Trucks at Work

Ye Olde Minivan

It‘s a quintessential American product that‘s rapidly disappearing from the model lists of U.S. automakers: the minivan. Though small vans existed well before Lee Iacocca‘s brainchild for Chrysler - Volkswagen‘s Beetle Bus comes to mind - they‘d never been mainstream until the Caravan and Voyager models rolled into showrooms in 1983.

Even then, all the minivans from Chrysler - and later Ford, Toyota, Honda, GM, etc. - took their key design elements, such as the sliding doors and three rows of seats, from Volkswagen‘s 1960s-era vans. American automakers also get credit for coining the term “minivan” as well, to distinguish it from their larger passenger van brethren like Ford‘s E-Series.

While minivans ostensibly came to be viewed as the replacement for the family station wagon, they had a pretty significant commercial history, too - the U.S. Post Office, for example, bought thousands of Ford Windstars as a supplemental vehicle for its letter carriers in the 1990s. Those sliding doors - especially when double sliding doors, one for each side of the vehicle, became an option in the late 1980s - really made the minivan an ideal choice for urban deliveries. With no doors swinging out into traffic, they presented just the right profile for many businesses.

And now they are slowly vanishing.

The reasons are, of course, as old as the history books - U.S. automakers got beat in the innovation department. Honda and Toyota came out with more options - especially fold-into-the-floor third row seats - combined with sleek exteriors and rugged reliability. Ford and GM both suffered early from ugly designs, got beat in the options department and never caught up. Chrysler is gamely hanging on, leading in many cases in the functionality quotient, with fold-into-the-floor seats for ALL rows among other ideas.

Of course, a lot of folks out there are happy to see them go, I suspect: Minivans were as far from sexy as Pluto is from Earth. They are all functionality, despite high-tech DVD players, automatic doors, navigation systems, etc. No teenager would be caught dead cruising in a minivan on the streets of a beach town in summer. Not many adults want to, either.

Ah, but that functionality ... it made the minivan such a versatile vehicle, even for those without the convenience of fold-into-the-floor seats. My old Ford Windstar is still chugging along at six years and 73,000 miles: hauling kids, groceries, soccer gear, lumber, mulch, refrigerators, toilets, building supplies, you name it. Even its low-tech attributes make it ideal for all this hard work - no automatic door motors to break, no fancy DVD players to damage. The gunmetal gray interior carpet and plastic are also ideal for hiding dirt stains and other unfortunate messes. The front wheel drive gets through the snow, rain, and muck as well as anything else I‘ve driven.

But the minivan‘s heyday as a light commercial jack-of-all-trades vehicle is all but gone. GM just dropped it from its commercial lineup last year. Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, and yes Nissan‘s Quest and Kia‘s Sedona all focus their products on the consumer market, with enough options and upgrades to make them as expensive as luxury vehicles ($40,000 for a minivan???? You must be joking!!!!)

Ah well. At least I‘ll mine around for a while yet to do my dirty work. Which it handles just fine.