The Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were first introduced to the world in 1983, but Chrysler had actually started working on them in 1977, with full development starting in 1980.
When work on the minivan first started, in 1977, Chrysler still dominated the full-sized van market, with a market share of 45 percent. Their market share was due to offering carlike conveniences, such as power windows, locks, and seats, good stereos, and rear window defrosters. This led naturally to the idea of a down-sized van for families, one which would not cannibalize full sized van sales, but would instead steal sales from station wagons - which Chrysler was not selling much of anyway.
Glenn Gardner, Dodge Truck product planning manager in the late 1970s, was given the job of turning the concept of a "Super Wagon" into a real vehicle. By 1978, it was included in the long-range product plan. Full-size clay models and engineering studies were created by fewer than 100 designers from a variety of Chrysler organizations. Aerodynamic extremes, probably similar to the GM "dustbusters," were rejected by customers in research. Customers also were uncomfortable with having engines tunneling into the cabin and with high floors, leading engineers to decide that front wheel drive was the only way to go. This was a major stumbling block, because while there were many rear wheel drive components available off the shelf (and a very small development budget), there was practically nothing for front wheel drive. The K cars were just being developed. The Horizon, while it had an advanced suspension and front wheel drive, was out of the experience of the Highland Park engineers - it had been developed by Chrysler Europe, the former Rootes Group and Simca. The slant six engine, while natural for a minivan, was too large and too long, and would have required rear wheel drive to be practical. Initial drawings indicate that the Horizon platform was considered, but the minivan was eventually to be based on the K platform, which was developed at about the same time.
Orienting the minivan to consumers, rather than cargo-hauling businesses, was based on the need for at least 150,000 sales per year to pay for expenses. The sliding door was used based on customer input: people felt it was safer when dealing with children. It would not blow closed, it provided plenty of access room, and it was less likey to trap fingers.
Research conducted in 1978 showed that other customer-based needs included the ability to park in the average garage, a large interior space (at least four feet high, five feet wide, and ten feet long), a side door opening at least 30 inches, 48 inches between wheel wells for the proverbial plywood, the ability to seat three people across, a flat floor, the ability to walk from one end of the van to the other, and removable seats for versatility. Most people wanted bucket seats, and side door entry. The rear opening preference was divided between a one-piece lift-gate (preferred by sedan owners) and a station-wagon type two-part gate (preferred by station wagon owners). Though most wanted a V6, Chrysler would not have one ready until 1987 (a Mitsubishi 3.0 liter) - the first vans had the new 2.2 liter four, starting at 86 hp and eventually rising to 93, and an optional, rather poor Mitsubishi 2.6. A 2.2 turbo later became optional, and the 2.2 was replaced by the closely-related but more torquey 2.5. Eventually V6 engines became standard - a 3.0, 3.3, and 3.8, with a 2.5 (later a 2.4) four at the base - and the five speed manual was dropped. The first generation used a trustworthy three speed automatic transmission that was not phased out completely until the current generation debuted in 1996. A V6 was not used at first because Chrysler just did not have the money to include it - they also did not have one, but that alone would not stop an auto company.
1984 Plymouth Voyager
At that point, Lee Iaccoca made his contribution, committing to get $500 million in funding. The whole project was to cost $700 million. (Compare that to the Ford Contour, which reportedly cost nearly $3 billion.)
By the time the minivan was introduced, there was some competition in the Volkswagen Vanagon (which had been around for quite some time) and the Toyota Van Wagon. General Motors and Ford had already started on the Astro/Safari and Aerostar, which would come out in 1985, but these were both rear wheel drive and quite truck-like. The Vanagon was too slow, to lumbering, and too fuel-inefficient compared with the Voyager.
Applauded by automotive magazines, the "T-115" minivans became a major success from their debut in 1983 (as 1984 models), with 209,895 sold in North America in 1984.
Major changes through the years included the 1987 introduction of a (Mitsubishi) V-6 engine, the fuel-injected 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, and extended-wheelbase versions (a year later to be dubbed the "Grand's.") These versions were fourteen inches longer, and soon accounted for half of minivan sales. The 2.5 liter engine was basically a 2.2 with longer stroke and balance shafts for smoother operation. These better suited the vans' torque requirements.
In 1990, a Chrysler-designed V-6, the 3.3, was added to the mix. This strong, durable engine proved to be very popular, and remains in the mix along with the Mitsubishi V-6.
The first major redesign was in 1991, and included major changes to the suspension and steering, as well as optional antilock brakes, and all wheel drive. The next year, driver air bags were made standard, and an integrated child seat was offered. 1996 brought another major redesign, which greatly increased interior space, comfort, and reliability. The 2.5 liter engine was replaced by the new 2.4 liter four based on the Neon's engine.