By on March 18, 2010

There’s nothing truly original in the car business. Everyone begs, steals and borrows from everyone else. Or sometimes, the same (and usually obvious) idea ferments for years in various heads or companies, and then suddenly appears in the same format at the same time in totally different places. How about the modern FWD mini-van? It first bubbled up in two totally different branches of Chrysler, sat for years,and then suddenly sprang forth, one in the US, the other in France, both at the same time. Coincidence, or is it just that every idea has its day in the sun? For the minivan, that would be 1983. In France, it was the Espace; in the US it was the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager.

We’ll touch on the Renault Espace again later, whose history is convoluted but less contested historically than the Chrysler minivans. Lee Iaccoca and Hal Sperlich, who left Ford in for Chrysler in 1978, will tell you that they conceived of a “Minimax” project at Ford in the seventies and pitched it to Hank II, who turned them down. Chrysler historians have plenty of evidence that they were at work on a similar project during the early seventies, a “garageable van”. Both concepts initially were based on RWD chassis, there being no suitable FWD platforms in those days of yore. Realistically, they were more like a cross between traditional wagons and the large vans of the time. Probably both were true, and very likely someone at GM had the thought too.

Hal Sperlich was particularly enthusiastic of the concept; whether it was from his ideas at Ford or what he saw at Chrysler is unknown. But in 1978, development began in earnest, and customer input dictated the program: room enough between the rear wheels for a 4×8 sheet of plywood, removable and flexible seating for up to seven, a sliding door, bucket front seats to allow Mommy to attend to the bawling kids in the back. Now the idea needed a donor platform.

By this time, FWD was deemed essential, as early prototypes with slant sixes and RWD intruded too heavily in the passenger compartment. Chrysler’s Simca-based Horizon/Omni offered the first opportunity, but Sperlich wisely decided to hold off until the larger K-car platform came along a couple of years later.  Additional delays because of competing demands and Sperlich’s desire to get it right the first time delayed the final product until the fall of 1983, when it was introduced to a highly receptive market.

The timing was excellent: the second energy crisis was still just winding down, so efficiency was still big on everyone’s mind. With only four cylinder engines, and a body shorter than the K-car sedans, the Chrysler T-115 vans had that covered pretty well. And the baby boomers were hitting the reproductive phase of life, and were more than willing to try something different than ye olde Country Squire that they had thrown up in. The minivans were born under an auspicious sign.

Before we get into the guts of the so-called Magic Vans, lets quickly pick up the story of that other 1984 mini-van pioneer, the Espace, because it also got its start under Chrysler’s roof, but in England. Europe UK (formerly Rootes) designer Fergus Pollock, who later was senior design manager at Jaguar, developed a van project in the seventies, about the same time as Giorgetto Giugiario’s highly influential 1978 Megagamma concept for Lancia.

Pollock’s design focused on the one-box approach, whereas the Megagamma retained the vestigial hood that the Caravan also appeared with. Of course one can likely find numerous earlier designs, even production ones, that will be thrown at this argument, but the Megagamma’s FWD layout, package and lines are unmistakably apparent in the Voyager/Caravan, and to some extent in the Espace. Lets not forget the line at the top of this article. And let’s also not forget that the Megagamma’s first offshoot saw the light of day in the 1981, as the Nissan’s Prairie/Stanza Wagon, one of our first Curbside Classics. That predates both of the “pioneering” minivans by at least three years.

To wrap up the Espace story, Chrysler sold its European ops to Peugeot in 1978, and the Espace was going to be a Talbot, which is what Simcas were rebadged as under their new owner. Matra was doing the lead work on its development, and when Peugeot chickened out, Matra took the project to Renault, who bit. But the first gen Espace still was full of Chrysler/Talbot parts. You will be tested on this tomorrow.

Enough of the fuzzy early history of the Chrysler bobsy-twins. What actually and finally appeared in the dealers on January 1984 was a remarkably innovative car, for conservative America. The first few years of production were strictly the short-wheelbase versions, whose seven passenger seating was a bit iffy all the way around. And lest I forget, there was an eight passenger version, with a bench seat(!) in the front. Try finding one of those now; it’s getting iffier just to find the early versions at all.

The one I found here is a five passenger version, which was not just a seven-passenger without one row of seats. The  back seat was full-width, and was further back than the middle seat of the Mormon-family version. I seem to remember that the front bench also came with this setup, creating a rather traditional six-passenger arrangement straight out of the old days. In any case, the five seater had a very decent rear cargo area; the seven had next to nothing. It was a painful compromise, along with painfully short legroom that led to the much happier long-wheelbase Grand versions in 1987.

Power? What power? These early vans were rather pathetically lacking in that respect, with the standard 2.2 Chrysler four belching out all of 84 hp, while the optional “Silent Shaft” 2.6 liter Mitsubishi four had some 104 hp, more or less, depending on the exact year. A floor-mounted stick was fairly rare, but this one has it, and was preferable for a bit of zest compared to the three-speed Torque-Flite three-speed transaxle. At least it was reliable, unlike it’s self destructing but smother-shifting A-604 Utra-Masochistamatic that darkened our skies beginning in 1989.

The little vans that could were a runaway hit for Chrysler, and not just at the beginning. They were still selling at or close to list price into the early nineties, as I know from personal experience, having written a check for $22k in 1992 for a mid-line Grand Caravan. That’s solidly over $33k in today’s money. Live and learn. And for Chrysler, it was build and earn; by the billions (of dollars). The mini-vans were the cash cows that made Chrysler into the highly profitable company it once was.

It didn’t hurt that both GM and Ford bungled their mini-van competition royally, to the point they finally threw in their towels. That alone is one of the stranger stories in recent automotive history. It took Honda and Toyota to take on the Caravan/Voyager, and finally destroy Chrysler’s hegemony of the market. Who could have seen that in 1984?

The long-wheelbase versions were a big improvement, and eventually the short version went bye-bye, replaced today by vehicles such as the Kia Rondo and Mazda 5. Along with the extra length, Chrysler finally threw in a V6 engine, even if it was Mitsubishi’s. It took several years more before Chrysler’s rugged 3.3 V6 appeared, and in the meantime, it resorted to some creative moves to satisfy the now power-hungry Mommies. Since Mitsubishi could only deliver so many V6s, Chrysler drafted the turbo 2.2 four for mini-van duty, a rather unlikely combination. And contrary to those that claim otherwise, the turbo found its way into the Grand versions too, as some friends unfortunately had one. With its turbo-canyon and no low-end torque, it was an improvised stop gap that desperate buyers were willing to stomach, if only briefly.

A world without Chrysler minivans is hard to imagine now. They just HAD to happen, as did videotape, the internet, and ipods. And in each of those cases, their inventing weren’t exactly as simple as Sony, Al Gore and Apple. But in these times of fuzzy history and denial of evolution,  Chrysler duly deserves to join them as the inventor of the mini-van. Amen.

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89 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1984 Dodge Caravan...”


  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    In its own way,this minivan was the 80s equivalent of the 60s Mustang-it created a whole new niche for cars.You could argue it was more profound than the pony car because it was such a big part of the North American 80s-90s lifestyle.

