Most of us are familiar with the birth of the automobile and Henry Ford’s Model “T,” but we often overlook the creation of one of the most popular vehicles on the road: the SUV. As time marches on, so does everything else and at one point the need for a larger, more rugged vehicle emerged paving the way for all the SUVs on the road at this very moment.
Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, or in this case, evolution. Many believe the modern Sport Utility vehicle evolved from a vehicle known at the time as a “depot hack” (also referred to as “suburbans” or “carryalls”). Depot hacks were larger vehicles that transported people (and usually lots of luggage) to and from the train depots back when the rail line was the way to travel long distances.
As more and more people used their cars for longer distance driving, and people began to move further away from family members creating the need to drive longer distances more often, car manufacturers looked for a way to position themselves in the automobile market in the 1920s and 30s.
Jeep ultimately produced the “Jeep Wagon” which they described in marketing as the “utility vehicle” for the family in the 1940s. And so the term was coined. Jeep continued to develop its SUV line, producing the popular Wagoneer in the early 60s, while Chevy wound up with the official name “Suburban” for one of its models. In the 60s, when the surf scene and surfing lifestyle became popular, wagons began to take off and the ever popular “Woody” gained recognition.
As far as we can tell, these types of “carryalls” were truly the precursor to the modern SUV. As the baby boom generation grew up and started having kids of their own, the desire for sporty vehicles that could haul the whole family plus some started to grow. At that time, the average was 2.7 kids per family, a population that was still growing and as urban sprawl began to take hold, people found themselves in their vehicles more often than ever before. SUVs became the popular alternative to the stuffy station wagon, with more power and a sexier style.
The 70s brought high gas prices causing larger engines and high performance vehicles like the SUV to wane in sales. People began to gravitate toward fuel-efficient mini-vans, keeping the “carryall”
alive long enough to wait for the 80s to roll around. As the economy boomed, so did the American need for big, high performance vehicles again and big they were. Many SUV manufacturers went to extremes with 10-cylinder engines (the Ford Excursion is one). It was about size and power.
That trend, however, lost momentum for a variety of reasons during the 1990s and 2000s. SUVs came under scrutiny for being unsafe both to passengers inside and to smaller cars on the road. As urban space began to decrease, parking spaces became smaller and behemoth SUVs became less practical for city driving. A new awareness of fuel-efficiency based not on the economy, but on environmental awareness also came about and people started questioning the ownership of such vehicles.
The automobile industry responded by creating “compact SUVs” and cross-overs. Toyota came out with the smaller “Rav-4” – an SUV with a wheelbase the same size as a car. Isuzu the popular Ascender 5-Passenger. SUVs also became safer during this time with manufacturers including both passive and active safety features.
Most recently, SUVs have tried to jump on the environmentally- and economically-sound bandwagon of electric powered vehicles and hybrids, hoping to stay competitive with the newer “green” cars. With SUVs evolving continuously to meet the market’s demands, it doesn’t look like they’ll be going away any time soon.