History of the Sport Utility Vehicle

Luxury SUV in motion
Jose Luis Stephens/Getty Images

From the invention of the combustion engine and Henry Ford's assembly line for the Model T to the high-tech versions of today's Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the evolution of transportation has been remarkable. America has long had a love affair with its automobiles; SUV owners aren't any different when it comes to their passion. Whether it's the full-size Ford Excursion or the Suzuki Samurai, the owners of these vehicles make as much a fashion statement as they do a choice in transportation. And, as in clothing fashion, everything old becomes new again.

So, as the new model year approaches, maybe it's time for us to see just where SUVs have come from so that we'll have some idea as to where exactly it is we may be going. Is it a fad gone mad as one author suggests?

The Early Days

Many believe that the birth of the SUV began as the "depot hack." The depot hack was a vehicle that transported people (similar to today's taxi/hack) and luggage from the train stations (depots). They were widely known as carryalls or suburbans. Depot hacks were also believed to be responsible for the evolution of the modern station wagon and the longest-running SUV model, the Suburban. Another notable "father" to the SUV is the Jeep Wagon. While the Wagoneer was introduced as a model in 1963, it was the late 1940s that brought us Willy's Jeep Wagon. In fact, an advertisement for Willy's Wagon once called it a "utility vehicle" for the family.

Suburban, the Beginning of an Era

There were many makes and models that used the term "suburban." In fact, both "carryall" and "suburban" began being applied to automotive models in the early 1920's. The early SUV was meant to be practical and a means to carry all, whether it be people or cargo. Throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s, there were numerous automotive brands using these two words for model names. But, it was Chevy's Suburban that carried the name into the 21st century.

Rock and Roll Wagons

The 50s brought a change to the suburbans and carryalls. Many models went to a car frame instead of the truck frames of their earlier predecessors. Dodge listed various wood-bodied station wagons as "Suburban" or "Suburban Carryall," and "Woody Wagons" was the cool thing to have even for the California surfers. How else would you carry the surfboards and enough gear for the weekend on the beach? Big engines and high performance were everywhere and the vehicles had plenty of room for the baby boomers to haul their large cargo of kids.

Disco "dis" Way, Wagons "datta" Way

The 70s brought us disco, inflation, emissions control, high gas prices and the death of big engines and high performance. The small fuel-efficient Japanese cars and our nation's emissions policies added up to the next evolutionary step for the carryall. It came in like a 70s leisure suit; you know the one, the Chrysler mini-van. It was fuel efficient, front-wheel drive and could carry a small family of big hair and bad 70'ish style clothes. But the mini-van saved Chrysler and helped the SUV begin its comeback to prominence.

Ronald Reagan's 80's brought us better fuel prices, lower interest rates and the need to feel sexier. Who wants to drive a mini-van that tells everyone we couldn't get the sports car because all of the kids and kids seats wouldn't fit in the latest model? With an SUV we could be the sporty, explorer, outdoor enthusiast…

"Looking for adventure with whatever comes my way, born to be wild" --Steppenwolf.

The 80s and 90s brought back the truck frame to the SUV. Ford still has engines that need at least both hands and all fingers to count your cylinders (the 10 cylinder Excursion). They're affectionately called land barges. Some seem larger than small school buses; they're capable of carrying a soccer team on a single trip! But the government is getting involved and calling SUV's dangerous. The anti-SUV crowd can't be ignored either. Many claim that the SUV's are dangerous for other drivers who own smaller vehicles and that the SUV's consume too much fuel making them environmentally unfriendly. Ford actually has tried to make its SUV's play nice with other vehicles. For example, the 2000 Excursion comes equipped with a solid-steel bar (called the Blocker Beam) attached to the front of its lower frame. The device is designed to keep cars from sliding under the Excursion during a collision.

Everything Old Is New Again

It works in fashion. Why not automobiles? As fuel prices begin to rise again and the continued pressure from governmental agencies about SUV safety take their toll, could we be seeing the beginning of the next evolution of the SUV? There is more than one manufacturer that has put their version of the SUV on a car chassis. Could this be the return of the station wagon? Only time will tell.