While the first “small" Ford van was technically the 1961 Ford Econoline, the first true Ford minivan was the 1986 Ford Aerostar. Produced between 1986 and 1997, the Ford Aerostar could be configured to favor either passengers or cargo.
Offered with both rear- and all-wheel drive powertrains, the Aerostar’s layout was a marked departure from the front-drive template laid down by the Dodge and Plymouth minivans from Chrysler, which had been introduced to tremendous success two years earlier. Ford chose to go with rear-drive and all-wheel drive to better facilitate towing, and indeed that first Aerostar could tow up to 5,000 pounds, more than double the towing capacity of the Chrysler models.
Designed from the ground up to be a minivan, the Aerostar was the first domestic minivan capable of making that claim. The Chrysler models were based on a then-existing car platform. To improve fuel economy, Ford engineers specified a host of lightweight componentry; the Aerostar’s bumpers, fuel tank, rear door, and hood were made of plastic. Aluminum was specified for the model’s drive shafts, axles, and wheels.
Two generations of the Aerostar were produced before its successor, the Ford Windstar, was introduced in 1994, as a 1995 model. Aerostar production continued alongside Windstar for another three model years. The model was finally laid to rest in 1997. Because Ford moved to a front-drive layout for the Windstar, it was considered part of the company’s car lineup while the Aerostar had been considered part of Ford’s truck line.
Based loosely on Ford’s Taurus, the Windstar was built largely in response to customer demands for more carlike features as well as dual airbags and sliding doors. Power was supplied by a 155-horsepower 3.8-liter V6, producing 220 ft-lbs of torque. A cargo-oriented version was also offered, called—you guessed it—Cargo Van.
The Windstar went through two generations of development before its third generation model was renamed Freestar in 2003, in an effort to rename all Ford models to start with the letter “F”. While the Freestar represented an extensive redesign and was improved in a number of ways over the Aerostar, many felt the name change was a mistake.
Introduced in 2003, as a 2004 model, the Ford Freestar would seat up to seven passengers. Power came from a choice of two V6 engines. The base powerplant produced 193 horsepower and 240 ft-lbs of torque from 3.9-liters. The larger engine offering displaced 4.2-liters and produced 201 horsepower. A four-speed automatic transmission routed output to the front wheels. The Ford Freestar saw its best sales year in 2004, when over 100,000 were sold. But by 2007, when the Freestar was discontinued, Ford only managed to move just under 2,400 of the minivans.
This seemingly signaled the end of the minivan business for Ford, as there was no replacement for the Freestar for the 2008 model year. Some people however, consider the Ford Flex, introduced at the 2007 New York Auto Show, the Freestar’s successor. Truth told, the Flex did offer a lot of the attributes of a minivan in a more station wagon/SUV format. But it wasn’t really a minivan. Properly placed, the Ford Flex falls more into the crossover utility vehicle category.
Ford’s first true minivan—after the demise of the Freestar—was the Transit Connect. Based on the Ford Focus, the front drive Transit Connect was introduced in Europe in 2002. The model was brought to the United States in 2009, as a 2010 model. However, the first versions of the Transit Connect offered here were light duty cargo vans intended for small businesses, and were sold as such. In 2011, Ford civilized the Transit Connect when it introduced the Transit Connect XLT Premium Wagon; thus offering the first true successor to the 2007 Ford Freestar minivan.