In today’s small but steady field of minivan offerings, most brands cover a broad spectrum from spartan to luxurious with numerous trim levels all under one model — the one exception being from Chrysler with its basey fleet-grade Dodge Grand Caravan and now its entry-level Chrysler Voyager that has taken the place of lower-trims of the Chrysler Pacifica. Yet when the minivan was a new and hot segment, with almost every brand hurrying to add one to its lineup, the idea of a dedicated luxury minivan was a reality. In fact two of them emerged at almost the exact same time, each representing very different ideas of what a luxury minivan should be.
On the one end of the spectrum, there was the Chrysler Town & Country. Beating the Oldsmobile Silhouette to the market by just a few months in mid-1989, the 1990 model year Town & Country was a very traditionally-styled, conservatively-minded minivan. A rebadged version of its K-car based Dodge Grand Caravan/Plymouth Grand Voyager siblings, which in short-wheelbase form had been around since 1983, the Town & Country featured inoffensive yet anonymous straight-edged, boxy sheetmetal.
Furthermore, the Chrysler added plenty of costume jewelry such as faux woodgrain siding, ribbed lower body cladding, chrome waterfall grille, stand-up hood ornament, lace-pattern alloy wheels, and loosely-gathered cognac leather seating surfaces. It’s honestly a shocker that the Town & Country didn’t feature a vinyl top, opera lamps, and wire wheel discs. The first Chrysler Town & Country proved just a one year affair, but a new one arrived in 1991, coinciding with the first redesign of its Dodge and Plymouth siblings.
While styling of the 1991 was more rounded and aerodynamic inside and out, the look was very similar to the 1990 model as Chrysler didn’t want to alter its winning formula too much, and all the previous Town & Country’s gingerbread add-ons were retained — including the station wagon-like wood trim which now could be deleted for gold pin striping — continuing its persona as a very conservative luxury minivan.
As North America’s largest automaker, GM hardly sat still on the sidelines through the 1980s as Chrysler fattened its wallets with its highly profitable minivans. GM’s first “bigger is better” rear-wheel drive Astro/Safari twins did little in chipping away at Chrysler’s market dominance, but its second crack at it was a much closer copy of Chrysler’s winning formula, at least on paper. After all, How hard can it be to make a minivan?
With its new U-body minivans, GM saw itself poised to gain a large portion of Chrysler’s market share. Like Chrysler, GM’s first front-wheel drive minivan was sold under three separate divisions, enabling for greater distribution and a wider range of prices, personalities, and appeal. Also like Chrysler, one of these three variants was positioned as a luxury model, in the form of the Oldsmobile Silhouette. Versus the Town & Country, the Silhouette was at the complete opposite end of the luxury spectrum, possessing none of the Town & Country’s traditional K-car qualities. Little did we know, this wouldn’t necessarily be a positive.
On the positive, the Silhouette, like its Chevrolet Lumina APV and Pontiac Trans Sport siblings, sought to be more innovative and family-friendly, with features such as dent-resistant polymer plastic body panels, an available rear air inflation kit with hose, and modular rear seats that could be individually removed and reconfigured for numerous flexible seating arrangements.
In the Silhouette, seven passenger seating was standard in the somewhat unusual for a North American minivan 2+3+2 configuration, while even more unusually, six passenger seating was an optional package for its first several years. When specified, this 2+2+2 seating configuration replaced the three middle row modular seats with two outboard-positioned modular seats with integral armrests for greater comfort, and a center walk-through aisle to the third row. Perforated leather seat upholstery was optional, though curiously when optioned, door trim panels remained cloth.
More obvious, while the Town & Country was comfortably conservative and familiar in appearance, the Silhouette radiated radical styling with one of the most ambitious exterior and interior designs of its time for any vehicle. Based on the 1986 Pontiac Trans Sport concept car, the dramatic space aged styling was unlike anything that came out of Detroit before.
When it came down to the details, at least Oldsmobile didn’t grace the plastic sides of the Silhouette with simulated wood trim, as was de rigueur on the Town & Country. In lieu of vinyl wood trim, Oldsmobile applied a thick band of black stripes just above the bodyside moldings. Large “SILHOUETTE” decals also graced the rear of each side and the trunk, and a black painted roof was standard, giving the illusion of a glass roof as in the original concept. Unfortunately the concept’s overall styling did not translate to the production version quite so favorably, leading to a rather memorable nickname.
Now nicknames can be a good thing, but this one really sucked. As it’s well-known, the side-profile view of these minivans greatly evoked the shape of the Dustbuster, Black & Decker’s popular handheld cordless vacuum, garnering the nickname “Dustbuster minivans”. In fact, after styling, this nickname is easily the most memorable aspect of the Silhouette et al.
The Silhouette, however, earned a much more favorable nickname from the 1995 comedy film Get Shorty, where it was proclaimed “The Cadillac of Minivans”. Prominent product placement in the film also highlighted its unique feature of a remote power-sliding door, a minivan first.
Nicknames and movie stars aside, it is clear to see that luxury minivan buyers didn’t warm up to Silhouette’s shape and styling, gravitating in far greater numbers to the more conventional Chrysler Town & Country. Overall, GM’s “Dustbuster” U-body didn’t do much to Chrysler’s market dominance, with Chrysler minivans continuing to sell better than ever during the early-to-mid 1990s. These days, few beyond the community of automotive enthusiasts even remember the Silhouette and its siblings. When it came to the defining the “luxury minivan”, it’s clear to see which original competitor won.
Photos Credits to Chris Green, Will Jackson, and SoCalMetro