Thursday, September 26, 2013

First Cars -- The Minivan Cometh! (September 26, 2013)

Our maroon, 1986 Dodge Caravan LE

As this series has explained before, there are many kinds of "first cars."  The car pictured above is a special first for Molly and me and for our two sons -- it was our first true family car and is probably the first vehicle about which our sons have any clear memories!

When our younger son, Christopher, was born in 1986 we quickly realized our much-loved Honda Accord  was going to be too small for two sons under age two -- especially given all the accessories and gear that were required to accompany the boys wherever we went.  The time had arrived to make the quantum leap to the near ubiquitous minivan!

After some extensive research about the various minivan choices that existed when the car companies scrambled to cash in on the minivan rage, we decided on a Dodge Caravan.  Some good friends who had a son the same age as our older son also decided they were going to make the move to a minivan and so we joined forces to venture forth into negotiations with dealers confident in the thought we were going to emerge victorious because we were offering to buy TWO minivans.

As it turned out, we could not get any dealers in the Washington, DC area to negotiate reasonably with us when we knew exactly what we wanted and were willing to wait for them to order and deliver two vehicles with no worries about carrying costs on their lot.  They were completely unwilling to deal and so we walked out of two or three local dealers shaking our heads at their careless loss of two sales and at their completely baseless belief that we would be back.  We bought two brand new, fully equipped Caravans from a dealer in Delaware!

The standard story is that the idea for the minivan was conceived by Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich while they were employed at Ford, but Henry Ford rejected the idea in 1974 and both Iacocca and Sperlich moved to Chrysler where they developed prototypes of what came to be nicknamed the "Magic-wagons."  They certainly turned out to be that, since after their introduction in November 1983 as 1984 model vehicles, the Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler brand minivans have outsold all other minivans in the U.S. and over 80 other countries.  More than 13 million have been sold.

The Generation I Chrysler minivans (1984 - 1990) came in three trim levels: Base, the standard SE, and the luxury LE.  The minivan was configured for seven passengers: two bucket seats with armrests and an open aisle between them up front; a two-passenger bench seat immediately inside the sliding side door; and a three-passenger bench seat in the back.  Both bench seats could be completely removed without a great deal of trouble to accommodate large non-passenger loads, but there was also a generous storage space behind the back bench seat even with both bench seats in place.  The minivans had no air bags and no ABS braking.  The 1986 model came with a 5-year/50,000 mile (whichever came first) buyer protection plan.

Our Caravan had roof racks, air conditioning front and back, drink wells built in the back and simulated wood-grain side trim.  It also had an FM stereo radio and cassette player with speakers front and back.  I forget the other items in the LE package and cannot recall or find the original cost of the car, but it served us well as a family vehicle.  Our sons must have lots of memories of overnight trips to the Adirondacks, piling Cub Scouts into the van, schlepping kids and gear to sports practice and games, and trips to camps, vacations and adventures from South Carolina to New England.  It was a great "first car" for our family!  

Our 1986 Caravan at the trailhead for a Copperas Pond backpacking trip in the Adirondacks
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Photographs from the collection of the author.

For more information and history on the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler's role in the development of the American minivan, see and .
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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