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Why Did It Take Minivans a Decade to Get Dual Sliding Doors?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2016

Back when I was a kid, the mother of my best friend, Daniel Friedman, had a Chrysler minivan. I'm not sure which Chrysler minivan, because they all looked the same back then, right down to the Chrysler logo on their steering wheels. This was back when car companies could get away with so much cost-cutting that they didn't even change their steering wheel pads to reflect their different brands.

It was a simpler time.

What I do remember, however, was the fact that Daniel's mom's minivan had only one single sliding door, on the passenger side. At the time, even though I was only maybe 8 years old, this struck me as the single stupidest thing in the automotive industry. And as I look back on it now, 20 years later, I can't help but think that 8-year-old Doug was brilliant.

Automakers, on the other hand, were not so brilliant. From 1983, when the first Chrysler minivan came out, until 1996, when the third-generation model hit the streets, all minivans with sliding doors had just one door, on the passenger side. This ridiculous decision affected both American vans -- and there were a lot of them, including the Chrysler minivans, the Ford Windstar and Aerostar and the Chevrolet Lumina and Astro -- and foreign vans like the Nissan Quest and the Toyota Previa.

So back in the early 1990s, there were something like 12 different vans cruising around with only one sliding door on the passenger side. It seemed nobody even bothered to consider the idea of placing a door on the driver's side, too.

So, why did this happen? At the time, I distinctly remember automakers insisting that using only one door made minivans safer. This was the thinking: Kids are crazy, rambunctious little rapscallions, and limiting their entry and exit to just one spot makes it easier for parents. Plus, putting the door on the passenger side means they can't climb out into traffic (which would be passing on the driver's side), which further increases their safety.

This was, of course, the stupidest logic in the history of time.

Sure, it's safer for all passengers to exit a vehicle on the passenger side, just like how you exit a city bus. But why limit this supposed safety feature to minivans? Surely nobody thought people who owned Ford Explorers were cruising around with four adults all the time. What about Chevy Suburbans, Tahoes or even Jeep Grand Cherokees? Why did they have a driver's-side rear door if exiting the vehicle was such a safety concern?

I always suspected the real reason automakers didn't put dual sliding doors in minivans is that they couldn't figure out how to put two enormous doors -- with two enormous sliding-door tracks -- on both sides of the van and still preserve the vehicle's structural rigidity. Sliding doors demand a lot more weight and engineering than regular hinged doors, and maybe Chrysler wasn't up to that challenge back in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But eventually, they accepted the challenge. I'll never forget, when the redesigned Chrysler minivans came out for the 1996 model year, what an event it was. The dual-sliding-door van was hailed as the greatest automotive innovation in decades, and Chrysler ran advertisement after advertisement boasting of the incredible innovative power that enabled them to create a vehicle with doors on both of its sides.

Of course, as we know now, everyone else soon followed suit. First up was the Toyota Sienna and the Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager (which were, at the time, mechanical twins) in 1998, followed by a redesigned Ford Windstar and a new Honda Odyssey in 1999. And while some highly outdated vans with one single sliding door stuck around a little longer (the Chevy Astro and the GMC Safari, for instance, lasted until 2005), the jig was up by then. Within a few short years, we were living in a world of dual-sliding-door minivans.

It's a world we now take for granted. But I still remember climbing into the passenger side of Daniel Friedman's van, tugging on the enormous door (we also didn't have automatic doors back then, and each one weighed as much as a bookcase) and sitting behind the driver with no window to open and no door to climb out, just waiting for the Chrysler engineers to free me.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Why Did It Take Minivans a Decade to Get Dual Sliding Doors? - Autotrader