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Magic Wagons and Minivans: How Chrysler succeeded in downsizing the family van

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1978 Milt Antonick drawing shows conventional doors.

[Editor’s Note: Allpar founder David Zatz has put his decades of experience researching and chronicling Chrysler Corporation history for the website to good use in his new book, Mopar Minivans: Creating the first 20 years of Dodge, Chrysler, and Plymouth ‘magic wagons’, released earlier this month. He was also kind enough to send along an excerpt from the book that details the rationale for the vans and their early development.]

One day, Plymouth designer Milt Antonick took a full-size Dodge van home, but couldn’t fit it into his garage. Milt recalled, as we looked at his photos of early clays and mockups, that he had the idea of a garage-ready van right then. He wasn’t the only one to consider the possibilities; product planners were also looking into garage-ready vans. As Burton Bouwkamp, the Director of Product Planning from 1968 to 1975, wrote:

Our car product planners and car designers knew that a van was a good car for a large family, and they also knew that it would never be a popular family car if it couldn’t be parked in the garage.

The idea was planned into a vehicle under Owen Keeler (Director of Advance Product Planning) and Gene Jacoby (Manager of Advance Product Planning); the Advance Styling and Advance Engineering offices were also involved. My job was to support the idea (which I did) and sell it to top management (which I failed at).

Reliant Sedan Minivans
Wheelbase 100.3 112
Length 178.6 175.9
Width 68.0 69.6

It may have been the start of Chrysler’s strongest profit-maker of the 1980s.

If anyone thought of downsizing Dodge’s full-size “B-vans,” they rejected the idea; the interiors were relatively crude for passenger cars, and the engines intruded into the cabin (which is why most van sales went to commercial buyers rather than families). Designing, tooling, and producing downsized B-vans may have cost nearly as much as a completely new vehicle.

The company had a 45 percent share of van sales, but a smaller van, for families, would play on their strengths without hurting commercial van sales. There was a global market, too, shown by the underpowered, ungainly Volkswagen Omnibus and passenger versions of Japanese delivery wagons. People were ready for a purpose-built passenger van—as Chrysler knew.

2D model in front of Dodge B-van (Milt Antonick photo)

Neil Walling was in charge of Advance Styling, which worked on the first designs of a completely new wagon. They started with sketches, which gave way to 3/8-scale clay models and seating bucks—models with usable interiors—and finally full-sized clay models. Neil Walling tried a “Dustbuster” approach, as shown by the fiberglass model on the far right in Milt Antonick’s photo, below.

Milt Antonick related that this design had a problem: the sharp angle moved the base of the A-pillar too far forward, so there was not enough of a crush zone in collisions. Another issue was visual; quite aside from the exterior appearance, the design required a massive dashboard which was deemed too extreme for the time.

We did market research on the concept, and it was favorable, but we could not get Lynn Townsend or John Riccardo to buy it. They contended that, if there was a market for a vehicle like the garageable van, that GM and Ford would already have one. … In fairness to them, we barely had enough money to field products that were competitive with products that GM and Ford had; and it was a unique product with a special tooling bill, not including facilities, of over $100 million.

There was another problem: Chrysler had no engines that would fit. They approached General Motors, who insisted on building them, at around $2,500 per engine—under a multi-year contract. Volkswagen engines were not close to being powerful enough. Mitsubishi’s 108-horsepower, 2.4 liter “Astron” engine, launched in 1975, may have worked; Chrysler never used it, but would use a later 2.6 liter Astron.

Market research had shown strong demand for the “garageable vans,” with potential buyers preferring moderate designs; few wanted aerodynamic extremes. Product planner Chuck Gunderson listed the project’s goals in a December 1977 memo:

• Fit in a standard garage
• Car-like ride, handling, noise, and vibration levels
• Low, flat floor for easy entry and loading
• Removable seats
• The ability to carry a 4×8 plywood sheet

3/8-scale miniature: only half of the vehicle is modeled, the rest is simulated with a mirror. (Milt Antonick photo)

Other than the ability to carry 4x8s, potential customers echoed Gunderson’s list of desires. 1978 clinics in Atlanta, Denver, and San Diego, showed that customers wanted:

• The ability to park in a standard garage
• A side door opening at least 30 inches wide
• Interior space at least four feet high, five feet wide, and ten feet long, with 48 inches between the wheel wells
• Seating for three people, across
• A flat interior floor, with removable seats
• The ability to walk from one end of the van to another

Families and retirees were both interested; for retirees, it would be a travel vehicle. Demand was projected at a stunning million vans per year, when Chrysler was starving for sales. It looked like a hit, and the company was in dire need of a hit.

There was a new start after the Lee Iacocca took over the company. In late 1979, planning executives Hal Sperlich and Gordon Cherry presented the minivan project to Iacocca; Glenn Gardner later wrote that Iacocca turned the project down, wanting a compact pickup instead.

Hal Sperlich convinced Iacocca to change his mind; then, according to Burt Bouwkamp, Lee Iacocca said, “Let’s do it.” The Treasurer, Willam G. McGagh, told him that we didn’t have the money to do a minivan, and Lee told him to “get the blankety-blank money.”

Chrysler, reportedly, then padded the K-car launch costs by $500 million to get federal loan guarantees to keep Chrysler alive. The minivan could be seen, loosely, as a larger, more profitable version of the K-cars.

Lee Iacocca gets credit for his support and the “guts” decision to go ahead with a now even-more-expensive FWD product at a time when the Corporation was having trouble paying its bills and staying competitive in its existing market segments. Hal Sperlich deserves credit for his enthusiastic involvement, aesthetic input, and overall guidance.

The chances of success were higher now, and the costs were lower, because the minivan could borrow from the upcoming 1981 Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries. The Reliant’s front wheel drive architecture gave the minivan its low, flat floor, while improving winter driving by putting the driven wheels under the weight of the engine. A four-cylinder, mounted sideways (“East-West” or “transverse”), made it possible to keep the engine under the hood, and away from the driver; and the 2.2 would, indeed, have enough power.

Seating buck to test the interior (Milt Antonick photo)

Dodge Truck product planning manager Glenn Gardner was put in charge of the minivan, now coded T-115 (T for Dodge Truck; and the 115th code assigned). The launch year was set for 1982, with 215,000 sales expected. Final styling was developed under Design manager Bob Hubbach.

Along the way, Dodge Truck Engineering merged with Central Engineering. That meant that younger managers and engineers from DTE, who were used to working closely with Manufacturing, brought their methods into the Central Engineering group. In turn, Central Engineering could show Dodge Truck people how to use their high-tech development tools. It was a fortunate pairing.

The story continues, as engineers, designers, and project leaders deal with the number (and type) of doors, seating, quality, and other key questions…

[David Zatz’s Mopar Minivans: Creating the first 20 years of Dodge, Chrysler, and Plymouth ‘magic wagons’ is available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble (use a SAVE15 coupon code to get $3 off at Barnes & Noble).]