The Chrysler Development Story

The idea for a minivan to come back, after the Y-body Imperial put the minivans on hold, had risen again when Chrysler had a 45% market share in full-sized vans. Planners and designers both thought a smaller van could bring families over from station wagons. The Director of Product Planning, Burton Bouwkamp, wrote in a 1998 letter to Automotive News (which both parties permitted allpar.com to reissue):

“In the early and mid-1970s, our Advance Design, Advance Engineering, and Advance Product Planning offices designed first-generation versions of the minivan. The program was to design a station wagon type vehicle that was not derived from another vehicle (from a passenger car sedan or a commercial van),” said Bouwkamp.

First-generation designs were rear-wheel drive because front-wheel-drive engines or transmissions were not available. Engineers, product planners, and designers were enthusiastic about the minivan but were unable to get the board of directors approval to go forward with a unique product. It had a particular tooling bill, not including facilities, of over $100 million.

Although the first designs never went beyond the clay model, the advanced design and the seating buck stage continues to be the interest in the concept in the Design and Product Planning offices at Chrysler. However, the management for the “bean counter” didn’t approve the minivan in the early 1970s because Ford and GM didn’t have one. Top management contended that, if there was a market, Ford and GM would build one. 

Management was, deciding that, if there was a market for this type of vehicle, the strategy was to get 15% of the market share. Being Director of Product Planning for seven years, that was painful to realize; that’s why the manager lobbied to get out of the job in 1975 when a Director level product position opened up in Europe. The second-generation design, in the late 1970s, was mainly the production design and it was done by Chrysler Design Office personnel under the enthusiastic and capable direction of Hal Sperlich.

By then they had front-wheel drive Omni/Horizon cars underway, so the minivan design became front-wheel drive. It allowed significant improvements in the package dimensions. Hal Sperlich contributed significantly to the success of the program with his enthusiastic involvement, aesthetic input, and overall guidance of the program.

When Lee Iacocca saw the minivan work, he said: “let’s do it.” Bill McGagh (Assistant Treasurer) told him that there wasn’t enough money to build a minivan; Iacocca told him to “get the blankety-blank money,” and then proceeded to substitute McGagh with a new Treasurer. Lee Iacocca gets credit for his support as well as the “guts” decision to go ahead with a now even-more-expensive FWD product when the Corporation was having trouble to pay its bills and maintain product competitiveness in its existing market segments.

Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich should get credit for the final (front-wheel drive) design execution. They should get credit as well for the decision to go ahead with the production for the minivan program at Chrysler. But not the original idea.

Another Chrysler alumni wrote that the minivan idea might have dated back to the 1950s, with the Volkswagen Omnibus. Though it could have some help in the handling department and it barely had enough power to reach 70 mph, it showed how a smaller van could reach families hearts. There were other smaller vans sold in other nations, as well, including passenger versions of Japanese small delivery wagons.

Who Invented the Minivan?

Chrysler invented the modern minivan twice, in two different continents, using different bodies entirely. Chrysler Europe was working with Matra, the French automobile, aeronautics, and weaponry company, on a minivan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When it was ready for production, Chrysler sold a lot of the European operations to Peugeot-Citroen (PSA), which tossed the fledgling minivan. 

Matra then took the design to Renault, which modified it to fit the Renault 21 drivetrain which resulted in a calendar-year of 1983 introduction and being Europe’s popular minivan ever. If Chrysler held on to Chrysler UK, it might well have had a greater European foot-hold. The Dodge Caravan and American Plymouth Voyager were also introduced in 1983, as the 1984 models.

Chrysler minivans hit the market in 1984. The “T-115”, sold in 1984, the minivans were a significant success selling 209,895. Soon joining Windsor was St. Louis, they devoted three shifts to minivan staging.

Significant changes through the years did include a 1987 launching of a Mitsubishi V-6 engine, which overlapped with fuel injection on the 2.2; a short-lived 2.5 turbo option. The extended-wheelbase versions were (the “Grands,”) and the claimed “first luxury minivan,” the original Town & Country. The more extended wheelbase vans were fourteen inches long and soon accounted for half of the minivan sales.

The 2.5-liter engine eventually replaced the troublesome Mitsubishi 2.6. It was a 2.2 with a longer stroke and balance shafts, which was the standard engine until 2000. The 2.5-liter was replaced by a new 2.4-liter engine which was based on the Neon’s 2.0.

The minivans became more sophisticated but were less reliable as the A-604 electronic in 1989. It controlled a four-speed automatic that was adopted (fortunately, not across the board). All-wheel drive was added in 1991, with the Chrysler-engineered 3.3-liter V6 engine.

Chrysler Minivan Firsts:

Exports to Europe began in 1988. At the time, Plymouth and Dodge were not sold in Europe. The Plymouth Voyager minivan was modified and rebadged somewhat to become the Chrysler Voyager.

In 1990, Chrysler-designed the V-6, and the 3.3 was added to the mix. The durable and robust engine proved to be very popular. It remained in the mix until 2011.

You can search the inventory of Chrysler’s at Miami Lakes Automall. Make sure to stop by for a test drive and see if this model and make is the car for you. 

Photo Credit: chrysler.com

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