There's no doubt that when Chrysler launched its front-drive minivans back in 1984 the company completely changed what America (and eventually the rest of the world) thought of as family transportation. But the idea of the smaller "carlike" van itself wasn't new and much of the original Chrysler minivan's substance was determined as much by desperation as inspiration.
"One-box" designs produce the maximum amount of usable space for passengers and cargo, and vehicle manufacturers have known this forever. Vanlike commercial vehicles began appearing soon after the invention of self-propulsion and they still dominate the delivery business (there aren't a lot of sedans in FedEx's fleet). Buses are the rough equivalent of vans for people.
It was Volkswagen that most successfully brought a smaller one-box van design to consumers with the 1950 Transporter and Microbus. At that time VW was still crawling up from the devastation of World War II and its resources were severely limited. Engineers designing the Microbus had to rely on the mechanical parts available to the company the Beetle. That meant the Microbus would have an air-cooled flat four mounted at the back and a front and rear suspension virtually identical to the Beetle's. As compromised as the original VW Microbus was with its misplaced and underpowered engine, the sheer logic of the one-box design made it a hit. And it also brought competition.
Chevy and Ford introduced their own one-boxers for 1961 with the rear-engine/rear-drive Corvair 95 van and the front-engine/rear-drive Falcon Econoline, respectively. Dodge's first one-box design came with the introduction of the 1964 A100. But while the first domestic vans weren't much larger than the VW, by the early 1970s they had all evolved into today's much larger full-size vans.
In the early '80s, Chrysler was nearly as much a basket case as VW was in the late 1940s. Decades of ill-planned product development, haphazard quality and marketing miscues left the corporation near death when the legendary (just ask him) Lee Iacocca took over as president in 1978. Only loans guaranteed by the United States government kept the corporation from going bankrupt and closing.
Fortunately for Chrysler, development of the front-drive K-Car line was already underway when Iacocca got there. First sold as the 1981 Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, the four-cylinder K-Cars were extremely simple, extremely boxy, not particularly powerful, boring in almost every way and destined to save the company. Every new car developed by Chrysler throughout the '80s and into the '90s would draw upon components and structures that originated with the K-Car. The K-Car was to the "T-115," Chrysler's internal code name for the original minivan, what the Beetle was to the VW Minibus.
The T-115 wasn't even Chrysler's first variation on the K-Car. But it was, by far, the most significant.
Except for the rear suspension, which for packaging and load-carrying reasons used leaf springs to hold up its solid axle instead of coil springs, the first Chrysler minivans (sold as the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager) were almost purely K-Car underneath. That meant MacPherson struts held up the front end, a rack-and-pinion system did the steering while discs in front and drums in the back did the stopping, and the two available four-cylinder engines were transversely mounted in the nose driving the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transaxle (a four-speed manual was offered only in the cargo version of the Caravan the Mini Ram Van which had no rear seats or rear side glass). It was a simple package that rode on a 112.0-inch wheelbase, stretched out 175.9 inches overall, and was 68.9 inches wide and a mere 64.2 inches tall.
The low height was a direct result of the front-wheel-drive layout, which eliminated the driveshaft necessary in a rear-drive vehicle to get the power to the rear axle. Chrysler didn't really have any choice but to use front-drive in its vans, but it produced a van that easily fit in garages that taller full-size vans couldn't enter a 1984 Caravan was fully 15 inches shorter in stature than Dodge's then-current full-sizer, the Ram Wagon.
Power was not abundant in the first Caravans and Voyagers. The standard engine was a version of Chrysler's then ubiquitous 2.2-liter, SOHC, eight-valve four-cylinder breathing through a two-barrel carburetor and making a rather lousy 101 horsepower. The only optional engine was a Mitsubishi-built 2.6-liter, SOHC, eight-valve four-cylinder that, thanks to counterrotating balance shafts, was relatively smooth but still made only 104 horsepower. The 2.2-liter engine was available only with a five-speed manual transmitter a three-speed automatic was available only with the 2.6-liter engine.
