How Regulation Killed the Station Wagon and Created the Minivan

How Regulation Killed the Station Wagon and Created the Minivan

From a New York Times account of the career of auto executive Lee Iacocca — different from the Times obituary of him — comes this account of the role that government regulations played in changing the family car to a minivan from a station wagon:

Stringent fuel economy regulations imposed on cars in the 1970s had made it practically impossible for automakers to keep selling big station wagons. Yet many Americans still wanted roomy vehicles.

The answer, Mr. Sperlich and Mr. Iacocca realized, was to make family vehicles that were regulated as light trucks, a category of vehicles that includes pickups. The government had placed far more lenient fuel economy rules on light trucks, as well as more lenient safety and air pollution standards.

Cargo vans, a tiny niche marketed to carpenters, plumbers and other workers, were regulated as light trucks. When Chrysler introduced the minivan in 1983, fewer than 3 percent of them were configured as cargo vehicles, with just a couple of seats in the front and a long, flat bed in the back. But that was enough for Mr. Iacocca to persuade federal regulators to label all minivans as light trucks….

Four years after the introduction of the minivan, Mr. Iacocca led the acquisition of American Motors. He then oversaw the development of the roomy Jeep Grand Cherokee, a sport utility vehicle that became a runaway best seller in the 1990s.

Best of all for Detroit, the federal government limited foreign competition: Japanese automakers were initially kept out of the minivan and S.U.V. markets by an obscure 25 percent tariff on imported light trucks that was imposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

It’s ironic, because there might have been less fuel consumed had the government just left station wagons alone rather than instead effectively pushing consumers into even bigger minivans. The unintended consequences of regulations can be hard to predict, but it’s not hard to predict that there will be some, because there almost invariably are.

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