1961 Volkswagen Microbus
1961 Volkswagen Microbus. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The minivan’s purpose is to pack the greatest passenger/cargo space into the shortest possible vehicle. Although Ford of England and a few others had made preliminary moves into minivans, it was Volkswagen that popularized it in the early 1950s. And while Chrysler brought it into the North American mainstream in the 1980s, a couple of forward thinking Americans had the idea back in the ’30s.

Buckminster Fuller, a brilliant designer best known for his geodesic dome, applied his talents to a motor vehicle he called the Dymaxion which he introduced to the world in 1933. Shaped like a short, fat cigar, the Dymaxion looked a little like an airplane without wings. It had two regular sized wheels just ahead of the vehicle’s lateral centreline and the driver and front passengers rode ahead of the front axle. One small rear wheel gave the Dymaxion a nose-up attitude. This wheel steered the Dymaxion rudder fashion, making it capable of turning completely around in its own length!

A rear-mounted Ford V8 engine powered the front wheels. With a 5,791 mm (228 in.) length, and a 3,175 mm (125 in.) wheelbase, the Dymaxion could accommodate 11 people. In spite of intense public interest it was not a financial success; only three were built.

William Stout, designer of the famous Ford Tri-Motor airplane among other things, introduced a van-like vehicle called the Scarab in 1932. It had a steel space frame and aluminum body and the aircraft influence was evident in the lack of fenders or hood. A rear-mounted, rear-drive Ford V8 allowed a low, flat floor.

Positioning the wheels at the corners and using a very long wheelbase gave the Scarab an almost room-like interior. The rear seat was 1,829 mm (6 feet) wide, and although the driver’s seat was anchored, the others could be moved around and a small table could even be set up. Alas the Stout Motor Car Company managed to sell only nine Scarabs.

After the Second World War the first real minivan appeared, and it came from Germany’s Volkswagen Company. Once VW Beetle production was well under way in the late 1940s, VW’s management saw the need for a light commercial vehicle. They chose a “box-on-wheels” as the most space efficient package, and thus the VW Transporter was really just a metal box set on a sturdy frame. A versatile pickup version was also offered.

The Transporter, introduced late in 1949, was powered by the flat, air-cooled, four cylinder Beetle engine located in the rear. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission, and reduction gears in the hubs gave it the pulling power necessary for commercial applications.

The front seat was directly over the wheels. Access to the carrying area was via two swinging side doors, supplemented by a rear hatch. Although little longer than the Beetle, it could accommodate up to seven passengers or carry up to 680 kg (3/4 ton) of cargo. Although competitors such as the DKW Karavan and Fiat Multipla appeared, the VW van prevailed over all others.

The roomy, easy to maintain, economical VW van became a favourite hippy vehicle in the 1960s and ’70s. Usually decorated in psychedelic colours it was the ultimate anti-establishment machine, a beatnik’s home on wheels.

In 1961 Detroit responded with its minivans, the Ford Econoline and Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier. Both followed the VW’s box-on-wheels theme, but with a different approach. Ford’s had a conventional front-engine, rear-drive configuration using Ford Falcon components.

The Greenbrier, based on the Corvair car, had a VW-inspired flat six-cylinder, air-cooled, rear engine. It resembled a more stylish version of the VW van. Chrysler entered the field in 1964 with its flat-nosed Dodge A100 model.

Larger engines gave the American vans much higher performance than the VW. But while the minivan market was growing, station wagons were still the vehicle of choice for the majority of buyers seeking more carrying capacity.

This competition would last for only a few years. The Ford and Dodge grew larger and more powerful. The Chevrolet Greenbrier, disappeared in 1964 when Chevrolet decided that sales did not warrant continuing it.

As other vans became heavier and thirstier through the 1970s and into the ’80s, Volkswagen had the minivan field pretty much to itself. The VW was revised and enlarged in 1967, and again in 1979 when it became the Vanagon.

The minivan world changed in 1984 with the introduction of Chrysler’s T115 compact vans, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. Using the K-car (Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant) front-wheel drive engine and driveline allowed Chrysler to create a vehicle that was “garagable,” yet carried seven passengers.

Chrysler’s minivan quickly replaced the conventional station wagon as the family hauler of choice. It would dominate the minivan market for a decade before worthy challengers such as the Ford Windstar finally emerged.

When Volkswagen introduced its box-on-wheels almost 60 years ago it could never have envisaged how ubiquitous the minivan would eventually become. And while its popularity waned in the 1990s and in the new century due to the rise of sport utility vehicles and so-called cross-over vehicles, a.k.a. station wagons, the minivan still remains the eminently practical vehicle.

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