It's a boring Sunday afternoon, and you've drunk all the beer. There are no sports games on, your friends are busy, and it seems like there's nothing left to do but tune into your local PBS station. Or you go there first, you adventurous bastard you. They're showing a documentary about the turn of the century, and you notice a copious number of shots showing Model T's trundling around like weird little insects on grainy black and white film. It's an American classic, the icon that defines the era, a sort of establishing shot for the documentary as a whole. What will define the next turn of the century when we see documentaries on it later, you might ask? It's your favorite! The Chrysler S Platform minivan.
This article is adapted from a piece written by for a college assignment which was adapted from an essay previously written for Oppo. What a world, what a life.
For those of you who aren't very well versed in Chrysler internal product names, or who don't want to bother looking it up on Wikipedia for the sake of writing an article, the S Platform might as well be a height-altering shoe. But no, your intrepid author will dispel those misconceptions. The S platform is the mechanical underpinnings onto which Chrysler built all of those funky minivans you used roller-blade past while listening to your Walkman. (Hell, I have no memory of the nineties. I was eating baby food and watching Arthur.) The Plymouth Voyager, the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Dodge Caravan, for decades, have been based on some variant of the S Platform. They've taken you to the beach, moved that cousin you never really liked into college, and donned ladder racks and become contractors' vehicles. They've done it all, and dare I say, they've looked as charming as a really ugly dog that's still kind of cute while doing it.
Now, you're lucky I don't give consumer advice, because I have a tendency to extol mediocre or even terrible products just because I have an ill-advised personal interest in them. So, just as you should probably have paid to go to that orgy on the beach, you should have bought one of these lovely vans when they were new. You might be familiar with my irrational crush on the Chrysler AS minivan from my previous writing, but I'm assured by my editorial staff that I flatter myself and my readership is not that wide. However, let me assure you, I have a crush on the Chrysler minivan, specifically the green '95 Voyager that I remember spilling grape soda in as a child. I like its utilitarian feel, I liked its single sliding door, I liked its Mitsubishi engine, and I like the feeling of going down the rode in building made of soggy phone books. But just because I liked it, that doesn't make it a classic.
What does a car need to become an icon? Well, for one thing, it could be built by Icon, by that's not quite relevant here. (Imagine an Icon-ized Chrysler Minivan. The possibilities are endless.) An iconic car, as I use the term here, is one that defines an era in American history, and when seen fifty years later will evoke the popular ethos of that particular era. For example, you look at a Model T, and you're instantly in a black-and-white world of bustling factory workers and assembly lines and bread that cost less than a dollar. So, how does a car become iconic? After extensive research into cultural norms and sociological trends, which mostly involved me sitting in my bed and coming up with ideas for about four minutes, I can see five criteria that an automobile requires to become an American icon.
First of all, the car must be American. If one ignores various German and Italian owners, Chrysler (and of course Plymouth and Dodge) are indeed American companies. After all, they shoved "Imported from Detroit" down your throat enough in the past couple years. It's one of the Big Three American manufacturers. Yes, the S platform vans were produced in Ontario, which for those who refuse to look at a map of anything but the United States, is indeed in Canada. I don't think this can keep our humble van from greatness. It might never be president, but in an era of manufacturers with foreign owners building "American" cars all across the globe, the Chrysler minivan was just as American as it could be.
Second, the car must be something of a people's car. It must be useful, and move a large segment of society during the era in question. For people to so associate an era with a certain car, that car has to be pretty much everywhere, like an annoying pop hit that won't leave your head. There is classic status in ubiquity. Just as the Model T was the car that moved America, and was basically the only car you saw on the streets, the Chrysler van has been inescapable for years. As of 2005, which is about the cutoff for the old-style vans that I'm discussing here, Chrysler had sold 11 million of its plucky little boxes. The van was everywhere. Outside every shopping center, next to every soccer practice, idling at the light every time you crossed the road, in every school parking lot, there were always Chrysler minivans. The trifecta of Chrysler minivans was the go-to choice for American families. So, the van has ubiquity.
A car should also be a bit of a caricature to become an icon. It has to embody the general design trends of the era so that it can become representative of them. The Model T, in the popular eye, is exactly what all early 20th century cars look like. It boils down the essential view you would have seen on a 1915 street, just as the Chrysler minivan captures a 2000 street. It helps that the van is based on the K-car, perhaps a minor icon in its own right. But just look for popular conceptions of car design trends. The 80s were for boxy, utilitarian cars with lots of angles and faux woodgrain. In the 80s, the Chrysler van was a big square box with woodgrain. The early 90s were a time of adjusting old boxy designs to become more aerodynamic, and eventually swoopy and round became the bywords of 90s design. The Chrysler minivan followed this exact trajectory. It was almost a goofy design next to a Toyota Sienna, for example, with its big aggressive face and its spoiler-ed sport models. Its just the right amount of overdone to exaggerate what cars looked like in the nineties, and for that reason it works as a caricature.
Like a valedictorian at graduation whose last name is Zyxwy, the last aspect of iconhood is the most important. While my metaphors may leave you feeling cold, for many children of the turn of the century, the Chrysler minivan holds a special place in our hearts. This final aspect is nostalgia. For a car to be an icon, we need to have a collective rose-tinted lens through which we look back. I miss my Voyager. I miss its dark green paint, I miss sitting on its roof looking at the sky, and I miss hearing its engine putt into life every morning. I miss waiting for the heat to work on our way to school in the winter, and I miss charging the AC with Freon every summer. I miss my childhood, and so I miss the van that enabled my childhood. And I don't think I'm alone.
James Gallagher is clearly a master at recycling content. Even so, he has been writing some pretty neat stuff. He's a writer. That's what he does. Check him out; he appreciates every view and comment. (Story copyright James Gallagher 2014).