1986 Dodge Caravan
1986 Dodge Caravan. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Chrysler’s first minivans, introduced in 1984 as the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, were not minivan pioneers; that honour belonged to Volkswagen. Chrysler’s great achievement was to develop a minivan that drove like a car with all of a car’s amenities, and was so convenient that it largely displaced the station wagon. It instantly brought minivans into the automotive mainstream as the quintessential family hauler.

Others had tried the same idea decades earlier. Two talented Americans, architect Buckminster Fuller (father of the geodesic dome), and engineer William Stout (designer of the Ford Tri-Motor airplane, among other things) had both designed minivan type vehicles in the 1930s.

Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion had two wheels in front and one at the back. A rear-mounted Ford V8 engine drove the front wheels, and it was steered by its single, rudder-like rear wheel which enabled it to turn around within its own length. Only three were built and it was not a financial success.

The Scarab, Stout’s 1930s vehicle also had a rear-mounted Ford V8, but driving the rear wheels. Its pontoon-shaped, fenderless body and short hood gave it enormous interior space. It was not a commercial success either.

Following the Second World War, the first real minivan arrived. This was the 1950 Volkswagen Transporter/Microbus, and except for a few other attempts like the Fiat Multipla and DKW Karavan, VW had the field to itself for over a decade.

In 1961 Chevrolet introduced its Greenbrier van, a rear-engine knock-off of the Volkswagen, and Ford brought out its front-engine, rear-drive Econoline. Both were worthy competitors to the Volkswagen, but the Greenbrier was discontinued in 1964, and the Econoline, and the later 1964 Dodge A100, gradually grew out of the minivan class.

The Volkswagen was really the only minivan again, but it was still a niche market vehicle. Although large, customized vans flourished in the 1970s, they were killed by the second energy crisis. The station wagon was still the family hauler of choice.

Chrysler changed that in 1984. Its Caravan/Voyager, code-named T115, and nicknamed Magic Wagon, was an immediate success. Although Toyota beat it to market by a few months with its mid-engine, rear drive Van, it wouldn’t enjoy anything like the Caravan/Voyager’s sales. Chrysler’s $660 million gamble for vehicle development and alterations of the Windsor, Ontario plant would pay off in spades.

Like Volkswagen, Chrysler’s approach was to tuck an existing car powertrain into one end of the vehicle. Whereas VW put the Beetle engine/transaxle in the rear, Chrysler put the cross-engine, front-wheel drive engine and transaxle from its corporation-saving Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant K-Cars into the T115’s nose.

The result was almost a box on wheels, although it was relieved by a hood and sharply slanted windshield. This people and cargo mover had a versatile, flat-floor interior that accommodated up to seven passengers and 11 cubic feet of cargo (for more the rear seat could be folded, or removed altogether), all within an easy-to-park 4,470 mm (176 in.) length, the same as the K-Car. Its right-side sliding door and full length rear hatch gave easy entry, exit and loading. It had the commanding view of the road favoured by many drivers, especially women. With a height of only 1,631 mm (64.2 in.), it could fit into the average suburban garage or pass through a car wash. For commercial use a Dodge Mini Ram Van with no side or rear windows was also available.

The T115’s standard 2.2 litre, overhead cam, inline four-cylinder, 101 horsepower engine drove the front wheels through a standard 5-speed manual, or optional 3-speed automatic transaxle. Optional was a 2.6-litre, 104 horsepower Mitsubishi four, with automatic only, and fitted with balance shafts for smoother operation. It would, unfortunately, prove prone to premature oil consumption.

Although a little quicker than the VW or Toyota, the T115 was no tiger. Road & Track magazine (4/84) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 14.7 seconds for the 2.6-equipped Voyager. The Toyota took 15.3 and the VW, 18.3. R&T estimated the Voyager’s top speed at 164 km/h (102 mph), significantly faster than the other two. When the 3.0-litre V6 became available in 1987 it gave the T-115 the performance it really needed.

The Chrysler minivan was an immediate sales success. The Windsor plant, its only source, was strained to the limit to meet the demand. Chrysler had the minivan field virtually to itself for a decade; as Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca loved to crow, “We showed ’em how to do it, and they still couldn’t do it.”

Ford finally brought out a worthy competitor, the Windstar, in 1994, but there was a touch of irony in its arrival. In the 1970s when Iacocca was president of Ford, he and Ford’s chief product planner Hal Sperlich had fostered the idea of a small garageable passenger van.

A prototype was ready by 1975, and it bore a striking resemblance to the Chrysler T115. But spooked by the 1973 oil embargo and the resulting market swing to smaller cars, Henry Ford II vetoed it.

Lee Iacocca was fired as Ford president in 1978 (not because of the proposed minivan), and became chairman of Chrysler a few months later. He attracted several Ford executives to Chrysler, including Hal Sperlich. Iacocca and Sperlich resurrected their minivan idea, and the T115’s arrival proved that Chrysler had not only survived its brush with bankruptcy in the early eighties, but that it was an innovative and versatile company.

The minivan became a staple of the automobile market, and virtually every manufacturer eventually offered one. Although Chrysler is no longer the clear leader in the field, it still has the honour of popularizing this very versatile vehicle.

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