By on March 31, 2010

Why the endless questions and arguments about the origins of the Chrysler minivans? It’s the old story: “success has a thousand fathers”. You don’t see designers and execs fighting about the paternity of the Aztek. We stepped on some toes regarding the origins of the Espace, and heard from its father. And we took a wild (and disputed) stab at finding the maternal lineage of European minivans, but the American minivan paternity wars go on. Its origins clearly go back to the early seventies, when both Chrysler and Ford developers claim to have been working on “garageable vans”. Meanwhile, the commonly held story is that Hal Sperlich and Lee Iaccocca’s Minimax concept was spurned by Henry Ford II, and they took it with them to bring to fruition at Chrysler. And as usual, its not quite as simple as that. 

Before we jump into the Ford side of the story, lets quickly recap Chrysler’s. In an article at Allpar, Burton Bouwkamp, Chrysler’s Director of product Planning at the time makes the claim that Chrysler was working on a RWD “garageable van” in the early and mid seventies, but were unable to get the funding to take it beyond the clay model and seating buck stage. It wasn’t until Hal Sperlich and Lee Iaccoca arrived from Ford, that the general idea was put on the front burner again, but this time in a more compact FWD package that eventually became the production Chrysler minivan.

But the story that is generally circulated is that Sperlich’s idea for a small van at Ford was rebuffed by Henry Ford II, implying that Ford blew the opportunity to develop the first small van. But like most stories of the kind, it wasn’t nearly that simple. Hank II strongly endorsed a “garageable van”, and the Carousel concept was built in 1972 and almost production ready. And although it’s RWD and larger than Chrysler’s original minivans, it appears to be very similar in size and configuration as today’s un-minivans and especially Ford’s own Flex.

A thread at fomoconews.com on the origins of the American minivan brought the designer of the above pictured Ford Carousel concept, and some very enlightening facts about it and the Minimax, which this is not. Dick Nesbitt was a designer at Ford in the early 1970s, and in his words he describes the circumstances:

… when I was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor studio, we received a product planning directive to develop a derivative of the upcoming new Ford Econoline Van, code named “Nantucket” and due for release in 1975. The derivative was code named “Carousel” and was intended to attract station wagon buyers with more car-like styling combined with the added appeal of van utility.

From hundreds of concept sketches created by staff designers in this studio during 1972, one of mine was selected by Hal Sperlich, Director of Product Planning, and Lee Iacocca as the approved design direction. I directed the construction of a full-size clay model, and the vehicle received a great deal of interest from Henry Ford II. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 halted further development after a drivable, fabricated metal prototype (top) had been built.

The Carousel was specifically designed as a “Garagable Family Van” alternative to the traditional station wagon market segment. This concept later became one of the most successful and enduring product innovations ever created when Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca launched the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan in 1984. (from automotivechronicles.com)

Nesbitt goes to clarify that the “Garagable Family Van” and the Minimax were not at all one and the same, but that the Minimax (of which there are no pictures) was a very compact four-seater FWD boxy car designed for congested urban settings:

The Carrousel significantly influenced the Chrysler Minivan success story,  Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca have often referred to the MiniMax as being the inspiration for the Voyager/Caravan although it was a very small urban vehicle created as a possible solution to overcrowded city traffic problems. The MiniMax concept was a four passenger front wheel drive commuter vehicle with almost no luggage storage capacity and no real future. The significance of the Carrousel proposal was that it offered a dramatically improved alternative to the typical interior-space-restricted station wagons of the 1970′s. The key “Nantucket Family Van” variation design and marketing directive was to create a lower “garagable” overall height compared to the Econoline van range from which it was derived ,combined with more automotive-like styling.

The non-garagable height and truck-like styling of the Econoline Club Wagon series were seen as major obstacles to any kind of high volume sales characteristic of contemporary station wagons–but the interior room available in a van had obvious advantages. The Carrousel Family Van was intended to represent the best of both worlds,and was seen by Ford as a major marketing breakthrough opportunity. Chrysler’s Minivans were and are not really “Mini” at all–and achieved monumental success as a more space efficient “Family Van” alternative to contemporary station wagons combined with “garagable” height and automotive-like styling as a direct extension of the original Carrousel idea back in 1972.

