Ode to the minivan

PHOTO: Flickr CC

I can always tell when new parents are about to say the thing they’ve dreaded their whole lives. 

They hesitate. The pause grows longer. The couple glances glumly at one another.

“So …” he says, trailing off.

“Yeah,” she adds, aimlessly. “We’ve been shopping for a new vehicle.” 

“We’re thinking about one of those three-row SUV’s,” he says. “But they’re pretty expensive.”

“Right, so, we’re probably just going to get a …” She clears her throat. “Minivan.” 

Her husband can’t make eye contact. He spends the rest of the evening staring out the window. 

I always offer people in this situation some soothing words of support. And they’re true: We have a minivan, too. And, you know what? It’s great. 

If you want a vehicle that can move three kids in car seats, lumber, groceries, a tote bag of smashed cereal bars, old newspapers and unreachable rotting foodstuff, there’s nothing better. I realize that a minivan might not SOUND like what you want, but trust me. That’s what you WILL want once you’ve worked through your emotional baggage.

For us this moment occurred when we tried to install three car seats in the back seat of a 2001 Chevy Lumina.

Americans place enormous cultural weight on our choice of transportation. If we use public transportation we’re a “public transportation person.” If we ride a bike we’re “a bike person.” Most of us drive personal automobiles and trucks. As such, the vehicle we use ends up being part of how we are perceived and even how we feel about ourselves. It’s all about identity.

I know of at least a dozen miners who acknowledge they’d save a lot of money driving a more fuel efficient car to the taconite plant. Nevertheless, they can’t bear the thought of what people would say if they didn’t have a pickup truck like everyone else. They don’t tell me this. They tell their spouses who then tell random people because they can’t believe how much money they’re spending on gas. 

That’s a big part of why every other car you pass on an Iron Range road is some kind of truck, even though trucks cost twice as much to buy and operate. Those aren’t just trucks, those are “truck people” conforming to expectations.

No one wants to be a “minivan person.” The minivan was itself a marketing response to the declining popularity of the station wagon. 

As lampooned in the 1983 Chevy Chase movie “Vacation,” the station wagon had become a metaphor for the staid, buffoonish striving of the American middle class. For men, it was a vehicular vasectomy. For women, a frustrating restraint on the very notion of desire. As for me, the station wagon was my first car, a heavy steel case with faux woodgrain side panels that safely guarded my virginity.

But in reality the station wagon was a very useful car that simply experienced a public relations problem. By the early 1990s, minivans began sweeping the nation. Early models had seats that you could remove and stack in your garage so they could accumulate oil spills and exhaust scent. But these vans were pretty handy. Once they added doors on both sides, hoo-boy, us kids lived it up. 

After the old station wagon died, I drove a minivan to high school. Long before current license restrictions, I piled friends into the van as we gadded about the countryside. On prom night, my minivan and I won a drag race against a pickup truck. I remain proud of that ill-advised accomplishment. People forget that these vans had six-cylinder engines that could pop when you needed them.

When my wife and I were younger, we resisted buying a minivan. One kid fit in a sedan or small SUV just fine. But when we had twins, reality hit hard. One stop at the Chrysler dealership and the deed was done.

I’ve been surprised at the versatility of our minivan. I moved cement blocks and lumber for the garden this summer. I transported fence panels on my roof using ratchet straps. It’s stout enough to tow a trailer if I needed to. Get out your tape measure. You’ll see that a cot will fit nicely when the seats fold down. Take a van home, or make a van home. 

It’s all marketing, folks. As always, cost and function are the most important factors. In this, our friend the minivan offers an economical option that gets you where you need to go.

A warning, though. When you see me cruising by in my 2013 Grand Caravan, ladies, cool your jets. I’m not single. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

 

Comments

  1. Ah, yes, men, and their vehicles. And their tender egos. And sense of self. Are we all that different than male mammals who preen about?

    I’ve owned mini vans, which I term a diaper wagon. And I’ve owned station wagons. Well, not a real station wagon, the type that could comfortably transport a little league baseball team, and not just because we didn’t care if everyone had a seat belt. No, I owned the mid 80’s – early 90’s GM station wagons, which in the mid 70’s would have been considered a mid sized station wagon. One was the Buick model, the other an Olds.

    One time, my wife transported some of my daughter’s gymnastics team to the end of the year party, at a bowling alley. A couple kids were thrilled to ride in the back, facing the trailing vehicles. When her mom got to the bowling alley, she exclaimed, “I rode in the trunk!”

    But I tell ya, those wagons, I was able to more easily haul stuff in that than my mini vans. Fold down the back and middle seats, and there was plenty of room.

    In May of 1973, my Dad a behemoth, a Plymouth Fury wagon, 227/5″ long and nearly 80″ wide. I believe it had a 440 cubic inch V8. We pulled a good sized pop up camper, and Dad told people he had to look behind once in a while to make sure it was still there; the camped didn’t cause a bit of drag on that huge engine. Dad bought what was on the lot at the end of the model year, reasoning he would get a deal from Forest Lake Motors. It was pretty deluxe. The radio had AM AND FM! It also had a rear speaker, and cruise control, and the rear door window was power operated. Not THAT was a wagon! That baby took us to California, New York, Toronto, Glacier National Park, and Seattle. The Plymouth-camper tandem was too long for the hairpin turns on Glaciers’ Going To the Sun Road.

    I filled up my mini van in June of 2005. A crazy St. Paddy’s 2008 lead meant that come December of that year the minivan could not contain the entire family. Good times.

    Bottom line: Cowboy up, a real man drives a mini van unapologetically.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    Actually, men like minivans. It’s women who are most opposed to them. Minivans are the greatest idea ever to come out of Detroit. The original ones were small on the outside and big on the inside. My favorite vehicle of all time was a 1993 Dodge Caravan with 2.5 liter 4-cylinder and 5-speed manual transmission. It drove like a car, hauled like a truck, and averaged 30 mpg. I still have it sitting in my shop. Now, I drive a 2012 Town and Country with 209,000 miles on it and going strong. When I was still farming in North Dakota, I used a minivan instead of a pickup. It was the more versatile vehicle. When I needed a real pickup, I had a one-ton Chevy long-frame dually with a 12 box and hoist.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.