Multipurpose vehicles changed along with lifestyles.
What kind of vehicle did you spend childhood in? If you grew up in the 1950s, chances are it was a sedan. Families in the ’60 s and ’70 s drove to grandma’s house in station wagons. The minivan appeared out of nowhere in the early ’80 s and for a short time was considered trés chic.
Then again, so were pantsuits with huge padded shoulders.
Today’s kids might feel like they’re always about to go camping, because SUVs and crossovers are the dominant form of family transportation. According to IHS Automotive, the segment accounts for 40 percent of all vehicle sales. Recently, for the first time in history, SUVs overtook sedans as the most popular vehicles in the United States.
How and why did this happen? Here are some historic highlights, beginning in 1935.
That’s the year Chevrolet introduced the Carryall Suburban (shortened to simply Suburban some 10 years later). Originally it sported two doors with the back available in hatch or split door configurations. Other than that, the concept was largely the same as modern versions with three rows of seating riding on a truck chassis.
Primarily, delivery companies and the United States military used them, not families. Fun fact: Suburban is the oldest automotive nameplate in continuous use.
It and the GMC Suburban (which eventually became the Yukon XL) pretty much owned this unique market until 1947 when the Willys Jeep Wagon appeared. Catching on with outdoors enthusiasts, it was renamed the Jeep Wagoneer in 1963.
In a parallel universe, our love affair with family trucks might have blossomed in the 1970s. Appearing in the mid- to late 1960s, vehicles like the Ford Bronco, International Harvester Scout, Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy began to gain traction in the marketplace. But the 1973 energy crisis slammed the brakes on the sales of gas-guzzling vehicles. Suddenly Americans couldn’t get enough of fuel-sipping cars from then-exotic brands like Datsun, Honda and Toyota. These tiny sedans and hatchbacks brought families closer together. Physically at least.
For the next 15 years efficiency ruled. While the large Bronco, Dodge Ramcharger and Chevy K5 Blazer were around, automakers created the smaller Bronco II, S10 Blazer, and the second-generation Jeep Cherokee for Americans shell-shocked by high gas prices. American Motors (remember them?) debuted the Eagle in 1979, which was a Concord station wagon with a four-wheel drive system stuffed under it.
Historians point at Eagle (which eventually added sedan and hatchback models) and that small Cherokee as the first two “crossovers” or car-based rigs. Before then, four-wheel-drive vehicles were built on frame truck chassis. Eagle and Cherokee used unibody structures.
By the late 1980s, buyers were tiring of dowdy minivans. Research by the automotive companies suggested families were ready to embrace the station wagon again. And they were correct. Kind of. Sort of.
You see, up until that point, nearly every truck in this class had just two doors. Unlike the Bronco II, its 1990 replacement called Explorer could be had with four doors. It was basically a tall wagon built on the Ranger compact pickup architecture.
This was about the time period that the awkward term “sport utility vehicle” started seeping into the vernacular to define the segment. Before that they were just “Jeeps” and “trucks.”
Explorer sales surged immediately and dealers begged Ford for more. By 1996 annual sales skyrocketed to over 400,000 copies. Moms embraced the raised ride height and its truck origins that offered an image of toughness and the promise of safety (heck, they were largely T-Rex proof in the original “Jurassic Park.”) Dads liked it because it wasn’t a minivan or a wagon. If one vehicle created the SUV tipping point, Explorer is it.
Perhaps tipping is a poor choice of words. In the late ’90s Explorers were reportedly rolling over at a higher than average rate. The suspension, a higher center of gravity that was new to many drivers and faulty tires were suspected (13 million Firestone tires were eventually recalled).
Compared to passenger cars, the rollover risk for all SUVs was higher, and a by-product of that dynamic was quicker adaptation of anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. It’s technology that’s now standard on all vehicles in America.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, car-based crossovers started to gain momentum. Toyota was first with the Corolla-based RAV4. Honda responded with the CR-V that was based on Civic underpinnings.
Toyota brought the Japanese market Harrier to our shores in 1998 with a Lexus badge and leather interior.
Re-christened RX 300, the vehicle was so sought-after, it immediately and permanently became the brand’s best-selling vehicle. It’s widely considered the car that built Lexus.
Smaller manufacturers without the resources to develop true SUVs responded as best they could with excellent results. A few of them took station wagons, lifted the ride right and added rugged trim.
In 1994 Subaru introduced the Legacy Outback. Pitched by Aussie actor Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan, the Outback moniker quickly eclipsed the established Legacy nameplate, which was eventually dropped.
In ’98, Volvo’s XC70 Cross Country took that concept upscale in Swedish style. The sales of this rugged V70 were so strong it funded the development of the brand’s first true SUV, the XC90. Audi’s allroad sprung from the A6 Avant in ’99.
Let’s not forget that enthusiasts roundly considered Porsche’s first SUV, the Cayenne, as the beginning of the apocalypse. Funny thing, it quickly became Porsche’s best-selling vehicle. It’s now second in brand sales … to the smaller Macan SUV.
Today nearly every manufacturer offers at least one SUV including unlikely brands such as Bentley, Maserati, Jaguar, and soon Lamborghini. It’s where the money is, folks.
For some reason, many generations tend to shun the kinds of vehicles their parents drove. It’s hard to imagine what might follow the SUV. Perhaps, if fuel prices rise again, station wagons will become cool again. And then the whole cycle will start anew …