This account clarifies that the Ford Garagable Van and Minimax concepts were two totally different vehicles, at polar opposite ends of what could be considered a minivan, even given its loosely defined parameters. And it also makes it quite clear that what was developed at Chrysler was something quite in the middle of the two, which was clearly a more pragmatic solution in response to both the energy crisis and the availability of the K-car platform. It also makes it clear that Ford took the “garageable van” concept much closer to production than Chrysler’s early clays of theirs. So now we just need a picture of the Minimax to make that family tree, and close the door on this subject.

(hat tip to Robert Walter)

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33 Comments on “1972 Ford Carousel: The Chrysler Minivan’s True Father?...”


  • avatar
    TEXN3

    Looks better than what became the Aerostar…which I imagine was concieved after the Carousel was put to rest in the 70s.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      Yes, I looks more masculine to me. More like it was descended from a work truck. I bet the seats didn’t fold – at all. It looks more like mule, than a full blown prototype; but very handsome just the same. I wonder if it still exists?

  • avatar
    davey49

    Can’t imagine it had much room inside considering it was still a front engine, rwd, full frame vehicle. FWD and unit body is what makes the minivan work.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Anybody else amused by the fact that Ford put faux-wood paneling on a prototype? I guess it was all the rage at the time, it looks exactly like paneling that was on my family’s 73 Pinto wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      There were many fashion mistakes in the 70s.

      We can only hope that most of them arent repeated.

    • 0 avatar
      Hank

      Too late.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Don’t blame this one on the era of bellbottoms, doubleknit suits and gold neck chains.

      Actually, the petro-wood siding of station wagons dates back at least to the 1950s (my memory) and is a vestige of the fact that, as originally built in the 1940s, “station wagons” had wooden bodies.

      The most luxed-out station wagons of the 1950s and later years were the ones with the petro-wood siding; the cheaper models had plain metal. Ford’s top of the line model was called the “Country Squire.”

      So it should not be surprising that this prototype re-think of Ford’s Country Squire wagon should echo that appearance.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Of Carrousels, Minimax, Garagable Vans, Maximins, Mini-vans, Personality Clashes, Investment Limitations and Major Strategic Fuck-ups by Henry Ford II.

      Bruce, I believe you are correct. Esp if put in the context in which this occurred …

      New Nantucket-platform (Econoline long nose) for ‘75, plan for new Panther-platform (LTD) in ‘77.

      If Carrousel had tested well, and had launched concurrent with the Econoline, there might have been an opportunity for the self-declared “Wagon-master” (Ford-div.) to at minimum exploit a new niche, and at maximum, drop the wagon-variant of the Panther (thus saving tooling and investment in the next generation.)

      As it turned-out, the Economy put a halt to the further development of Carrousel as well as pushing the new-gen Panther out to 1979.

      Carrousel, at best, was a replacement for the full-size wagon but, size-aside, never had mini-van-proto-DNA… based on descriptions of Minimax, it too was missing the winning genetic formula.

      In the day, the Ford guys liked to talk about how Sperlich and Iacocca “stole-away” the minivan idea from Ford (Blaming them instead of The Deuce a huge, huge, strategic blunder by driving them away to save a dead competitor – the consequence being the loss of Ford’s piece of Chrysler’s pre-Ch-7 market-share and the related scale-effects and billions in profit, from no minivan and one less competitor) … but this was just a bunch of sour-grapes trash-talking from guys too blind, proud, or arrogant to recognize and speak the truth …

      History tells: even after recognizing the Chrysler mini-van threat, Ford’s first-answer was a BOF RWD midi-van (Aerostar) and their 2nd-answer (Windstar) was still not THE best-dressed (i.e. full-on competitive) late arrival to the minivan party.

      Now, Sperlich always said that he tried to convince The Deuce to do a minivan … but that HF II didn’t have confidence enough to make the investment (recognize that The Deuce also didn’t have capital enough to do a new-gen Panther for 1977), and the only FWD platform in the house was the new-for-1976 Fiesta, and these hardware sets were just too under-dimensioned for a proper FWD minivan …

      Sperlich often said that minivan-DNA was a) transverse-FWD (for a compact front allowing for maximized passenger compartment in a “garageable” length, b) unitized construction (eliminating both the height penalty due to BOF construction, and allowing step-in rather than step-up ingress/egress as well as cutting mass), c) car-like handling and efficiency with space competitive to a big van and much better than a wagon. He said that since HFII nixed the investment within Ford that when he got to Chrysler and saw the K-platform, he knew he had the foundation for a minivan.

