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Aerostar made its mark but couldn’t catch Caravan

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Aerostar was never the success for Ford that Caravan and Voyager were for Chrysler, and yet it was an important vehicle for the Blue Oval, selling just over two million units over 12 years of production.

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Aerostar was launched in mid-1985, two years after Chrysler’s famed twin minivans, which were front-wheel drive and whose design helped establish the minivan template that Ford, General Motors and other competitors felt compelled to eventually follow.

Aerostar was never front-wheel drive, and that was to become its Achilles heel in the face of stiff competition from Chrysler, which never relinquished its lead within the minivan segment. Still, Ford’s minivan sold remarkably well, and 30 years after its introduction it is remembered as being a sales success.

Plans for a minivan-type vehicle were started within Ford when the full-size Econoline was redesigned for 1975. The idea then was to build a smaller van that would have a roofline low enough so it could fit into a garage.

The concept was pushed by Hal Sperlich, who had worked closely with Lee Iacocca in the development of the Mustang 10 years earlier. Sperlich and an associate thought there existed an untapped market for a small van-like vehicle. Their initial research suggested annual sales of 800,000 units, which seemed to be unrealistically fantastic. But even if those numbers were halved, the so-called MiniMax van would be a sales triumph, they reasoned.

Yet the small van idea was shelved by Ford executives, worried that the project represented too much of a risk in an era of increased government regulations, rising fuel prices, and an increasingly difficult economy. Chief among them was Henry Ford II, who had become increasingly conservative in his older years and reluctant to take much risk.

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Sperlich was eventually sacked by Ford and was hired by Chrysler Corporation. He was joined in November 1978 by Iacocca, who had been personally fired by Henry Ford II. Iacocca’s immediate objective was to revive a sinking Chrysler, a task that would take several years. But when the corporation was back on its feet and much healthier, the old plans for a small van were dusted off… except they were dusted off within the Chrysler boardroom.

The secret behind the success of the Caravan and Voyager minivans was their front-wheel drive platform, which was based on Chrysler’s successful K-car program. Because there was no need for a transmission tunnel, the minivan’s floor was flat without need to be elevated. And because of that circumstance, the vehicle could be designed with a low roofline.

Chrysler’s vans were also based on a car platform, and therefore provided car-like suspension and handling. Those who drove the minivans were always struck by how well they handled.

Conversely, Ford’s new Aerostar was based on a truck platform (in fact, it was considered to be a light truck, based on the Ranger platform introduced for 1983), and some would argue that it rode like a truck.

But more importantly, Aerostar was rear-wheel drive, and so it required a transmission tunnel. To give it a flat floor, the roofline had to be raised to allow for adequate passenger room. And so its roofline was higher than Caravan’s, by several inches.

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Despite these drawbacks, Aerostar was an attractive vehicle. Its front end was slanted forward, giving it a snout-like appearance. But it was aerodynamic and was more wind-resistant.

Ford’s small van, it could be argued, had a more attractive interior than its Chrysler counterparts, at least in its early years. And because Aerostar was actually a light truck, it also had decent towing capability, a fact Ford made potential buyers aware of.

Aerostar had a 118-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 174.9 inches. It was rather narrow, at a width of 71.7 inches, but its height was 72.2 inches – which made it appear to be a tad ungainly.

Yet one attribute that Aerostar brought to the minivan wars of the mid-Eighties was a wide selection of engine options. Buyers could opt for a 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, a 2.8-litre V6, a 3.0-litre V6, or a 4.0-litre V6.

Transmission options included a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The automatic transmission was more popular.

Aerostar came in several trim levels that would be familiar to customers of Ford trucks. Buyers could purchase the base-trim XL, or the more plushy XLT. In its first few years, Aerostar was also offered as a cargo van, and the same trim levels were available.

In later years, an all-wheel drive option would be made available, along with other trims and special editions.

Despite using a platform shared by the Ranger truck, Aerostar was surprisingly roomy. It featured a two-plus-two-plus-three seating layout, and offered second-row bucket seats in the XLT models, while having the third-row seats fold down into a bed-like situation.

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Sales were initially strong for Aerostar, and that may have been because the minivan market was so enormous in the mid-Eighties that buyers were willing to purchase any and every minivan model then offered by any of the Detroit-based companies. GM did just as well with its Astro and Safari vans; they also were based on light truck platforms and also came with rear-wheel drive.

But Chrysler ruled the roost, and after it launched its minivans in the fall of 1983, it never really looked back.

Aerostar was built until 1997 from Ford’s assembly plant at St. Louis, but by that time Ford had introduced its Oakville, Ont.-built Windstar, which was front-wheel drive and better resembled Caravan and Voyager.

A few years earlier, beginning in 1993, Ford had introduced Villager, a minivan for Mercury dealers. Its development and design was shared by Nissan, which marketed the same vehicle as Quest. Villager had no mechanical relationship with Aerostar, and after Aerostar was retired, it continued to be sold, although its sales run in Canada ended sooner than it did in the United States.

Although Aerostar had some changes over its 12-year run, it remained remarkably unchanged. Its utility and power were appreciated by the motoring public.

For all of the Aerostars that Ford built and sold, it’s rare to see one still on the road today, but there are a few.

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