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The Rise of the Minivan

The minivan we all know and love (or loathe) today did not simply pop into existence. The story of how the North American minivan came to be is actually a long and complicated one, wrapped up in the story of vans and commercial vehicles in general, with a few twists and turns along the way.

Early motor vehicles evolved from horse-drawn wagons. Fairly early on, it became established practice to stick the motor under a hood out in front of the driver's position. If it was a passenger car, you added seats in the area beside and behind the driver; for a cargo-carrier, put a low bed or enclosed box on the rear end. It wasn't until deep into the 1920s before it became common practice to provide the passenger space with an all-weather enclosure.

The sense of putting everything--motor, driver, passengers, and cargo--in a single streamlined enclosure seems obvious to us today, but it didn't occur to anyone to try it until the 1930s. The Stout Scarab which my colleague Anthony Cagle has so ably described was one of the first "monobox" designs, and is clearly the oldest vehicle that's recognizably something we might now call a minivan.

At about the same time that William B. Stout was fashioning the unibody of the first Scarab, maverick architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller--the closest thing to a mad scientist this country has ever produced--was building prototypes of his three-wheeled, eleven-passenger Dymaxion Car. I won't go into a great amount of detail about the Dymaxion right now--it really deserves its own post--but suffice it to say that in function, though not in form, it was, like the Scarab, something of a proto-minivan. Like the more conventional Scarab, the Dymaxion never got past the prototype stage.

The idea of a high-utility "one-box" vehicle languished until after World War II, when those nerdy German engineers produced a clever and compact multipurpose vehicle:


Not the clever and compact German multipurpose vehicle you expected, is it? This little fella is the DKW Schnellaster ("Rapid Transporter"), produced from 1949 to 1962. It has front-wheel drive, with the engine under a short, sloping hood. The load floor is flat all the way back. It could be had in several body styles, including a "Bus" version with windows all around and three-row seating for eight people.

While it was marketed as a commercial vehicle and not a family car, that DKW Schnellaster Bus has more than a passing resemblance to an '84 Plymouth Voyager, doesn't it? It's close enough that TTAC writer Paul Neidermeyer justifiably pronounced it "The Mother of All Modern Minivans."

The major difference between a Schnellaster and a modern minivan is size. A Schnellaster is 164.45 inches long and 65.75 inches wide--roughly the same length and width as a 2010 Honda Fit. You can get eight people in that volume, provided that none of them are too husky and they all really like each other. The Bus was powered by a 700cc two-stroke two-cylinder engine producing 20 horsepower that was good for a top speed of 43 MPH--which is not exactly putting the schnell in "Schnellaster." Though clearly ein Wünschenswerteswagen* if ever there was, the Schnellaster Bus was too small and underpowered to ever have a chance at cracking the North American market as a substitute for the traditional family car. As far as I know, it was not exported to the U.S. in significant numbers.

That other clever and compact German multipurpose vehicle, the Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter, did come to the North American market in significant numbers. The first-generation ("T1" or "Splitter") "Microbus" is nearly the same size as the Schnellaster, but the side doors give better access to the area behind the front seat--the Schnellaster had only the two "suicide" doors in the front. By placing the front seat over the front wheels (sometimes called a "forward control" layout), the VW made better use of the interior volume available and afforded passengers more legroom. This made up for the rear-mounted engine's intrusion into the luggage space behind the third seat. The Type 2 also had a more powerful four-stroke engine, though at 30 horsepower it was still no drag-racer.

Like the Schnellaster, the Type 2 was intended (and marketed) more as a commercial vehicle than as a family car--there were several light truck versions, including a crew-cab pickup. By around 1960 it was finding a definite niche in the American market.

