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HISTORY OF THE SUV

From Humble Beginnings, the SUV Has Left a Lasting Mark on Automotive History

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Picture of Josh Kaylor

Josh Kaylor

Photography by Josh Kaylor & Manufacturers

In 1923, Studebaker introduced the "Station Wagon" model, which was essentially a modified version of their touring car with an extended roof and additional seating capacity. The 1927 Studebaker Conestoga is often credited as the first mass-produced station wagon.
The 1929 Ford Station Wagon, often dubbed the "Woodie" due to its prominent wooden body construction, symbolized an era of automotive innovation and style. Its blend of practicality and rustic charm made it a beloved choice for families and adventurers alike, embodying the spirit of exploration during the early 20th century.

America’s love for the automobile has been evident and strong from day one, ever since the first horseless carriage rolled off the assembly line some 100-plus years ago. The fascination was slow at first for these virtually handmade motorized contraptions, but once they reached production, and Henry Ford made it feasible for anyone to own one, the automobile has helped shape our economy and has influenced the way we live our daily lives. Today, it’s hard to think of life without it.

Beyond the everyday passenger car, there were the depot hacks, and these turned into delivery trucks and closed panel trucks. From there, the Suburban Carryall and the huckster were created, and that has evolved into what we know today as the sport utility vehicle—or better known by the acronym SUV. 

It wasn’t long after the automobile production line was invented, around the early ’20s Chevrolet began looking for an alternate vehicle for those converting a chassis/cowl model truck into mass transportation vehicles for use in state parks, around town and mundane family use. Utilizing outside coachbuilders like Hercules-Campbell and Cantrell, consumers virtually created the market themselves by having such vehicles designed and built for their particular needs, usually some type of mass transit. Car and truck manufacturers only offered the chassis and cowl packages, virtually leaving the body-building business to owner and outside coach builders. 

The first station wagon recognized today was produced by the Studebaker Corporation. In 1922, they introduced the Studebaker Special Six, which was essentially a modified sedan with an extended rear cargo area. This design allowed for more space to transport passengers or cargo, making it suitable for family outings or commercial use.

Ford introduced a version of the station wagon, in 1929, and outside the heavier, stiffer truck, it was constructed using a passenger car frame, not a load bearing truck frame—a far cry from the more massive depot hacks and coach-built buses of the time. Dodge’s answer to the public’s cry for more people/cargo-carrying capability came around 1933, with the Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban. Built on a Dodge commercial truck chassis, U.S. Body and Forge handled the task of building the wooden station wagon bodies for Dodge. Although not built entirely of steel, like the Chevrolet Carryall, Dodge did have several advantages over Chevrolet. Dodge introduced the Westchester several years before the introduction of the Suburban and installed such convenient features such as roll-up windows, at no extra charge, which was a first for its day.

In 1934, Chevrolet emerged with the all-new Carryall-Suburban, first built exclusively for the government. The Carryall would not find a listing in the dealer catalog until 1935, and unlike earlier passenger vehicles that featured a body made of wood and a soft top, the Carryall-Suburban was constructed from steel and could be purchased right from the dealer showroom. The Suburban utilized the heavy-duty truck frame and front truck sheetmetal, but was built with a totally redesigned back half. Designed to carry up to eight passengers, the Suburban featured a front bench seat, designed for three, second row seating for two and a third row seat for three passengers, similar to some of today’s sport utility models. Cost for the new Carryall Suburban that started it all was a mere $695.

Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Ford successfully offered the station wagon. Comprised of passenger car front sheetmetal and chassis, the station wagon featured a rather square wooden rear section. Shown here is the ’37 Ford station wagon.
Several car manufacturers offered station wagons in various sizes and configurations. International Harvester offered a heavy-duty station wagon that utilized its truck hardware and frames. These station wagons could be purchased in 1/2- to 1-ton variations.
It was during the ’50s that General Motors began pushing the Suburban line with an all-new, more modern model introduced in late 1955. Equipped with four-wheel drive from NAPCO, these V-8-powered Suburbans could go virtually anywhere; at least that is how they were marketed.

During this time, Ford offered the station wagon or woody wagon, which was built utilizing passenger car front sheetmetal, combined with a custom-built wooden rear section riding atop a passenger car frame. Unlike the larger Carryall Suburban, the Ford station wagons were smaller and far more economical. They also displayed much better detailing than the stamped steel Chevrolet Suburbans, but did not offer the load capacity of the larger, more heavy-duty Suburban and Westchester. Ford produced the wooden station wagon until the early ’50s, when the wood began giving way to steel and was eventually made only as an appliqué to retain the woody look. Chevrolet and sister truck division GMC continued production of the Carryall Suburban, but later dropped Carryall and simply called it the Suburban. Dodge, however, dropped its long title—Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban—and tagged it the Carryall, and Plymouth also claimed the Suburban title.