      To me, the minivan as described above, would have been a no-brainer for a master-product-planner like Sperlich (and, remember, these guys are thinking 10 years in the future) … You can just see the limitations in the Carrousel concept … just as big, heavy, clumsy and inefficient as the Econoline (with the additional investment of unique stampings and trim), and Minimax was perhaps not enough “Maximin” … but if you are a Sperlich and you put all these into a pot and stir, you will see a Chrysler-style minivan in there.

      I have long said that HF II’s blunder on bouncing Sperlich and Iacocca as well as not making a first-mover investment in mid-size FWD and minivan technology is a first-class strategic blunder that a) no one ever seems to realize/talk about, b) pissed-away the potential to simultaneously grow and increase profit by grabbing market-share (for traditional cars/trucks) from a liquidated Chrysler, c) open the new and wildly profitable minivan niche …

      Even the smash follow-on by Petersen and Veraldi the 1985 DN5 (Original Taurus), would have been a perfect basis for a Ford minivan (and in fact, it later was given to the Lt Truck guys as the basis of the Windstar) but instead of doing a minivan companion, they did Taurus wagon … thinking that Aerostar would be a better answer …

      These moves by HFII, The Deuce, nearly bankrupt his company before Chrysler (if not for FoE, this would have been true), and then stunted growth and profit well into the 1990’s… in those years, he was looking backward at risk rather than forward toward opportunity …

    • 0 avatar
      PlaysInTraffic

      Amused, but not at all surprised. It was all the rage at the time, and for while after that. The first generation Chrysler minivans offered fake wood on the side as an option, too.

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    And to think, minivans have gone maxi, and are nearly as large as the BOF vans that they were supposed to be alternatives to. Vehicles like the Rondo and Mazda5 are way more akin to the original Chysler minivans, it’s a shame that everything in the American auto market suffers from bloating with every redesign.

    • 0 avatar
      rcdickey

      Ditto. I need the size in my Grand Caravan wheelchair conversion though. I hate the tendency for manufacturers to increase size and weight with each new redesign as well. If the current size served my needs what makes them think I want he same thing bigger? Not really seeking an answer as I’ve read the marketing propaganda that supposedly justifies the trend.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I’d like to see that Carousel next to a modern minivan, and the Flex. It doesn’t appear ‘garageable’ to me, only slightly smaller than an Econoline.

    Interesting story, but Chrysler still gets credit for having the best idea, and the guts to bring it to market.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    AMC had a “garagable van” show vehicle in the mid-late 1970′s called the AmVan. It was one of the Concept 80 car show vehicles.

    http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2009/10/29/amvan-still-lives-too/

    Of course, in no way could AMC have managed to deliver front wheel drive. It would have had AMC’s very strong – but very long – inline sixes under the front (in a massive dog house between passenger and driver) and rear wheel drive.

    But still, it’s a small piece of the puzzle, nevertheless.

    The only possible chance it could have been done with FWD would have been if AMC and Renault had pulled their collective heads out of their anuses and tooled up Kenosha for the Renault 20/30 in 1979 or 1980 (it clearly would needed a reskin) and built this as the minivan version.

    It’d have been a really competitive car to the GM X-cars, and could have been had in Renault OHC 2.0 litre four cylinder (5 speed or 3 speed automatic), 2.1 litre diesel four cylinder engine (from late 1979, again 5 speed or 3 speed automatic) and PRV (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo and Delorean) 2.7 fuel injected V6 with 4 speed or 3 speed automatic…

    I owned a Renault 20 2.0 5 speed in a foreign country (used) and it was a PHENOMENAL car – light years ahead of any GM, Ford or Chrysler product built in the late 1970′s or even 1980′s. It was even – gasp – reliable. It rode almost as well as the renowned big Citroens – without the hassles and expense of hydraulic-nitrogen suspension.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    Interesting set of styling influences here, the front end looks a lot like the “long nose” Econoline from 75 but the driver’s door looks like a Dodge and the slanted windows cue Chevy Nomad at first and Aerostar only at a second glance. As odd as it sounds I think it would look better squarer and boxier in Giugiaro “origami” style.

