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Inventing the Minivan

Although the Dodge Caravan wasn’t released until 1984, its story really starts in 1974, at crosstown rival Ford.  Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich, working at Ford at the time, proposed the idea of building a passenger van.  They thought the design had some advantages over the station wagons then popular with families.  Henry Ford II disagreed.  Iacocca and Sperlich had to shelve the design. 

When they moved to Chrysler in 1978, the pair proposed the same design, referring to it as a “garageable van.”  At the time, Chrysler led the market on full-sized vans, so it was reasonable to expect the management would be amenable to the project.  On the contrary, the management figured that if there had been any market for such a vehicle, Ford or GM would have already built one.  Compounding matters, the project would have cost too much due to machining costs unique to the van.  The project was scrapped for a time. 

Iacocca and Sperlich continued to push for the passenger van.  The introduction of Dodge’s front wheel drive Omni provided a new opportunity.  One of the challenges of building a van for families was that the rear wheel drive layout required either a high floor or a drivetrain tunnel through the cabin.  Front wheel drive could eliminate this complication, and now Dodge had a front-wheel drive platform to work from. 

Finally, in 1980, work began in earnest on the new concept.  Eventually it would be released as the Dodge Caravan (with its sibling the Plymouth Voyager) in 1983.  The Caravan was marketed as a “super wagon” or a “magic wagon” and featured seating for seven, and a rear hatch similar to the one used on Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant wagons. 

In 1987, Dodge introduced the Grand Caravan, a long wheelbase version of the Caravan.  The Grand Caravan’s wheelbase was seven inches longer, and the overall length was about 15 inches greater than the Caravan’s.  The increased length greatly increased the Grand Caravan’s cargo space, adding to its utility.  Grand Caravans were also available in an eight-seat configuration. 

Around that same time, Chrysler upgraded the engines available in its minivans.  The Caravan’s 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine was bumped up to 2.5L, and a 3-liter V6, borrowed from Mitsubishi, was introduced.  In 1989 a turbocharged four-cylinder was introduced, followed by a bigger V6 in 1990. 

The Caravan Pushes Forward

The minivan proved to be a big success for Chrysler.  The company started to develop the second generation minivan.  Facing competition from Ford’s Aerostar and Chevy’s Astro, Chrysler wanted to continue improving on the minivan concept it had pioneered.  The second generation Grand Caravan arrived in 1990.  That same year, Chrysler started building the Town and Country on the long wheelbase platform. 

Small tweaks kept refining the Caravan throughout this generation, including built-in child booster seats and the first passenger side airbag in a minivan.  The 1991 Caravan was the first minivan to be offered with all-wheel drive.  Throughout this generation, Dodge continued to offer the Caravan with the option of a four or a six-cylinder engine. 

In 1995, Chrysler started researching customer needs in order to find ways to improve the minivan.  Researches went as far as approaching families at rest stops to observe them.  Some ideas were suggested directly by customers, while others came from the researchers’ observations.  These included tissue holders, more cup holders, and Easy-Out Roller Seats which could be moved forward or back to increase cargo space.  Their efforts won the Caravan Motor Trend’s 1996 Car of the Year award. 

The fourth generation Caravan arrived in 2001.  The new model was available with power sliding doors and a power hatch.  Chrysler no longer offered a Mitsubishi sourced V6, since that engine could not pass many states’ emissions tests.  Instead, a 3.8 liter Chrysler V6 was offered.  This was also the first generation of the Caravan not available with a manual transmission. 

In 2005, engineers introduced another new seating option for the Dodge Grand Caravan: Stow ‘N Go seating.  The rear seats could fold into under-floor compartments to create a bigger cargo space.  When the seats were up, the under-floor space could be used for storage.  The engineers actually used an Erector Set to plan how the system would work.  Stow ‘N Go seating was only offered on the Grand Caravan, not its short-wheelbase version, the Caravan. 

For the fifth generation, released in 2008, Dodge dropped the short wheelbase Caravan entirely, building only the long wheelbase Grand Caravan.  To replace the short wheelbase Caravan, Dodge began to build the Journey crossover on a wheelbase similar to the Caravan’s. 

During its lifetime, the Caravan was a very popular choice for families, due to the market research, engineering, and constant refinement Chrysler had put into the model.  The Grand Caravan continues to carry on this legacy today. 

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