Curbside Classic: 1986 Nissan Stanza Wagon (Prairie/Multi) – The First Modern Mini-Van

(first posted 3/9/2011)   The origin myth of the mini-van is as complicated as evolution itself. No, God is not responsible (he does take credit for the ’59 Caddy, though). It might be a lot easier to unravel if he did. But I’m deeply drawn to compact boxes on wheels and their place in history for some inexplicable reason (I do drive one, after all). Maybe being tall is part of it. But there’s more; something about the pursuit of maximum interior space while casting a small (and rectangular) shadow. Although the modern mini-van had historical precursors, ultimately what we know today as the genre did have a definite beginning. You’re looking at it.

There are two trans-Atlantic heresies about the origins of the modern mini-van/MPV. The American version credits Chrysler’s Caravan/Voyager twins (1984).

The European version credits the Renault Espace (also 1984). They’re both wrong.

Of course, the VW bus, and other utility vans precede these, but they’re in a different class. Their origins in Europe were primarily as commercial vans and buses, and were not particularly compact for their times. There’s a reason the VW called itself “micro-bus.” The driving position, performance and handling dynamics were distinctly un-car like. The gap between cars and micro-buses was just waiting to be exploited.

The quest for innovative and efficient packaging of humans has been a recurring quest of star-designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.

His first stab at a modern “people mover” came in 1976, when his New York Taxi Concept won a competition by the Museum of Modern Art.  That led to the definitive 1978 Lancia Megagamma (above), the first true modern MPV. Look familiar?

With a 140hp Subaru-like 2.5-liter boxer four, the Megagamma for the first time offered near-luxury performance, comfort and space in a compact package. Lancia didn’t have the balls or resources to put it into production. But Nissan did, in 1981.

Not exactly as penned by the Ital Design master, but pretty close. And not only did they copy the Megagamma, but also improved on it in a very innovative way. By using sliding doors on both sides and totally eliminating the “B” pillar, access became . . . Axxess. The Prairie was a veritable origami-mobile, including clever slide-out storage compartments (under the seats) and so many hidden nooks and cubbies that some owners keep stumbling onto new ones years later.

Sold initially in Japan (1981) and in Europe (1983), the renamed Stanza Wagon finally made it to the US for 1986, presumably in response to the Caravan. Odd about that name change too, since prairies are more associated with America than Japan.

In 1985, I was managing a new start-up TV station in Los Angeles. We needed some vehicles for our news crews. I had seen a picture of a tricked-out Prairie used by a Japanese network, with a complete ultra-miniaturized control room for remote production. Cool, but we couldn’t afford anything like that or even live feeds. But when a Nissan dealer offered us cars in trade for advertising, I picked a handful of these Stanza wagons. The news crews second-guessed me big-time, presumably out of feelings of inferiority to the big Econolines all the other stations used.

But the compact and efficient Prairies earned their grudging respect. And despite their best efforts to destroy them, the tall-boy wagons wore like iron. Some of them had well over 200k miles on them before they were retired.

Eugene attracts folks that come here for qualities other than . . . high paying corporate jobs. Many are escapees from California and other crowded locales looking for a simpler (and cheaper) lifestyle in a beautiful setting. And they prefer the older close-in neighborhoods that accommodate bicycling, busing or walking to work at the University or some research institute or non-profit organization downtown. Or they make hemp tie-dye underwear to sell at Eugene’s famous Saturday Market. Or just make hemp.

The point is, folks here tend to gravitate to practical, boxy, durable cars, with four-wheel drive when possible, to get them to their favorite weekend hiking, camping, beach or skiing spot. There is a whole genre of distinctive vintage “Eugene-mobiles”. The Stanza Wagon is a prime example; there’s gobs of them around. But good luck trying to find a similar vintage Stanza sedan. I know; I’ve been looking for one for ages.

The fact that the Stanza/Prairie also came in 4WD only adds to its historical status, so maybe we should rightly call it the first CUV while we’re handing out big-time titles.

The Prairie might be considered the unsung wallflower of the Eugene mobiles as much as it is the unsung pioneer of the mini-van segment. It’s not as flashy as the VW bus, but I’m not exaggerating when I tell you there are at least six of them in my neighborhood. Yes, this under-appreciated, vintage, historical, design-pioneering, 4WD box has patina from its daily use by its enthusiastic owner(s). Eugene knows its mini-van history, and it’s very much a living history at that.