- Lee Iacocca died on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, at age 94.
- He is credited as the father of the Ford Mustang and for rolling out the first minivan at Chrysler, a company he saved from bankruptcy in the early 1980s.
- Here’s how the minivan came to be.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In late 1983, the first minivan rolled off out the factory at Chrysler. The Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan transformed mobility for the suburban American family.
Today, the minivan is a staple of the American suburban landscape. But just a couple of decades ago, the idea of a van with the driving dynamics of a car was truly revolutionary.
At its peak in 2000, automakers sold nearly 1.4 million minivans to American families. Although the crossover SUV has taken over as the sales leader for the family-car market, there are still plenty of buyers that prefer the utility and car-like driving experience of the minivan.
Here’s how the minivan came to be. Remarkably, it shares some history with the iconic Ford Mustang!
In 1974, Ford president Lee Iacocca and a team of engineers headed by Hal Sperlich saw the need for a front-wheel-drive, car-based family van.
A decade earlier, both Iacocca and Sperlich helped lead the creation of the Mustang.
Sperlich’s team concocted a special prototype van. Since Ford didn’t have a front-wheel-drive platform on which the van could be built, they instead used a chassis and engine from Honda.
With the runaway success of the Mustang, Iacocca had become an auto-industry titan by the early 1970s …
Yet, he was still afraid that company boss Henry Ford II would kill off his pet project. So Iacocca and Sperlich kept their prototype van hidden in the basement. According to Iacocca, Ford’s management was a hesitant to sign off on the unorthodox van and the project was tabled.
By the late 1970s, Sperlich and Iacocca left Ford to join crosstown rival Chrysler. At that time, the Chrysler was in terrible shape. In 1980, US government was forced to guarantee almost $1.5 billion in loans to keep the company going.
Fortunately for Iacocca and Chrysler, Ford allowed the departing executing to take the rights to his “mini” van project with him.
By 1983, Lee Iacocca’s Chrysler minivan was ready.
On November 2, 1983, the first minivan — a Plymouth Voyager — rolled off the production line in Windsor, Ontario. That’s right, the first minivan was actually Canadian!
Initially, the minivan was sold under the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan monikers.
The upscale Chrysler Town and Country variant followed in 1990.
People loved the van’s roomy interior …
… abundant cargo-hauling ability …
… easy-access sliding door …
… all wrapped up in a peppy car-like package.
Before the car-like Chrysler minivan, vans were either boxy affairs like the VW bus or …
… truck-based affairs, such as the Ford Econoline.
The Chrysler vans were an immediate smash success — 209,000 sold in the first year.
Soon, rival carmakers launched their own minivans, such as the Chevrolet Astro and …
… Ford Aerostar.
Toyota spruced up their plainly named Van to better compete.
Volkswagen did the same with its venerable Vanagon.
In Europe, Renault launched their Espace just months after the debut of the Chrysler.
The success of the minivans along with the company’s K-car sedans saved Chrysler from the brink of financial disaster. By the early 1990s, the company was turning out iconic cars such as the Dodge Viper RT/10.
By the minivan’s 10th birthday, the market had matured. Chrysler held as much as 40% of it. But its competitors had also stepped up their game.
In the early ’90s, Toyota introduced the innovative but quirky Previa.
Ford dumped the truck-based Aerostar for the car-based Windstar.
GM introduced a trio of car-based minivans sold by its Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac divisions.
In 1995, Honda unveiled its underpowered and undersized Odyssey van.
Smaller players, such as Nissan, Mazda, and Mercury, all entered the market.
In 1996, Chrysler responded with the third-generation Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Town and Country, and Plymouth Voyager. In its first year out, the Caravan captured Motor Trend’s coveted Car of the Year award.
The new Chrysler vans featured updated interiors and engines, marking significant upgrades in comfort, utility, and performance.
By the late 1990s, Honda and Toyota learned their lessons. They dumped their unorthodox designs and followed Chrysler’s playbook. In 1997, Toyota launched their Kentucky-built Sienna minivan based on the company’s award-winning Camry V6 sedan.
A year later, Honda launched their larger, more powerful Odyssey. By 2001, the minivan market peaked, with nearly 1.4 million sold.
During the mid-2000s, minivans sales began to slip.
Consumers began trending toward big SUVs, like the Cadillac Escalade or …
… crossovers like the Jeep Cherokee for family-hauling duties.
Today, minivan sales are a mere fraction of what they were in their heyday. Fiat Chrysler’s vans still hold one-quarter of the market, while Ford and GM have abandoned the market.
The Honda Odyssey and …
… Toyota Sienna are the only other industry heavyweights left.
Kia’s Sedona and …
…. the Nissan Quest are also available but make up a much smaller share of the market.
Although today’s minivans have gotten, bigger, faster, more refined, and more luxurious, they all still trace their roots back to the little Chrysler van that could from the 1984 model year.