    • 0 avatar
      sandrij@centenarycollege.edu

      Funny , this is the firs time I found this site. However, Just wanted to say that I still have my 1984 Voyager SE and it is in great shape. Of course now I also have a Honda van.
      Very reluctant to give of the old lady voyager.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Great article for a very significant vehicle! I think the closest thing we’ve had to the original (besides the Mazda5, Rondo, and Kia Sedonda SWB) were the Mazda MPV and Nissan Quest.

    It astounded me as well how many times Ford and GM could swing the bat and after 20 years STILL not come close to the Chrycos. Aerostar, Lumina APV, Windstar, Uplander….unbelievable.

    Of course, because of quality woes, Chrysler has abdicated to Honda and Toyota…..although I for one would love to see something along the lines of the original Honda Odyssey, circa 1995, with a 4 cyl and glass moonroof….

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    What I like about the MPV story is how, to be a success, it needed people who had an acute understanding of the intersection of technology and demographics. In other words, people who had imagination.

    VW and Ford of Europe missed it because they thought they already had MPVs, and they didn’t understand the potential of front-wheel drive.

    The Ford Transit was an excellent small van, cherished for example by Turkish immigrant familes that had many children. But due to RWD, it had high entry/egress, and was thus unacceptable for the middle class.

    VW in their typical arrogance claimed the rear-engine layout of the Vanagon was superior to anything Chrysler could build: less bouncy in the rear, with safer braking characteristics. Stuck into a Lower-Saxony mindset, they also couldn’t imagine the millions of young families in northern America and western Europe who desired something tailored to the family lifestyle.

  • avatar
    gimmeamanual

    Long live wood-panelling stickers!

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    These vans killed the traditional station wagon, and thank God for that.

    It might be noted too that the van came along at a time when people could no longer have kids in tow w/o 125 lbs of gear per child. The amount of stuff people schlep around now is amazing. My mom used to take 8 of us around in the Country Squire w/o any additional gear.

    The packaging efficiency of the minivan makes them one of the most remarkable vehicles of all time.

  • avatar
    AdamYYZ

    I enjoyed reading this. My parents bought one of these in 1986. It was a 2.6L Caravan. I have lots of good memories in that van. No other vehicle I could think of could provide for a family in the way that the minivan did. So economical, yet can be a comfortable cruiser or a weekday workhorse. We ended up putting 650,000km on that van (one engine rebuild at 400,000)

    Rest in pieces Caravan… Wherever you are.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Mine was a ’92 Plymouth Voyager. Base-model, short wheelbase. It had the 2.5 liter version of the early 2.2.

    It also had a god-honest clutch pedal! They were rare, but Chrysler did make a few handfuls of them every year. And that was good; the early 4-speed autos of that era failed horribly.

    Mine had essentially no options, that kept it light enough that the 2.5/5-speed was pretty sprightly. It also got close to 30mpg on the highway.

    If I could buy another, I would. The Scion xB I now drive is way better, but not nearly as useful.

  • avatar
    vrtowc

    On minivan history…

    An even earlier attempt than Lancia Meggagama was Alfa Romeo’s New York Taxi prototype.

    http://www.alfisti.net/247.5.html?&L=1

  • avatar
    findude

    The first people I knew who bought a minivan were very proud of being on the cutting edge. They were a childless couple with a small business. They bought it because it was a “garageable van”.

    • 0 avatar
      windswords

      A lot of grand parents bought these so they could take the grand kids places. Also small businesses and hobbyists like antique collectors liked them too.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    IIRC, HF2 canned Sperlich prior to doing Iacocca. Sperlich who had been Iacocca’s right-hand product planning genius then lobbied Iacocca to come to Chrysler after Lido was cut-free.

    More IIRC, the Minivan concept shot-down by HF2 (“No more Edsels”) was called “Minimax” (there was also a still-born project “Minx” but I can’t remember if this was also the Minimax). Sperlich said his the concept required minimum external and maximum internal packaging, thus defining a two-box architecture above and fwd below.

    I always found it interesting that Ford, having once understood the 2-box/fwd package concept, had a hard time overcoming HF2′s rejection of it … and instead of using a fwd platform for the (VN1) Aerostar, they chickened out and pulled the platform from the Ranger thus ending-up with a “midivan” (GM also chickened-out and made the similarly disappointing Astrovan).

    Even after viewing the (non-FMX type) of runaway-success of the Magicvans, Ford dragged its feet on the development of Windstar (despite co-opting the fwd platform of the DN5 Taurus for this mission) … they further dragged their feet with dual-sliding doors not even getting this ready in time for the mid-cycle refresh (there were all kinds of excuses used for avoiding this … comprimised torsional rigidity of the body shell, was dangerous to exit the rear door on the street side, too much incremental investment for an “unnecessary” extra sliding door, etc … but in the end, after it became increasingly clear that the improved mid-cycle refreshed vehicle still was not as popular as the Chrysler twins, Ford (as usual) shifted into hyper-drive mode to bring the door quickly to market.

    While Chrysler was minting money, and Ford had its go-for-one singular disappointment, the Aerostar, GM, then having had more resources to throw-at (or throw-away-on) a problem, managed two disappointments (this being if the target was minivan-segment dominance, or even relevance) with the Astro and the Transport vans; Astro having got the powertrain layout wrong, and Transport having got the “dustbuster” body-shell styling wrong).

    For such an amazing vehicle, built around a simple and presumably easy to understand concept, everyone but Chrysler had a hard time, for a long time, getting it right.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      IIRC the Windstar didn’t get the second sliding door until 1999 or 2000. There was a King Door stopgap model with an extra large driver’s side door and folding front driver’s seat.

  • avatar
    Syke

    The first wife and I, being totally allergic to kids but involved in mass hauling hobbies like the Society for Creative Anachronism and science fiction costuming, owned an ’85 Caravan C/V – one of the windowless cargo models. Had it finished inside by the local custom van emporium (big empty finished box with carpeting and roof headliner on the remaining surfaces). Used it for years hauling what the wife considered necessary for a week’s worth a ‘camping’ in the medieval style. Just see the king’s pavilion in any Hollywood medieval epic.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I remember how everyone seemed to buy these, but no one would ever buy a second one. The concept was great, but the mechanicals were flimsy in the first generation and only got worse in the second and third. Chrysler’s atrocious customer support didn’t help.

    In a way, this was the vehicle that soured people on Chrysler: you can piss in the cornflakes of a luxury- or sports-car owner because they’ll forgive a lot in their ego-toy, but this was a vehicle that low/middle and middle-income people depended on and bought in droves. Pedalgate ain’t got nothin’ on the Shift-gate, thanks to the Ultradrive.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      “In a way, this was the vehicle that soured people on Chrysler…”

      .

      .

      Yes, it did, and that is so sad. It was a brilliant idea, well received, and so very profitable. And Chrysler’s ultimate failure is rooted in its failure to work that brilliance into a profitable long term enterprise. Instead, by the late 80′s, Lido had driven them back into insolvency.

      I remember the moment I recognized the hold that minivans had captured in our society. One Summer day years ago, my wife and I pulled up to a neighborhood ice cream stand, and were meandering out of my pickup, and a young couple zipped into the parking space next to us, hopped out, each sliding open the door on their respective sides of the minivan, unbuckling a kid from their car seats, and in about 7 seconds were quick-stepping into the ice cream line ahead of us. I envied that young couple the utility they’d been blessed with, which the rest of us never saw before then.

