by: Rex Roy | AOL Autos

    Picture the American automotive landscape without the minivan. There was a time that no such vehicle existed here, although it's difficult to imagine. Chrysler invented the front-wheel-drive minivan that debuted in the fall of 1983 as the 1984 Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager. Here's the story that led to the creation of this entirely new type of vehicle. As much as the minivan continues to be one of the most important vehicles on the road (over 500,000 minivans are sold in the U.S. each year), it's lost a lot of luster to the popular SUV. Where most people think minivans have become dowdy, we'd prefer to think that they're preparing for their comeback.

    Try to imagine (or just remember) life in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. During these decades, families ran daily errands and took driving vacations in sedans and station wagons. Remember broad front bench seats that enabled a sedan to carry six? Or how about those rear-facing seats in the "way back" of huge wagons? Like the third rows of some current SUVs, those jump seats were the penalty boxes of the ancient automotive world, but they did enable full-size wagons to whisk up to eight passengers out Route 66 or down I-75.

    During the 1970s, a new trend emerged that gave drivers another option. Families began customized full-size vans to take advantage of their commodious size.

    Liabilities followed each choice. Sedans were just dull. Station wagons handled like more ponderous versions of the land-yacht sedans they were based on. Full-size vans drove even worse than the stations wagons. Full-size truck mechanicals underpinned vans of the day, resulting in poor handling. Furthermore, early vans featured awkward interior configurations highlighted by huge engine enclosures between the front seats that compromised front-seat room and all-seat comfort due to the noisy and hot V-8 engines. Additionally, full-size vans of the 1970s were so tall that they wouldn't fit in a standard garage, relegating the embarrassing conveyance to the openness of the driveway.

    The failings of sedans, wagons and full-size vans drove one Detroit manufacturer to consider an all-new concept. Two Arab oil embargos (1973-74 and 1979) further energized the development of the minivan by Chrysler engineers. The design promised to be more fuel-efficient than the traditional V-8 powered vehicles that the minivan would eventually replace.

    Like the minivan team at Chrysler, American families were also ready for something new.

    Minivans Throughout History
    Chrysler Corporation certainly popularized the modern minivan, but was the company really the first with the idea?

    One can make a case that the Volkswagen pioneered the minivan. VW sold their first-generation compact Microbus from 1950-67. Sharing the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive design of the VW Beetle, Microbuses were much loved but were still under-powered, noisy, ill-handing vehicles. For any number of reasons, most American drivers avoided the Volkswagens. West coasters, travelers and notable fans of The Grateful Dead were the general exception.

    However, nearly two decades earlier than Volkswagen's minivan, William Stout built his Scarab. Only eight or nine were produced in the 1930s, but Volkswagen would later mimic the Scarab's one-box, rear-engine, rear-wheel drive design. Stout kept the weight down by skinning the exterior in aircraft aluminum; this was not surprising, since Stout also helped develop the famous Ford Tri-Motor airplane. Inside the spacious Scarab, only the driver's seat was fixed to the floor. The additional unanchored seats (and a folding card table) provided maximum seating flexibility. One can only imagine the carnage following a panic stop.

    Given this historical perspective, Chrysler's minivans may not have been "the first," but they were certainly the first commercially successful design. Additionally, Chrysler was the first with front-wheel drive, provided one doesn't count estate versions of the venerable Mini from England.

    The First Modern Minivan
    Compared to the full-size vans of the same era, the 1984 Caravans and Voyagers were "mini." While the minivans were shorter than the short-wheelbase versions of full-size vans of the early 1980s, the largest differences were in width (narrower by 10 inches) and height (shorter by 14 inches). Length and width more closely resembled a typical sedan, making the new vans easier to drive. The reduced height made them garage-able, so to speak.

    The mechanicals under the first Chrysler minivans were based on the Chrysler K-Car (Remember the Dodge Aries and the Plymouth Reliant?). This compact, front-wheel-drive foundation enabled Chrysler to package a spacious and flexible interior behind the engine and transmission, instead of on top of the powertrain like full-size vans of the day.