  • avatar
    skor

    I remember seeing the first Chrysler minivans while attending college in late 1983. Many of those early Chryslers had the same crap-tacular fake wood styling of the above pictured Ford. The original Chrysler vans looked so much like the Ford prototype, the parentage is beyond question. I also remember taking an immediate dislike to the minivan, more like hatred — a hatred that remains to this day for all things mini-vanish — irrespective to whose badge is on the grill. For one thing, it came off as a totally sexless and joyless appliance. What really turned me off was the type of people who bought those things back in the day — arrogant, hypocritical, self-important suburban POS — sexless and joyless. It’s the connection to the aforementioned demographic that makes me want to reach for my Browning every time I see one.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      I’m sorry for the stereotype that has tormented you all these years. As a 3-time minivan owner, I find the driving experience rather pleasant, as is the utility they offer.

      And the 5 kids I pack in there were the result of joyful sex, I might add.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      As a former Caravan owner http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/auto-biography-23-caravan-of-love/ I don’t resemble that remark. Not only were my three kids the result of sex, but some of it happened in the back of it. And it was joyful!

    • 0 avatar
      davey49

      Minivans are by far the greatest vehicles ever created for American families and lifestyle.

  • avatar

    “Meanwhile, the commonly held story is that Hal Sperlich and Lee Iaccocca’s Minimax concept was spurned by Henry Ford II, and they took it with them to bring to fruition at Chrysler.”

    This is exactly how Iacocca relates the origins of the minivan in his 1984 autobiography. He also claims to be the father of the Mustang which is not entirely true either.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      Mustang was the product of Iaccoca sexing up Robert “Kill Ratio” McNamara’s cheap-ass Falcon people hauler.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Seems like I remember reading somewhere (maybe in Iacocca’s book) that the MiniMax was at one point going to be derived from the late seventies’ German Fiesta. That’s where the idea that Iacocca and Sperlich’s MiniMax was the inspiration for the Chrysler Minivan kind of falls flat. The MiniMax idea truly was ‘mini’, being very small with seating for only four people and no luggage. The Carousel does, indeed, seem much closer to what would later become the Chrysler Minivan. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any sketches of the MiniMax.

      With the Transit Connect, it’s quite amazing how the story seems to have come full circle.

  • avatar
    SecretAznMan

    That concept would still looks modern compared to current vans.

  • avatar

    Many people in Europe claim the Renault Espace to be the original minivan.

    That Ford is claimed to be a minivan.

    The Chrysler family (Caravan / Voyager / Town & Country) are REAL minivans.

    Why? Simple. Only the Chryslers had sliding rear doors & could be converted in to a VAN by completely removing all but the front seats.

    The others, at best, are ‘people carriers’ or miniBUSes.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    I remember seeing a Toyota concept/prototype from the early to mid-70′s. It looked like a cross between a Chrysler minivan and a Toyota Crown, only slightly more upscale. I guess it was supposed to target the demographics of the current day Chrysler Pacifica and Mercedes R-Class mindset. In execution, it looked like a Toyota Previa/Estima, only fifteen years too early, it actually looked kind of neat, if I remember correctly. I think it was front/mid-engined as well, like the Previa/Estima. Does anybody know what I’m talking about? I have only read one article once on the concept, and I forgot what it was called, and I’ve never heard about it since. Could Paul or someone of the B&B look further into this?

    • 0 avatar
      Mr Carpenter

      Yes, Ingvar, I can confirm that you aren’t losing it at all, the vehicle existed, and I have a color photo of it in one my World Cars books from some time in the mid-late 1970′s if my memory serves me right.

      It’s at home and I’m at the office, or I would be able to name the vehicle. Pity I can’t scan the photo in because it really is a neat looking vehicle, just as you described it.

      Toyota weren’t adventurous enough to build it then – but you have to admit they’ve grown a set of adventures since then – nobody else built the Prius first, did they?

