For almost 60 years, GM has been cranking out vans from full-size haulers to traditional minivans. We take a look at the history of Chevy Vans here.
When you look back at Chevrolet vans generations over the years, you’ll find quite a convoluted array of models, market segments, and badge engineering. It’s a period that runs from the early 1960s up to the present day, though Chevy has been out of the traditional minivan game for going on 15 years. However, we’re going to examine everything from full-size vans to rear-wheel-drive utility wagons to Chevy’s sometimes bizarre attempts at grabbing a share of the minivan pie in this Chevrolet vans generations deep dive.
Not to be confused with a Mercedes G-Wagen, Chevrolet’s original G-series van is more of an O.G. Technically, the Corvair-based Greenbrier was the G-series predecessor. But the Corvair is really a whole segment unto itself, so for this historical review, we’ll start in 1964 with GM’s first dedicated van platform – the G-series.
Sold in both cargo and passenger configurations, the first-gen G-series van was a forward control model based on a compact car platform. It featured a “doghouse” between and behind the front seats that contained the engine. Early G10 half-ton models were aimed at the Ford Econoline and Dodge A100 as a compact utility van with a modicum of comfort for passengers.
During the first few years of production, the Chevy Van and GMC Handi-Van (which essentially swapped Bowties for GMC emblems), were only sold on a 90-inch wheelbase platform with a 153 CID four-cylinder or 194 CID straight-six engine. A column-shifted 3-speed manual, otherwise known as a “three on the tree” was the standard transmission with the option for a 2-speed automatic.
By 1967, a lightly revised G-series van arrived with a curved windshield and refreshed design. Updates included the option for a 108-inch wheelbase, a small-block V8, and a Chevrolet G20 model that occupied the ¾-ton segment with heavy-duty suspension and a 12-bolt rear axle.
Nods to passenger comfort in the Chevy Sportvan and GMC Handi-Bus included power brakes and an air-conditioning system integrated into the ceiling. By 1970, the final year of G-series gen-two production, a 250 CID straight-six engine was standard with the option for a 4-barrel 350 V8 that produced 255 horsepower and 355 lb-ft of torque.
Kicking off third-gen production in 1971, the all-new Chevy Sportvan and GMC Rally vans for passengers arrived sharing mechanicals with GM’s C/K series of pickup trucks. Larger all the way around, the latest G-series would be sold with 110, 125, and 146-inch wheelbases until it went out of production in 1996. The most obvious change over earlier vans was the adoption of a front-mounted engine and a traditional hood.
These G-series vans became very popular in the conversion industry. This niche industry would typically start with a base cargo van and convert it into all manner of custom machines like campers, luxury road trippers, and limousines. Often sporting a taller roof, these conversion van specials were loved by kids everywhere for the novel VHS player and TV mounted behind the center console.
Passenger models could accommodate from 5 to 15 passengers depending on wheelbase, and engine options ranged from a 206 CID straight-six in 1971 to a big 400 CID V8 by 1976. In the early 80s, GM began using metric displacement figures and added a 6.2L diesel option for the first time. In 1983, A-Team tough guy B.A. Baracus kicked keister behind the wheel of a sweet GMC Vandura conversion special to the delight of ’80s kids (and this author) everywhere.
Later in the 80s, the third-gen Chevy G-series moved away from carburetion in favor of fuel injection, a 4.3L V6 became standard equipment, and the first big-block offering arrived in the form of a 7.4L brute. By 1990, the manual transmission was dropped followed shortly by the 3-speed automatic, leaving a 4-speed automatic as the sole transmission.
Safety features like four-corner ABS, a brake-shift interlock system, and a driver-side airbag arrived in the mid-90s. But by 1995, the heavy-duty Chevy G-series was phasing out to make room for the new Chevrolet Express models. And a year earlier, the ½-ton G10 model had been dropped due to its overlap with Chevy’s recently added Astro.
In 1985, Chevrolet introduced the Astro van along with its GMC Safari badge-engineered counterpart. Developed in response to Chrysler’s new minivans, these RWD vans were close in size to the existing G10 light-duty vans. As a result, Chevy would end up axing the G10 a few years later. Like Ford’s Aerostar, the Astro and Safari used light-truck components to reduce costs, which enabled a level of utility favored by companies and contractors.
