1972 Ford Carousel: The Chrysler Minivan's True Father?

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
1972 ford carousel the chrysler minivan s true father

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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3 of 34 comments
  • Flameded Flameded on Jun 10, 2010

    +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)

  • RationalKeith RationalKeith on Oct 04, 2010

    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.

    • RationalKeith RationalKeith on Oct 08, 2010
      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.

  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