Chrysler, the automaker that invented the minivan, is about to kill off the second of its three minivan brands. Automotive News reports that the Grand Caravan has been dropped from Dodge’s model lineup beginning in 2015. That will leave the Chrysler Town & Country as the only entry in this once widely-popular segment (the Plymouth/Chrysler Voyager died in 2003) and the only minivan made by an American manufacturer.
It has been a sad, slow decline for the pioneering people mover, which became a hit almost immediately after Chrysler introduced it in 1984 and which helped make the company, for a time, the most profitable automaker in the world. Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) were never able to develop competitive products, and Japanese carmakers stumbled at the start with too-small vans that didn’t appeal to most American buyers
But it proved a passing fad. Minivan sales that once regularly commanded 8% of the market up until 2000 have been sliding for over a decade to their present low of 3.7% thus far in 2013. Forever associated with soccer moms, minivans have always been regarded as purchases of necessity, not aspiration. Since no vehicle shaped like a breadbox and designed to haul people could ever be stylish, their appeal was based on functionality — and when cupholders and seven-passenger seating began appearing in crossover SUVs with greater sex appeal, their fate was sealed.
While endangered, minivans probably won’t become extinct. “Even at this demand level, minivan sales remains sizable enough to be a lucrative venture for some manufacturers,” says Edmunds analyst Jeremy Acevedo. “The segment still remains the best option for many buyers.”
This gallery of departed minivan models is, on the one hand, a testament to the appeal and utility of the original concept — short front overhang, command seating position, easy loading, sliding doors — and, on the other, the fickleness of a public demand that was quickly satisfied and then moved on.
Stout Scarab 1936-1938
With its short nose, one-box design, and flexible interior with a removable table and rotating seats, the Scarab was decades ahead of its time. Designer William Stout planned to build hundreds at his Detroit plant, but high prices and hard economic times reduced production to a handful, and World War II ended the dream. Of the nine Scarabs that were actually built, five survive today.
Ford Carousel 1975
The concept of a garageable family van surfaced at Ford in the mid-70s as the station wagon was losing favor, and the Carousel was reportedly scheduled for production until the gasoline crisis hit in 1973, and the accompanying recession quashed plans for new product entries. Two Ford executives of the era, Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca, were paying attention, however, and took the van idea across town when they both decamped to Chrysler.
Plymouth/Chrysler Voyager 1984-2003
Long a home of badge-engineering, Chrysler introduced the Voyager (above) along with the nearly identical Dodge Caravan in 1984. Despite sharing components with the K-car and featuring only one rear sliding door, the two front-wheel drive vehicles quickly outgrew a single assembly plant and their single body style; Chrysler opened a second plant to boost supply and introduced a long wheel base version called the Grand Voyager in 1987. Enthusiasts turned up their noses at minivans, but the Voyager/Caravan was so revolutionary it made Car & Driver’s 10-best list in 1985. The Plymouth Voyager was discontinued after the 2000 model year when the Plymouth line was eliminated, and the Chrysler Voyager died three years later.
One of numerous GM efforts to compete, the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari was larger and more truck-like than Chrysler’s minivans and was engineered with rear-wheel drive. Despite providing capacity for eight passengers, they never found favor with families and found more uses as utility vehicles, pulling trailers and hauling loads.
Ford Aerostar 1986-1997
Like GM, Ford tried to compete with a truck-based, rear-drive vehicle — and with no greater success. Features like integrated child safety seats and an Eddie Bauer trim level couldn’t disguise the Aerostar’s commercial bent, and Ford began to phase it out in 1995.
GM tried something radical when it launched its next challenge to Chrysler’s minivans but only encountered ridicule. The angular snouts of the Chevrolet Lumina (above) and its stablemates, the Pontiac TranSport and Oldsmobile Silhouette, quickly earned them the sobriquet “Dustbuster minivans,” and the heavy weight of their flexible body panels caused a Chrysler executive to label them “plastic pachyderms.” When Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta in the 1995 movie Get Shorty, referred to the Silhouette as “the Cadillac of minivans,” it was already too late to reverse public perceptions of these ungainly and unloved vehicles.
Toyota Previa 1990-1997
It was a long time before Japanese manufacturers realized that for American buyers, there was. In actuality, no “mini” in minivan. The innovative mid-engine Previa looked sleek, but it was expensive, underpowered, and swallowed little in the way of passengers or cargo. Toyota (TM) replaced it in 1997 with the more conventionally engineered Sienna but didn’t get it right-sized until the second generation Sienna appeared in 2004.
Attractive and well-engineered, the Mercury Villager (above) never found a wide audience, perhaps because of its Mercury badge and the lack of enthusiasm for the Nissan joint venture, which dissolved in 2000. But Nissan’s Quest in particular enjoyed a reputation for durability, and, dusty and dented, lots of them remained on city streets long after production ended.
Honda Odyssey 1994-1999
Like Toyota, Honda took several swings at the minivan concept before getting a hit. The original Odyssey, engineered and built in Japan, was tight and low-roofed and featured hinged doors. But Honda (HMC) learned, erected a plant in Alabama, and began building a larger Odyssey with sliding doors and a higher roof in 1999. Its efforts were quickly rewarded: The redesigned Odyssey (above) is currently the bestselling minivan in America.
Ford kept trying to develop a competitive minivan — and kept coming up short. Although the car-based Ford Windstar (above) was a vast improvement over the Aerostar, it had reliability issues and lacked a fourth door at the start. It didn’t help that the Windstar sat in the same showroom as the wildly popular Explorer. Far from stimulating interest, the name change to Freestar in 2004 (so that all Fords would have a name beginning with “F”) was termed a fiasco and the Windstar, Freestar and Mercury Monterrey were toast by 2007.
GM tried to disguise the Chevrolet Uplander (above), Saturn Relay, Buick Terraza, and Pontiac Montana with long, level hoods and tall front facias to make them look more like SUVs, but buyers weren’t fooled. Perhaps it was the gearshift mounted on the steering wheel long after competitors moved it to the central console that gave it away. By 2008, GM had given up on these orphans and turned its attention to the more modern Chevrolet Traverse crossover SUV and its siblings.