The Vintage Off-Road Van That Jeep Cancelled

Michael Santoro might not be a household name in most overlanding circles, but in the design world, he is well known as a successful vehicle designer who left his dream job as a designer at Chrysler to pursue entrepreneurship and professional freedom. Michael later developed the first storage sleeve for Apple laptops over twenty years ago. Before his success designing and selling laptop accessories, Michael designed an off-road van for Dodge that was a mere days from release when it was cancelled.

READ MORE: GEAR ESSENTIALS: FRIDGES, COOLERS & CAMP KITCHENS

With more than thirty years of hindsight, the Dodge Caravan Off-Road concept is nothing too exciting. In 1989 however, the concept of an off-road van was something that only returning GI’s or those fortunate enough to spend time overseas could really picture. Yes, there were Volkswagen vans crawling around, but nothing made in Detroit had even resembled the off-road van concept that Michael Santoro brought to the table in 1989. And the higher-ups at Chrysler loved it enough to commission a prototype vehicle to be produced.

The design doesn’t branch too far from other designs by Santoro to promote Dodge Caravan taxi cabs from years prior, but his off-road concept oozes eighties style. The front end was fitted with a brush guard to protect the front driving and fog lights from damage. The suspension was raised and more aggressive off-road tires were fitted to allow maximum soccer field ground clearance. Notice the relocation of the spare tire from under the vehicle to the roof and early renderings even included a roof diffuser to limit the negative impact of the spare tire on fuel efficiency. 


Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs


Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

Although I am a fan of the lime green and purple window tint of an early draft, the prototype received a Taxi-Cab yellow paint with blacked out B-pillars. Black rocker panels create a two-tone paint effect that screams “I bed-lined my rockers because I wheel!” The similarities between the taxi and off-road concepts continue with a roof-mounted off-road light bar that looks strikingly similar to the taxi status light bar. The exterior of the van concept is rounded out with side step/sliders and five-spoke wheels with yellow accents.


Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs


Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

Photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

There is a chance that Santoro’s concept was not just a show piece, but that it could have packed some power and a five-speed manual transmission as well. Unbeknownst to most off-roaders is that the Chrysler/Dodge vans were available with a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine and a five-speed manual transmission from 1989-1990. This is not information that a normal person should know. 

READ MORE: HOW TO START OVERLANDING

Unfortunately, the lifespan of the off-road Dodge Caravan concept was short. Chrysler dealers were ecstatic upon seeing the concept, with the exception of Jeep dealers who saw an off-road van as an imminent threat that would cannibalize Jeep sales. Santoro’s Caravan concept was pulled one step before premiering at the Chicago Auto Show. The good news is that old vans are still around and ready to be modified to fulfill your eighties off-road vans dreams. 


Header photo by: Michael Santoro Designs

Overlanding Industry News by Zach Elseman. Follow Zach @okienomads.

Photo by Brett Willhelm

THE WORLD IS WAITING.

We keep our fingers on the pulse of the Overlanding world. Join the Overland News community and get our email on all things overland—including Overland Expo show updates, offers, and overland-specific articles.