      Chrysler gets points for bringing this into mass production, but yes, they also get points deducted for their failure to leverage this into a successful business model.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I will never understand the adulation for Lee Iacocca among gearheads. He championed a few interesting products, but he did next to nothing to improve Chrysler’s systemic quality issues and terrible warranty performance. If the products had been even slightly reliable in addition to being innovative, Chrysler would likely be North America’s top manufacturer.

      Under Eaton they did see substantial improvement in quality and profitability, but it was probably too late. They weren’t perfect, but they were on the same improvement curve that Hyundai and Ford jumped on a few years later. Pity about the whole Daimler thing, really.

    • 0 avatar
      Juniper

      Totally not true. We had an 87 Voyager with the head gasket blowing Mitsubishi V6 for ten years then bought a 97 Voyager that we just sold. May have bought another if they were not so big now. (No I don’t want a Mazda 5) Original 3.3 and Trans with no problems. Our dealer experience was fine. But then I don’t expect Lattes in a dealer waiting room, and spent little time there anyway.
      all that crap leading up to the Minivan has no sliding door, so it is not a minivan.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      @psarhjinian: That’s not my experience. I owned a 96 GV, and now have a 98 GC, still going at 144k. The 05 Odyssey in between was horrendous.

      Chrysler’s biggest mistake was offering the Mitsubishi 2.6 and 3.0 engines – these oil-burners were lucky to last 50k miles. Fortunately, I’ve only had the 3.3 and 3.8 OHV engines.

    • 0 avatar
      tced2

      “Under Eaton they did see substantial improvement in quality and profitability”

      Eaton wasn’t at the head of Chrysler for very long (1993-1998).

      Dare I mention, that Robert Lutz was president and chief operating officer of Chrysler from about 1986 to 1998? He may be more responsible for what was going on at Chrysler.

      Eaton arrived on the scene and sold out to Diamler (we know how that ended).

    • 0 avatar
      windswords

      It was Eaton who went against the wishes of the engineers and saved $2 a car by putting a cheaper head gasket in the 1st generation Neon. We all know how well that worked. Eaton was an ex-GM who did, well, what a GM exec would do. Any good thing that Chrysler did in the 90′s was in spite of, not because of, him.

  • avatar
    windswords

    I bought my first and only minivan in 1994. It was a Dodge Grand Caravan LE Sportwagon (say that 3 times fast!). It had both the 3.3 V6 (replacement for the Mitsu 3.0 V6) and the A604 tranny. The car was very reliable (yes including the transmission) and the V6 with 192 hp, had no trouble getting us up to speed. The Sportwagon package had the body colored grill, lower front dam with integrated fog lights and lower gray plastic body cladding (that was so in style at the time), plus nice 15 inch alloy wheels shod with Eagle GS tires. Painted in emerald green it was actually kind of attractive for a minivan. The seats were a bear to remove since the roll away and stow ‘n’ go seats had not been invented yet. But it did it’s job well. At the time it was the only minivan that had dual airbags.

  • avatar
    dmrdano

    My first Caravan was, I believe, an ’85, but I remember it had a small V6, so I could be wrong on the year. I was a dedicated GM guy until the Caravan, but I went over to the dark side and never came back. I have now had several (sometime two at a time) and still love my Caravans. I like to work on my house and always need at least one vehicle that passes the plywood test. Some of Chryco’s competitors’ seats don’t fold as flat forward, and while the floor may fit a 4×8, resting on the flattened seats means tailgate ajar. With my Caravan, I can just make it (as long as I don’t take a deep breath on the way home). My Caravans have been reliable (usually kept them to about 170K, then sold for good money). I don’t run a car much longer than that, as I live in Northern MN, and do not want to have car trouble in -38 weather. My cars park on the street and I have needed AAA to start me exactly once in the last 10 years. Do I think Dodge his a home run? How’s about a Grand (Caravan) Slam.

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    In 1995 I bought a short wheelbase Plymouth Voyager as I was showing dogs at the time; the Chrysler minivans were all over the place at the dog shows. With the 3.0 v6 it had very good acceleration and at a steady 60 could return 25 mpg. Unfortunately as soon as it hit 100k, EVERYTHING started to go: first the fuel pump, then the a/c compression, transmission, radiator, not to mention peeling paint. It was almost as if these vehicles were programmed to fail after 100.000 miles and my maintenance exceeded the factory recommendations. The Voyager was my first and last Chrysler.

    • 0 avatar
      Rick

      Was there an American car made in 1995 that didn’t fall apart after 100,000 miles?

    • 0 avatar
      rpol35

      “Was there an American car made in 1995 that didn’t fall apart after 100,000 miles?”

      Yeah, like my ’91 Jeep Cherokee (Mopar) with 258,000 miles and still going strong…

    • 0 avatar
      dmrdano

      As I said above, I think my first was an ’85. My second was a ’92, then a ’95, a 2000, 2002, and now a 2003. I bought all used around 30-50K and sold most with about 170K. Overall miles to the dollar was excellent. I had one CV joint go out on the ’95 (did both to be safe). The engine blew (cam in 3 pieces) on the 2000 with 130K. Minor issues only on the others. My mom’s third Caravan (’97) had a tranny go away, so I gave her my ’02. Other than that they were all wonderful vehicles.

      There may be some expectations that I have that others don’t and that can color opinions. For example, I expect comfort, but not Caddy-comfort. I expect performance, but not Mustang performance. I expect reliability, utility and economy and I get it. Disclaimer: I am not as happy with my ’03 as the previous models, but I cannot put my finger on why. It just feels different.

    • 0 avatar
      87CE 95PV Type Я

      Funny you type that since my folks bought a Poppy Red 1995 Plymouth Voyager SWB.
       
      I can agree with AC Compressor and Tranny issues, but not the other things.
       
      Almost 16.5 years old with almost 160K miles and currently on 2nd fuel pump, 2nd or 3rd radiator*, and the paint is mostly fine.
       
      *We hit a Deer when it had 800 miles and back in October of 2010 when it has 159K miles so I lost track of how many radiators and AC Compressors.
      Nice vehicle and mine must have been built on a Wednesday.  Basically everything replaced has been normal wear and tear.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Funny how some complain of poor quality while others extol the long lived life of their van. Was there really such variation? I can see why the first gen might be problematic as the first couple of years were hard on the K platform…customers doing unpaid beta testing…but by the mid eighties, the K platform was, mechanically speaking, quite reliable. How the A604 got to replace the 3 speed auto (the FWD “equivalent” of the 727 in terms of reliability) is beyond me…

    When are we going to get a K-car CC? Maybe its time for going through the alphabet soup of the eighties…X,K,J…maybe not actually…of all of those, only the K proved to be durable…

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Was there really such variation?

      Yes. There was a quote, though I can’t find the link and only ever saw it in Lemon-Aid**, that I think was attributed to Iacocca himself. Paraphrasing:

      “Out of every hundred cars we make, ten will total garbage, ten as good as anything Toyota ever built, and the rest hit-and-miss”

      It really was true: some of these cars really did have low TCO, but the ones that didn’t were frequent and spectacular enough that Chrysler bled customer loyalty like crazy.

