If at first you don’t succeed…
Pondering the Town & Country along with the question, is it time for a minivan renaissance?
The Chrysler Town & Country, as with its similarly storied fellow nameplate Chrysler New Yorker, went through several iterations over the decades—but the T&C certainly covered a broader range. From the ‘40s to the ‘80s, the name adorned station wagons, a two-door hardtop, a four-door sedan, and a few convertibles. The final, and most outrageous, change came for the 1990 model year, when the luxury wagon became a luxury minivan. Yes, a minivan. A bold idea, but a successful one, and it would move the metal until 2016 when the nameplate would be stripped from a redesigned vehicle and replaced with a fairly obscure throwback to an uninspiring corner case from the DaimlerChrysler days… but I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Let’s start from the beginning.
The Town & Country was originally introduced in 1941 as a premium station wagon based on the eight-passenger Chrysler sedan. It set itself apart from contemporary wood-bodied station wagons in that the roof was steel, with only the side and rear panels being wood. Another unique feature was a pair of center-opening “Dutch doors” in the back instead of the conventional tailgate and hinged rear window, again owing to the modified sedan structure. Fewer than 1000 were made. After a miniscule run of ‘42 models thanks to a certain war, the T&C wagon disappeared.
In 1946, the Town & Country returned, but no wagons were in sight. Best remembered, and the most popular model sales-wise, was the convertible.
Chrysler Town & Country convertible at the 2018 Des Moines Concours d’Elegance
A less popular four-door sedan version, complete with paneled doors and trunk lid, rounded out the series. They would be built through 1948 with only minor changes. But they didn’t need any changes, because they were simply gorgeous.
Chrysler Town & Country sedan at the 2018 Des Moines Concours d’Elegance
Chrysler intended to have a full lineup of postwar T&Cs, with a planned roadster, Brougham two-door sedan, and two-door hardtop in addition to the sedan and convertible. They even went as far as to add them to the 1946 brochure, but they were never put into production, though a few prototypes were built. At least one of the hardtops survived and has been restored. When Chryslers were redesigned for 1949, the Town & Country was back in convertible form, though the sedan was discontinued. In 1950, the T&C became a two-door hardtop. It was a one-year-only model and the last of the wood-bodied Town & Countrys.
Starting in 1951, the Town & Country became a steel-bodied station wagon. These luxury wagons were typically based on the New Yorker and were available in two- and three-seat versions. Their primary competition during the ’50s and ‘60s came from the Buick Caballero/Estate Wagon and Mercury Colony Park.
Town & Countrys received the same updates as the other full-size Chryslers through the mid ’70s. These wagons were never cheap. By 1962, they cost $4766, which adjusts to about $40,520 today. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? But the true cost of ownership was different from what you’d get from a $40k car nowadays, and this was an era where many people paid cash for their cars and traded in every year or two. By 1965 the pillarless station wagons were gone.
Contrary to how many of us remember it, Town & Country models built after 1950 did not have wood sides, real or otherwise, until 1968. After that, however, the feature would become de rigueur on Chrysler wagons—for a while, anyway. By the mid-’70s, federal safety and emissions regulations were taking their toll. The T&C was still a giant luxury wagon, but not for much longer. CAFE was the last straw, and Chrysler was going to have to put all their cars on a diet. And so went the T&C.
The Town & Country moved from the giant C-body to the new M-body in 1978, the LeBaron chassis, itself a modified luxury version of the F-body Aspen/Volaré twins. This version would continue through the ’81 model year, receiving a mid-cycle facelift with “upside down” headlights in 1980.
After Chrysler’s latest crisis in 1979, the front wheel drive K-car was finally unveiled for 1981. In ’82, the Town and Country moved from the rear-drive M-body to the brand new front-wheel drive K platform. In a nod to the past, a wood-sided Town & Country convertible joined the expected station wagon. The convertible was available through 1986, while the wagon lasted until 1988. It was time for a new direction.
The Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans took the U.S. by storm when they were introduced in 1984. The “garagable van” was a new concept and everybody suddenly had to have one. The 1990 T&C was introduced in 1989 on the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan/Grand Voyager platform. As a Chrysler, it had many standard features, including leather, front and rear air conditioning, and power everything. MSRP was $23,625, adjusted to $46,000 in 2019 dollars. Not cheap, and that was reflected in sales of fewer than 10,000 for 1990. Colors were limited to Bright White or Black, with tan leather. These vans could be powered by a choice of two V-6es: a 142-hp 3.0-liter or 3.3-liter with 150 hp. The 1990 Town & Countrys were a one-year model, as all 1991 Chrysler minivans were redesigned with a more aerodynamic profile and freshened interiors. The wood appliqué continued as a standard feature.
In addition to the revised sheetmetal, Town & Countrys had a new electronic instrument cluster and overhead console with compass and exterior temperature. The 3.3-liter V-6 was now standard. All-wheel drive was now an option. Another neat option was Quad Command seating, which replaced the middle bench seat with two bucket seats. In 1991, my parents ordered a new 1992 Grand Caravan ES with AWD and Quad Command. I can tell you it was very cool to have your own bucket seat. The rear bench seat was always the least popular spot. Our Caravan was loaded to the gills and was basically equipped like one of these T&Cs.
The biggest differences inside were the digital dash, fake wood on the instrument panel instead of black trim, and the wood appliqué on the sides (our Caravan had the monochromatic white paint & wheels with red accents). Most post-1992 T&Cs I saw had the gold pinstriping instead of the wood sides. My dad had a ’95 as a loaner one time when his Grand Cherokee was in for service—it was not that different, though the interior was more Brougham-like than that of our van.
The Town & Country continued in this form through 1995, at which point it lost the K-derived chassis for an all-new design. I first saw our featured van the night before these photos were taken, way back in 2012. It was going the other way and it registered in my brain that it was a rare 1990 model before it disappeared into the night. I was very happy to find it the next day, parked on the street. Despite the drastic change to a minivan, the T&C carried on for more than a decade and a half in its new form. The 1990 model was the pioneer in luxury minivans—and while its successor might be called Pacifica, the arrival of a Chrysler Voyager suggests that FCA is giving some additional thought to the matter. Is the world ready for a faux-wood tall wagon in 2020? How could it not be?