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

1984 Plymouth Voyager

Launched in 1983, the 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were the result of over a decade of work. The minivans had been rejected at least once, and even after they were approved, were put on hold for the Y-body Imperial.

The idea arose back when Chrysler had a 45% market share in full-sized vans, thanks to car-like conveniences; planners thought a smaller vans could lure families from station wagons. Director of Product Planning Burton Bouwkamp wrote in a 1998 letter to Automotive News (which both parties gave us permission to reprint):

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).

early minivan

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, aesthetic input, and overall guidance of the program.

When Lee saw our minivan work, he said “let’s do it.” Bill McGagh (Assistant Treasurer) told him that we 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.

iacocca and other leaders

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.

Dodge Truck product planning manager (and future LH car project leader) Glenn Gardner was given the job of turning the “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.”

Research conducted in 1978 showed that customers needs included parking in the garage, 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 because people felt it was safer when dealing with children. It would not blow closed, provided access room, and was less likely to trap fingers. Two sliding doors were originally proposed, 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 “people mover” 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!" [The whole project was to cost $700 million.]

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 wrote that “when Hal Sperlich (my boss) saw the latest Toyota Tiger (I think?) and Nissan Leopard cars at the Tokyo Auto Show... 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.”

1989 Dodge Caravan gauges

Ironically, Chrysler was also involved in a minivan project in Europe, with supplier/specialty automaker Matra; but Chrysler sold its European holdings to Renault, which released the final product as the highly successful Renault Espace.

Burton Bouwkamp added, “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 shared a surprising number of parts with the Reliant, including interior trim pieces, the instrument panel, and engines. Still, enthusiast magazines at the time talked about how upscale the controls and trim were.

The 1984 Chrysler minivans hit the market

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

1986 engines Horsepower Pound-feet Manual mpg Auto mpg
2.2 liter, TBI 97@5,200 122@3,200 21/27 20/23
2.6 (Mitsu - carb) 104@4800 142@2800 (not sold) 19/22

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

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

1988 Dodge Caravan V6 cutaway
In 1989, the minivans became more sophisticated but far less reliable as the A-604 electronically controlled four speed automatic 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. 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.

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, in 1991, 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 standard, and an integrated child seat was optional. 1991-1996 minivans.
  • In 1992, Chrysler minivan production in Austria began, with a diesel Chrysler Voyager in 1993. That brought Chrysler 23% of the European minivan market in 1994. (After Daimler took over, Mercedes kicked Chrysler out of the Austrian factory, and sales fell; see European Chrysler minivans.)
  • In 1992, a Dodge Caravan with an airbag earned the best scores ever recorded for a van in U.S. crash tests.
  • Dodge Epic concept electric minivanIn 1993, the first electric minivan, the TEVan, was sold, mainly to electric utilities; 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.
  • Numerous changes were made to enhance the 1994-95 models.
  • 1996 brought another major redesign, which greatly increased interior space, comfort, and reliability.
  • Chrysler’s second electric minivan, the EPIC (pictured below) was introduced in July 1997.
  • The 2001-2007 minivans had more powerful engines and many 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.
  • The first clean-sheet minivan in many years, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, was launched in 2016, with a hybrid version capable of 84 MPGe.

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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