      ** Lemon-Aid is actually where I first heard of TTAC.

    • 0 avatar
      geggamoya

      Here’s a K-car CC: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/curbside-classic-1986-dodge-600es-convertible/#more-338928

  • avatar
    Highway27

    Right as I learned to drive, my parents bought a first-year 1987 Grand Voyager. It replaced out VW micro-bus, which honestly hadn’t run for 3 years at that point (but did sit in the driveway for another year). We even got the manual transmission, which you had to get with the 4-cyl. That might be the reason they’re still driving it…

    Even then, it was kinda odd to have a manual transmission with no tach, just that stupid vacuum based shift light, that if you believed it would have you shifting from 2100 rpm down to 1000. My dad did put an aftermarket tach up on top of the dash. It was a pretty good vehicle, tho.

  • avatar

    More than any other vehicle sold in America, minivans make the most sense for most peoples’ needs. It’s a shame the market has been subverted by heavier, thirstier, less-practical SUVs.

    My parents are on their third minivan, all Chryslers. First a 2000, then a 2002 and now a 2007. All midlevel, 3.0 or 3.3L V6, short w/b (which is why they didn’t wait for the new ’08s). While the decontenting from the 2002 to the 2007 is painfully obvious and more than a little offensive — even the power window switches were swapped for flimsier pieces — their current Town & Country is still a wonderful vehicle to drive, and simply reeks of overall competence.

    I still remember driving a new 1998 loaded short-wheelbase T&C around the lot at the Chrysler store I worked at back then. At 23 and single, I was hardly the target market Chrysler had in mind… but it was still a very appealing vehicle, and I briefly pondered buying one. That soon passed, but it still made an impression.

  • avatar
    cdotson

    My parents bought three of the vans. First one was an 84 Voyager with the 2.6/auto in metallic brown complete with woodgrain decor. Aside from K-platform typical CV joint failures plus repeated A/C system failures I recall it being sufficiently reliable.

    My parents must have previously been Ford people as my dad bought a 78 Mustang II (4cyl, 4spd fastback/hatch) after his 65 Galaxie 500 smoked the trans, and my mom still had the 72 Capri she got as a teenager when they bought the Voyager. The Voyager was enough to turn them away from Ford…My dad just had to have the Chrysler Town & Country when it first came out in 1990. They bought one of the very earliest ones (white with wood decor), so early that it didn’t have the 3.3L V6 they were supposed to but still had a 3.0 Mitsu V6. I always wondered how many made it out with the 3.0 as everything I’ve read indicated they were supposed to be 3.3Ls. Even after that had been in for transmission “service” at least once they bought a 96 Caravan ES 3.8L (all-white this time, their first with dual doors). Three years later it de-splined the TC input shaft and left them stranded on the road (first time of the three vans) and they traded it on a 99 Honda Odyssey, also so new that they went to a local car show to visit it on the show floor before they took delivery. They’re on their 2nd Ody now and also have an Element.

    My wife decided recently she has to have a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country with the dual-DVD screens. I secretly hope I can convince her to wait for the 2011 Ody to come out.

    • 0 avatar
      Highway27

      Heh, I remember my dad and I trying to clean and repack a CV joint on our own. The interesting things were how we had to get the wheel assembly apart and back together. We used an 8′ 2×4 wedged under a jack stand to separate the suspension enough to get it off. When we were putting it back on, the torque required was more than the torque wrench we had could do, so we estimated with a scale and a long bar wrench… “I weigh this much, so if I stand this far out, that’s the right torque.” Had to make sure not to bounce tho!

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Jesus, some of you act like these things didn’t even make it off the lots.. We drove three diff gens of these at my previous job and they all went well north of 150k easily with minor issues only. Heck, one time I was cutoff by a granny in a first gen mini van.. I was in my 318 equipped Diplomat, I tried to catch her to show her my annoyance at what she did but no way no how, that mini van took off like a shot. Kinda funny actually..

  • avatar
    Littlecarrot

    We were just starting our family in the mid-80′s. We really needed one of these badly. Unfortunately, they were way out of our league price-wise. Even used ones didn’t depreciate that much. We settled for a used AMC Eagle (with wood sides) and various other malaise-mobiles instead. Sigh…

  • avatar
    bmoredlj

    Talk about boomertastic. Running off the roster of my friends’ parents’ cars is like an encyclopedia of family haulers. Stanza wagon (lasted to almost 300K miles). Two of my friends were driven around in identical gunmetal Colt Vista wagons,(VERY rattly engine, but loved those wafer-thin doors. One of these two never had its oil changed and died a quick death, the other kept going until they sprang for a Passat wagon) A fourth family owned an ’87 Voyager, SWB with the Mitsu 3.0L V6, which made the meatiest sound out of all of these. My family went traditional: Pontiac Safari wagon with a 305 making the same horsepower as the 3.0L. The Safari lasted 135K before the transmission broke. My godfather’s fam had a ’78 Caprice wagon they replaced with a ’92 Astro van, going for midsize, but when our (Pontiac, not GMC) Safari died, we got a ’95 Caprice instead. Despite all the roomier, more efficient vans out there, my Dad couldn’t say no to one more eight-passenger, woodgrain-trimmed wagon, esp. now that it had an LS1 V8 with 335 lb.ft of torque.

    So to summarize – Stanza, Colt Vista, Colt Vista, Voyager, Safari, Caprice, Astro, Caprice…I just didn’t grow up with sedans or coupes…still don’t trust ‘em.

    • 0 avatar
      Littlecarrot

      I bought a 88′ Safari in the late 90′s, when my family was a bit older. It already had 140k on it, but the tranny and engine had been rebuilt. I loved the wood sides and the rear facing seat. But the build-quality was horrible. Several outside door handles broke and both rear doors sagged so you couldn’t shut the doors.
      The trim surrounding the wood siding also began to peel. The engine was OK, although it had multiple oil leaks. Still, it was cool in an anachronistic sort of way.

  • avatar
    Motorhead10

    In 2000, I traded a ’94 Firehawk for a ’96 T&C once I realized I knocked up my wife again. Good times, good times. I will never understand the lack of the driver-side sliding door on the first gens. The 2001 T&C that I bought next had power everything EXCEPT the driver side door. Driver doors must have been in therapy for years. I also take offense with people that drive large SUVs when they really need minivans (multiple offspring, no boat or trailer to pull, “125lbs of gear per child”) because they have image issues. Get over yourself, rock the van.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    The concept was great, but the mechanicals were flimsy in the first generation and only got worse in the second and third.

    Glad to hear of all the long-distance successes out there. My brother’s 2002, while still decent looking on the outside, has had the CV joints, transmission, rotors, and A/C worked on….all under 70k miles. And I sear to God it’s barely perceivable, but there is a slight temporary dimming of the headlights every minute or so, but Dodge says it ain’t so.

    They do agree with the semi-permanent french fry odor inside the vans though….

    Seriously though, with recent discounts a family can get the base Odyssey LX for around $25k….why would you choose the Dodge, Chrysler or VW?

  • avatar
    Disaster

    I just borrowed our neighbor’s Chryco and was reminded why these things were so successful. It is an incredibly versatile vehicle…which just got better year after year. When they added stow and go seats you could transform it from a people hauler to a cavernous cargo van in about 2 minutes…maybe a bit more if you had to detach the child seats first. I hauled three 7 foot tall kitchen cabinets in it. The seating position was comfortable, with great visibility. These things are so much better than the stupid SUV’s and CUV’s that followed…in an almost knee jerk reaction.

