"The nicest thing I ever said about a minivan on air is 'it's your money, do what you want.'"
That's Ben Bowlin, co-host of the CarStuff podcast, firing another volley in the Great CarStuff Minivan War. Ben (self-avowed minivan cynic) and co-host Scott Benjamin (reluctant minivan apologist) discuss in this podcast episode not just the history of the minivan, but their own deepening understanding of how the minivan may or may not be the worst thing that's ever happened to cars. Conclusion? Probably not!
There's more to the minivan story than just the tale of a harried parent trying to stuff more kids into a vehicle bound for basketball practice. In fact, the so-called Swagger Wagon was a surprise hit for the auto industry. Didn't know that? What about these three points?
1. It Was Being Kicked Around as a Design Well Before the '80s.
Sure, the Chrysler design (which included the Town & Country, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager) first came off the line in 1983. But even in the 1970s, Lee Iacocca, then-president of the Ford Motor Company, was working with designers on the Ford Carousel — a vehicle that looked suspiciously like the Chrysler minivans that showed up in 1984. Perhaps not coincidentally, Iacocca was fired from Ford in 1978 ... and became the president of Chrysler soon after.
2. It Was Shelved for Some Practical Reasons.
But let's not just blame short-sighted execs at Ford for missing the point; they had some real constraints in the 1970s to produce a brand-new kind of vehicle. "The 1973 energy crisis and the subsequent recession in the mid-'70s made the company cut back," Ben points out in the podcast. "Ford had to cut back on development of entirely new vehicles, and one of their policies at the time to cut costs was to say unless a vehicle is replacing an already successful line, we're not going to try to go out and make a new market."
3. Chrysler Minivans Actually Pioneered a Ton of Features.
We're talking the first minivan with a turbocharged gas engine, all-wheel drive, an electric option (in the early 1990s, no less!), and seamless passenger side airbags. (And truly, there are a lot more features Chrysler was first to add.) So your image of the dowdy, functional minivan couldn't be further from the truth; they were actually industry leaders, in many ways.
But that also leaves us to wonder where the minivan is headed. "Sales have sharply declined as of April of this year," Ben points out. "Are people who normally would've purchased a minivan 10 to 15 years ago buying crossovers? Are they going to be buying compact SUVS? I think that's the direction things are headed in. But also it's not a ding on the minivans. If they're meant to be family cars, then it seems like their emphasis on luxury and comfort is paying off."
So perhaps, armed with information, we may have reached a peaceful détente in our Great Minivan War. Because as Ben himself even admits about the last time he was in a minivan: "You know what? On the inside it's not that bad."
To solidify your own stance on the minivan (and learn how to use the word "garageable" in a sentence), check out this CarStuff podcast with Ben and Scott.