By Jim Hinckley
For decades in post war America the station wagon had been the dominant symbolic centerpiece of suburbia. By 1980 the fuel embargo of the early 1970s, the changing demographic face of the nation and other factors had dethroned the king as evidenced by plummeting sales and most manufacturers choosing to either curtail or suspend production of these quintessential American cruisers.
There was a brief lull and then its replacement made its debut in 1983. Every aspect of the Plymouth Voyager was revolutionary, at least as far as the press and most individuals in the automobile industry were concerned.
Interior seating and variable cargo space was reminiscent of its predecessor. However, this is where the similarity ended. The Voyager was front wheel drive and featured power rack and pinion steering. Unparalleled ride for a vehicle of this type and in this price range was accomplished with dual path Iso-Strut front suspension.
Production was another area in which the Voyager represented technological advancement that soon became industry standards. For the first time in a production vehicle, computer aided design was utilized. The initial production facility in Windsor, Ontario had been wholly redesigned just for the new Plymouth and featured 120 robot welders.
The astounding success of the all-new “Magic Wagon,” as the Voyager was advertised soon had competitors scrambling to catch up. Additionally its popularity added a new word to the American lexicon, minivan.
More often than not, an overnight success is not as it is usually built on the failures of others or on ideas that were ahead of their time when introduced. The Plymouth Voyager was no exception.
In 1928, Martin Aircraft Company showcased their advanced aerodynamic design on a one off automobile presented to World War I ace Billy Mitchell. Seen through modern eyes the squat, almost egg shaped vehicle appears almost cartoon like. However, in the year before the great crash of ’29 its stark streamlining gave the appearance it had arrived from some point in the far distant future.
The vehicle, designed solely as a rolling display, made a brief but well received debut and faded into obscurity. However, the concept inspired other visionaries.
William B. Stout was an editor for Motor Age in 1913 when as a hobby project he designed a cycle car. The short-lived Imp cycle car, which in turn gave him the expertise to land a job as chief engineer for Scripps-Booth in 1915, followed that experiment.
Aircraft design and development soon drew him away from automotive related ventures. Among his numerous accomplishments were the development of the first internally braced cantilever winged aircraft, a feat that earned him the unofficial title of father of the modern airplane.
In 1932, he again turned his attention, and the resources of Stout Engineering Laboratories, towards things automotive. The highly futuristic Scarab was the result.
In addition to extreme aerodynamic design, the vehicle utilized a Ford V8 coupled to a highly advanced, Stout designed three-speed differential/transaxle for rear wheel drive. Interior appointments were as revolutionary as the rest of the vehicle.
All seats with the exception of that for the driver were movable to other locations in the cabin presenting an atmosphere similar to that found on railroad lounge cars. Enhancing the effect was a folding table and extensive use of glass on three sides for visibility.
During the same period eccentric designer, Buckminster Fuller was at work in the old Locomobile plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to build the car of the future. The resultant Dymaxion was unlike anything ever propelled by a gasoline engine.
Extreme streamlining would be a gross understatement as the vehicle was almost completely round with no corners. Three wheeled configuration, tubular steel framing and chassis, a top speed of near 120 miles per hour as well fuel economy in the forty mile per gallon range ensured the vehicle was without equal.
A series of unfortunate events, inability to obtain adequate venture capital and poor publicity that resulted from a fatal accident resulted in the completion of but three Dymaxions. Undaunted Fuller moved on to other ventures, most notably the geodesic dome.
Stout continued refining the Scarab and in 1935 introduced the production model. Unlike the initial prototype, this model utilized steel for the body rather than aluminum. Other refinements included a new suspension that utilized coil springs on all four wheels.
The hoped for buyers never materialized and after production of just five units Stout abandoned the project to refocus on aeronautical pursuits. The final chapter for the Scarab came in 1946 when an existent model was given an extensive face-lift to take advantage in the advancements of streamlining developed during World War II.
For the most part the concept that would become the minivan languished for almost thirty years after the last Scarab. Then in the early 1970s at an informal meeting of executives and designers at Ford Motor Company an idea to create a van large enough to hold seven passengers that was small enough to fit in an average garage surfaced.
As the idea circulated and input was evaluated enthusiasm rose for the new project. Those who dared to dream large envisioned the new van could replace the station wagon.
In 1972 the companies design studio brought the ideas together in a full-scale clay model. The following year Ford commissioned a consumer survey to evaluate public interest in the new vehicle dubbed Carousel. The findings indicated such a high public acceptance and demand there was concern the survey was in error. As a result, a second survey was authorized and the findings mirrored that of the first.
The Carousel was given the green light and management placed it on the fast track with plans to introduce the new vehicle for the 1975 model year. Lee Iacocca, president of Ford, was quite excited about the potential of the new vehicle and authorized immediate development of an advertising and promotion campaign.
Incredibly not everyone at Ford saw a promising future for the radically different vehicle. Years later Henry Ford II would explain his order to shelve the project by saying, “I’m not a big survey man. I think that if you are in the business you ought to know what the hell you want to do and can’t rely on a survey to pull your bacon out of the frying pan.”
The relationship between Iacocca and Ford had been failing for quite some time and the abandonment of the Carousel project did nothing to alleviate the problems between the two men. In 1978, Ford himself fired Iacocca.
The rest, as they say, is history. Iacocca went to work for Chrysler taking the idea for the Carousel with him. A subsequent Chrysler survey indicated even a more positive response than that received by Ford. In 1983, the Plymouth Voyager, an almost exact replication of the clay mock up of the Carousel, made its debut. By 1988, Chrysler was selling more than 450,000 mini vans a year making it one of the most successful automobile launches in history.