    Seemingly overnight, Chrysler created an entirely new category of vehicle. In its first full year of production, Chrysler sold 210,000 units. The minivan was an instant hit, and Chrysler has gone on to produce over 12 million minivans since, with sales in 80 countries.

    Since 1984, most major manufacturers have introduced vans to compete with the offerings from Chrysler. Some have done well, while others have not. Following an explosion in popularity through the 1990s, SUVs and crossover vehicles have coaxed drivers out of minivans, so these family haulers do not sell in the millions per year as they once did. But the contraction in the market has led manufacturers like Chrysler to focus their minivans on a more specific mission; to satisfy families. Today's minivans have never offered more.

    The Latest & Greatest
    Today, minivans come with every option under the sun: multiple LCD monitors fed by DVD players or satellite TV; rear seats that disappear into the van's floor; power sliding side doors and rear hatches; enough cup holders for nearly every passenger to have two drinks; 115-volt power outlets. When Chrysler executives and designers first imagined their minivan in the mid-70s, none of them could have known the level of functionality, flexibility, and fun these vehicles would one day deliver.

    Chrysler introduced their fifth-generation minivan in 2008. The Plymouth Voyager sailed out of the minivan universe leaving the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country to carry on.

    Looking back on the history of the minivan, we've rounded up two special photo galleries. The first is a look at the strange and unique vans throughout history, while the other gallery looks at the minivan's future.

