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The Road Not Taken

“Success has many parents; failure is an orphan.”

George Peterson, president of AutoPacific (autopacific.com), sent out an email-based greeting card this past holiday season with a picture of, as he put it, “a classic minivan set in a Michigan park.” The vehicle, with 3M-sourced wood grain body side trim, looks something like a Chrysler minivan circa 1984, but there are a sufficient number of visible cues that indicate it is evidently something different.

Peterson told me that it is the Ford Carrousel (yes, two Rs). He explained, “The Carrousel”—based on the Nantucket platform, used for big Ford vans—“was styled by the Ford Truck Studio, hard points by Light Truck Product Planning, package by Light Truck Advanced Engineering, and fabrication by Carron & Company in Inkster, Michigan.” Peterson is familiar with the project not because he has an extensive knowledge of the auto industry then and now, but because he once worked at Ford, and for the Carrousel, he coordinated the package design and prototype fabrication for Light Truck Advanced Engineering.

The Carrousel was a low-roof, seven-passenger van. Given its platform base, it was body-on-frame. And because vehicles of 1974-75 commonly had V8s, the Carrousel had one, 460-in.3.

Some of you will recall that back in this period Hal Sperlich was at Ford, and post-Mustang he worked on the MiniMax concept, a front-wheel-drive minivan. According to Peterson, “The Carrousel had nothing to do with Sperlich or the MiniMax. In fact, Sperlich hated the fact that the Carrousel existed.” In 1977 Sperlich left Ford for Chrysler, and it was there that the modern minivan came to be but a few years later.

Peterson says that when Ford performed research on the Carrousel, the results “were not what Ford management hoped for. The Carrousel buried the Ford Country Squire wagon, outscoring it handily in most measurements.” Presumably they tied on the woodgrain treatments.

Peterson goes on to note, “This $67-million program was buried likely because it did not have a defined segment to compete in.  Ford management did not understand it and being very risk averse at the time—since GM had not already done one—they cancelled it. If Ford had gone ahead with this product, they would have launched a segment that was to boom during the ‘80s and early ‘90s.  While the Carrousel was rear-wheel drive and not as space efficient as the front-wheel drive minivans to follow—especially Sperlich’s Dodge Caravan—it would have set Ford up as a leader at a time when the company was a not-so-quick follower.”

Of course, there was possibly an upside for Ford that Peterson notes: it would have been a V8-powered vehicle just in time for the 1979 fuel crisis.

My point here is not a nostalgic look back at automotive sheet metal. Rather, it is about how some decisions, in retrospect, don’t seem so smart. Since it launched the minivan in 1983, Chrysler has sold more than 13 million of them. Ford came to the market with the Aerostar in model year ’86, which was followed by the Windstar, Freestar, then nothing in the minivan arena. General Motors, which Peterson mentions, didn’t get seriously in the game until model year ’90. It, too, has subsequently left that segment. Chrysler continues.

Peterson’s words “Ford management did not understand it and being very risk averse at the time—since GM had not already done one” are key. They lacked context which, back then, evidently was defined by what their number-one competitor did or didn’t do.

All too often, this is the approach that people take. They want to be advanced and ahead of the curve . . . but not by too much. Thus, they look for validation, which ordinarily means that they do what someone else has successfully done. Admittedly, when this is a vehicle development program, it is a very expensive proposition to get wrong. Few would like to be in that position. As the old line has it, “Success has many parents; failure is an orphan.” 

Steve Jobs is roundly venerated by all as being the visionary genius behind the Mac and the iPhone. Few remember that Jobs had flops, too, whether it was the Newton or the uber-slick Next computer (which he developed having been booted from Apple—yes, the visionary was punked by his own people before they brought him back and he brought them to the digital forefront). Everyone wants to be the successful Jobs. No one wants to be the Jobs that risked and failed.

Times have changed since the Carrousel. Unquestionably, Ford is in a solid market position. GM has come back. And Chrysler continues to put out award-winning products.

Still, one wonders, what if Ford management had given the proto-minivan the green light . . .? 

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