Curbside Classic: 1998 Ford Windstar – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan (part 7)

The place: Dearborn, Michigan.  The date: March 1, 1994.  “We here in the Ford organization (that we like to think of as a big family) are on the verge of something big.  Ever since Chrysler introduced the minivan over a decade ago, the entire world auto industry has thrown everything we had at them, but people being people, they have continued to buy Voyagers, Caravans and Town & Countries in serious numbers.

“We have given the public some pretty good products, much more capable of carrying loads and hauling trailers, but the public has voted with its wallets and purses and our Aerostar has not gotten the job done.  But that changes this month.  We have listened to you, America.  We have paid attention and are on the cusp of offering you the minivan you have told us you want.  Let this be notice to Chrysler Corporation: America will no longer have to choose between getting a great, family-friendly minivan and taking risks on quality.  Why?  Because Quality is still Job-1 here at the Ford Motor Company.  Just watch – once our new Windstar hits showrooms the car-buying world will have the best minivan ever!”

Alright, this was never actually published anywhere and there is absolutely no proof that anyone at the Ford Motor Company ever gave such a speech, either in public or in private.  But every single one of you knows they believed this down deep in their little oval blue hearts.  There had been many attempts to one-up Chrysler in the minivan market.  There had been minivans more truck-like (Astro and Aerostar), there had been minivans made more stylish (the GM Dustbusters), some made smaller and more car-like (the original Honda Odyssey) and even some quirky and unusual entries from Japan (Quest/Villager and Previa).  But now, for the first time, the Ford Motor Company was about to hit the Chrysler bull’s eye dead on.  THIS, the new Ford Windstar, would be the ultimate minivan.

It is kind of incredible, when we think about it, that it took a full decade before an American competitor finally figured out the secret that Chrysler had been waving under everyone’s noses: Start with the platform of a popular front wheel drive car, create an attractive but practical body to envelop it, give it an interior that caters to an active, upscale family, and there you have it.  No truckishness and no crazy style statements.  Just an honest, comfortable people-mover was all Chrysler ever needed to Hoover-up downpayments, and now Ford had figured out the secret.  Or so it looked in 1995.

I recall strolling through a big-city Ford dealer in the early spring of 1995.  I had been searching for the mythical Club Wagon (which was still rumored to exist, though you couldn’t tell from dealer stocks) when we came upon the first Windstar I had ever seen – and possibly the first one this dealer had seen, too.  It was unlocked, and the Mrs. and I crawled inside.  “Wow”, I thought, “Ford is finally going to do to Chrysler with minivans what it has done to everyone else with the Explorer.”

This was still the era of “Fat Ford” when nice fabrics and cool little features packed new Ford vehicles.  The Windstar may have been one of the last of Fat Ford’s new vehicle introductions before Jacques Nasser transitioned the company into the era of Cheap Nasty Ford.  Anyway, that Windstar was modern, it was attractive, and it was inviting.  I actually paused for a moment when I ran across a loaded up year-old Club Wagon at a dealership, realizing that I could have a very nice new Windstar for the same price.

The Windstar continued its winning ways by making the big 3.8 Essex V6 the standard engine on the 120 inch wheelbase platform designed to battle Chrysler’s “Grand” long wheelbase versions, which had become the heart of the market.  A 4 speed automatic transaxle (AX4S) completed the setup, which was sure to knock Chrysler back to the basement where it belonged.

But . . . that is not what really happened.

Things got off to a decent start in 1995 with over 220,000 units out the door.  The Windstar compared well against the Chrysler triplets – although those Chrysler vans were now several years old and not terribly far removed from the originals that dated to 1983.  But then 1996 happened.  And that was a problem for Ford.

For starters, it was about doors.  Ford had asked lots of people in focus groups if three doors was enough for a minivan, and the response had been overwhelmingly “yes”.  But we all know that sometimes we don’t really know what we want until someone serves it to us, and Chrysler’s new 4 door package (optional at first) was a re-calibration for the entire industry.  Suddenly a 3 door minivan was, well, so last year.

This particular example shows Ford’s original solution – the 1998 “King Door”, which stretched the driver’s door back farther into the side panel to allow skinny, agile little children to slither behind Mom’s driver’s chair.

Unless they needed to be belted into safety seats, and then Mom had to walk all the way around and put everyone in aircraft style, just like the old days.  1998’s 21 month model year (which began in January of 1997 because the original door arrangement was untenable) saw production of only 190,173 units.

Then there were the other problems.  It is hard to know where to begin.  OK, probably the transmission. The AX4S had proved none too robust in the Taurus (especially behind a 3.8), which was 700 pounds lighter even before typical passenger and cargo loads were factored in.  Raise your hand if you knew someone who owned one of these and managed to avoid a second or third transmission by the time the note was paid off warranty was up?  Yeah, didn’t think so.  People got to where they expected a weak transmission in their Chrysler minivan, but not this weak.  And it didn’t come with all the other benefits of a Chrysler.

Then there were the head gaskets in the 3.8L V6.  Fortunately they were easily accessible.  Oh wait, no they were not.  And then the rust got started in northern climates.  Like – – – Dearborn where the things had been designed.  In going mano-a-mano with Chrysler, Ford managed to build a vehicle that made a ’76 Volare look brilliant.  It did not help that by 1996 the 3.3 and 3.8L engines in the Chryslers were on the way to becoming known as among the most durable, trouble-free engines of the decade.  Or that the Chrysler vans were some of the most rust-resistant products from Chrysler since K.T. Keller had run the show.

Ford eventually fixed the engine problem – by making the 3.0 Vulcan V6 standard, allowing those willing to sacrifice power for durability to avoid the inevitable head gasket replacement.  Unfortunately, other than the addition of the 3.slow and some improvement from the disastrous early transmissions, the van’s weaknesses were not significantly addressed through the entire run, which never broke through the 225k unit barrier  and slouched towards 100k by the end (including fleet purchases).  Which is another way of saying that Ford never came close to Chrysler’s perennial half-million unit annual volumes.

The 1999 redesign extended the Windy’s life through 2003 (through 2007 if we count the somewhat improved Freestar variant).  But sadly, the van that showed more promise than any of the other Chrysler challengers never really challenged.  It is funny how the minds that brought us innovative, paradigm-bending vehicles like the Taurus and the Explorer (not to mention anvil-reliable vehicles like the Panther triplets and the E and F series trucks) were incapable of handling a basic minivan.  How hard indeed.