Creating the Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler Minivan:
The Caravan/Voyager Development Story

1984 Plymouth Voyager

Launced in 1983, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were the culmination of over a decade of work. Their development was rejected out of hand by then-president Lynn Townsend, and, according to one engineer, even after it was approved, the minivan was put on hold for the Y-body Imperial. Not until 1980 did full development begin.

When work on the minivan first started in the 1970s, Chrysler dominated full-sized vans with a 45% market share; they pioneered using carlike conveniences such as power windows, good radios, and rear window defrosters. This led to the idea of a van for families, which would not cannibalize full sized van sales, but would attract station wagon buyers.

Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler's Director of Product Planning from 1968 to 1975, wrote in a 1998 letter to Automotive News (which both parties gave us permission to reprint):

early minivanIn 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).

The first generation designs were rear wheel drive because we did not have front wheel drive engines or transmissions. Product planners, designers, and engineers were enthusiastic about the mini-van (which we called a "garageable van") but were unable to get management approval to go forward with a unique product concept which had a special tooling bill, not including facilities, of over $100 million. The first designs never went beyond the clay model, advanced design and seating buck stage - but the interest in the concept in the Design and Product Planning offices at Chrysler continued.

The “bean counter” management didn't approve the minivan in the early 1970s because GM and Ford didn't have one. Top management's contention was that, if there was a market, GM and Ford would be building one. Management was, without articulating it, deciding that our product strategy was to get 15% of market segments established by GM and Ford. As Director of Product Planning for seven years, that was a painful realization to me; that’s why I lobbied to get out of the job in 1975 when a Director level product  job opened up in Europe.

Dodge Omni based concept minivanThe second generation design, in the late 1970s, was essentially the production design and was done by Chrysler Design Office personnel under the capable and enthusiastic direction of Hal Sperlich. By then we had front wheel drive Omni/Horizon cars under way, so the mini-van design became front wheel drive, which allowed significant improvements in the package dimensions. Hal Sperlich contributed greatly to the success of the program with his enthusiastic involvement, esthetic input, and overall guidance of the program.

When Lee saw our minivan work (our second generation design), he said “let's do it.” Bill McGagh (Assistant Treasurer) told him that we (Chrysler) didn't have the money to do a minivan; Lee told him to “get the blankety-blank money,” then replaced Bill with a new Treasurer.  Lee Iacocca gets credit for his support and the “guts” decision to go ahead with a now even-more-expensive FWD product at a time when the Corporation was having trouble paying its bills and maintaining product competitiveness in existing market segments.

Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca should get credit for the final (front wheel drive) design execution and the decision to go ahead with production of the mini-van program at Chrysler - but not the idea.

Glenn Gardner, Dodge Truck product planning manager in the late 1970s (and future leader of the LH car project), was given the job of turning “Super Wagon” concept into a real vehicle. Full-size clay models and engineering studies were created by around 100 designers from a variety of Chrysler organizations. Customers rejected aerodynamic extremes; they also disliked the existing van practice of having engines tunneling into the cabin, leading engineers to decide that front wheel drive was the only way to go.

minivan sales

There were practically no components at Chrysler for front wheel drive cars when the minivan project was first launched. The K cars were being developed. The Horizon, while it had an advanced suspension and front wheel drive, had been developed by the former Rootes Group and Simca and their engines were not powerful enough. The slant six engine, natural for a minivan, was too large and would have demanded rear wheel drive. The Horizon platform was considered, but the minivan was eventually to be based on the larger K platform. (Burton Bouwkamp pointed out: “K-Body and T-115 minivan were different platforms. They did have a common East-West FWD powertrain but the vehicle body structures were different. To have common platforms the front wheel position, base of windshield — cowl height — and driver's ‘H’ point must be identical.”

iacocca and other leaders

Research conducted in 1978 showed that customers needs included parking in the garage, large interior space (at least four feet high, five feet wide, and ten feet long) with a side door opening of at least 30 inches, 48 inches between wheel wells for plywood, the ability to seat three people across, a flat floor, the ability to walk from one end of the van to the other, and removable seats.

