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Did the Lancia Megagamma Invent the Minivan?

The general thinking in the car world is that the very first minivan was the Chrysler minivan that debuted for the 1984 model year. Some argue it was instead the Renault Espace that debuted right around the same time. There are sound, logical arguments for both — but what if neither is correct?

Behold, the Lancia Megagamma — yes, the "Mega Gamma," which was a concept car that debuted way back in 1978. It was never put into production, so there’s no doubt this wasn’t the first production minivan. But was it the first minivan?

Here’s the background: the Megagamma was created by Italian design house Italdesign, which has also been responsible for some very famous cars — the DeLorean, the Lotus Esprit, the Lancia Delta, the Maserati Coupe and Spyder, the Alfa Romeo Brera and many more. I can’t figure out if Italdesign created the vehicle and then pitched it to Lancia, or the other way around, but either way it was revealed at the 1978 Turin Auto Show.

The design is clearly minivan: low front end, car-like ground clearance, big passenger compartment. Admittedly, there are no sliding doors, which is an important minivan design characteristic — but the profile is there, and so is the idea, as this was intended to be a people-mover for families. Lancia apparently thought it was too risky, so it didn’t make production.

But just a few years later, the minivans started — and they all kind of looked like the Lancia Megagamma. There was the boxy Renault Espace, in 1984, and the Chrysler minivan, the same year. There was also the Nissan Prairie, which preceded the Espace and the Chrysler minivan, though it used a smaller overall footprint, so it’s never been considered the originator of the minivan. The Prairie, however, looked a lot like the Megagamma — almost to the point where it looks like a barely-altered copy.

In the end, history has written it that Renault and Chrysler share the glory of the minivan, but I wonder if those models were inspired by the Megagamma — they certainly look like they were. And if that’s the case, then maybe this obscure concept car from the late 1970s is really the true grandfather of the minivan.

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