Passing up the minivan was a maxi-mistake
Ford could have been first, but Henry Ford II rejected an idea that made a bundle for Chrysler
Hal Sperlich came up with the idea while at Ford. Sperlich is called the father of the minivan, although he also was instrumental in developing the Mustang and other vehicles during his 20-year Ford career.
With the support of Ford President Lee Iacocca, Sperlich presented a minivan model, called the Minimax, to Henry Ford II in 1976.
Henry Ford II rebuffed the idea and, soon after, fired Sperlich.
Sperlich, now 73 and chairman of Delco Remy International Inc. of Anderson, Ind., went to Chrysler Corp. in 1977. On his first day there, he resurrected his minivan work from memory, and the rest is history. Chrysler's minivan debuted in 1983, and a segment was born.
Sperlich recalls how he began developing his minivan concept in 1971 as vice president of truck operations at Ford. He had a wild notion of a people-friendly van - something smaller than Ford's Econoline cargo van but roomy enough to carry a family comfortably and stylish enough to replace the typical sedan.
"The whole question of creating a more package-efficient van that could be something that could replace the family car was really born during my stay at truck operations," Sperlich recalls.
Front-wheel drive is key
During the next several years and in four executive roles, Sperlich massaged his concept. It was during a seven-month stint in Europe that he saw the Fiat 127 and fell in love with the car and with front-wheel drive. His minivan concept had a flat floor, and that required fwd.
As vice president of Ford product planning and design from 1972 to 1975, Sperlich helped develop the Ford Fiesta for Europe. It was Ford's first fwd car. That fueled his passion for the minivan.
"That was an important piece because you couldn't do the minivan without front-wheel drive," Sperlich says. He encouraged Ford to give its cars more usable space.
By the mid-1970s, Sperlich believed that Ford had all the pieces in place to build a minivan.
His final design was based on a Western Pacific railroad engine with the cab in front of the boiler, a radical design for the period.
Iacocca was his most enthusiastic supporter. The Ford designers were high on the concept as well. But that's where the interest in the minivan ended at Ford.
Sperlich and Iacocca presented the model to Henry Ford II.
He didn't get it
"We called it the Minimax because it was a maximum package in a mini outside configuration," Sperlich says. But Henry Ford "was worried about the company so he wasn't in any mood to spend any money. I don't think he was ever very enthusiastic about the concept. He just never got interested in it."
Sperlich says he understands Henry Ford II's concern about the company; the oil embargo and severe recession of 1973 were still fresh in his mind.
"He was not an innovator when it came to product," Sperlich says of Henry Ford II. "I don't want to be too critical. He had a lot of strengths and a lot of weaknesses. I give the guy enormous credit. He came out of the Navy at 27 and took over the company. He saved the company and did a lot of incredible things. But even the Mustang was a tough sell. When we presented that to him, he very reluctantly approved it."
Sperlich recalls that the relationship between Iacocca and Henry Ford II already was souring, and that didn't help in winning over the Ford chairman. At the same time, Iacocca and Sperlich were trying to persuade him to produce larger versions of the fwd Fiesta for the United States.
"These were going to be expensive programs, but we saw the future of front-wheel drive in this country," Sperlich says. "So we were not making ourselves friendly with Henry Ford at all. I don't want to make him look like a jerk that missed it, although he did miss it. He also had the responsibility of running a big company, and he was doing what he thought was right in difficult times."
'I felt horrible'
About Henry Ford II's rejection of the minivan, Sperlich says, "I felt horrible, because I was so passionate about it."
Sperlich was fired in late 1976, almost a year after presenting the Minimax to Henry Ford II.
"That was all over Lee (Iacocca) and I being too aggressive in what we proposed to Henry Ford,'' Sperlich recalls. "We took him out of his comfort zone. On top of that, he and Iacocca had problems. He felt Iacocca had his eyes on jobs even bigger than president of Ford. So he was suspicious of Lee, and they didn't get along. The wars between Iacocca and Ford were already going on. I was a minor casualty in that war, because I was easy to get."
Sperlich began his Chrysler career in 1977 as vice president of product planning and design. He was named president in 1984. He retired in 1988.
Sperlich says Chrysler had attempted a similar minivan concept before his arrival, but it was based on its inline six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive.
"So it had a big, long, heavy nose on it," he recalls. "It didn't have a low floor because of the prop shaft. So some people had seen the potential for the package-efficient van."
Chrysler had all the ingredients needed for Sperlich's minivan. It had fwd in its Omni and Horizon cars, a small four-cylinder engine and an automatic transaxle.
"When Lee came over 18 months later, I had the vehicle, actually a better vehicle, than we had at Ford," Sperlich recalls. "We had the whole thing done. It was ready to go. We just had to have somebody with the guts to pull the trigger."
Iacocca was thrilled. The minivan bowed in 1983.
The delay between 1977 and 1983 had to do with survival.
K cars came first
"Chrysler was going down the tube," Sperlich recalls. "We had to come up with something that would reignite sales and turn around the decline in penetration."
So the minivan did not emerge until after Chrysler launched the compact fwd K cars in the fall of 1980. The K cars improved the company's market share, helped meet the new CAFE requirements and provided the needed cash to put the minivan on the road.
Sperlich says he was stunned to see Ford counter Chrysler a year later with a very "trucky" product, the rwd Aerostar.
Says Sperlich: "That was incredible. Unbelievable. Because we invented the damn thing at Ford. And some of the people over there knew about it. It wasn't a truck. It was a family vehicle."
Ford's fwd minivan, the Windstar, didn't debut until 1994.