The only differences between the Voyager and the Caravan were cosmetic; the Voyager's grille had chrome slats across it while the Caravan's was made up of small squares and, of course, where the Voyager's badges said "Plymouth," the Caravan's said "Dodge." The styling was hardly exciting, but handsome in an '80s sort of way. All the '84 minivans had a single, manual rear sliding door on the passenger side and a one-piece rear hatch hinged at the top. In both the Voyager and Caravan, the trim levels were base, mainstream SE and upscale LE, with the LE getting that traditional station wagon touch phony wood on the sides. Two captain's chairs were used for the front seats with a bench just behind that sat three. A third-row seat that brought the total seating to seven was optional, but it virtually eliminated the cargo capacity.
Even Chrysler must have been shocked at the incredible reception that greeted the minivans. Virtually overnight the definition of family transportation shifted in America. Chrysler sold a stunning 209,895 minivans during that first year. And suddenly the Chrysler Corporation itself seemed almost healthy.
General Motors responded to the challenge presented by Chrysler's T-115 with the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari for 1985, and Ford's reply came in the form of the 1986 Aerostar. Both the GM and Ford offerings were based on truck components and featured rear-wheel drive. They were taller than the Chryslers, far more lumbering in their manners and completely overwhelmed by Chrysler's front-drivers in the sales race. Chrysler may have had no choice but to use front-drive for its minivans, but it was the right choice and the competition, at least initially, failed to recognize that.
The 1985 Voyager and Caravan were essentially unchanged from '84 and still sold in huge numbers. The basic styling carried over again into the 1986 model year, though there was a new brake-proportioning valve, the front air dam was better integrated, and an outside lock was added to the side sliding door.
The big change for the 1987 Chrysler minivans was the new 119-inch wheelbase versions of the Caravan and Voyager that were introduced midway through the model year the stretch versions would be known as the Grand Caravan and Grand Voyager. Beyond the wheelbase stretch, Chrysler also added 7.6 inches of rear overhang to the Grands to increase cargo capacity and bring total length up to 190.5 inches. The result was a much more usable van for seven passengers that still fit comfortably into most garages.
The other big change for '87 was that a new Mitsubishi-built 3.0-liter, SOHC, 12-valve, fuel-injected V6 good for 140 hp was now on the options list, replacing the 2.6-liter Mitsubishi four. The torque-rich V6 was only offered with the three-speed automatic transmission and made for a far more comfortable and easygoing drivetrain than before. The year started with the 2.2-liter four (now rated at 95 horsepower) still standard; but it was phased out through the production run as a new fuel-injected 100-horsepower, 2.5-liter version of the same basic four-cylinder engine became available.
Beyond the wheelbase stretch of the Grand versions, the most distinctive change to the '87 minivans was the replacement of their dual stacked square headlights with new oversize single, square headlamps shaped for better aerodynamics. It's not like the Caravan and Voyager were suddenly sleek, but it was an improvement in styling.
The 2.5-liter four became the standard engine across the minivan range for 1988 and there was a new towing package, but there were otherwise few changes.
Total weirdness arrived in the 1989 model year as Chrysler offered a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter four as an option. Ludicrously inappropriate for this application, the turbo engine made a decent 150 horsepower and could be backed by either the five-speed manual or, in an epically misguided mismatch, the three-speed automatic. Was there turbo lag? Yes. Was the lack of low-end torque obvious? Yes. Did Chrysler sell a lot of turbo vans? No. However the turbo minivan does have a cult following a very small cult following and tweaking the Chrysler turbo four can lead to a surprisingly quick machine. There's at least one '89 turbo minivan out there that's claimed to run the quarter-mile in under 13 seconds. With acceleration like that, the phony wood on the sides could blow clean off.