It was around this time that the Big Three were responding to the 1958 recession and the first significant wave of imports with their first compact cars: the Valiant, the Corvair, and the Falcon. The domestic automakers noticed that not only were things like VW Beetles luring car buyers away from them, but the commercial versions of the VW Type 2 were doing the same thing in the light truck market. Part of their response took the form of the first domestic vans: GM's "Corvair 95" or "Corvan" and Ford's "Econoline" van based on the Falcon platform. The Ford van was marketed strictly as a commercial vehicle, but one variation on the Corvair van was the 1961-65 "Greenbriar Sportswagon," which was given a carlike interior and held out as a kind of station wagon. Just take a look at that catalog illustration above; if that's not a minivan, I don't know what else to call it.

The Detroit response to the Type 2 also involved some political maneuvering. The Johnson administration was asking the UAW not to go out on strike before the 1964 elections (which might sour the economy and affect President Johnson's re-election campaign) and also lobbying the union to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As quid pro quo for the union's cooperation, the administration imposed a 25% tariff on imported light trucks--a tariff designed particularly to apply to the non-passenger versions of the Volkswagen Type 2.

The tariff had the desired effect: with the 25% tax stacked on top of the MSRP, the commercial versions of the Type 2 were priced out of the market, and VW stopped importing them. (That light truck tariff is still on the books, though manufacturers have since developed numerous clever ways of working around it.) The tariff did not apply to the passenger versions of the Type 2, however, and so VW kept importing them. In the meantime, Detroit, with its light commercial vehicle market now guarded by a wall of tax-collectors, let the Type 2 have the consumer market for small passenger vans pretty much to itself--GM discontinued the Greenbriar Sportswagon (which apparently never sold in great numbers), and Detroit's vans steadily grew larger in response to the demands of the commercial fleet vehicle market.

As for the Type 2, it didn't sell in numbers enough to threaten the traditional station wagon's place in society, but it found its niche. Economical, stone-axe reliable, easily maintained, and capable of being fitted out as a decently roomy small camper, it was seemingly purpose-built for long Bohemian road trips--such as, oh, say, following the Grateful Dead around. The quirky yet practical Type 2 became the sort-of-official utility vehicle of the "hippie" counterculture.

By the early 1970s, there was some interest in Detroit in developing a vehicle with more utility than a traditional station wagon, but still light and handy enough that it drove like a car instead of a truck--a Type 2 without the long hair and love beads. Your humble narrator recalls an article in Popular Mechanics (or one of its competitors) in the early 1970s which consisted of nothing but concept sketches for minivans or Outback-style "tall wagons." One I remember in particular was a GM styling study for a tall wagon with wood-grain side trim called the "Pontiac Hawaiian."

One of those sketches was of a design that came agonizingly close to production: the Ford Carousel:


The Carousel project grew out of the design process for the full-sized third-generation Econoline, which was substantially finished in 1972 and planned for a 1975 model-year introduction. The Econoline model range included a rather nicely-appointed "Club Wagon" passenger version. As fine a vehicle as it was, the Club Wagon was nothing but a dolled-up commercial truck. It had the fuel consumption and driving dynamics of a commercial truck, and when you pulled in to the garage it was a tight fit, if it fit at all. Consequently, very few Club Wagons were bought by individual families--they tended to end up as airport limos, church buses, and the like. Ford president Lee Iacocca was of the opinion that there was a market for a smaller version of the Club Wagon, a "garageable" van with better fuel economy and more carlike driving dynamics than the big guy, while offering more practical utility than the typical large-barge station wagon of the time.

The design team, under the direction of stylist Dick Nesbitt, produced a design called "Carousel" that was sort of a chopped-and-channeled Club Wagon. The vehicle used a shortened frame and floorpan from the full-sized van, and much of its inner sheetmetal. This held down the development costs and resulted in a nice stiff structure. To avoid the "school bus look," Nesbitt raked the side pillars forward, giving it a more sporting personality.