It wasn’t until WWII that Dodge discontinued the coach-built wooden structures. During WWII, the swap to all-steel construction began, and Dodge produced thousands of vehicles for the war effort. Following the war, Plymouth introduced its first all-steel Suburban in 1946. International as well as Crosley entered the field with all-steel trucks not long after the war, but by 1959 Crosley was largely out of business. The International Scout 80 was International Harvester’s bid into the off-road market, and offered up competition for the Jeep, which became a household name as a result of the war effort. Not much changed until 1966, when Ford introduced a vehicle that would forever change the market: the Bronco.

Introduced in 1966, the Ford Bronco changed the SUV and off-road markets almost overnight—they were an instant success. The Bronco was the complete opposite of the far more massive Suburban, thereby offering buyers a more compact size SUV with optional V-8 power.

Small and compact, but fully capable of climbing mountains and handling rough terrains, the Ford Bronco grabbed the market by storm as well as the attention of the off-road enthusiast. While GM still offered the Suburban, it was a rather large vehicle by comparison to the more compact Bronco. The Bronco could be equipped with an optional 200hp 289 V-8. That would grow to a 302ci V-8 in 1969. The Bronco featured a lift-off hard top and a stout four-wheel drive system but was tame enough to drive around town or to the local grocery store. Attractively priced, the Bronco cost around $2,398 equipped with the standard six-cylinder engine.

The International Harvester Scout is a legendary American off-road vehicle known for its rugged design and versatility. Originally introduced in 1961, the Scout has gained a loyal following among enthusiasts for its capability both on and off the road.
The AMC Jeep Wagoneer, introduced in 1963, is renowned for being one of the earliest luxury SUVs, boasting a blend of off-road capability and upscale amenities. With its iconic wood-panelled design and rugged performance, the Wagoneer remains a symbol of timeless American automotive innovation.
The first-generation AMC Cherokee, introduced in 1974, was a pioneering SUV with a unibody construction, offering both two-door and four-door configurations. It featured rugged off-road capabilities combined with comfortable on-road handling, powered by a range of inline-six and V8 engines.
The second-generation Cherokee, spanning from 1984 to 2001, took its predecessor's design to the next level, adding modern comforts while still being a tough and dependable SUV. The XJ platform solidified its legendary status as an icon in American automotive lore. Incidentally, the legacy of the XJ continued in China until 2014, marking it as one of the longest produced platforms in automotive design history.

With the immediate success of the Bronco, a spark was ignited as several smaller SUVs followed. International had the Scout, GM shortened up its lengthy three-door Suburban and created the Blazer. Dodge also entered the market, and in 1974 offered the two-door Ramcharger. However, it was the Jeep Wagoneer that dominated sales. Introduced in 1963, the Wagoneer was available both as a two and four-door. The Wagoneer could also be ordered with four-wheel drive and an automatic transmission and overdrive. This made the Wagoneer a very serious contender throughout the ’70s.

The ’70s and ’80s provided the Wagoneer and Cherokee lines the lion’s share of the utility market. It wasn’t until the late ’80s when the SUV market exploded, continuing to grow, as fuel was cheap, people’s lifestyles became more active and the big three automakers—Ford, GM and Chrysler—began pushing the SUV lines. Ford introduced the Explorer and later the Expedition. Chevrolet continued with the Suburban and Blazer, GMC offered its own variants, and eventually the two divisions introduced the Tahoe and Yukon, and Dodge continued production of the Ramcharger until 1993. It wasn’t until 1998 that Dodge introduced the Durango as a replacement for the Ramcharger. 

You would need to write a book to cover the last decade of the SUV, but from all the models presently available, SUVs started as the humble depot hacks of yesteryear. Today they’ve become rulers of the road, with such upscale variants as the Cadillac Escalade and more greenhouse friendly Ford hybrid Escape and everything in between. With the vast proliferation of SUVs and crossover models, the sport utility market will survive another century.

In 2000, GM’s Cadillac division introduced the Escalade, which set the luxury standard within the SUV market. Loaded with style and class, the Escalade is at the forefront of the GM’s SUV movement. In keeping with Cadillac’s new cutting edge image, it features top-of-the-line luxury and a bold, in-your-face exterior. But sales have suffered more than 25 percent since gas has hit more than $4 bucks a gallon.
After more than 73 years, the Chevrolet Suburban continues to dominate the SUV market in sales. Not only is the latest Suburban significantly larger than its predecessor, the new Suburban will have to fight off a host of others SUV models, both import and domestic to stay on top as America’s favorite SUV.
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