  • avatar
    windswords

    Since the Ford MiniMax was supposed to be FWD (Minimum size/Maximum room) I believe that it’s contribution to the Chrysler minivan was the packaging that maximized the interior space and gave it car-like handling.

  • avatar
    flameded

    +1 to the am van looking like a pacer van.

    I remember the day I first saw a minivan in the flesh (so to speak).

    It was summertime, and I was grounded for…something.I saw the neighbor pull up in a shiny new red “minivan” from the window view of my bedroom prison…and I hated it.
    I called it that day…the end of the station wagon (which for some reason I have quite a fondness for)

    Anyway, strangely enough, the minivan was brought in for folks to use in place of a station wagon, without the “image” that came along with it.?..?.

    Well, I called it again, a few yrs ago …..the introduction of the suv, is the undoing of the minivan….

    for folks to use in place of a minivan, without the “image” that came along with it.?..?.

    ps..ive owned minivans, station wagons, & SUVs.

    BTW..I highly reccomend the book “the Reckoning” by David Halberstam…
    awesome read about the beginning of the end of detroit (and it was written in 86) but covers the history of the autos in USA (mainly thru ford and Nissan)

  • avatar

    Wrong, the Carousel is not a van – it is not tall enough. It is more like the Ford Flex – a big station wagon in the style of early 1950s, in one sense a short version of the Chevrolet Suburban, in another a precursor of the Chrysler Pacifica. (Unfortunately the Flex is awkwardly styled – look at the new Mini in contrast to see how a two-box shape can be styled.)

    The Espace looks like a real minivan, though probably smaller like a Mitsubishi/Chrysler product sometimes misleadingly called Colt and a Nissan product.
     
    A major flaw in your articles is the confusion between van and station wagon – a big difference in height. Perhaps we should talk of three heights – van, Suburban/Flex, and lower as station wagons were in later years.

    (And don’t get me going on the term “SUV” which would suit the Caravan – it’s definitely not a rural utility vehicle due to its compromised suspension, and what are called “SUV” range from vehicles that can handle rough roads to those that would faint at the sight of one.)
     
    MiniMax sounds more like a small family town wagon with upright seating. (We should check what has been sold in the Japanese market where upright seating is popular, probably because it shortens the vehicle.)
     
    The keys to the Caravan minivan package’s low height are not only front-wheel-drive but compromised suspension travel. (It is lower than the VW van, BTW.) If you want a minivan as a family wagon for city or freeway cruising, the Caravan is it – but if you want a minivan for gravel roads or work, the best configuration is the GM rear-drive one no longer sold in Canada-US (Astro/Safari?).
     
    BTW, some people are forgetting that traditional station wagons had fold-flat seats to facilitate loading of long items.
     
    And people who argue about one-box Espace versus Megagamma are pedantic fools. “One box” is the VW, Corvair Greenbriar, and perhaps early Ford and Chevrolet vans – blunt front ends. “Two box” is many vehicles in history, including the Mini and Suburban, most station wagons, and probably many “panel delivery” vehicles such as a version of the Morris Minor and versions of pickup trucks in the 1940s and 1950s if not earlier.

    • 0 avatar

      Now that I’ve seen illustrations of the Pacer “van” proposal and thought about it, I say it is obviously not a “minivan” as defined by the leading lights of that at Ford and Chrysler. It is a high-roof station wagon, nicely done, building on the clean Pacer wagon, but that’s all it is.
      The Pacer is rear-drive so the floor wouldn’t be as low as
      desired to be part of maximizing interior height and is not as efficient a package. It’s more like the Ford Carousel concept but done the opposite way – raise the roof of a low vehicle.

      Would have been an interesting extension to the Pacer line – IIRC the Pacer concept was a city vehicle with width for comfortable seating and lots of glass for visibility. It failed in the face of high gasoline prices – wide and glass equals heavy, and on top of that AMC couldn’t afford to tool up for a 4-cyclinder engine (they stuffed a straight 6 in by intruding into the dash area) nor a lighter rear axle (they used one from a much larger vehicle, which the Pacer’s width accepted).

      There have been raised-roof versions of other wagons, such as Toyota Tercels, but not as sleek as the Pacer van concept.


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