  • avatar
    obbop

    And the moral of the stories is….?

    Mopar mini-van is a goodmobile?

    Badmobile?

    So-so mobile?

    Model T of our time?

    Worthy of resurrection?

    Needs to be updated backwards to a more basic-mobile?

    Needs a Hemi?

    Other:

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The interesting thing (to me) about mini-vans is that people would only pay “so much” for them, unlike people’s willingness to pay through the nose for tricked-out SUVs (Escalade, I’m talking to you!).

    For my money (and I owned two of ‘em), the ultimate mini-van (becuase it had the ultimate space efficiency) was the Toyota Previa. With the 4-cylinder engine flopped over on its side and under the front seats (with the transmission behind and RWD), passengers in all three rows of seats had plenty of leg and footroom in a vehicle whose overall length was the same as a Taurus sedan of the same vintage. With the mass of the engine and transmission near the center of the vehicle, the Previa was quite nimble and handled far better than any of the engine in front, FWD products. Toyota extended the crankshaft forward from the engine to drive the fan and the usual accessories, which was all that was under the short “hood” at the front of the car. And, with the centrally-mounted tranny, it was a simple matter to include a viscous coupling and propellor shaft running forward to drive the front wheels in an AWD setup (which is what I owned).

    The Previa had two problems, which ultimately sealed its doom. First, there’s only so much power avaialable from a 2.4 liter engine, even with 16 valves. Power was only “adequate” and the engine was pretty busy. In the second Previa that I bought, Toyota had tried to address the power problem by bolting on a supercharger. The supercharger greatly altered the engine’s torque curve, fattening considerably off idle. The result was both more power and a less “busy” sounding engine.

    But all of this cost money. My fully loaded 95 Previa — with leather (and very nice leather at that), AWD, supercharger, etc. went out the door at something over $30K, which was more than lots of folks were willing to pay for a mini-van, even though they would pay that and more for an SUV.

    Both cars were stone reliable. The second Previa ran 140K miles with no repairs other than the usual maintenance and replacing one of the universal joints.

    On the highway, both cars got about 24 mpg, with 3 kids and a load of stuff.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      We actually had the Previa’s predecessor, the Van. I agree about the packaging, save for one point: it was harder to walk through to the second and third row because of the engine’s placement.

      That design had a few other “gotchas” as well:
      * The handling, at least in the Van, was spooky as hell though I heard the Previa improved it
      * Crash safety was a problem as standards improved
      * As you noted, Toyota couldn’t get a bigger engine in there and it suffered versus V6/FWD vans

      The real problem was cost—you’re dead right, there. The Previa was killer-expensive (it was something like CA$40K new almost twenty years ago!) and it shared next to nothing with any other Toyota. At a time when Toyota was getting killed on cost it was a vehicle they just couldn’t justify. It was unbreakable, but it was also about twice the price of a Caravan and much slower to boot.

  • avatar
    brettc

    Our neighbours had one of these when I was growing up. It was an ’86 model with the 2.6 litre engine and an automatic. These vans were popular where I grew up because they were built in Windsor, which was 45 minutes away. It was maroon outside and inside, and also had the fake wood all over the outside. I thought it was a pretty cool van at the time, but I didn’t know any better. I’m not sure what ever happened to it, but I think they had it at least 10 years or so.

    Also, Bell Canada techs drove the cargo vans around in Ontario. Sometimes you’ll see a decommissioned one on the road. They’re in pretty rough shape now.

  • avatar
    johnsonc

    Our 95 short 4 cyl. Voyager will always be the defining vehicle of our time raising the kids.
    We could barely afford it and all it had was AC(pretty much standard here in TX) and the 3rd bench as options. Yes, it was lethargic and anything over 75 on the highway taxed it greatly but it was very comfortable and convenient. I had several warranty issues, which the dealer fought me over and Chryco has been on my permanently banned list of vehicles ever since. Oddly enough, once the warranty expired it ran pretty well until 120K when everything decided to go south. Having grown up in station wagons, the minivan experience was a huge improvement. Still, many will never know that because of the ‘image’ thing. I have friends who would not be caught dead in one under any circumstances. Their SUV is probably overpriced and their Suburban is a pain to park.
    It did what it was supposed to do when I needed it and I have now moved back to cars but it was the right vehicle at the time.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      That mirrors my experience. I had a ’96 T&C w/ the 3.3. A lot of teething problems – fit and finish terrible – doors grossly misaligned, etc. After the warranty ran out, it had a very peaceful middle to old age and was clunkerized this summer at around 120K, so I don’t know what lay on the other side. Did not want to find out when Uncle was willing to buy it from me no questions asked. By the end it was leaking refrigerant, motor oil and ATF like a sieve (enough to ruin my driveway) but it still ran fine.

      Replaced w. another Chrysler (Routan). Build quality is still sucks but after clunker cash, VW incentive, etc. this one cost me substantially less than the old one 13 yrs ago, even though it is better equipped and nothing major is wrong with it (yet) – just little annoyances like sticky windowshades, etc. Oddly enough, with the largest (but most efficient OHC) 4.0L engine only, the Chryslers were just about the only (full sized) minivan eligible for clunker $.

    • 0 avatar
      joeveto3

      We clunkered our 98 GC for a Fit Sport. The tranny went on the GC to the tune of $1500. Then the coolant lines that feed the rear heat went. That would have been another grand or so. We threw in some coolant seal, and that bought us a year or two.

      The body, beginning with the rear hatch, began to disappear before our eyes. Every oil change, brought with it an oil pan that was also appearing to rust. I’m not sure how this happens. But it did. The GC is the first, and I hope last, vehicle for which I had to sand and paint the oil pan.

      The headlights were so dim as to be nearly useless, giving no indication whatsoever, save for the interior panel lights, they were actually on. I really thought new headlights would address this, but they didn’t. The smell was like every other family vehicle in which the kids have a give-a-shit potential somewhere near zero. But I blame the offspring not the manufacturer.

      When we drove the GC to the dealer, it’s last trip, it was spewing coolant everywhere. People saw the steaming heap and laughed, fully appreciating the wonderful trade that was being made, much at the expense of the taxpayers, China, our grandchildren’s prosperity, etc.

      Though our stable of kids is thinning, I’ve caught myself missing the minivan’s usefulness, and more than once, I’ve eyed a newer GC. I love the somewhat compact size, and the Stow N Go seats. However, my mistrust of Chrysler’s ability to make a tranny that can last past 100K, or a body that won’t rot after 5 years, keeps me from laying down the cash.

      More than death, I fear the buyer’s remorse that sets in after laying down one’s hard earned dough for a Chrysler product.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    And the moral of the stories is….?

    Mopar mini-van is a goodmobile?

    Badmobile?

    The moral of the story is that Mopar Minivans are like communism -

    A great concept but the reality often (but not always) falls short of achieving its potential.

    Seriously though, these things were genius – the absolutely right vehicle for their time. I don’t believe that they could have been successfully introduced in the 70′s – people just weren’t attuned to the idea of smaller vehicles yet.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Oddly enough, I’ve been around dozens of these things, but never owned one. By the time children came along, I was knee deep in payments on a Dodge Lancer Turbo ES and was so far upside down in it, there was no way I could get out of it. I would have loved to have one of these as my own, as they were incredibly handy. Luckily for me (well kind of), my in-laws lived 12 miles down the road and lent me their T-115 frequently. They had the 7 passenger SWB model with the 2.2 and the 3 speed auto. Whoever said there wasn’t much storage room, was right. We took the seat out a lot for bigger things. I think it may have spent more time in their garage than in the van!