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    1 - 20 of 29 Comments
    joenailbiter Jun 19, 2009 5:21 PM
    The Chrysler Minivans are in fact reincarnations of the high profile station wagons/depot-hacks/sedan deliveries built before the Longer Lower Wider craze of the 1950s that made sedan based wagons and sedan delivery vans less versatile. The only real difference between the first Chrysler Minivan wagons(and sedan delivery models of them) and the old wagons and sedan deliveries were sliding back doors and not sharing body sheet metal with either sedans or light trucks. Front wheel drive, lower floors, optional panel-truck type double rear doors, upward opening one piece tailgates, transverse engines and putting the cab behind a doghouse that contains the engine and front wheels date back to the early part, and middle of, the 20th, century. In Europe any motor vehicle with an enclosed body for cargo was and is called a van or a lorry and what were called vans in the U.S. were either large trucks like furniture is moved in or true cab-over forward control panel truck and microbus cousins of the type of panel trucks and carryalls that ended up as light truck-based station wagons called Sport Utility Vans. In the early 1970s light efficient small vans like the Econoline were replaced by snub-nosed panel trucks&carryall type wagons and then starting with Ford in 1975 Ford dropped true vans altogether and came out with a regular panel truck that didnt share sheet metal with regular pickup trucks, complete with the doghouse in front of the cab just like the old pick-up based ones. These new panel trucks and carryall type Clubwagons also ended up weighing twice as much as the genuine forward control versions but with basically little more interior room. As a matter of fact, GM currently has two lines of light&meduim trucks: the ones available as light pickups and station wagons(Tahoe, Seirra, Suburban) and the ones available as the Sevannah and Express panel trucks & Carryall type panel wagons and Kodiak and Topkick cab and chassis meduim trucks. Both are available as C(rear wheel drive) or K(four wheel drive). Chrysler dropped the Dodge Ram Tradesman and Sportsman a few years ago and sells the Daimler Benz Sprinter which is also sold under Mercedes own name and as a Freightliner. The current Minivans and other makes of this type of wagon now have fold down back seats and other "modern" features just like the sedan based and pickup based station wagons. "Crossovers" are simply plain old station wagons with their own unique sheet metal, much the same as Minivans and similar wagons, rather than sharing body components of sedans or light trucks.The main difference is the back doors and ground clearance. Many of the so-called Sport Utility Vans and most Minivan type wagons are built & sold with only two-wheel-drive, four-wheel drive being an extra-cost option. Chrysler failed to trademark the Suburban and Minivan names which resulted in GM renaming their Carryall the Suburban and many car manufacturers calling their own Minivan type wagons minivans.
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    moparman42434445 Jun 19, 2009 2:40 PM
    chrysler corporation was the 1st to make most if not all of the automotive first's and anyone who thinks different is the biggest idiot who ever lived!!! chrysler was 1st nd foremost so far technically advanced that no one understood that and were brainwashed by BM and TERD into believing that they had the only vehicles worth buying by watering down their product's to the dumb masses......all the while Chrysler was building more advanced cars and trucks without all the fluff and creme pie **** and that was more than the average smuck could comprehend!!! So , why don't you take a moment to pull your head out of your a$$ and look back to see just what all Chrysler offerered in the way of automotive first's and you will find just how mechanically superior they were to your beloved BM"S and TERD'S could ever have hoped to have been!!! Chrysler's was an engineering marvel and everything they ever produced had something unique that the Bowel Tie brigade and Blue Ovaulators couldn't touch no matter if they had ever tried!!!! So, like I said, do some reading from something other than hot cod magazine or car crap that has no ties to either of the big money divisions and you will learn that not everything you have been told is quite so true!!! Or, in other words, get a life and quit believing the crap that has been handed down from too many generations of fools who were mis-informed about these car companies they thought were "the best" {YOU IDIOTS}
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    sjpiasko Jun 19, 2009 2:10 PM
    I've owned two Plymouth/Chrysler 4-cylinder mini-vans and have had nothing but positive & reliable experience(s) with these products supporting both my family and my musician - equipment carrying needs. It would be wise for Chrysler to re-introduce a 4-popper mini-van back into todays high cost gasoline market. It was foolish of them to disolve this market exclusively for the bigger mini-van maket with all their useless bells and whistles. My first 4-cylinder Plymouth Voyager mini-van retired after 200,000 miles. My second Chrysler Voyager mini-van (2001) is still running strong at 120,000 miles, provides me with great gas milages, and meets all transpotation my needs here in N.E. PA. - oh, did I mention how nicely they have handled in the snow - never got stuck - not once! Don't forget your regular scheduled & preventive maintenance, folks! - coolhang
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    modlcitizn Jun 19, 2009 1:55 PM
    I'm on Chrysler minvan number three and love them, but Chrysler didn't invent the minivan. Lee Iococca originally developed the concept when he was still at Ford. It was the "Ford Cardinal" project. Henry Ford II vetoed it, seeing no market. This, in part, led to a feud between Ioccocca and Henry Ford II, which eventually caused him to be fired. Lee came in to save Chrysler and brought the idea of the minivan with him. And the rest is history!
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    notfair Jun 19, 2009 1:41 PM
