The van that saved Chrysler and changed the way America hauled

Lee Iacocca had been a champion of the Ford brand for 32 years by the time he fell out of favor with Henry Ford II in mid-1978. Ford’s loss was Chrysler’s gain, however, because by that point, Chrysler needed all the innovative leadership it could get. It also needed money and, crucially, a halo car to keep making more of it. Iacocca’s broad, brutal cost-cutting measures helped. So did $1.5 billion in guaranteed loans from the U.S. government.

But it’s the 1984 Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, the unlikeliest halo cars of all time, that truly put Chrysler back on an upward trajectory.

Although the appearance of the Voyager and Caravan on American roads marked the dawn of an entirely new segment, the American minivan concept wasn’t new. At Ford, Iacocca and co-conspirator Hal Sperlich (the men responsible for that other segment-defining halo car, the Mustang) had pushed the idea of a smaller Econoline, but Henry II hated it—so much so that he fired Sperlich for pushing it so hard. Behind the scenes at Chrysler, too, plans for a small van had been around for years. But rear-wheel drive—the industry standard—was a big, costly obstacle to achieving the desired packaging.

With Iacocca and Sperlich reunited at Chrysler, all it took to make the idea a reality was the K-car, which was already in development. Its front-wheel-drive layout suited the kind of “garageable” packaging Sperlich envisioned. It was small on the outside and big on the inside. It had a big greenhouse and a low, flat cargo area to hold seven adults, lots of stuff, or some combination thereof. Internally designated the T115, the new vans rode on a modified K-car architecture dubbed the S-platform. They had a wheelbase that was 12 inches longer than the Reliant wagon’s, and they were nearly three inches shorter overall. Compared with the wagon’s 67.7 cubic feet of cargo space, the vans yielded 125 cubic feet when the rear seats were removed.

1984 Plymouth Voyager Lee Iacocca
1984 Plymouth Voyager FCA
1984 Plymouth Voyager drivers seat
1984 Plymouth Voyager HVA

1984 Dodge Caravan rear 3/4
1984 Dodge Caravan FCA

Production began at Chrysler’s plant in Windsor, Ontario, in October 1983, and the first Voyager rolled off the line on November 2, with Iacocca at the wheel. Chrysler sold 210,000 that first year and soon added production in St. Louis, with three shifts running at both plants to keep up with demand.

Although they were underpowered, equipped with a Chrysler 2.2-liter four making 101 horsepower or the optional 99-hp Mitsubishi-sourced 2.6-liter four, they were available with a five-speed manual, and acclaim for the $9600 vans was universal. Buyers loved them for all the reasons Sperlich imagined they would—they drove like a car and could haul plywood. Car and Driver named them to its 10Best list for 1985. “You seldom see a grumpy person behind the wheel of one,” editor/publisher David E. Davis, Jr., wrote at the time.

Today, a well-preserved first-year Voyager or Caravan is hard to find because no one drove these things with an eye toward a collectible future. Magic Wagon No. 1 (below), with 12,188 original miles, is owned by Fiat Chrysler. It’s a well-kept testament to the bravery of its creators and the untapped needs of an entire generation. That the Historic Vehicle Association has documented it as the 24th vehicle for inclusion on the National Historic Vehicle Register—alongside the likes of the first Tucker and the first Camaro—is fitting recognition, indeed.

The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club. 

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