Minivans have long been the platform for automakers to experiment with quirky, offbeat ideas. The first true minivans themselves were oddball vehicles, veritable boxes on wheels that made excellent use of interior space in a compact package. The original Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers with their single sliding doors looked pretty weird among the malaise-era boxy sedans that permeated parking lots across America. Good ideas don’t always catch on, but those boxy Dodges, Plymouths, and eventually Chryslers were soon joined by the Ford Aerostar, Chevrolet Astro and a few especially offbeat Nissans and Toyotas from Japan.
By the 1990s, minivans were in their heyday, not quite knocked off the sales charts by rugged-looking SUVs that made drivers feel like they were making a proper journey as they drove through the wilds of suburbia to far-off destinations such as the grocery store, middle school, soccer practice and even occasionally the dentist. You’d certainly need an Explorer Eddie Bauer with fender flares, part-time four-wheel drive and a Mach audio system to take on such adventures.
Minivans persisted and in some ways got even weirder as automakers sought to compete with SUVs and each other. Chrysler, the only American brand to still offer a minivan, was arguably the smartest when it came to innovations. Its vans brought to the market seats on wheels that were easy to remove, dual sliding doors and eventually stowing rear seats. Rivals lobbed more ideas into the air and hoped they landed with a thud and not a splat. Here’s a look at four of the quirkiest and why you won’t find a van, an SUV or a car with them today.
Ford Windstar’s extended driver’s door
Chrysler turned the minivan world on its head when it redesigned its trio of vans for 1996 with an available sliding door on both the curb side and behind the driver. Kids fortunate enough to be trucked home in Grand Caravans, Voyagers and Town & Countrys no longer had to push their way around each other to climb in or out and the vans could pull up to curbs on either side of the road without worrying about traffic.
General Motors responded for 1997 with redesigned vans of its own with dual sliding doors, but Ford instead stretched the driver’s door by six inches on its 1998 Windstar and called it in the most corporate way possible the Family Entry System Door. A driver’s seat that slid forward on its rails to allow extra-skinny kids to squeeze through was standard on higher-trim versions. Not only was the pass-through an exceedingly tight fit for any kid tall enough to ride the roller coasters at Six Flags, it made for a comically large driver’s door. You can thank the Ford Windstar for any dent on the passenger’s side of your car. Ford redesigned the Windstar for 1999 and, of course, a driver-side sliding door made an appearance. Find a Ford Windstar for sale
Nissan Quest’s cylindrical center stack
No minivan clawed at the segment like the Nissan Quest. The original arrived as a joint-venture with Ford for 1993 with sleek styling and a third-row bench that could slide forward. The van’s first clean-sheet redesign took a long time, bowing for the 2004 and bringing with it crazy personality. Perhaps no redesign has ever been as bonkers as the 2004 Quest. Its coolest feature was its interior, which had a hooded instrument cluster on the center of the dash that contained a huge LCD screen and a bingo board-like array of warning lights. Below a wide dash panel sat the pièce de résistance: a cylindrical center console that housed the gear lever, air vents, climate and audio controls, and, way down, the CD player and cupholders.
It was wacky, like something out of a spaceship, an effect amplified by the four fixed glass panels that flanked an overhead console that looked like it was built by Boeing. The Quest was peak weird Nissan, a reminder that the company that now sells hundreds of thousands of Rogues annually once had far more personality than sense (also see: Nissan Cube, Nissan Maxima and Nissan Xterra). Find a Nissan Quest for sale
Mazda MPV TV tuner
Minivans are meant for families, and families have kids who fidget and whine anxiously in the back seat on even the shortest drive. Since it is no longer socially acceptable to give kids whiskey to quiet them down, parents have turned to screens. This started in the 1950s and hasn’t peaked yet. By the late 1980s, VCRs were a common aftermarket accessory, and a decade later, automakers began installing flop-down, roof-mounted LCD screens to play tapes, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs, and those in today’s vans can mirror smartphones.
Mazda for the 2000 model year tried something different with its MPV. By then, the MPV had gone from truck/van hybrid with hinged doors and 4WD to pint-size van with dual sliding doors (it was a foot shorter than a Grand Caravan), and the automaker was throwing darts at the wall in hopes one would land. One idea it had was a TV tuner. For just $50, a cable box-like device hooked into an extra-cost antenna and allowed unruly kids to watch “Judge Judy” on the way home from school. In-vehicle TV tuners were popular in Japan at the time, and the concept was briefly revived by SiriusXM with three cartoon channels broadcast via satellite. Find a Mazda MPV for sale
Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari “Dutch doors”
GM’s minivan answer to the successful early Dodge and Plymouth models was a pair of high-riding, truck-based vans that offered 4WD. Popular today as camper conversions (#vanlife), they were reasonably popular early on because they offered winter-weather and trailer-towing capability. They split the difference between big, cargo- and commercial-oriented vans and true minivans with their blend of smaller proportions and trucky features such as a center console that had to be removed for engine access and side-hinged rear doors. A refresh for the 1992 model year brought a rethink of those rear doors, however. A new swing-up rear window allowed for easy cargo loading, while the lower section was actually two side-hinged doors.
GM called them “Dutch doors” because of their multi-piece design is similar to the swing-open doors seen relatively common in houses. The design remained optional in place of the side-hinged cargo doors through the 2005 model year, when the automaker finally jettisoned the Astro and Safari. Like the split tailgate seen in big SUVs like the Range Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser, the “Dutch door” design offered easy, spill-onto-the-pavement-free access to the cargo area for loading smaller items like grocery bags. Find a Chevrolet Astro for sale or Find a GMC Safari for sale
Swiveling second-row seats
Seats that rotate became popular in the 1950s as an easy way to get in and out of cars (and we’ve only gotten lazier since), though their ability to meet crash-test standards has spelled their demise. Perhaps the best integration of swiveling seats was the Toyota Previa, which for an extra cost ($790 in 1994) rotated at the tug of a lever to allow second-row passengers to stare directly into the eyes of those confined to row three. It’s just like riding on a train, except you probably know those seated across from you. These conversational seats date back decades to early vans that offered a picnic table, a feature that stayed with the VW Eurovan MV into the early 2000s.
Chrysler revived the feature for its 2008 vans, but it was an unpopular option because it meant forgoing seats that flopped into the floor when not in use to create a flat cargo area. The Swivel ‘n Go seat option resulted in bulky second-row captains chairs and an awkward table that was always in the way when erected and confined to a dusty, cobwebbed corner of the garage when not in use. At least we can all cringe at the happy game-playing family above enjoying a nice afternoon in their van instead of in their living room or backyard. Find a Toyota Previa for sale or Find a Volkswagen Eurovan for sale
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