Though considered uncool by many, the Dodge Caravan was the first modern vehicle that found the proper balance between a station wagon and a full-size van.
It's difficult to say what exactly was the first minivan. It's fairly easy to differentiate from a full-sized van, but there have been other smaller van-ish vehicles which could rival the Caravan for the title of first. But none of them were ever as popular as the Caravan and its rebadged platform-mates. None could have been said to have so completely reinvented the family car either. And even though soccer moms seem to have moved on to crossovers, the Caravan's interpretation of the minivan is still king of family practicality.
For those determined to pick every last nit, the minivan could be said to have been invented in 1935, with the Scout Scarab. A completely unique vehicle at the time, the Scarab introduced a number of features which have since been reintroduced to the genre, such as folding card tables and second-row seats which swiveled to make entry and exit easier. The combination of three rows of seats and a mid-mounted V8 made for a somewhat odd-looking vehicle, especially by the standards of the day, and Scout never sold very many of them. 1950 saw the introduction of the VW Type 2, or Microbus.
There is no question, however, that this had an influence on a whole generation of Americans, the same generation which would later make the minivan popular. In 1956, Fiat introduced the 600 Multipla. Often referred to as a mini-MPV, the Multipla nonetheless was a pioneer of people carrying, and actually proved to be a very popular model. The Toyota Van (also known as the Wonderwagon, one of the all-time great stupid names for a car) predated the Caravan as well, but the only other really big name in vans to challenge the Caravan's supremacy was the Renault Espace.
That van debuted the same year as the Caravan and was said to have been in development for just as long. But since the Espace isn't sold in the US, we can comfortably say that the Caravan was revolutionary in its effect on the US family car market. Prior to this, the family car of choice had always been station wagons, or in extreme cases, a full-sized van. But the Caravan offered such an excellent compromise between the two, that soon nearly every automaker was scrambling to copy it. Introduced in 1984 and based on Chrysler's K-car platform, the Caravan had the interior space of a van, but the fuel economy and road manners of a car.
Chrysler even took the Voyager, previously a Plymouth full-sized van, and stuck it on a rebadged version of the Caravan, knowing it would be a more popular body style. Its greatness laid it the special efficiency of the design, which gave the maximum amount of interior space possible with the platform. Cargo and camper versions were made, but neither of these ever proved to be hugely popular, although the cargo version was built all the way up until 1995. The Caravan was never a performance machine, but a little-known fact about it is that it was offered with a manual transmission from its launch through the end of the second generation in 1995.
A luxury-ish version has existed since 1989, badged as the Chrysler Town & Country, and starting in 2009, Volkswagen has rebadged a version for their dealerships, going under the name Routan. Adding all of the versions together (but not counting the VW version), the Caravan is the 13th best-selling automotive nameplate of all time. In recent years, the minivan has seen something of a decline. Just as the station wagon had been unable to shake the stigma of family car un-coolness, the minivan was abandoned in large numbers in favor of crossovers once those who had grown up being driven around in minivans started having kids of their own.
There is a certain irony to the fact that a crossover is little more than a tall station wagon in most cases, but this irony is lost on the image-conscious suburbanites who have convinced themselves that they are cool for not driving a minivan. The decline has meant that many manufacturers have stopped building them altogether, and those which still exist are now more niche vehicles. Dodge's current Grand Caravan (so named because it is a longer wheelbase than the now-discontinued standard Caravan) and Chrysler's Town & Country are now almost upmarket versions of family vehicles.
Long options lists and a surprising amount of power are a long way from the humble K-car beginnings of Chrysler's family haulers. Fashions in the automotive industry come and go, but even though the minivan has fallen out of fashion, it is not likely to go anywhere. It is just too practical a vehicle to become extinct outright. For those who care more about what Consumer Reports has to say than the neighbors, the minivan is still the king, and it is the Caravan that put it on that throne.