For a product that changed the face of the auto industry and will celebrate its 15th anniversary next month, the minivan several times had to avert disaster from its product development stages to its ceremonial rollout Nov. 2, 1983, at Chrysler Corp.'s Windsor, Ont., assembly plant.

That's when company Chairman Lee A. Iacocca drove the first production version of the T-115 minivan off the assembly line - and into a public relations disaster.

When Mr. Iacocca pulled up in front of the throng of media who had gathered to see the innovative vehicle, the chairman was unable to open the minivan's doors: A mechanical glitch kept the electric door locks locked.

"We had a defect," says Stephan Sharf, a former Chrysler vice president for manufacturing.

Frantically, Mr. Iacocca tried to get out, only to be freed by plant workers moments later.

"At that time it was like, 'Oh my God. It's the end of the world. We've blown this one,'" says Ralph A. Sarotte, now general product manager for the minivan platform and at the time a product planner during the minivan's development.

Instead the minivan blew away the American public and Chrysler's competitors.

While the superstitious likely perceived the promotional nightmare as bad karma, Chrysler insiders say it only strengthened Mr. Iacocca's resolve.

Despite years of squabbling between departmental factions, penny-pinching on product development and cheesy advertising such as Ricardo Montalban's "reech Corinthian leather" commercials, Chrysler had created a high-volume and high-profit niche that would take competitors at least another five years to match.

"I think the company would've survived (without the minivan), but it made us much stronger," says Mr. Sarotte.

Public demand for a garageable van made the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan an automotive phenomenon. Ford Motor Co. had the Mustang in the 1960s for the Baby Boomers; Chrysler's minivan was for the boomers' babies of the 1980s.

James B. Holden, Chrysler executive vice president-sales and marketing and general manager-minivan operations, remembers serving as an assistant zone sales manager in Houston, TX, when the first minivan arrived.

"I remember the first one to come into the zone. I grabbed it and took a couple of the guys and went to lunch. By minivan standards of today, it was slow, it was rudimentary. We drove it to lunch and five of us piled out to go into this little pizza place to eat. And out of nowhere a crowd appeared and surrounded us. I remember one lady wanted to buy it right there. She said, 'This is Chrysler's car? You haven't bought it yet!' We hadn't had a car or a vehicle in awhile where the salesman got out and the people came to him."

Nearly 7 million Chrysler minivans have been sold in the U.S. since Mr. Holden finished his pizza and helped get that anxiously impressed woman one of the first minivans in the Lone Star state.

Americans from every social and economic scale have bought more than 12 million minivans since 1984. Chrysler claims about a 45% share of the U.S. market, largely because it was first to market.

About 100 engineers and designers were assigned to the T-115 project, which started in the mid-1970s. Hammered by the 1973 Arab oil embargo and constrained by dwindling cash reserves Chrysler desperately needed a breakthrough product that would redefine its image and revive its balance sheet.

Defying the traditional Detroit approach of designing the exterior first, T-115 engineers gave highest priority to the interior layout and appearance of the van, scavenging and adapting powertrains, suspension and other components from the K-car to save money. That meant that the engine had to be placed in front of the passenger compartment in direct contrast to Volkswagen's microbuses of the '60s and early '70s.

There were contentious internal debates over the number and location of doors. Some insiders wanted the money and time spent on developing a compact pickup - an emerging segment at the time. Even in its final hours the T-115 project was threatened by the 1982 recession. And the United Auto Workers union reacted quite nervously to the Windsor plant's changeover from the Fifth Avenue to an unproven vehicle, Mr. Sharf says.

Sales exploded in 1984 to 215,000 units and 240,634 in 1985. Other automakers were shocked by the magnitude of the minivan's popularity. Its popularity with women - this was nearly a decade before political pollsters would coin the phrase "soccer Moms" - catapulted the minivan into an icon of American culture. The station wagon fell almost into extinction.

Ironically, the minivan is grappling with some of the same psychological baggage that led to the station wagon's decline. To some it symbolizes a dull, self-sacrificing life of domestic duty and little excitement.

Despite the sneers of hip, young and single advertising, marketing and media pundits, front-wheel-drive minivans continue to be among the most strategically important offerings in every major automaker's lineup. In the last two years both Toyota and Honda have introduced completely re-engineered offerings, the Sienna and the Odyssey.

As baby boomers evolve beyond their minivan life-stage, many of their parents are finding them attractive for the heavy travel of their retirement years.

Today nearly 60% of minivan buyers have no children. Chrysler is turning its sights on young professionals as well as overseas markets.

"I see that segment continuing to grow for the next 10 years," says Mr. Sarotte, "because we're going to get the younger people and the younger families, and we're not going to lose everybody at the top end."