    @DC Bruce: I was selling Toyotas back when the Previa was on the lots. They were certainly unique, but rather pricy for the times. Additionally, with the RWD drivetrain under the floor, it raised the floor higher than the Mopar minivans. We didn’t sell a lot of them, as most people who were cross shopping minivans seemed to prefer the space utilization of the FWD ones. It was the same story for my friends who worked the combination Chevy/Plymouth dealership (owned by the same dealer group). I think they said they sold 4 Voyagers for every Astro, or something to that effect.
    Back in the day, the Chrysler minivans were about the only game in town. What’s sad (beyond the whole SUV craze) is the fact that we refer to vehicles like the Ody and the Sienna as MINI vans, when those things are HUGE compared to the originals. Along those same lines, I’m rather a fan of the new Mopar ‘minivans’ as they seem to look back at the originals, with their boxy shapes.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      The Ody, Sienna and the long (now the only) wheelbase Chryslers are all virtually identical in size. I had a SWB ’96 and the 3rd row was a tight squeeze and storage behind was lacking, so while the original was a nifty package it was just a wee bit too small – you felt the compromises at times. You could not haul a 4×8 sheet of plywood and close the liftgate. But the modern (super) size minivans are just right- you have the space that you need and don’t wish that you had more (and yet they are still “mini”vans – fit in a standard garage). They are as small as possible but not smaller (if your goal is to comfortably haul 7 passengers plus luggage OR a 4×8 sheet of plywood). If you are willing to overlook their dowdy image they really are just about the most versatile vehicles ever made – comfortable sedan and goods hauler all in one convenient, flexible package.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Jack Denver: I drive and park a lot in urban areas, and after driving my buddy’s Grand Can (Caravan), I find them unwieldy to park in parking decks, for example. I may be overestimating the agility of the original T115′s, as it’s been many years since I’ve been in one.

      With that said, I will be searching for a replacement work car, and I am looking at the previous gen Caravans, PT Cruisers and HHRs as potential candidates for my new ride.

      I occasionally need to bring big things back from Home Depot, and haul around my drum kit several times a month. The ‘Grand’ minivans are too big for my needs, an original T115 would be about perfect, but very hard to find in rusty Michigan. I do want something with a 4 cyl, esp. after 2008′s experiences, but I think I may have to look at the PT or HHR as alternatives to the short minivan, as they are tough to find.

      I think there is a market for a smaller than ‘mini’ van, but there seems to be a dearth of selection. Bummer.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      It really comes down to whether you need to ever put adults in the 3rd row. Full sized minivan is just about the only vehicle (short of even bigger SUVs) where the 3rd row is for anyone other than little kids. If you don’t need serious 3rd row (7 pass) then your options open up.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Thank you very much for giving me the biggest ear to ear grin I’ve had in a while. It was a fantastic article.

    Let me know if you ever need any clean samples of a Curbside Classic. I have a ton of them around here.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Good write-up on giving Sperlich his due for being the primary force behind the minivan idea. Iacocca has said that Sperlich was brilliant but had a rather abrasive personality. As you can imagine, that didn’t sit well with HF2 and Iacocca claims the only reason Sperlich survived as long as he did at Ford was Iacocca’s appreciation for his ability over any concern he might have about his flaws. Iacocca also knew that once HF2 finally got fed up enough with Sperlich to fire him, his days at Ford were numbered, too.

    As to the minivan itself, it’s just another in the Chrysler pattern of a stellar product eventually taken down by quality glitches. It’s quite similiar to the phenomenally successful ‘Forward Look’ cars from the fifties that initially sold like gangbusters, but quickly dried up when the now-typical poor Chrysler build quality reared its ugly head. Truly, when the final epitaph is written for Chrysler, the story will be on the level of a Shakespearean tragedy.

    You can really tell a timeless classic when, to this day, you can sit in one and still marvel at how forward-thinking it must have been in its day. Original Mustangs are like that. So, too, are the first Chrysler minivans.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      More like farce than tragedy. What can you say about a company with often superior engineering but for over 50 years was unable to get control of build quality? This isn’t even an issue of “decontenting” – it doesn’t cost anything extra to bolt the doors on straight instead of crooked.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      +1 @ Jack Denver. That has been my perception of Chrysler too. Superior engineering, remarkable ideas, forward thinking, but when they truly needed to deliver, the build quality would fall flat on it’s face. I’m not saying that Chrysler never screwed a car together well, it was just that when the companies life was on the line they would fall flat faced. Even when they built marvels like the slant six and the 727 transmission the cars they were attached to were often sub-par.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    The TV station I worked for in 1984 had a few of these, so I got to spend a fair amount of time in them. If you look closely at the shot of the interior, on the little shelf above the HVAC controls there’s some loose change, and you can just make out Chrysler’s first stab at cupholders: two circular plastic ridges sticking up about 1/16th of an inch on the shelf. I actually had a co-worker put a coke “in” one while we were driving, she was so surprised when the cup went flying off the shelf when we turned a corner!

  • avatar
    geozinger

    As I was reading all of these replies about the original Minivans, I saw it’s direct descendant driving down my street just a moment ago: The Ford Transit Connect.

    I know it’s marketed as a ‘work van’, but there are passenger versions available and I would imagine they would be cheaper than most mainline ‘minivans’ and certainly the full size passenger vans, too.

    Suddenly, it’s like being in 1984 again…

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      About $23,000 for the fairly basic 5 passenger model. If you can live with spartan and only seating for 5, if you feel that the modern minivan has lost its way, then this would be the vehicle for you.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      Interesting that you bring up the Ford Transit Connect. I really admire that car; it reminds me of a larger version of my 05 xB. If it held 7 people I’d replace my Caravan with one.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @educatordan: That’s comparable to the base passenger Grand Caravan. Of course the GC has the Stow N Go so there’s a little convenience added that the Ford won’t have. Like I said, the T115′s descendant.

      @gslippy: Yes, there is something about that car/van/thing. I guess it’s like a race car, it has a purpose, it’s been designed expressly for that function. While the TC is more of a jack of all trades, you can see that someone thought about it uses carefully and has designed this vehicle to be good at several things, without too much compromise.

      Several bad Fords I’ve owned have soured me on the brand, but I see a lot to like in the TC. There’s something in it’s design that speaks to me on a practical level.

      I think it may hit critical mass like the T115 did; at first, you saw very few, then boom! Everyone had one.

  • avatar
    aamj50

    I just last week bought a 1989 SWB Caravan. So far I’m really digging it. It has the 4cyl/3spd. I’m amazed by the space in such a short vehicle and how decently it rides and handles with it’s new shocks and struts.
    Good article! I wish more modern minivans would come with more “mini”.

  • avatar

    My parent’s are currently on their fourth Grand Caravan. The first was a 1989 model and the latest is a 2006. They have never had any major problems with their Chrysler vans.