Except for the bizarre turbo engine option, both the Caravan and Voyager carried over pretty much intact from '88 though the cargo-carrying Mini Ram Van's name was changed to Caravan C/V (for Commercial Van). Plymouth sold a simply amazing 198,332 Voyagers alone during the '89 model year.
The 1990 model year brought with it a new companion for the Caravan and Voyager, the Chrysler Town & Country. Basically a gussied and optioned-up Grand Voyager, the Town & Country was the first luxury minivan and Chrysler became the first luxury manufacturer to introduce a truck (of sorts) into its lineup. By the end of the '90s, virtually all luxury manufacturers would have a trucklike SUV of some sort, but the Town & Country remained the only prestige-brand minivan.
While the Town & Country started with the 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V6 under its hood, by midyear the only engine being installed was a new Chrysler-built 3.3-liter OHV V6 rated at 150 horsepower. It was mated to the new "Ultradrive" four-speed automatic transmission that worked well, when it worked. But the Ultradrive was also "ultra" unreliable, and it would become one of the most mechanically flawed pieces of equipment ever installed in a Chrysler product.
The 3.3-liter V6 and Ultradrive were also offered in the Grand Caravan and Grand Voyager, but the regular wheelbase Plymouth and Dodge both kept the Mitsubishi 3.0-liter V6 as an option. Availability of the turbocharged version of the 2.5 four was now restricted to the short-wheelbase minivans. Of course, the '90 model year was another stunning success for Chrysler with almost 400,000 of them making their way to customers.
After a successful six-year run, it was finally time for some significant changes to the basic Chrysler minivan structure. But the risks were enormous, because the minivan was now the backbone of Chrysler's razor-thin profitability.
Following up the single most successful vehicle in its history wasn't something Chrysler could afford to execute poorly so, no surprise, it followed conservative instincts when designing the second generation of the Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler minivans. But the minivan market itself had grown more competitive with the introduction of such vehicles as GM's funky, anteater-nosed, plastic-bodied front-drive minivans (Chevrolet Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette) and the idiosyncratic, midengine, rear-drive Toyota Previa, so Chrysler couldn't merely rest on its laurels.
The evolutionary changes made to the 1991 minivans were mostly driven by customer suggestions. Changes to the front-drive chassis were limited to wheelbases stretched a full 0.3 inch to 112.3 inches on the regular Caravan and Voyager and 119.3 inches on the Grand Caravan, Grand Voyager and Town & Country. Otherwise the suspension carried over intact and the only other significant change was that antilock brakes were made optional. But for the first time the Chrysler minivans were also offered with full-time all-wheel drive and, naturally, there were changes to accommodate the extra driveshaft emerging from the transaxle. The all-wheel-drive option was available on all models except the base, short-wheelbase Caravan and Voyager.
The wacky turbo engine was gone, but the standard power plant in the short minivans was still Chrysler's own 2.5-liter four now rated at 100 horsepower. The Mitsu-built 3.0-liter V6 (now at 136 horsepower) was still available in front-drive regular wheelbase models (and standard with the new "LX" trim package on Voyagers and Caravans) and the 150-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6 was standard on the Grand Dodges, Grand Plymouths and all Chrysler Town & Country and all-wheel drive models. The five-speed manual transmission was still standard with the four-cylinder engine and a three-speed automatic transaxle was optional with that engine and standard with the 3.0-liter V6. Ordering the 3.3 brought the often self-destructive four-speed Ultradrive automatic with it.
Most of the interior changes to the '91 minivans were also the result of direct input from minivan buyers. There was a new dash that featured a full glovebox for the first time, the seats were more supportive and the second-row bench could be replaced with two captain's chairs if the buyer wanted; more cupholders were strewn about the cockpit and the door panel material was of higher quality. For the first time a driver-side front airbag was optional.
The exterior was also redesigned with improved customer satisfaction in mind. There was more glass area and the nose was lower, improving both visibility and aerodynamics. At the fantail the rear hatch was now deeper to reduce the cargo lift-over height and the back window itself was larger for better rearward visibility. Again, the only difference between the Dodge and Plymouth were the badges and the front grille textures. All Chrysler Town & Country models carried phony wood grain stickers along their sides and digital instrumentation was standard.
