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Associated in the minds of some demographers with baby boomers and soccer moms, minivans are a type of automotive vehicle that largely replaced the family station wagon in the 1980s and 1990s as a "kid hauler." The most popular versions of the boxy vehicles, which were manufactured by Chrysler Corporation and introduced by its media-savvy chairman Lee Iacocca, were even credited with saving Chrysler from automotive extinction. Doron P. Levin suggested the connection between Chrysler's development of the minivan and its economic health and noted, "Rarely had a company so close to bankruptcy sprung back to health with the vigor of Chrysler." Brock Yates went even further when he described minivans as "the true salvation of the Chrysler product line" and argued that the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, which were introduced in 1983, "created an entire new market category for Chrysler and the automobile industry as a whole." The enthusiastic Yates then hailed the minivan as one of "a handful of legitimate milestone vehicles" that "turned and expanded the market in new directions due to their revolutionary qualities."

Indeed their impact was revolutionary, as the 1980s saw minivans quickly replacing station wagons in shopping malls around the country, as well as car pool lines and Little League games. As one of the first vehicles that was deliberately designed with the growing number of female drivers in mind, the minivan was also a clear response to the Women's Liberation movement, and many of its characteristic features were clearly targeted to women: low step-up height, carlike feel and handling, and built-in child seats. Moreover, several manufacturers deliberately placed female engineers in charge of their design teams to make sure that no appealing family-oriented innovations were missed.

The immediate popularity of the minivan, which first appeared in automotive showrooms in January 1984, probably stemmed from both the way it was designed (although associated with Iacocca, minivans are actually the brainchild of Hal Sperlich, a Detroit design engineer who also played a key role in developing the popular Ford Mustang in the late 1960s) and from the fact that Chrysler continued to undertake careful research to see what potential drivers desired in a vehicle. In fact, Yates commented enthusiastically on the innovative redesign of the minivan in 1996. Instead of designing the vehicle from the outside in (Detroit's usual practice), the Chrysler design team "defied convention by first establishing rigid interior dimensions and then wrapping them in a boxlike structure. They decided on an interior height of four feet with a width of five feet—including a full four feet between the rear wheels in order to accommodate what had become an industry storage benchmark: a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood." Yates also observed that Chrysler employed a polling firm who learned that potential customers wanted a vehicle with room for as many as seven passengers that handled like a car, and also had flexible seating and easily removable seats.

While Chrysler introduced a product in the 1980s that clearly met the practical needs of drivers, minivans may have also met an emotional need of baby boomers who remembered the vans of their youth, including the Volkswagen Microbus, which was introduced in 1949 and became the primary means of transportation for 1960s flower children and California surfers, and the Corvair Greenbriar, introduced 11 years later. Although Volkswagen continued to manufacture vans, their poor handling prevented them from achieving the popularity of Chrysler's products.

Although Chrysler held a near monopoly in minivan sales for five years and introduced a total redesign in 1996 that received Motor Trend magazine's coveted "Car of the Year" award, the first minivan to be so honored, Chrysler was quickly joined by competition from Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Mazda, who introduced their own versions of the popular vehicle. However, by the late 1990s, as their children were leaving the nest, baby boomers no longer needed a vehicle that would seat seven people. As a result, at the end of the millennium minivans were being replaced as the vehicle of choice by equally boxy sport utility vehicles. Nonetheless, the vehicle that harkened back to the colorfully painted Volkswagen bus of the 1960s remained a familiar sight on the highways and suburban streets of America by the close of the twentieth century.

—Carol A. Senf

Further Reading:

Levin, Doron P. Behind the Wheel at Chrysler: The Iacocca Legacy. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Yates, Brock. The Critical Path: Inventing an Automobile and Reinventing a Corporation. Boston, Little Brown, 1996.