Virginia man who helped design 'landmark' minivan 'didn’t know it was going to be great'

Leo Walsh
Posted at 4:21 PM, Jan 05, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-08 11:44:55-05

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Nobody has ever mistaken the minivan for a Mustang or Maserati. A muscle car or sports car they are not.

The much-maligned vehicle, which is part van and part station wagon, hardly turns heads on the road. In fact, its look has been labeled boring and uncool.

Leo Walsh helped introduce the iconic vehicle that revolutionized the way families traveled 40 years ago to generations of Americans.


“We did four-wheel drive and used a four-cylinder engine,” Walsh explained. “We were trying to make a market for the minivan.”

After graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in engineering in 1956, the Newport News native and Marine Corps veteran was hired by Chrysler in Detroit.

“That was the best decision I ever made, because if I’d gone to GM I could have been lost in a big hurry,” Walsh said.

 Leo Walsh
Leo Walsh

Motown was humming in the 1950s.

“We had Valiant, Dart, Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler and DeSoto,” says Mr. Walsh.

The engineer proved his mettle while making $485 a month.

“I think I was the youngest chief engineer at Chrysler at that time,” Walsh recalled.

Leo Walsh

Walsh was approached by an executive in 1976 to design a vehicle unlike any other.

“He says, ‘I want you to work on something. I think we need a garageable van,’" Walsh recalled. "He says, ‘Go to work on it.’”


Walsh's team did not waste time.

“My people designed a prototype by cutting down the big vans,” Walsh explained.

But the plans Walsh led would sit on a shelf collecting dust.

“We had to prove that it was viable through the prototypes — and it was viable,” Mr. Walsh said.


Then eight years later, Chrysler’s new and legendary CEO Lee Iacocca green lighted the project.

“He thought it was a product that needed to be on the market and no one had one,” Walsh said. “We made that design and we tested it. It was decided to produce it in 1984.”


With its extra cargo space and roominess for passengers, the Chrysler minivan was an instant hit.

In fact, the company could not build them fast enough.

“Chrysler developed the first garageable van and it was called the Caravan. C-A-R-A-V-A-N,” says Mr. Walsh.

Leo Walsh

Sales helped save Chrysler from financial ruin.

“It became the cash cow of Chrysler Corporation,” Walsh said.

The success of his team’s project caught Walsh by surprise.

“I didn’t know it was going to be great, but I’m just glad Iacocca liked it,” says Mr. Walsh.


Walsh who lives at The Chesapeake senior center said GM and Ford introduced their own line of minivans, but nothing compared to Chrysler’s.

”One of the main features of the minivan was the front passenger like the mother or father could get up and walk back,” says Mr. Walsh.

After 32 years in Motown, Walsh retired in 1988 just four years after the first minivan rolled off the assembly line.

“The world's best minivans and that is true,” Walsh said.

Leo Walsh
Leo Walsh

2024 marks the 40th anniversary of the minivan, proving good ideas get good gas mileage.

”It was a landmark vehicle,” Walsh said.

Leo Walsh
Leo Walsh

The 93-year-old doesn’t take credit for the minivan. To this day Leo heaps all the praise on his talented team.

“But Chrysler's minivan is still exactly the same platform it was in 1984,” Walsh said.

The retired engineer helped introduce a new way of driving.

“I enjoyed every minute of those jobs. That is all I got to say," Walsh said. "I enjoyed every minute of my career. I am very fortunate to be there at the beginning.”

Watch Greg McQuade's stories on CBS 6 and If you know someone Greg should profile, email him at



Watch 'The Jennifer Hudson Show' weekdays at 3 p.m. on CBS 6!

📱 Download CBS 6 News App
The app features breaking news alerts, live video, weather radar, traffic incidents, closings and delays and more.