1984 plymouth voyager cutaway

The sliding door was used based on customer input: people felt it was safer when dealing with children. It would not blow closed, it provided plenty of access room, and it was less likely to trap fingers. Two sliding doors were originally proposed, though the second door would not arrive for many years, according to Burton Bouwkamp:

When I was Director of Body Engineering, I repeatedly recommended that we built the first mini-vans with an opening left rear door. I guess I made a pest of myself because Hal Sperlich (my boss) took me aside and told me privately not to bring up that proposal again.

In Product Planning we always envisioned the T-115 to be a "peoplemover" with four side doors and a hatch. (The right side only sliding door on the 1984 model was to be sure that the mini-van appealed to commercial customers.) 

Hal didn't want to build the vans with both three and four door versions because of the increased manufacturing complexity; and it would have increased the tooling bill. Money was a problem at that time. The Finance Office (Bill McGagh) told Lee Iacocca that we couldn't afford the mini-van [at all]. Lee told Bill to "find the G--- D--- money - that's your job!".

dodge minivans 1984 - 2009

Most people wanted bucket front seats. The rear opening preference was divided between a one-piece lift-gate (preferred by sedan owners) and a station-wagon type two-part gate (preferred by station wagon owners).

The windows were mounted relatively flush, cutting aerodynamic drag and associated noise. Burton Bouwkamp, head of body engineering at the time the LeBaron was developed, wrote,

1989 Dodge Caravan gaugesWe had to delay the "H" Body (LeBaron GTS / Lancer) more than six months when Hal Sperlich (my boss) saw the latest Toyota Tiger (I think?) and Nissan Leopard cars at the Tokyo Auto Show. After that trip he decided to move the glass planes outboard on the mini-van by 3/8" to make the side glass more flush with exterior door and quarter sheet metal. That involved a complete redesign of glass drop mechanism and door/window seals as well as exterior sheet metal changes.

The project had already been delayed somewhat to get some assurance of higher quality. Burton Bouwkamp wrote, “I resolved not to go into production with a less than fully developed product, regardless of pressure. At times, I was unpopular when I told Hal Sperlich (President in 1982-3) that we weren't ready for production. Hal trusted me and supported me even when I did not tell him what he wanted to hear. He then had a bigger problem than I did because he had to tell Lee (Iaccoca).”

Voyager and Caravan were clearly based on the Reliant, and shared a surprising number of parts, including interior trim pieces, the instrument panel, and engines. Still, enthusiast magazines at the time talked about how upscale the controls and trim were.

Lee Iaccoca committed to get $500 million in funding. The whole project was to cost $700 million. (Compare that to the Ford Contour, which reportedly cost nearly $3 billion.)

Applauded by automotive magazines, the "T-115" minivans became a major success from their debut in 1983 (as 1984 models), with 209,895 sold in 1984. St. Louis soon joined Windsor in devoting three shifts to minivan production.

Minivan engines, 1986 Compression
Horsepower Torque lb-ft Manual mpg Auto mpg
2.2 liter, TBI 9.5 97@5,200 122@3,200 21/27 20/23
2.6 liter (Mitsu), 2-barrel 8.7 104@4800 142@2800 (not sold) 19/22

Major changes through the years included the 1987 introduction of a (Mitsubishi) V-6 engine, fuel injection on the base 2.2 in 1987, a short-lived 2.5 turbo option, extended-wheelbase versions (the "Grands,") and the supposed “first luxury minivan,” the original Town & Country. These versions were fourteen inches longer, and soon accounted for half of minivan sales. The 2.5 liter engine finally replaced the troublesome Mitsubishi 2.6; it was basically a 2.2 with longer stroke and balance shafts for smoother operation, which better suited the vans' torque requirements and were to become the standard engine until the new 2.4 liter engine arrived in 2000 The new 2.4 would survive through model-year 2009 but would only be used in the PT Cruiser (and Russian versions of the Dodge Stratus) after model year 2007.

1988 Dodge Caravan V6 cutaway
Roger Lister pointed out:

The A-604 electronically controlled 4 speed auto was introduced in 1989, and the AWD (all wheel drive) was introduced in 1991 with the 3.3 V6. AWD was offered on both short and long wheelbase vans, but I believe was only offered with the 3.3 and A-604.