    Unloved>>>> sez who? I loved my 1989 minivan. Had all the room I needed and it was much better for transporting kids than these horrible behemoth SUVs. Kept it 13 years, when we downsized after all the kids were gone.
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    mo2rock Jun 19, 2009 1:26 PM
    i don't care what the picture gallery says about my toyota previa... i think it's a great car
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    tommyvo1102 Jun 19, 2009 1:15 PM
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    alt3r3dstates Jun 19, 2009 1:11 PM
    Hi-----I used to drive a 1966 Austin Mini Delivery----a TRUE minivan---in fact when the local Dodge dealer first showed off their "Minivan" I went down there with mine and embarrassed the hell out of them. The REAL MiniVan was half the size of their so-called minivan, lol! It had a 998 cc 4 cylinder engine and front wheel drive, and got nearly 50 miles per gallon. It only weighed 1900 pounds empty. Mine was RIGHT HAND DRIVE as well and been imported from England. The wee thing was a riot to drive and attracted attention wherever I went with it. Please look them up online, you'll love it!
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    redphantome Jun 19, 2009 12:41 PM
    funny how 'product infringement' is used by foreign manufactures but when the innovation is a great american product they skip coughing up, I say make them pay for the japanese infestation and for the building of the recycled metals they assemble here
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    wyrnut Jun 19, 2009 12:32 PM
    The real first AMERICAN mini-van was the Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier, which is completely ignored in this article! Introduced in 1961 to compete directly with the VW Microbus, it offered seating for up to 8, with vastly superior power and handling. BTW, the 'hippie van' shown at the beginning of Honda Odyssey TV ads, is a CORVAIR, not a VW; you have to look fast but it is very obvious; the one in the TV ad has 4 headlights; VW always had 2. I personally own a 1961 Corvair Rampside Pickup truck with the same 'Forward Control' configuration, which is in many ways way ahead of its time and it is very practical. Outside door access to the bed from the side like GM and Ford showed early this year? What an innovation - NOT! My 1961 has a side-loading ramp from the factory! As far as unsafe? Hah!! The weight distribution is almost 50-50... see ya on the slalom course! Mine attracts positive attention wherever I go, plus I can take it to a parade or cruise night and then to Lowe's the next day for lumber. I love it.
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    lordairgtar Jun 19, 2009 11:32 AM
    I know a guy who owns one in Milwaukee. You can go to youtube and type in Stout scarab and actually see one drive around.
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    vlcnfire Jun 19, 2009 11:16 AM
    Hate the fact that people think that Chrysler invented the mini van, when they only came up with the name. The only class leader was VW. Even though it was not called a mini van, it still came first. Usable and very functional..Many are still on the road today...
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    richardkittyhawk Jun 19, 2009 10:59 AM
    The fact that Nissan is entering the cargo van market next year will impact the domestic automakers sales of cargo vans. Nissan could make a significant impact upon the Ford and GM cargo van sales. I will probably look at the Nissan if they have a reasonable price to compete against the domestic vans.
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    rdoubleu2 Jun 19, 2009 10:19 AM
    Some of you are taking this article a little serious aren't you. it's just a remember the MiniVan story. no need to show the world how much you know about Mini Vans. My goodness. get a life.
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    glugo1001 Jun 19, 2009 10:03 AM
    There's so much misinformation in this article! The VW van was called the Type 2, not Type 1. The Type 1 was the Beetle. The Previa was not Toyota's first attempt at a minivan. There was a goofy-looking van they brought over first in the '80's that should have been on the list (Nissan had a similar one). Why is the Chevrolet Corvair van not on the list? Or the Dodge A100? Do your homework next time, AOL!
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    craiger679 Jun 19, 2009 10:01 AM
    Here they go again fudging up the numbers so it looks like the honda is the best selling minivan they split dodge caravan and chrysler town and country up even though they are still 2nd and third it appears the honda is number one it isnt . And when we have a recall its front page news so hears news on toyotas Toyota's Rapid Global Growth Leads to Major RecallsApr, 09 2008 TOKYO (AP) - Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it will recall 628,239 minivans in Japan due to an installation flaw that could lead to cracks in the fuel tank.Subject to the recall are the Noah and V... http://autos.aol.com/article/toyota-recalls ... buy CANADIAN AND AMERICAN WHEN POSSIBLE
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    weirdnessmagnet Jun 19, 2009 9:34 AM
    That old Stout Scarab design looks pretty nice, actually. With a flathead V-8 and aircraft aluminum body, it should've been fairly powerful, too.
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    ddotkalana Jun 19, 2009 9:13 AM
    have got hooked by the mini-van-I currently have a Chevrolet Venture and my wife and the grand-kids love it-need to haul something-no problem, just take some of the seat's out, or just move them-when I look for a new vehicle nothing but a mini will do
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    bormanathome Jun 19, 2009 8:34 AM
    WHAT'S WITH THE **********?? THEY DELETED &**********."
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    bormanathome Jun 19, 2009 8:30 AM
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    1 - 20 of 29 Comments
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