Minivans Before Minivans

At the time of its release in November 1983, much was made of the Plymouth Voyager. It was seen as a revolutionary new vehicle that would change the American consumer market and help save a flagging corporation. And while much of this was true, it was not the first “mini” van. It was, however, the first most commercially successful, arriving in the right place at the right time to truly take off. In honor of those that came before it, we take a look back at some of the precursors to the latest addition to the National Historic Vehicle Register.

1936 Stout Scarab

source: Car Design News

Minivan aficionados often point to Europe as the true place of origin for the minivan concept, and this concept vehicle, produced nearly half a century before anyone even heard of the Plymouth Voyager, helps make a case for this line of thinking. With its streamlined, wildly aerodynamic design, fenderless monoform body and six-passenger interior, it certainly appears to be one of, if not the first, minivans to roll on down the road. As would be the case with many of its forbears, the Scarab featured a rear-mounted engine and front forward design (an automotive first) allowing for greater passenger space. Despite its Art Deco design, its wicker and wood paneling interior and removable seats all start to sound more than a bit familiar to those who spent any amount of time in the faux-wood paneled minivans of the 1980s.

DKW Schnellaster

Maybe even more of a close relative to the modern minivan, the DKW Schnellaster introduced in 1949 may have been the first of such vehicles to feature the defining characteristics of this ever so ridiculed class of vehicles. The little DKW van featured a transverse front wheel drive engine, flat floor, configurable seating and a boxy design. Since Europe has long been the home to economical and modestly sized vehicles, we can imagine there have been others manufactured that we are not aware of similar to the DKW but to our knowledge this appears to be among the first true “minivan” predecessors.

Lloyd LT500/LT600

Another small European entry, the Lloyd van, much like the DKW was introduced in 1953/4 with all of the right ingredients for efficient passenger duty. It utilized the handy transverse front drive layout that offered up maximum cargo/people space.  The first model, the LT500 only boasted about 13 horsepower from its two-cylinder two-stroke engine managing a top speed of not much more than 40mph. While the minivan as a class has never been known for performance, the LT600 model that preceded it wasn’t much better with its 4-stroke 600cc aircooled two-cylinder engine.

VW Microbus

Generally topping the list of those vehicles pointed to as the true “first minivan,” the mascot of 1960s counter-culture is certainly worth noting on any such list. The Volkswagen Type 2, like its predecessor the Type 1 (better known as the Beetle), was a revolutionary design and concept that helped make practical the transport of a greater number of people and things within a confined space. That’s of course over-simplifying the importance of the VW Microbus as it introduced a number of concepts that were coopted by other like-minded designers in the decades leading up to the unveiling of the Plymouth Voyager.

1957 Fiat 600 Multipla

Another European entry, the Fiat 600 Multipla afforded room for up to six people on its comparably small 78.7-inch wheelbase. Its interior provided two rows of seats, the rear of which could be folded flat to allow for more cargo space, something any family traveling any distance would need as, with the seats up, the storage space was minimal at best. It, too, featured a rear-engine design along with a 4-speed manual transmission and either a 633cc or 767cc engine.

Chevrolet Greenbrier

When Chevrolet introduced its Corvair lineup for the 1960 model year, it included, in addition to its more compact passenger cars, a utilitarian whose design and functionality was meant to compete with that of Volkswagen, the Corvair 95 (aka Greenbrier). It, too, featured a forward control design, along with an air-cooled horizontally opposed 6-cylinder engine located in the rear of the vehicle. With its 95-inch wheelbase (hence the “95” designation) and 145 cu in, 80hp engine, it proved a fair match for the Microbus. As is often the case, further innovations by competitors forced Chevrolet to cease production of this early example of the minivan in 1965. The Greenbrier name would be recycled in 1969 with the arrival of the Chevelle Greenbrier four-door station wagon.

1972 Ford Carousel

It should come as no surprise that the man credited with saving the Chrysler Corporation with his introduction of the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan and its subsequent line of minivans would find a place on this list. While at Ford, Lee Iacocca, along with designer Dick Nesbitt and Director of Product Planning Hal Sperlich, worked to create what they viewed as a “Garagable Family Van.” According to Nesbitt, “The significance of the Carousel proposal was that it offered a dramatically improved alternative to the typical interior-space-restricted station wagons of the 1970s.” Unfortunately, it seems that the Ford Carousel was yet another casualty of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, its development ceasing after the production of a drivable, fabricated metal prototype.

There are of course many other candidates that could fill out the list. Got a favorite that we might have missed? Share it in the comments section below.


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