Chrysler minivan firsts

Exports to Europe began in 1988, four years after the first Renault Espace was sold; the Europe-dominating Espace was created by Matra when that company was owned by Chrysler, and used a Chrysler-owned SIMCA as its basis. Matra has already sold soft-roader SUVs based on SIMCA chassis as well as SIMCA-based sports cars. Since Dodge and Plymouth were not sold in Europe at the time, the Plymouth Voyager minivan was rebadged and modified somewhat to become the Chrysler Voyager, a name that is still in use.

In 1990, a Chrysler-designed V-6, the 3.3, was added to the mix. This strong, durable engine proved to be very popular, and remained in the mix until (as of this writing in 2010) 2010 (possibly 2011).

Later minivan achievements and milestones

  • The first major redesign was in 1991, and included major changes to the suspension and steering, optional antilock brakes, standard shoulder belts for all passengers, and optional all wheel drive. The next year, driver airbags were made standard, and an integrated child seat was added as an option. 1991-1996 minivans.
  • In 1992, Chrysler minivan production in Austria began, with a turbodiesel Chrysler Voyager appearing in 1993. The Austrian factory, a diesel engine, and manual transmission brought Chrysler 23% of the European minivan market in 1994. (After Daimler took over Chrysler, Mercedes took over the Austrian factory, and all minivans, regardless of their destination, were made in North America, and sales dropped; see European Chrysler minivans.)
  • In 1992, a Dodge Caravan with an airbag earned the best scores ever recorded for a van in the U.S. government’s crash test program.
  • Dodge Epic concept electric minivanIn 1993, the first electric minivan, the TEVan, was launched; it was sold mainly to electric utilities, which could sell or scrap them later; many were sold at public auctions, and some are still in use.
  • A V6-powered minivan that ran on compressed natural gas was also produced starting in 1993.
  • Though the second generation of minivans was drawing to a close, numerous changes were made to enhance the 1994-95 models.
  • 1996 brought another major redesign, which greatly increased interior space, comfort, and reliability. Here’s an inside story.
  • Chrysler's second electric minivan, the EPIC (pictured below) was introduced in July 1997.
  • The 2001-2007 minivans had more powerful engines, no Mitsubishi option, and many "fine tuning" improvements, as well as power doors on both sides and in the back.
  • In 2003, the Grand Caravan was repackaged to form the Chrysler Pacifica, which ran through 2008.
  • The 2005 long-wheelbase vans brought seats that fold into the floor ("Stow-n-Go"), a feature so popular that Chrysler started to record increased minivan sales despite the introduction of new Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Nissan minivans.
  • The 2008-2010 vans added a new six-speed automatic transmission and 4-liter engines to the top models; in 2009, retuning gave the four-liter engine the highest gas mileage of any minivan sold in 2009-2010, with 17 mpg city, 25 highway. In 2011, the vans were retuned and again improved, inside and out.

Who invented the minivan?

Chrysler invented the modern minivan (as opposed to the compact van) —twice, in two different continents, using entirely different bodies. Richard Moss pointed out that Chrysler Europe was working with Matra on a minivan in the late 1970s / early 1980s. When it was ready to go into production, Chrysler sold most of its European operations to Peugeot-Citroen (PSA), which dumped the fledgling minivan. Matra took the design to Renault, which modified it to fit the Renault 21 drivetrain...resulting in a calendar-year 1983 introduction and Europe's most popular minivan. If Chrysler had held on to Chrysler UK, it may well have had a greater European foot-hold - but that's another story. The American Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan were also introduced in 1983, as 1984 models. (The full story is here!)

1984 minivan dimensions

Richard Beck pointed out that the Chevrolet Corvair had a Greenbriar model, a few came with cargo area doors on the driver's side. "It is said they had a tendency to break in half at the midsection because of those two sets of double doors. What attracted me to the Voyager is the four banger engine with 100 horses and a five speed. Also it has a tow hitch and roof's my all-purpose all-sports car. Hauling a sailboat, or carry a canoe and bicycles, or sleep in it. I like the power rear vent windows and innovative sliding side door. I love the lift gate as a porch roof." (There were numerous small vans before the minivan, including the Volkswagen Microbus and Dodge’s own A-vans.)

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