It was 1986. A time when we thought Joe Piscapo was funny and not all weirdly muscular. A time when Lady Gaga's most radical fashion statement was an umbilical cord, and there was New Coke and you could watch Top Gun without feeling all funny during the volleyball scene. It was also the year Chrysler patented their minivan design.
Today, November 25, 1986 was the day the patent was issued (even though the vans were being made since 1984) for design patent number 286,865 — "Automobile Body." Chrysler's minivan went on to be one of the cars that saved them in the 80s, and is still a mainstay of what they do well. It's worth taking a quick look at this initial design.
Chrysler didn't invent the minivan — not by a long shot. There were many popular minivans before the Chrysler ones, though technically the most popular ones were quite different technically. Volkswagen's Type II Microbus was likely the most popular of the minivans for a long time, and it used a rear-engine/rear-drive layout, like a shrunken city bus.
Other small vans from Chevrolet (the Corvair-based Greenbriar vans) and small vans from Fiat (the 850 van) used a similar rear/rear layout, though this was by no means the only solution for small vans. Traditional front engine/rear drive layouts were used by popular small vans like the Ford Transit and the slightly larger but still not massive Dodge 100 vans in the US.
You'd think maybe the Chrysler design was notable because it's front engine/front wheel drive, but vans like the DKW Schnellaster have been using that van-logical layout for years, along with larger vans like the Citroën HY vans.
Also interesting is that while Lee Iacocca was at Ford, there was a project called Carousel to develop a smaller, more garageable van. This was back in 1973, when station wagons were the length of things that usually end in -asaur and a good half of that was unusable hood space. The project was designed to find a way to make a more space-efficient vehicle that could replace a full-size station wagon, with all the style and comfort wagon owners had come to expect.
The design was based on a lower-roofed Econoline, but looks strangely familiar to the Caravans and Voyagers we'd all come to know so well. That could be because when Iacocca left Ford in '78, he may have taken some good ideas with him.
The Carousel was a traditional front/rear layout, but had the basic idea. In looking back at this patent, and all the minivan's predecessors, the importance of Chrysler's patent becomes clear. It wasn't anything revolutionary, but what it did manage to do is cull many good ideas and package them in modern (well, 80s modern) automotive technology.
The Microbus proved the market viability, the DKW proved the value of packaging all the oily bits way up front, the Carousel gave a target style and trim level, and the VW Rabbit, Honda Civic, and Chrysler's own Simca-based Horizon gave the mechanical template to scale up: transverse front engine/FWD and unibody construction.
Chrysler learned what it needed from the past and built an enlarged econobox from the present. Added up, those things gave them a future.
So, happy birthday, Chrysler minivan patent! Sorry about all those Cheerios you've had ground into your carpet over the decades.