    I never saw myself in a minivan until marriage and kids changed my priorities. Last fall my wife and I bought a new Honda Odyssey. Since making this purchase I have become a believer. The minivan really is the ultimate family car. Unless you drive off road or do heavy towing you just can’t beat the versitility of a minivan.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    +1 on the Odyssey not being anything I could ever call “mini”!

    The ’95-98 Odys were based on the Accord platform and could be considered a minivan, but the conventional car-style rear doors killed it as an option for me (“compact” parking spots are the norm where I live, with full-sized SUVs parked in most of them, need the sliding doors esp. on the driver’s side).

    In 1999 the 2nd-generation Odyssey got bigger and much heavier–over TWO TONS! My full-sized 1971 Ford LTD weighed the same as our 2001 Odyssey, and the LTD’s 400 had about the same (net) HP as the Ody’s 205hp 3.3l. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered that–the Ody doesn’t seem that big from inside.

    My wife uses the Ody as the DD since she takes our kids to daycare, I drive it on the weekends and trips. Perfect family vehicle! For my daily commute, however, I much prefer the go-cart-like handling of my 1997 Civic (35+ mpg doesn’t hurt either).

    My church has a mechanic’s ministry where we volunteer our labor once a month (will be there tomorrow, all day) and sell the parts at cost for those in need, and we regularly see folks who are still using these 1980s Mopar minivans as their only transportation (so be thankful all of you for whatever you do have, there are many out there with less). I can easily tell that they are the early models when they don’t have the CHMSL (Center, High-Mounted Stop Lamp) that became mandatory in the mid-80s.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Go by length and not by weight. All modern cars have gotten heavier, mainly due to crash reinforcement but also because modern cars have more “stuff” in them – A/C, power seats, power windows, etc. Some of the vehicle of the past are surprisingly light by modern standards, considering that they are all steel with no weight saving measures. If you take out the engines (big block iron V-8 vs. modern V-6) the differences are greater still. But your ’71 LTD would get zero stars on the crash tests.

      Couldn’t find the 71 LTD specs on a quick google but the ’73 ran about 224 inches. Modern minivans run a little over 200 inches or a full 2 feet shorter than the LTD. 2010 Accord is 194 inches – barely shorter than the Ody.

  • avatar
    davey49

    A good friend has a 1986 Plymouth Voyager as his daily driver right now. 2.6L Mitsu 4, 3 spd auto.
    Big issue is that it does not have head restraints of any kind. We need to find a junkyard and get some high back buckets for it.
    It does have a rear seat that can be folded out to make a bed

  • avatar

    Ah, this brings back childhood memories. My father had a 1986 Dodge Carvan LE with vinyl seats. It was Red with a Black bottom. He sold it in 1997.

    Did you that their is a 1984 Dodge Caravan in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC?

  • avatar
    geozinger

    @Jack Denver: Yes, we’re beyond the hauling the kids around stage, so no need for seating for seven. You’re right, the options are wide open, but I’m trying to find something good on fuel, which is why I limited it to 4 cyl vehicles.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    We bought our first MiniVan, when we moved from NYC to Ohio in late 1985 (It was an 86 model). It was a Plymouth Voyager with the optional motor and automatic. At the time we had a 3 yro and a 1 yro. No. 3 came along about a year and a half later (He graduates from college in June).

    It was in form a good vehicle for us, but within a few years, a we had destroyed the motor taking the WVa turnpike to the beach with the kids and all of our stuff, and we needed more space. So we traded it on a 92 T&C which was two feet longer and had a V6. Eventually the 92 was replaced with a 98 which we got 9 years out of.

    By that time 2007, the kids had grown and moved away. So we replaced the MVs with a RAV4. My wife would have preferred a brand new 1986 Voyager, but alas time waits for no one, and the Mazda 5 does not have the good space utilization of a Voyager.

  • avatar

    My father in law had one, used it for delivery for his business. It hauled, had a homemade flat floor for cargo. The only thing that was a royal bitch was putting the seats in and out. Chrysler used the cheapest metal possible so they weighed a ton.

    The van ran over 120k with a Mitsu V6, and the only real problem was a trans that blew up somewhere in the Midwest (they live in NY). My father in law is a very gentle driver, so if he could blow this trans, it was defective.

    Kudos to Chry-co for fixing the trans out of warranty, and putting them up in a hotel room for the night. The car was ready the next day.

  • avatar
    John Holt

    Nice work. I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly every TTACer has touched one of these in their lives in some way shape or form. My dad’s first brand new car was an ’86 LE with the requisite woodgrain stickers and the Mitsu 4-banger. Great little van even if it was lethargic. A slightly-too-rear-biased brake distribution block (of course without ABS) made that van a hoot in the winter – as long as you were awake.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    GM came very close to getting the minivan concept right twice, long before Ford or Chrysler tried. The first effort was the 1955 L’Universelle concept, which transferred a lot of Chevy Nomad styling elements to a minivan body sitting on a mid engined FWD chassis. The concept used a Pontiac V8 sitting upright and facing backwards behind the front seat. Had GM hit upon the idea of laying an inline engine on its side they would have invented the Previa. The L’Universelle was evaluated for production but the costs were too high (foreshadowing Previa’s problem again).

    The other GM proto-minivan that you can actually buy is the Corvair Greenbrier. Don’t laugh. The package is the right size. Unfortunately, the Greenbrier never got the 1965 suspension mods that fixed the Corvair’s handling issues, and the usual problems with heating and air-conditioning cars with air-cooled engines limited the creature comforts. Had GM continued the design, changing to a waterboxer engine (as VW did in the Vanagon) probably would have occurred eventually.

    You can see the L’Universelle drivetrain at http://www.highperformancepontiac.com/features/hppp_0309_1955_gmc_l_universelle/index.html

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Although it never sold in the numbers of the Chrysler minivans, GM’s first attempt at a minivan competitor, the Chevrolet Astro, managed to sell well enough to stay in production virtually unchanged over a span of two decades, finally expiring in 2005.

    While it’s true that most of those sales were fleet customers, it’s still an accomplishment worth noting when discussing Chrysler’s minivan and its competitors, and could explain why GM never really had a viable competitor for the Chrysler. They simply didn’t think the market was worth the effort to come up with a truly viable GM equivalent and concentrated on the much simpler, easier to develop (and more profitable) truck-based minivan market. In typical GM fashion, considering the enormity of what a cash-cow the minivan was for Chrysler for decades, it probably was’t the smartest of business decisions.

  • avatar
    Mungooz

    These minivans: Very honest design here, no gimmicks. I like that. The short WB models were an ideal size. Never owned one because I didn’t trust the 4-cyl power train and really disliked the interiors. Instead bought a Ford Club Wagon in ’78. Biggest automotive mistake of my life (and I’ve made many since.) Geez, wish I hadn’t revisited that nightmare again.

  • avatar

    And I still have an ’84 I bought 2nd had from the original owners…
    The ceiling liner’s fallen down, the heater control cable’s seized up, the A/C’s bled out its Freon, the ventilation fan control died in a shower of sparks as did the wire loom going out to the driver’s door, the speedo cable is broken (between the CC sensor and the speedo, so the CC still works) and the speedo is on 114K miles forever. The tranny bearing seal ate some filings and the seal leaked…but the tranny place flushed it, put in some magic goo and it seems to hold. I have the big :) Mitsubishi 4….I think I once had the head gasket done. And the radiator rotted, so I’ve replace that. The windows are the devil to crank.
    And it has all my camping gear for going to music camps 2-3x a year….that’s all it does these days, except for backup wheels when the TDI Jetta or Corolla is in the shop…’bout 200 miles a year. Bless its Mitsubishi heart, it always starts. My only complaint is those damn wavy disc brake rotors that heat up and get wavier when you really stand on the brakes.

