The car that started the SUV revolution
The Jeep Wagoneer was the first SUV long before the term even came into existence, writes Brian Twomey
Some day in the fast- approaching future our children and their children will go into museums to gaze at crude iPads, chuckle at primitive PlayStation 4 games consoles and howl at our feeble attempts to communicate via Twitter and Facebook. In the corner, gathering dust will be the prime example of early 21st century transport; the sports utility vehicle. The SUV can be defined as combining attributes of a four-wheel-drive such as height, ground clearance and sometimes even actual four-wheel-drive, but in a vehicle deliberately aimed at road-focused users and activities.
The children of the 2050s might laugh but to the children of the 1970s the SUV was every bit as unlikely as the internet or a Trump presidency. Like all the good ideas, everyone takes credit but nobody can actually prove the SUV was their idea. Japan half heartedly point to the early Land Cruiser but in reality it was an off-road car and not a sports utility vehicle as it was too crude for families and had all the style of a rusted bus shelter. The British can and do claim it was the Range Rover from 1970. There is little doubt that the Range Rover had a massive influence on the way SUVs evolved and remains perhaps the most iconic of the breed, but it was not the first. Nor was the original Land Rover, International Harvester Scout, Ford Bronco or any one of a number of odd Russian contraptions.
No, the one car that history can point to as being the originator of the species is the 1963 Jeep Wagoneer SJ. Unlike competitors in the four-wheel-drive class, the Wagoneer intentionally melded car styling features and car-like appointments to a truck chassis fitted with a very modern overhead camshaft inline six-cylinder engine and independent suspension. Continuous updates such as improved four-wheel-drive systems, plusher interiors and V8 engines kept the Wagoneer in production for a staggering 29 years, the last one rolling off the line in 1991.
The success of the Jeep had not gone unnoticed and the competition started to develop rivals, although the SUV concept and manufacturer acceptance took time to flourish. Ford's 1971 Bronco popularised the idea of a cool utilitarian car in North America but it was fantastically spartan, while Chevrolet's Suburban was still a crude pick-up with an estate body artlessly glued to the back. European manufacturers toyed with the notion, such as the Matra Ranchero, but relatively high fuel prices and the fact that SUVs were still large cars kept them off the roads.
Jeep would again push the idea forward in 1983 with the original XJ Cherokee. Unlike the Wagoneer, the Cherokee was intentionally designed as an alternative to a passenger car rather than a plusher and more comfortable truck. It used car engines; car-derived suspension and had a combined body and frame like a passenger car. Yet it was still tall, spacious and rugged. The compact body boasted the appearance of a full-fat off-road car but in fact was quite compact when lined up alongside the yachts that passed for American family cars of the time.
The Cherokee was designed when its parent company, American Motors (AMC), was under Renault ownership and the result was a strongly European influenced designed that was clean and businesslike. The Cherokee was a huge hit and to Jeep's amazement continued to sell well into the new millennium. Pent-up frustration helped it gain new followers when right-hand-drive production started in 1993.
AMC, before it was taken over by Renault and bought by Chrysler, had lobbied the US Environmental Protection Agency to treat small SUVs as light trucks and as a result they could circumvent the EPAs clean air act. Soon the floodgates opened when other, bigger automakers realised that not only could they use their truck chassis to make big profitable SUVs but these SUVs were flying out the door to customers willing to spend thousands more for the privilege. The party came to an end in the late Nineties after a series of damning reports by the US highways agencies criticised popular models of SUV for polluting and rolling over; neither of which are good selling points. While original SUVs were lashed together from bits of tractor and scaffolding, new SUVs had to focus more on safety and fuel consumption, which made them easier to sell globally.
Japanese manufacturers realised that the concept was good too and tailored it to a global audience.
The Toyota RAV4 of 1994 took the Wagoneer/Cherokee concept of a rugged yet usable vehicle, melded it with Japanese technology and quality and sent it out the door with a Corolla-sized footprint and a four-cylinder engine. From there it was plain sailing to universal acceptance.
Recent times have seen unlikely makers like Alfa Romeo, Porsche and Bentley come out with SUVs of their own, all of which will combine to make the museum of 2050 a very crowded place indeed.