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Magicwagons turn 15 with grace and style

Fifteen years. It's been fifteen years since Chrysler introduced the first magic-wagon. Today, almost every major automaker has a small van in its fleet and there are 11 brands of mini sold in Canada.

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Fifteen years. It’s been fifteen years since Chrysler introduced the first magic-wagon. Today, almost every major automaker has a small van in its fleet and there are 11 brands of mini sold in Canada.

Can you remember a time when we didn’t have minivans? Can you imagine life without the wonderful little box-on-wheels?

We’ve related the story of the magic-wagon’s creation in these pages before, but it’s a tale worth retelling.

Back in the late ’70s, the fuel and emissions crises forced the automakers to produce small, lightweight, front-wheel drive unit-bodied sedans and to rid their stocks of heavy, gas-guzzling, fume-spewing V8powered station wagons. As a result, many families were left without adequate transportation for their kids and cargo.

In an attempt to respond to this need, an obscure Ford designer named Hal Sperlich doodled a box shape on top of a front-wheel drive platform. The idea wasn’t new. Volkswagen’s box-on-a-Beetle microbus took similar advantage of a compact rear drivetrain nearly 50 years ago.

Nifty as the concept was, shortsighted Ford execs, with one notable exception, didn’t see the merits of Sperlich’s “garage-able van,” and the idea was shelved.

The exception was a Ford VP named Lee Iacocca. After Iacocca left to head the soon-to-be born-again Chrysler Corporation, one of the first things he did was hire Sperlich away from Ford and set him to work grafting a van onto the K-car chassis.

That vehicle would be introduced in 1984 as the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

Admittedly, the K-car wasn’t a very good car and neither were the early magic-wagons. But Chrysler soon realized that it was on to a very good thing and embarked on a program of upgrading and refinement that continues to this day.

Part of that program came under the direction of another Ford alumnus, a brilliant Ford of Britain designer named Trevor Creed. Creed’s specialty was the user-friendly interior and we have him to thank, not just for the good seats, comfortable driving position and efficient controls, but for the bins, drawers, consoles and drink-holders that make our van interiors such helpful, pleasant places to be.

The hard-edged magic-wagons had their corners sanded off as part of a major revision in 1991 and, along the way, the suspension and brakes were improved, making the vehicle safer and somewhat more fun to drive. Good enough, not great.

K-car based Chrysler minis served us up until 1996, when the sleek, dolphin-shaped third generation model was introduced.

The K-car is gone, not regretted. The current offering is an even more magic wagon designed from the ground up with its own sophisticated chassis and a radical new look that sent all the other minivan builders scurrying to their drafting boards.

My wife Diana and I marked the minivan’s 15th birthday by picking up a 1999 Grand Caravan at the San Fransisco airport and spending a week exploring the squiggly roads on the rugged coast and wine valleys of Northern California.

We’d travelled those roads on a number of previous trips and knew that there is no better test of a vehicle’s abilities.

However, we did not anticipate that both Diana and our Caravan would undergo an ultimate California test.

On our third day out we met up with Diana’s sister Lita, her husband Joe and their family in the Napa valley. After a picnic, we set off for their home on the Sonoma coast. Diana and Lita wanted to share some sister time, so she drove the Caravan and I rode with Joe in his new Volvo wagon.

The road from Calistoga to Annapolis crosses wild, remote country populated primarily by range cattle, cougars and pot growers.

Originally a logging trail, the route hugs the convoluted edges of the coastal hill range. Second-growth redwoods line the pavement on the hill-side. The sheer drop on the other side can be hundreds of feet down.

At times, the road narrows to one lane, thanks to mudslides and washouts that plague this area every spring.

Occasionally, a huge logging truck or a careering pickup will suddenly appear from around the next bend. There are no straight stretches. There are no guard rails.

Diana’s comments speak volumes about our love affair with the Chrysler minivan. “I just got in and drove. I didn’t have to think about the driving position, the controls, the engine’s performance or the handling. It all felt familiar and natural.”

For yours truly, just getting in and driving a Chrysler minivan is a commonplace experience. Nevertheless, this ’99 model held some surprises.

I’ve never been a big fan of the 3.8 L V6. It’s strong but it has always been a plodder, reluctant to rev and rough if you ask.

It’s apparent, however, that Chrysler’s engineers didn’t like it either. The latest version is quieter, smoother and definitely more spirited than its predecessors. And that ties in perfectly with surprise number two: our Grand Caravan came equipped with the shift-for-yourself AutoStick transmission.

The location of the too-tiny shift switch was dumb (on the column lever instead of on the back of the steering wheel, formula car style) and it took a while before the act of shifting felt natural. But on California’s coast highway the chances to practice come fast and furious and I was soon working the gears without thought. So much fun. In a minivan.

Surprise three was an interior detail that proves that Trevor Creed and his elves are still at it. As is often the case with press vehicles, this Grand Caravan ES AWD was loaded, priced at US$34,655 (that’s CDN$42,005).

It held four captain’s chairs and a rear bench all swathed in cushy beige leather. On the back of the bench was an oddly-shaped strip of plastic. I stood and scratched my head at this, but brother-in-law Joe, an inventor and noted left-brain thinker took one look and said, “Grocery bag hooks.” Wonderful.

But any final comment on a minivan has to relate to space. With seven comfortable seats in position, we still had room to stash two big suitcases and an overnighter in the cargo area. Wonderful.

Like the cell phone and the personal computer, the magic-wagon is a true artifact of this end of the century. I have no idea who invented the portable phone and the creator of the home computer is up for debate.

Hal Sperlich, however, should take a deep bow.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae prepared his assessment based on driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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