Conservative turned out to be the right choice for Chrysler as the '91 model minivans continued to sell in vast numbers and keep the corporation, which had an otherwise severely deficient car and truck lineup, afloat. For this reason, the company made few changes to the minivans for 1992. The driver-side airbag was now standard on all models, dual integrated child seats in the second-row bench were offered for the first time (though they never caught on) and the vinyl "wood" was stripped off the Town & Country's flanks to be replaced by a rather elegant gold pinstripe along the beltline. Also the second-row bench was excised from the T&C and replaced by standard captain's chairs. Mechanically the only significant tweak was the adoption of sequential fuel injection on the 3.0- and 3.3-liter V6s.
Proving that progress can never be taken for granted, the 1993 Town & Country was once again burdened with that hideous imitation wood grain vinyl siding, but it could be deleted by buyers wanting to leave the '70s in the '70s. Otherwise there were some minor trim package changes and a new environmentally friendly refrigerant in the air conditioning systems as Chrysler basked in the glory that was the status quo. On just about the 10th anniversary of its minivan in December of '93, Chrysler sold its four millionth example.
Even more power came to the minivans for 1994 as a new 162-horsepower, 3.8-liter version of the Chrysler OHV V6 appeared. Mated to the Ultradrive four-speed automatic, the 3.8 was standard in the Town & Country and optional on the Grand Voyager and Grand Caravan. Otherwise, except for standard dual front airbags (requiring some tweaks to the dash), a new keyless entry system and the bundling of antilock brakes with all-wheel drive, the '94 was similar to the '93. A few electric and natural gas-fueled minivans were offered to fleets as an experiment.
With an all-new minivan design imminent, there wasn't much reason to change the 1995 models. So Chrysler excised the manual transmission, chased more of the bugs out of the Ultradrive transmission (by this time the manufacturer wasn't calling it Ultradrive) and offered the natural gasser to the general public for no apparent reason.
But 1995 was also the year that Ford finally introduced its front-drive minivan, the Windstar and rumors were swirling of more competitive efforts from Toyota, Nissan, Honda and virtually every other mass-market carmaker. If Chrysler was going to sustain its lucrative minivan hegemony, it needed a radically better product.
If conservatism was the right way for Chrysler to go with the second-generation van, then something more daring was needed for the third generation. And the 1996 Chrysler minivans were so daring that they essentially reinvented the market their immediate ancestors had pioneered.
Forget the old box, the new Chrysler minivans were almost sleek in their appearance, with a composite nose that rose to meet an enormous windshield (32-percent bigger than before) that in turn transitioned in a graceful arc along the roof. The wheels were now at the corners of the van and the shorter standard vans came on a 113.3-inch wheelbase while the longer Grands put 119.3 inches between the front and rear wheels. Clever design touches included oversize door handles and the track for the side sliding door (or doors more on that later) were hidden along the bottom edge of the rearward side windows. This was a very handsome people mover.
But while no chassis components carried over from the original minivan, little changed in terms of specifications under the new minivans. The front suspension was still a strut system and the rear still a rigid axle located on leaf springs. Antilock brakes were now standard across the range, but drums were still used in back.
The drivetrains still featured some familiar combinations, but there were significant changes in that area, too. The standard engine was a new 2.4-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four making 150 horsepower that fed the familiar three-speed automatic transaxle. Remember, 150 horsepower is as much as the most powerful V6 was making in the '93 minivans. The 3.0-liter, SOHC Mitsubishi V6 was still in use, putting out 136 horsepower (but more torque than the four), and both Chrysler's 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter V6s were back making 150 and 162 horsepower, respectively. The V6s were available with the four-speed automatic transmission but all-wheel drive was, for the time being, off the options list.