The design looked promising, and Nesbitt's team was given the order to construct a full-sized mockup. The mockup was shown to a group of Ford executives including President Iacocca, product-planner Hal Sperlich, and Ford chairman "Henry the Deuce"--Henry Ford II--in November of 1972. They were favorably impressed, and a running prototype was constructed. The prototype was given the full "Country Squire" woodgrain trim treatment, something the marketing people wanted, and which also unintentionally symbolized the Carousel's role as a replacement for the traditional station wagon. The Carousel was scheduled for introduction alongside the new big vans in 1975--but then the project was canceled before anything further was done.

What happened? As Mr. Nesbitt himself explained in a discussion thread on the Ford Motor Company News forum site:

"The OPEC oil restrictions beginning in late 1973 brought about drastic changes dramatically effecting (sic) Ford's future product planning. Henry Ford II was most enthusiastic about the modest development costs and market share increases the Carousel would have achieved, but he pulled the plug on anything that wasn't a direct replacement for an existing product line during the deep recession of 1974. Front wheel drive programs were cut as well as plans to downsize full-size car lines to compete with GM for 1977."

This was a major mistake on Henry the Deuce's part. In the oil-shock-and-stagflation environment of the mid-'70s, the Carousel would have been perfect--downsized, fuel efficient, economical, much more suited to American mainstream tastes than the "T2" version of the Volkswagen Microbus then in production. Ford would have had the minivan market segment pretty much all to itself.

Thing is, the Carousel was such a good idea that it was bound to reappear sooner or later. In 1978, Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca, mostly because they couldn't get along. Mr. Iacocca soon landed the job of chairman and chief operating officer at Chrysler Corporation, where he was joined by his old friend Hal Sperlich.

Their immediate task was to keep Chrysler alive long enough to get its new K-platform FWD cars into production. When the worst of the crisis has passed, Iacocca and Sperlich began to think about reviving the Carousel idea. Chrysler had been kicking around a similar design of its own in the early 1970s, but Chrysler's small van project hadn't gotten past the mockup stage due to a lack of resources. This time around, the "garageable van" would be built on a stretched K platform, taking advantage of the packaging efficiency of front wheel drive.

The rest, as they say, is history:

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The illustration of the Dymaxion car came from a design and architecture site known as "Digital Theory." The advertising illustrations of the DKW Schnellaster-Bus come from the German-language "Oldievan" site run by Wolf D. Hiemesch, a gentleman with a thing for old-school commercial vehicles. The VW microbus photo came from VintageBus.com, an excellent site for those interested in the Type 2. The Corvair Greenbriar Sportswagon illustration came from Wikipedia. Disney-Clipart.com provided the portrait of "Fillmore" from the movie Cars. The Carousel illustrations came from the Ford Motor Company News forum discussion referenced above.

-"Ein Wünschenswerteswagen" = a Lust-worthy vehicle.

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I LIKE that Ford Carousel! Great post, Cookie!

It looks very much like the Ford Flex, which I like.

Two items:
1) My late father was always interested in steam engines. Many years ago we visited a collector in North Carolina to see what he had in the way of Stanley (and other) parts. While there I examined what I thought was a Dymaxion but was corrected: this was someones else's take on the concept. It was relatively streamlined, rear engine (water cooled), mid body doors with a frame to which aluminum panels were riveted. I don't recall the name of the car but the collector stated that a number of folks built their own versions of Fuller's concept.
2) I've owned a number of vans from a VW Microbus & Corvair Rampside through Chevy Astro. What cured me of driving the early ones was safety. I believe that the VW bus series was at one time called the most dangerous car on the highway due to its total lack of collision resistance. I still wouldn't want to front end an Astro but I felt a lot better than I did in the Corvair or VW.
3) Having said that, if I could get my hands on a Willys FC-150 or 170 at a reasonable price I'd do it in a heartbeat. On the other hand, they aren't "vans"!

I don't have much to add to this, but this post was a tour de force. Excellent stuff, Cookie - entertaining and highly educational.

Awesome... the Lane Motor Museum has a Dymaxion and posted a YouTube video of the chassis rebuild.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZdpO2kP_q8

That Carousel is awesome! But I do think Chrysler got it right with the front wheel drive platform in 84.

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