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25 years of the minivan

Hockey arenas, soccer fields and the suburban landscape are littered with them: Minivans.

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

Hockey arenas, soccer fields and the suburban landscape are littered with them: Minivans.

IN PHOTOS: 25 years of the minivan

No matter what manufacturer and which model year, they all follow the same basic formula: flat floor, tall roof, car-like driving characteristics – and a size that can fit in a standard garage.

The recipe, cooked up by then-Chrysler chair Lee Iacocca and his crew in the late 1970s, first hit the roads 25 years ago this month in 1983 (as 1984 models), when the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager rolled out of the Windsor assembly plant.

Before the minivan was introduced, the default choice for moving your family or stuff around was either a station wagon, with its longer wheelbase, or club vans, which had all the unpleasant driving characteristics of a truck.

The minivan combined the best of both worlds: it had the utility of a club van, but drove like a car. The minivan had a shorter wheelbase than a station wagon – about the same length as a regular sedan – and because it was front-wheel drive, there was no need for the hump in the middle of the floor to accommodate the driveshaft.

These two significant differences, along with the upright sitting position and ability to remove the rear seats and be left with enough room for a four-by-eight sheet of plywood, helped the Caravan and other minivans become popular.

Baby boomers were just starting to have kids and urban sprawl was well underway. They were looking to escape the mom-mobile image of the station wagon they had grown up with – the same way young people today have flocked towards SUVs to get away from the soccer mom image of the minivan.

The timing was right for the minivan and, in its first full year of sales, the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager sold 210,000 units in the United States and Canada.

Nothing else on the road at the time resembled the Caravan, but Chrysler’s exclusivity on the market lasted all of six months before GM released a pair of minivans: the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari. They were built on a truck platform, were rear-wheel drive and, as a result, didn’t drive has smoothly as the Caravan.

Toyota also released the Van Wagon but, like GM’s vehicles, it drove more like a truck. A bouncy ride, poor rear traction and the need to exit the vehicle to access the rear seats from the front made buyers cautious.

The Caravan made Car & Driver‘s 10 Best list in 1985. Critics called it an odd inclusion because of its slow acceleration and, while it had decent handling for its size, it wasn’t a typical selection for this list.

The late ’70s and early ’80s were tough financial times for Chrysler. Often teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the company’s impressive Caravan sales came along at an auspicious time, especially for employees at the Windsor assembly plant.

The announcement that the Caravan would be built there was a surprise and, although more than 20 million have been manufactured there since, it was met with mixed emotions in 1983.

“We didn’t know if we had just won the lottery or just lost it,” says CAW president Ken Lewenza, who was working at the Windsor plant when the Caravan was introduced.

“We were doing the Chrysler Fifth Avenue and New Yorker at the time, and the success of those vehicles were keeping a lot of people employed,” he recalls.

“I was one of those second-guessers; nothing like this had been seen before and I didn’t know if it would sell.”

Part of the Caravan’s early success can be attributed to its official classification as a truck. After the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, the U.S. government introduced legislation that was meant to improve the fuel economy of cars.

However, trucks and vans were exempt, and Iacocca lobbied the U.S. government hard to ensure the Caravan was classified as a light truck so that it didn’t have to meet such stringent fuel standards. In addition, trucks weren’t held to the same safety standards as passenger cars. In a nutshell, the truck classification played a big part in making the Caravan profitable.

In Canada, the Caravan has been one of the 10 best-selling vehicles since its inception.

In fact, Chrysler sells more Caravans than the combined minivan sales of Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Honda. Last year, out of the 22 CUV nameplates sold in Canada, the Caravan outsold the combined sales of 21.

Canada’s market share is important to the Caravan’s health – along with the 79 other countries it’s currently sold in – but its 40 per cent share of the U.S. minivan market is what keeps the brand afloat. Total minivan sales peaked in 2000 at 1.3 million but as oil prices rose, minivan sales slid.

That downward trend continues: minivans made up 7.6 per cent of all vehicle sales in Canada last year, but only 6.1 per cent so far this year. The Caravan accounts for 45 per cent of minivan sales in Canada and industry experts expect that share to grow now that both Ford and GM are dropping out of the segment.

The Caravan’s longevity has been aided by its combination of features and price point. It was the first minivan to introduce dual front airbags, rear and middle seats that fold flat into the floor and standard ABS. It’s still one of the few minivans in Canada that can be purchased for under $20,000.

But it hasn’t been without its problems. Transmission failure has plagued the Caravan throughout its production and the timing belt and fuel pump often need replacing.

Models in the mid-1990s were popular targets for thieves, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Twenty-five years is a long time for one nameplate. But even as consumers usher in an era in which every manufacturer will have hybrid or electric vehicles in its fleet, the consistent Caravan is expected to remain popular with buyers – because it still has a flat floor, a tall roof, drives like a car and can fit in a standard garage.

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