Even if you begged, Chrysler wasn't going to sell you a '96 minivan with fake wood on its side and the cargo-only Caravan was dead. But in compensation it offered a vastly more useful interior with rear seats that rolled on their own tiny wheels, a vast array of cupholders and an attractive contemporary design throughout. But what got customers most excited was that a second sliding side door was now available for the driver side of the van.
The trim levels for the Caravan and Voyager carried over pretty much intact from before, but the Town & Country was now available as either an "LX" (short wheelbase) or an "LXi" (long wheelbase). The thick list of standard equipment was about the same between the two, though the LXi models got the second sliding door as a standard feature.
Once again the Chrysler minivans were a sensation and they easily outclassed their increasing number of competitors. Sales were once again spectacular. The company managed to sell 105,536 Town & Country models alone and that was the most expensive van in the line. About the only repeated and substantive criticism thrown at the new minivans was that their headlights were too small and not bright enough.
All-wheel drive returned as an option to the long-wheelbase Chrysler minivans in 1997, and there was some jiggering with the trim levels. Both the Town & Country LX and LXi were now built on the long wheelbase, while the short-wheelbase model was now known as the SX. But otherwise, Chrysler wisely didn't trifle with what was already being hailed as a design classic.
A few changes in the front fascia, new airbags, another juggling of the trim packages and more power for the 3.8-liter V6 (now up to 180 horsepower) were the extent of changes in 1998. Then, for 1999, about the only significant modifications to the lineup were a new hyperluxury "Limited" version of the Town & Country with suede upholstery accents and every gimmick and luxury imaginable. There was also a new Dodge Caravan ES model that included the 3.8-liter V6 and Chrysler's AutoStick shifting system in a sportier package. There's no indication what the new Town & Country was "Limited" to, other than to how many dealers could sell.
Plymouth died a quiet death during the '99 model year and the Voyager became a Chrysler brand product through the otherwise almost change-free 2000 model year.
However, Chrysler's minivans were finally up against competitive minivans that were receiving high praise from critics and customers. In fact, during 1999, with the appearance of the larger, more powerful second-generation Honda Odyssey (which had available power-sliding side doors and a clever rear seat that folded into the floor) many critics thought the Chrysler products had finally been outclassed. It was time for Chrysler to revisit its cash cow minivans once again.
"The auto industry is booming," wrote Business Week upon the first sightings of the 2001 Chrysler minivans in mid-2000. "But Chrysler, stuck with a stable of aging models, seems to be running out of gas.
"Nowhere is this truer than in the pivotal minivan market, where Chrysler, the segment leader, lost more than five percentage points of market share in a year. Sales of its Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Voyager and Town & Country minivans are down 3 percent so far this year even as demand for new models such as the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey continue to soar. With minivans responsible for about one-third of Chrysler's bottom line, the company's operating profits fell 7 percent to $1.3 billion on $18 billion in first-quarter revenues." And the new minivans, the magazine concluded, may not have been adequate for Chrysler to reclaim its leadership. "Those who have driven early prototypes of the 2001 models say the ride is definitely more refined. But the new vans don't look much different. And in a controversial move, Chrysler decided not to copy Honda's popular third-row seat that folds into the floor."
As evolutionary developments of the third-generation vans, the 2001 models featured larger, better headlights; available power operation of the side doors; a newly available power liftgate; and revised interiors that were quieter, more comfortable and utilized as higher-quality material. The chassis was indeed more refined than before, but essentially used the same general design. The redesigned vans were also 1.8 inches wider than before and the short-wheelbase versions were 2.8 inches longer overall.
Mitsubishi's 3.0-liter V6 was finally gone, but the 2.4-liter four remained as the base power plant in the basic vans. Chrysler revised both the 3.3- and 3.8-liter OHV V6s so that they made 180 and 215 horsepower, respectively. Automatic transmissions were used all around with three forward gears for four-cylinder models and four for the V6s. A 3.5-liter, 230-hp SOHC V6 was announced at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show but never materialized.
