Minivans go back to the future
Tech firms say they have the perfect body for self-driving cars
For the past 15 years, the Knoche family minivan has been frozen in traffic half a mile from the White House.
The Dodge Caravan with the snub nose and the faux finish has a prime spot, along with a 199-ton locomotive, in a Smithsonian exhibit on the history of transportation in America.
“I liked that wood grain, for sure. Now it’s kind of corny,” said Gary Knoche, who was with his parents, Fred and Mary Ann, when they brought the van home in the mid-1980s. “I remember saying, ‘That looks good.’ ”
Now, the once-mighty minivan — overshadowed by the SUV — could be clawing its way off the museum floor and into an unexpected starring role in the future of transportation.
Tech firms are spending billions to develop the brains for self-driving cars, and minivans offer what some consider the perfect body for a transplant.
“The platform of that minivan is ideal. It’s an oblong block on four wheels,” said Timothy Papandreou, a former chief innovation officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency who also worked at Waymo, a leading self-driving firm. “It’s familiar and it’s safe. It’s not scary. It’s not a Mustang or Corvette . ... It’s a minivan.”
Its roomy shape can fit enough people to make driverless taxi services profitable, or can easily be rejiggered for autonomous deliveries, the thinking goes. In May, Waymo said it will buy up to 62,000 minivans — descendants of the Knoches’ early Chrysler model — to build its driverless fleet. The company plans to start carrying paying passengers later this year in Arizona.
But the vision offered by boosters of driverless technology — including nearly flawless computer software besting all-too-human drivers; broadly replacing individually owned cars with ride-sharing apps and robotaxis; and a new era of reduced congestion and pollution — would require not only solving major technological challenges, but also sweeping changes in Americans’ consumer behavior and driving culture.
Chrysler first unleashed the minivan on the nation in 1983, and the practical workhorse carried Fred Knoche to his Detroit locksmith shop, Gary to hockey practice and millions of American families and their growing loads of stuff where they needed to go.
“The minivan is a little bit like blue jeans with Lycra — incredibly comfortable but not particularly stylish,” said Peter Liebhold, a longtime Smithsonian curator who researches industry and technological change. “You had a little bit of room to move around.”
Chrysler’s designers came up with a relatively low-slung van that still had lots of space, headroom and legroom. And passengers could reach a third row of seats without having to climb over the back bumper, as kids did in station wagons. It was a thrilling stretch of innovation for those who had spent years making more mundane tweaks to existing cars.
“They’re always just new wrinkles in sheet metal from the previous year. So here was a new concept,” said Burton Bouwkamp, 91, head of product planning for Chrysler in the 1970s when the idea was being worked up. “That was pretty exciting to us.”
The working name was the “garageable van.”
The idea fell flat with Chrysler bosses. Top managers thought their big competitors — Ford and General Motors — would have already beaten them to it if there really was a market, Bouwkamp said.
But when famed auto executive Lee Iacocca took over Chrysler, he had the “automotive savvy and the guts to go ahead,” Bouwkamp said.
“Now that you’ve seen it, how would you describe it?” Iacocca asked when he introduced the vehicle in 1983. “A station wagon? A garageable van? A bus? A truck? Or what? Actually, it’s all of these and more. The Caravan and Voyager can be whatever you want it to be.”
And for many, they were. Until they weren’t.
The minivan was an immediate hit, and Chrysler was selling more than a half-million a year during much of the 1990s. By 2017, however, they were less than half that, toppled by the SUV; its more carlike cousin, the crossover; and changing tastes. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles still holds the top spot in the U.S. market, according to the company. But minivans make up just 3 percent of the industry.
For curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which gets nearly 4 million visitors a year, the Knoche family’s minivan “really transcends just being a vehicle,” Liebhold said. “I mean, everything about it is perfect.”
Liebhold marvels at the mundane, including all its cupholders. It is also a window into a particular time, place and population. “It is a big piece of the American story in the ’80s and ’90s,” Liebhold said.
The minivan was a means to go on vacation, itself part of the evolution of middle-class life, he said, and after the Knoches took it home, they went to Walt Disney World. Later, it was to daughter Adrienne’s softball practices. “It was all about family life and doing stuff in a very practical kind of way,” Liebhold said.
Fred Knoche went in big, buying minivan after minivan.
“He’s the Van King,” said childhood friend Matt Trupiano, who still works for him through Fred’s Key Shop, a landmark Detroit business. “To Fred, this is a Corvette.”
The elevation of the family’s 1986 Caravan to the Smithsonian added to Fred’s mystique. He had the Midas touch, in business and even when offloading an old minivan. “If there was an atomic bomb falling on Detroit, I would stand next to him and I wouldn’t get hurt,” Trupiano said.
For the Van King, it was just another one of those things.
“I put it up for sale down at my shop. A couple people looked at it and weren’t interested,” Knoche recalled.
Then a Chrysler representative learned about a beautiful, pristine early Caravan and came to take a look. The man told Knoche to take off the “For Sale” sign, and the company kept it for its historical collection before donating it to the Smithsonian.
The Knoche family minivan at the Smithsonian’s “America on the Move” exhibit at the National Museum of American History.