In production until 1994, the first-gen Chevy Astro would gain options like AWD, a belt-driven power braking system, and an extended-length body style. A truly unusual feature was the optional “Dutch doors” that served as the tailgate. In this configuration, the lower half split open in the middle, and the top half flipped up.
The second-gen Astro and Safari twins debuted in 1995, which was right around the time that GM ended production of the heavy-duty G20 and G30 full-size vans. These Astros would be in production until 2005 with a new front end that aligned with the recently introduced Chevy Express and GMC Savana, which had replaced the old heavy-duty G-series.
Not much changed over the years with the second-gen Astro. It was always powered by a 4.3L V6, was only offered in long-wheelbase form (as the short-wheelbase model was a slow seller), and continued to be popular as a conversion van platform. But neither the Chevy Astro nor GMC Safari ever competed strongly against the likes of Chrysler’s minivan lineup in part because GM decided to go with a truck-based minivan instead of the car-like FWD models favored by Chrysler.
By 2005, the Astro and Safari were gasping for breath, but the big Express and Savana were just getting warmed up. Offered in cargo and passenger models with room for up to 15, these full-size vans have since become one of the longest-running nameplates in American automotive history – passing the long-lived G-series. Only sold in 135 or 155-inch wheelbases, the Chevrolet Express left the smaller 110-inch platform to the Astro and Safari.
As ever, the GMC model was a carbon copy of the Chevy aside from badging, and both vans were regular recipients of custom conversions. A wide variety of engines have been offered over the years including a 4.3L V6, V8s with 5.0, 5.7, or 7.4 liters of displacement, and a 6.5L diesel. In 2001, an 8.1L behemoth replaced the not-small 7.4L powertrain and in 2003, a comprehensive overhaul brought the Express and Savana more closely in line with the GMT800 series of GM pickup trucks.
These full-size Chevy and GMC vans are still in production with modern amenities like advanced driver assistance aids, navigation, and parking sonar making their way into the lineup. But perhaps the most fascinating of all Chevy vans generations are the “traditional” minivans that first arrived in 1990.
Technically, GM attempted to take on Chrysler in the minivan segment with the RWD Astro/Safari twins. When that effort fizzled, it went back to the drawing back and returned with the wild FWD Chevy Lumina APV in 1990. The Astro van was still in production, so there was some confusing overlap from a demographic target perspective. But there was ZERO confusion in the looks department as the Lumina had futuristic styling with a massive windshield and steeply sloped hood line that earned it the nickname “Dustbuster”.
Initially positioned as a body-style variant of the Lumina sedan, the Lumina APV was joined by the Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette. All 3 models closely aligned size-wise with the second-gen Chrysler long-wheelbase minivans, but quirks like a 2+3+2 seating were not well received. As any kid of that era can tell you, the 3 individual seats in the middle row made for a difficult journey to the third row.
By 1996, GM realized its attempt at wacky minivans with composite plastic-bodied panels was not going to work. After another visit to the drawing board, they returned with the traditionally styled Chevy Venture, Pontiac Montana, and Olds Silhouette. Relatively unusual by offering up to 8 seats, the latest GM minivan *ahem* venture offered amenities like leather upholstery, power-sliding side doors, and OnStar connectivity over the years.
A memorable Warner Bros. Edition was rolled out in 2000 with combination leather-cloth seats, Bugs Bunny badging, and a VHS entertainment system that was novel for the time. It would go on to become DVD-based, but the Venture/Montana/Silhouette lineup would not go on to much success. In 1998, Chevy sold about 97,000 Ventures. That same year, Dodge put some 294,000 Caravans in customer driveways.
For the third and final shot at minivan glory, General Motors unveiled the Chevy Uplander in 2005, which was essentially a facelifted Venture with a longer nose to give it SUV-esque looks. Taking badge engineering to another level, GM also sold the Buick Terraza, Pontiac Montana SV6, and Saturn Relay alongside the Venture. An aged pushrod V6 provided power along with an ancient 4-speed automatic transmission.
Needless to say, the half-hearted attempt at a “new” minivan didn’t go well and Chevy’s minivan days were over as of 2008. But the Chevy Express and GMC Savana have remained in production this whole time marking a new record for the longest-running of Chevrolet vans generations.