(first posted 9/2/2011) This is the second installment of an occasional series called How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan?
What do you do when you are the most conservative of the three major car companies and both of your domestic competitors are working on small vans? Chrysler is the farthest along with a program, and is basing it on a front drive K-car platform. GM is about a year behind them, but is working on a shrunken version of its big van. Following GM is normally the better bet, but a lot of good former Ford people are running the Chrysler program, and they may have something there. You are Ford, so you try to split the difference, of course. This, in essence, was the Aerostar. Did it work? Well, yes. And no.
By the early 1980s, Ford knew a thing or two about building vans. Ford had overtaken Chrysler as the leader in this market with its E series. The Club Wagon (the passenger version of the Econoline) was the most car-like of the big vans at the time, both in driving dynamics and in passenger accommodations. If the market was going to move to smaller vans, Ford was well positioned to become a leader.
In a way, Ford had a little bit of a jump on the competition. In the early 1970s, Ford explored the idea of a smaller, garagable van, that resulted in a 1972 prototype called the Carousel. (Paul Niedermeyer did a piece on the Carousel which can be read here.) Not a minivan, really, but you must admit that some of the styling cues were picked up when designers got to work on what would become the Aerostar.
Like the Chevrolet Astro (CC here), the Aerostar would be rear wheel drive. Officially, this was because the product planners were convinced that trailer towing would be an important feature for this market. Unofficially, the configuration was necessitated by Ford’s almost complete lack of any experience in front wheel drive, thus a total lack of platforms suitable for conversion into a van. Although the Aerostar technically shared its platform with no other vehicle (it was a unit body with a built-in frame for added strength), it drew heavily from the Ranger/Bronco and from the Fox platforms in general layout if not in actual parts. The rear suspension, for example, was a coil sprung live axle, much like in the Mustang, a much more car-like setup than the Astro’s leaf spring suspension.
Dimensionally, the Aerostar was tall like the Astro, and narrow like the Caravan. At 119 inches, it had the longest wheelbase of them all (the same as a ’65 Country Squire), but was right in with the rest of the pack in overall length. So again, the Aerostar was Mr. Average. The Aerostar did, however, stand out in one metric: its wedge profile gave it the lowest drag coefficient (.37) of any of the first generation minivans.
The other thing that you will do, just because you are Ford, is to offer the vehicles with a wide but compromise-ridden range of engines. There would be the troublesome and underpowered 2.8 liter Cologne V6, the torquey but head-gasket-munching 4.0 Cologne V6, and the overmatched but very durable 3.0 liter Vulcan V6. There would be a 4 cylinder mill offered initially, but it would be gone by 1987. Interestingly, the Aerostar was offered with manual transmissions for most of its run.
Among the Detroit 3, the Aerostar was the last minivan to the party, making its debut in July of 1985 as a 1986 model. This was nearly a year after the Astro was introduced and about two years behind the Caravan and Voyager. The Aerostar promptly grabbed the number 3 minivan sales slot (behind the Astro and WAY behind the Chrysler minis), where it remained through the rest of the 1980s. Then, a funny thing happened. Shortly after the 1989 extended version (same long wheelbase but with another 14 inches out back) was introduced, the Aerostar started gaining on the Astro and passed it in sales after 1990. I have found no firsthand figures, but at least one secondhand source reports that the Aerostar continued to sell 100 thousand units a year right up to the end of its life.
As a machine, the Aerostar was not nearly so compelling a vehicle as the Astro. But from a comfort, convenience and perceived quality standpoint, the Aerostar took on a lot of those thoughtful, luxurious features of the Chrysler minivans, and put them into something that would tow a trailer almost as well as the Astro. Let me tell you from experience, the second row captains chairs and the rear stereo controls with headphone jacks were mighty impressive back in the day.
We should not overlook the Eddie Bauer effect. In 1988, Ford slapped the Eddie Bauer name on the Aerostar and made it a luxury van. This was 2 years before Chrysler put leather in a Caravan and called it a Town & Country, and 2 years before the Explorer hit the scene. Older readers will also recall that Ford was on a quality roll (or at least a perceived quality roll) in the second half of the 1980s and early 90s, and the Aerostar seemed to fit under that halo. Like most other Ford vehicles, the Aerostar felt solid and substantial. It looked, felt and sounded like a quality-built vehicle, much more so than did the Astro or the Caravan/Voyager.
By the mid 90s, the Aerostar had gotten so much of a second wind that when Ford announced plans to kill it after the 1994 model (to be replaced by the 1995 Windstar), dealers and the public raised such a ruckus that the car’s execution was stayed until the end of the 1997 model year, which was the longest it could be legally sold without an interior re-design for a passenger side air bag.
But beauty fades, and it faded in the Aerostar’s case faster than most. Where are they now? While old Astros and Safaris are still found in daily service everywhere, Aerostars have become mighty scarce. The Cologne engine’s appetite for head gaskets certainly did not help. If you must pick a vehicle that is hard on head gaskets, never, ever pick a minivan with a longitudinal engine. Even more so, this little van turned into one of the biggest rustbuckets since the ’71 LTD. Maybe Ford used more early ’70s Carousel body engineering than was apparent on the surface. Whatever the cause, Aerostars have gone virtually extinct in salt country.
But not completely extinct. I had to search for a while to find one, but I found the blue extended length version first. Although a bit rusty, this 1992-95(?) model is not bad as midwestern Aerostars go. But the real find was the green shortie, which I saw parked in a Sam’s Club parking lot. I dropped my wife at the door of the store, then drove out to the parked Aerostar just as the owner was getting in. The owner chose to remain anonymous, and it is a good thing, because he is the Aerostar Whisperer. If his identity were made public, his street would become like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Aerostar owners converging from everywhere, begging him to touch and heal their rusting, leaking vans. He bought his green 1995 model new at Larry Bird Ford (yes, that Larry Bird) in Martinsville, Indiana, and it currently has 198 thousand miles on the Vulcan V6, which he attributes to regular 3 thousand mile oil changes. He bought this one to replace an ’86 Aerostar that had reached 392 thousand miles. The current car was rustproofed by Ziebart, and was he was religious about subsequent inspections and refresher treatments. If there is a nicer Aerostar anywhere outside of Texas or California, it belongs in a Ripley’s Museum.
So what is this vehicle’s legacy? As with the Astro, the Aerostar gets a pass for failing to follow the Chrysler front drive car-based platform that proved to be the runaway winner. That the public would flock to car-like minis was not so apparent in the mid 1980s, and Ford’s choice of platform was a reasonable choice at the time. Unfortunately, Ford did what Ford has done so many other times: Make a really appealing vehicle that looks good on paper, looks even better in the showroom, but looks like a complete loser as a 10 year old used car. I will confess that I came very close to trading my ’94 Club Wagon on a slightly newer Aerostar with the 4.0. But I decided to keep my existing ride, and thus kept my garage free of ticking time bombs.
With the Aerostar, Ford tried to split the difference between the Astro and the Chrysler minivan. It almost succeeded, and even became (for a while) the preferred rear drive minivan on the strength of its luxury and its apparent quality. But some of us age better than others. For every Jennifer Aniston, there is a Lindsay Lohan. Cars are no different, and the Aerostar aged badly. If you choose very carefully (a dry western car with the Vulcan V6), this is still not a bad minivan. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against the Aerostar buyer today. It is a sad thing when a vehicle makes the transition from transportation to punch line. The Aerostar, unfortunately, has largely completed the leap.