During 2001 the model designations became increasingly complex as the Town & Country subsumed many of the Voyager trim levels into its lineup and the Caravan expanded its range. To go through all the different variations is pointless, but you could get everything from a stripped short-wheelbase Caravan to a cargo-carrying Grand Caravan C/V and on up to a luxuriously equipped all-wheel-drive Town & Country Limited.
How tough the competition had become for Chrysler was apparent in Edmunds' comparison test of 2001 minivans where a loaded Town & Country Limited AWD finished fourth out of sixth behind the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Ford Windstar (and ahead of the Pontiac Montana and Mazda MPV). But that finish doesn't mean there wasn't a lot to love about the T&C. "One driver summed up the T&C's impressive road manners thusly" we wrote back then: "'Unlike the Honda and Ford vans, which are big and feel it, the Town & Country is big but doesn't feel it.' The same driver loved the way the Chrysler's suspension performed saying it 'felt controlled and nimble through the curves yet it had a cushy ride.' Passengers could also tell the Chrysler was a surefooted machine. 'There is much less cabin-jostling or body roll in the second-row seats than in the Windstar. The compromise between ride and handling is just right in the T&C, and it seems to handle better than even some cars. The suspension never beats you up,' concluded this observant passenger."
The T&C fell short of the competition on features and the testers found lugging the 128-pound rear seat out was a chore despite the little wheels built into it. Features available on other vans like a navigation system, fore and aft adjustments for the second-row seats, front and rear audio controls and an entertainment system simply weren't available as factory options. Another big demerit was the T&C's more than $36,000 price that was the highest in the test.
For 2002 a rear-seat audio system was added to the options lists of both the Caravan and Town & Country and a tire-pressure warning system was integrated into the high-end T&C models Electronic Vehicle Information Center. There was also some more model juggling (the T&C now came as an "eL") and even the four-cylinder engine now had a four-speed automatic transmission.
Chrysler again jumbled the model designations for 2003, but otherwise modifications to the substance of the vans were minimal. Electronically adjustable pedals were an option on all models and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system was offered on many models.
For 2004 Chrysler offers a new "Platinum Series" Town & Country model overstuffed with everything except a UAW pension plan to celebrate two decades of minivan production. On the Dodge side there's an "Anniversary Edition" Grand Caravan that features two-tone leather upholstery and nearly as much equipment as the Platinum Series T&C. However, one minivan nameplate disappeared for the 2004 model year. The Voyager won't be around to celebrate a 20th birthday.
For 2005, the Chrysler Town and Country as well as the Dodge Grand Caravan received minor visual tweaks, a lower base price and the option of "Stow n' Go" second-row seating. The latter was a pair of captain's chairs that, like the third row, folded down into the floor.
Midway through 2006 the minivan twins received a stronger structure and revised side curtain airbags for improved crash worthiness. Nothing of note happened for the van's final year of 2007.
Bursting at the seams with new features, the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country minivans were fully redesigned. The shorter wheelbase versions (e.g. Dodge Caravan) were dropped due to lack of popularity. In addition to the workhorse 3.3- and 3.8-liter V6s, there was now a powerful new 4.0-liter V6 sporting 251 hp and matched (as was the 3.8) to a new six-speed automatic transmission.
In addition to the previously introduced Stow n' Go (hideaway) second-row seats, one could now opt instead for "Swivel 'n Go" seats. Though they didn't disappear into the floor, these seats swiveled around to face the third seat and also came with a stowable table that allowed the kiddies to play board games or cards. If the kids didn't like the old-school entertainment, there was also the option of Sirius Backseat TV that offered three channels of kid-friendly programming. Other available features included a power fold-flat third-row seat and remote starting. The redesign also brought more standard safety equipment including stability control and head curtain airbags.
A few more available features debuted for 2009, including an iPod interface, rain-sensing wipers and a blind spot detection system for both vans, and a firmer sport suspension for the 4.0 V6-equipped Grand Caravan SXT.