Chrysler minivan

Henry Ford sent Hal and his minivan packing

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Yikes! It’s hard to believe that Chrysler’s Minivan is now considered a genuine classic.
You might not think so, but by any classic car definition the people hauler can now park alongside all manner of marques at show and shines.
And rightly so, too.
You see, this simple design caused a complete transformation of the car industry and started the great world-wide rotation out of sedans and station wagons that is still impacting markets today.
It created a global category that every other car maker has copied.
Chrysler was not the first to sell a car-like van.
Many makers had tried.
VW fans might rightly claim the Kombi as the initiator, but it was too spartan and un-carlike to have mainstream appeal.
What Chrysler did was to monetorize the “garagable” idea and sell it a premium price to families.
The two characters responsible for it all were Lee Iaccoca and his product planning guru, Hal Sperlich – and they did it when both were employed by Ford.
These two had form when it came to product innovation.
It was Lee and Hal who, in 1961, saw the future for a small sporty car targeted at the increasingly affluent American baby boomer generation.
So, they raided the Falcon parts bin to create the iconic Mustang.
Once they‘d created the pony car category, Lee asked Hal to look further into the future.
And what he predicted was pure profit.
Hal reckoned that as the baby boomers married and had families they would forsake their Mustangs for something more versatile.
Research showed they did not want the station wagons their parents bought in the 1950s. (“Are we there yet Dad?”)
What boomers wanted was a roomy, multi-purpose vehicle, that drove like a car, would fit in their garage, looked reasonably stylish, be powerful enough to cruise along a freeway and seat up to seven in comfort on the way to the next Dennys.
Sperlich called the project “MiniMax”. In 1972 he had a mock built and gave it the name “Carousel”.

4 generations of the Minivan . . . 20th Anniversary – 1984 Plymouth Voyager, 1994 Dodge Caravan, 1996 Chrysler Town and Country, and a 2002 Chrysler Grand Voyager. DaimlerChrysler Auburn Hill’s Complex stands in the background.

But Hal had two problems to overcome.
The first was an engineering issue.
To fit in a garage the van had to be low and this meant a front-wheel drive configuration. And in the late 1960s  Ford had no suitable front drive package.
The second was that Henry Ford II did not see the future as clearly as Sperlich and regularly told him to “forget about it”.
Sperlich persisted with the idea and in the end Mr Ford got tired of hearing about it and fired him.
Hal went to Chrysler where he continued to work on the idea.
In 1978 “Hank the Duce” also got tired of Iacocca being President of Ford and fired him.
And over to Chrysler he went too.
Iacocca saved Chrysler with government backed loans and a plain, four-cylinder, front-drive automobile called the K-Car.
Once Chrysler was again financially stable Lee and Hal turned their attention the old MinMax idea.
They had the money, they had the front-drive platform , they had the K-Car parts bin and best of all there was no Henry Ford II to get in their way. The rest is history.
The irony is that Chrysler never thought to register the trademark “minivan”.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au



David Burrell is the founder and editor of Retroautos.com.au, a free online classic cars magazine. David has a passion for cars and car design. He's also into speedway, which he's been writing about since 1981. His first car was a rusted-out 1961 Vauxhall Velox. Prior to starting the magazine, David worked as an international executive in a Fortune 500 company, in Australia, NZ, Asia, Latin America and the UK.