    And as I drive the ratty old thing down the road looking down on the world from its comfortable throne-seat, I just grin. It is *so* paid for, it has been *so* faithful, been there for me for more than 20 years. A truly honest vehicle. It made countless windsurfing forays with a mountain of gear on the roof, including a trip to Cape Hatteras towing the trailer that the missus and I did the horizontal mambo that made our last child, now 22.

    The cherry on the cake is that it is old enough that it qualifies for display insurance as an old car…which costs about half as much…which is a big consideration for a backup vehicle.

  • avatar
    wt.pm

    I have had three of these, an 84, an 89, and a 93, all short models. Never had a problem with any, other than a few minor bugs. When it comes to mileage, the 84 I managed a pizza delivery company so I drove a lot of miles on the road and in town. I bought it with 50k miles, and three years later traded it with 298k, I think I spent about $150 usd total, other than normal maintenance. The 2.2 did not seem to have the most power, however on the way to a party way down a country road, my friends camero could not keep up, especially on the curves. The 89 with the 3.0 made it to 112k before it needed a new motor. The 93 with the 3.3 had 250k, when I traded it for a pick-up. My sisters 93 went to 312k, all of these were mechanically sound with no problems when they were traded. Knowing the reputation of the tranns, we made sure to service them early and completely, even replacing gaskets before they went bad. Which was the main problem, and led to all the other problems with the trans.
    If I could afford it, I would gladly buy another short, if I could find one. Too me the long is bigger than what a “mini” should be. This should be a whole new category.
    I have serious back problems, and this is the only vehicle I have ever found that I could sit in comfortably for an extended time, without having problems walking afterwords. The seat height is perfect for me, I don’t have to climb in, or fall in, no climbing out. The ride is soft enough that it doesn’t jar me, yet stiff enough it handles remarkably well. I have test drove all the other “mini-vans”, most of them I just did not like them as well, however the early Toyota vans (and Mitsu.)I hated. I do not want to sit on top of- in front of the motor. I really don’t want to sit on top of the shock housing, this makes for a bad ride. The new Toyota’s however are much much better.

    • 0 avatar
      GeneralMalaise

      I bought a new ’87 2.6L Caravan (short) and that little van served our family well for 110K miles. When I traded it in in November of ’96 for a ’97 Ford Winstar, it had a noisy timing chain, but no issues other that. All in all, a satisfying experience.

      One thing is for sure… they were among the finest, most comfortable vehicles for long distance traveling on the market.

  • avatar
    M_E_L_V_I_N

    A slight correction: the turbo engine offered in 89 and 90 vans was the 2.5L Turbo not the 2.2. While no torque monster it is a reasonable package in the SWB models well up to even modern highway use.

    And it is quite moddable. Relatively minor improvements can get you sub 12 second quarter miles. See: http://www.turbominivan.com/

  • avatar
    Hoser

    My GF’s folks had an almost identical specimen. 84 red Caravan 2.2 manual trans.
    It had high 100 to low 200k miles. Oil light started flickering when warm and the engine was gone over (oil pump and bearings replaced) by a shop in Mexico.

    A year later, the oil light was back. A real oil pressure gauge was installed. You would start it cold and see 30-40psi, 10 miles down the road it would drop to 0. This was on 30-40 mile trips.

    I don’t know how many miles I sat in the back seat staring at that gauge cruising along in summer with the A/C on wondering why it was still running. It never made any knocking or evil noises that I remember.

    The seat covers, the interior, I’d swear it was that same van if the panel where the OP gauge was installed wasn’t blank.

    It got traded (still running, 200 miles from home) in 2004-05 for a 96 Windstar that still runs today.

  • avatar
    200k-min

    In the late 80′s I was working at a grocery store loading bags in the back of these things quite often. I remember noticing how they were always rats nest dirty inside. Like Caravan owners got together and avowed to never vacuum out the inside of their vehicles.

    Still to this day the Caravans I see around town are filthy, dented and scratched up. Meanwhile the Odyssey and Sienna’s are clean and well kept. Chrysler minted money off selling the “cheap” people haulers but image wise, it’s not doing them any favors.

    As a side note my brother just turned in his company owned 2007 Caravan. He has said he’ll never even consider purchasing a Chrysler product based on the quality of that vehicle. I drove it a few times and it was pretty terrible. My 8 year older Accord is a much more refined vehicle inside and out.

    The long-wheelbase versions were a big improvement, and eventually the short version went bye-bye, replaced today by vehicles such as the Kia Rondo and Mazda 5.

    I’m sure few will agree, but the Mazda5/Rondo are not a modern-day reincarnation of the Caravan. Maybe the Nissan Stanza, as mentioned above, but not the Caravan for all the reasons listed ~ 7 passenger seating, room for construction 4x sheet goods between the wheels, etc.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I remember the junk Mistubishi 2.6 and 3.0 liter oil smoking engines courtesy of Japan. As a young adult I often spent time at my favorite dealership and loved to watch in the Summer months as these engines were always in for major repaires, torn apart on benches and tables, with shot timing belts, heads, valves etc. Meanwhile the Chrysler built 3.3 and 3.8 were bulletproof in comparison and were seldom in sight. The 89-90 turbo 2.5 was an interesting engine, especially in the SWB van. With some mods you could call it the haul asser!

  • avatar


    Regarding reliability, I suspect usage is a problem with Caravans – the drivetrain has roots in lighter vehicles thus like early small cars tends to get overloaded/overdriven, and the electronically-shifted transmission had many parts-fatigue problems from typical details, which is a sign of either a too-light design or bad design. The transmission is known to be sensitive to fluid. And maintenance cost is high because items like the 3.3L engine, larger heater fan, and relays for added features were stuffed into the original body (of which the 1991-1995 model is just gussied up from).

     
    And….the problem with parking the 1991-95 Caravans and probably many other minivans is the lack of visibility of where the back corners are. A big part of that is the curved side panels – subtle on those Caravans, sight down the side and you’ll see it. There’s also a lack of definition in rear bumper/body, unlike vehicles with a discrete chrome bumper, perhaps worse where body and bumper shroud are similar colours (like white-gray). My Dodge Maxivan was easier to park. I’m looking for one of those old curb feelers, perhaps a couple of stick-on reflector bumps would help.
     

     

  • avatar
    87CE 95PV Type Я

    My 1995 Voyager SWB 3 Litre V6 without Over Drive must have been built on a Wedenesday.  Been pretty good besides the typical AC, Tranny, and radio issues.
     
    My parents wanted a stick shift, but by August 1995 the only new ones were slush boxes.  Kind of funny you paid $22K for one since my folks only paid $18K, but that was probably due to the fact the 1996s were coming in and the 1995s were not cool.
     
    Almost 16.5 years old and almost 160K miles.

  • avatar
    sandrij@centenarycollege.edu

    Just wanted to mention that I still have my 1984 Voyager and am keeping it in great condition. It looks like the picture on the Chrysler museum web site.


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