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The Minivan Is Dead. Long Live the "Man Van"?

What's not to like about a big, roomy vehicle that can carry the kids, the dog, the groceries, and a team's worth of soccer equipment? Plenty not to like, as it turns out — if you call that vehicle a minivan, a word that's become burdened by associations with boring family life in the suburbs.

Which is why recent ads for the Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan, and the new Ford C-Max have been avoiding the M-word altogether in favor of brawny labels like "man van," "swagger wagon," and "multi-activity vehicle." And why the Honda Odyssey uses butterflies, doves, and lush string music to beckon customers into a state of "Vanquility" that's too transcendental to support a minimizing prefix.

The new ads represent the auto industry's all-out effort — desperate or ingenious, depending on your outlook — to make minivans cool again. That's right: again. Because in the beginning, minivans were glamorous.

In fact, the first true mass-produced minivan — Chrysler's 1984 Plymouth Voyager — wasn't even called a minivan: Magician Doug Henning introduced it in TV ads as the "Magic Wagon." It was based on a passenger-car frame but was shorter than a station wagon — the traditional family car of the 1950s through the 1970s — yet it had more interior space, better visibility, and better gas mileage than wagons. It also had front-wheel drive, a relative novelty at the time.

Within a year, the Ford Aerostar, the Chevrolet Astro, the Renault Espace, and the uncreatively named Toyota Van joined the Voyager in auto salesrooms across North America.

As the word suggests, a minivan is a scaled-down version of a commercial van. (And "van" is a truncation of caravan, a word imported into English from Persian via French, which originally meant any covered vehicle. "Caravan" is still used in the UK and Australia to refer to what North Americans call a "mobile home" or "trailer.") Technically, the first minivan had been produced almost half a century before the Voyager, by the Stout Motor Car Company of Detroit. The vehicle's beetle-like design gave rise to its name: the Stout Scarab. The handbuilt Scarab was futuristic — it featured swiveling seats, among other innovations — and expensive ($5,000, a small fortune in the Depression). Only nine units are believed to have been built.

The Scarab wasn't called a minivan; the first usage of that word didn't appear until 1960, when the British Motor Corporation introduced a small panel van called the Austin Mini Van. (According to the OED, "Mini Van" is still a proprietary name in the UK.) Americans first became acquainted with the concept via the Volkswagen microbus, which is as inextricably connected to 1960s culture as Woodstock and love-ins. The "Magic Wagons" of the 1980s were marketed as direct descendants of those ungainly VWs — only safer and less odiferous.

By the 1990s, though, much of the magic had worn off. It was all too easy to turn "minivan" into "mommy van." (Minivans have also been derided as "loser cruisers" and "road slugs.") Sport utility vehicles (SUVs), with their all-wheel or front-wheel drives and sexy, mountain-scaling image — and, not for nothing, their crossover appeal to men — began their domination around then. Minivans were left in the suburban dust. Even John Travolta's embrace of the Oldsmobile Silhouette — which he admiringly called "the Cadillac of minivans" — in 1995's comic crime movie Get Shorty couldn't restore the enchantment. (For more on "Cadillac" metaphors, see Ben Zimmer's 2009 Word Routes column.)

Part of the problem is that "mini" prefix, which evokes skimpiness, frivolity, and — oh no! — women. (Think "miniskirt" and even Minnie Mouse.) Those aren't qualities Americans seek in automobiles, writes cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille in his 2006 book The Culture Code. Instead, Americans want their cars to embody "identity":

 

Americans want cars that are distinctive, that will not be mistaken for any other kind of car on the road, and that trigger memories of Sunday drives, the freedom of getting behind the wheel for the first time, and the excitement of youthful passion.

 

But what about the Mini, manufactured by the British Motor Corporation between 1959 and 2000 and revived in the US in 2001? It's always been fairly popular with men, hasn't it? Glad you asked. The original model was called the Morris Mini-Minor — minor really compounds the mini-ness — until a series of acquisitions and spinoffs resulted in the German carmaker BMW acquiring the Mini marque. The secret to its American success, at least in my opinion: the spelling. For the US market, "BMW decided to rechristen Mini as MINI — all-capital letters — in conjunction with the brand's new beginning under Teutonic parentage," writes David Kiley in Driven, a history of BMW published in 2004. Translation: There's nothing mini — or girly — about MINI. Perhaps to reinforce MINI's macro-macho qualities, the brand's newest models are called Clubman and Countryman, with Paceman and Rocketman hulking in the wings.

As for the stigmatized minivan, the category name is rarely seen outside the US. In Europe and Asia, comparable vehicles are known by the acronyms MPV (multipurpose vehicle) or MUV (multi-utility vehicle). Meanwhile, Ford is trying to rebrand its latest minivan, the manly-sounding C-Max, as a "people mover" and a "multi-activity vehicle," while Dodge alternates between "people mover" and "man van." Judging from the comments on this Dodge Grand Caravan video, the people aren't moved: "A man van?" snorted one commenter. "Excuse me? This is a soccer mom van."

Of course, as long as car companies vacillate between category names — "people mover" or "man van"? Make up your minds! — customers will be confused or skeptical. At least Toyota looks consistent, if a little silly, with its hipster couple rapping about the "Swagger Wagon."


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 18th 2011, 7:01 PM
Comment by: John B. (Glenbrook, NV)
As a writer and producer, I admire those who "nail it" in both media with wit and humor. Great written piece and super video adjunct. As they say when something's really good, Bravo!!!

JB

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Word lessons for students are everywhere--even on minivan billboards.
It's Cadillac Time!
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The brand name "Cadillac" continues to signify something special.
How did "clunker" become the favored word for cars past their prime?