? This is the first generation, built from 2000 to 2010, called the GL8 First Land.
It was restyled in 2010 as the GL8 Business Edition. Isn’t it even GR8er? No worries about it coming back here, though; the platform is too old to meet our safety regs; never mind the marketplace. But it’s nice to know that someone is still appreciating it, and GM must be happy to have gotten some more mileage out of this platform, which has to be one of their oldest still being built.
Well, GM has at least found a modicum of success in the minivan field, even if it is in China. Because it utterly struck out in the US, which has to have been one of their Deadliest Sins ever. No wonder the minivans—I mean Crossover Sport Vans—died in 2009 right along with the parent company. The New GM was thankfully spared that hot mess, and I rather suspect it will be a while before GM considers getting back in the game. If ever.