The minivan is as old as the parents who now drive it to take their kids to soccer practice and ballet recitals. And just like those parents who are approaching middle age faster than they might like, it is questioning its identity, wondering aloud if it’s become irrelevant and looking for ways to reinvent itself.
All you have to do is look at a flashy new minivan model like the 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan to see that the minivan is doing everything it can to stay current and refuses to go down without a fight.
Yet the minivan may not have a choice in the matter. Though it began its life as the must-have vehicle for families, it is slowly losing market share to SUVs, such as Dodge’s own 2015 Dodge Durango, which appeal to both young professionals and families.
Even if the minivan does enter the next stage of its evolution and become something else entirely, the automotive industry has been forever changed by its presence. Whether you love them or hate them, minivans have made their mark on automotive history.
Before minivans, there were just vans, which weren’t designed for passenger use. Sure, there was a seat for a driver and one passenger, but the back was left open for carrying cargo and equipment. Some passenger vans were available, but they were designed for more commercial enterprises, such as transporting large groups for churches, charities, juvenile groups and more.
The minivan was intended to offer families more space than the traditional station wagon provided.
Some precedents for the minivan included the 1936 Stout Scarab, which was designed to be a mobile office and which looked more like a miniature bus than an actual van. The DKW Schnellaster from 1949 to 1962 and the Volkswagen bus also provided an early passenger “van,” but these were not used in quite the same way by families as the minivan later was.
The 1984 Dodge Caravan is widely considered to be the first minivan as we know it today. In fact, a model is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. A Toyota Van was introduced at the same time, but that model never took off in the same way as the Dodge Caravan.
The 1984 Dodge Caravan was designed specifically with families in mind, and it had a high roof to maximize interior space and a sliding side door to make getting kids in and out easy. It was built on a car platform, so it was easier to climb in and out of than a van and was easier to navigate. It also fit into a garage, which designers had identified as one of the top priorities.
The Caravan also had much more cargo space than any station wagon on the market at the time. There was a large open back, but the minivan offered even more space when the seats were laid flat.
The early design looked like station wagons at the time, featuring a wood panel along the sides. The Caravan was also boxy and pragmatic, without a lot of bells and whistles on the exterior.
Development of the Modern Minivan
As Dodge has proclaimed in advertising materials for the 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan, the model is “the mother of reinvention.” Over the last 30 years, the minivan has reinvented itself time and again, though it has kept many of the iconic features that made those early models so popular, such as the folding seats and the sliding side doors.
After The 1984 Dodge Caravan was released, it became an immediate success. The minivan helped bring the company back from the brink of bankruptcy, and it reinvigorated the automotive market. Many buyers had to wait weeks to have their orders filled because there was so much demand.
Dodge created an entirely new market with the minivan, and other models soon followed suit. Chrysler itself had the Dodge Caravan, the Plymouth Voyager and the Chrysler Town and Country. Other models to enter the market included the GMC Safair, Ford Aerostar, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Trans Sport, Nissan Quest, Mercury Villager and Toyota Previa.
By 2006, Honda and Toyota had emerged as top contenders in the minivan market, and the two automakers with Chrysler held 72 percent of the market. In 2008, Chrysler held 41 percent of the minivan market on its own, and that was even as the company was struggling in other areas.
Future of the Minivan
Over the years, minivans developed a reputation as boring and frumpy. They represented the settling down after family life and giving up on frivolity and wild behavior. No one was going joyriding in a minivan. No one was staying out all night and making bad decisions in a minivan.
To combat that image, minivans got so many bells and whistles that they became more like swagger wagons than the boring mom-mobiles for which they had become known. Many of today’s minivan models open up like a space shuttle, revealing everything from drop-down DVD players to step-by-step navigation systems and collision cameras all at the touch of a button. Sitting in the seat feels like sitting at the helm of a mobile command system.
Minivans have also taken on a more stylistic and “macho” design to fight their old image. The result, however, has been that they look more and more like SUVs.
In turn, SUVs have been trying to capture more of the family market, so they have been developed with more minivan-like features, such as a lower platform and a less powerful and more fuel-efficient engine. They all features the same large cargo area and adjustable seating, as well.
It is becoming harder and harder to distinguish minivans from SUVs from crossovers. Exactly what traits classify the vehicle as one and not the other? OF course, there are technical answers for this, but to the average consumer, the vehicles can look indistinguishable at times.
Whether the minivan is squeezed out of the automotive market entirely or just evolves to become the next crossover family vehicle, nothing can change the fact that the minivan left a powerful mark on automotive history. When you look at the 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan, you can still see the design fingerprints of that first 1984 model — as you can when you look at any minivan on the market today.
Though some may think of the minivan as a boring, stead vehicle, it was an innovator for its time. No one had seen anything quite like the minivan, and consumers responded to it in a big way. The minivan didn’t just meet a practical need — it also created a whole new style of vehicle.
As the automotive industry continues to work on its comeback after the trouble in recent years, it should look at the early history of the minivan as inspiration. Though the model was a simple idea, it made a huge impact on the market, and it completely changed the game for other auto makers. If the industry can achieve that same kind of magic, who knows what amazing things could be in store?