Historiography: Sport. Utility. Vehicle – Part I

All Photos by Randy Stern
All Photos by Randy Stern


War is hell….but for the victors, the spoils sometimes go a very long way.

Think about what came out of World War II. In America, it would be the prosperity that lasted well into the 1950s and beyond. It introduced new technology, such as the jet engine and more efficient engine and transmission designs. It gave us the Jeep – in various different forms.

Recently, I did some client work on the subject of Land Rover. The basis of this work was to recount the history of the brand. One little known fact today was the genesis of this vehicle actually came from a leftover GP from the American Armed Forces that was used in the UK. In other words, for the one vehicle that opened up the British Empire and beyond, it took an American invention to spawn this machine.

It was not a strange idea. The Jeep was also the catalyst for Toyota's own off-road vehicle. Though Toyota developed a couple of vehicles based on a captured American Bantam GP, when they were asked by Willys Overland to build the military-issue vehicle for the Korean conflict, it rekindled the development of the Land Cruiser. This would be the vehicle that would replace the Land Rover in almost every part of the globe.

The Land Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser would not have had the experience of exploring jungles, remote deserts, the greatest mountain ranges and hidden river valleys without the greatest spoil of war. With the Willys Overland Jeep in mind, all of them combined spawned a new kind of vehicle available to civilian customers – the sports utility. It would be a recreational vehicle – something that the general public never considered in the midst of war. The idea of recreation was something never thought possible in the hustle of pre-World War II life.

To understand this idea, we have to look back at the dawn of World War II. Consider that the original reconnaissance vehicle was the horse. The horse would go anywhere its rider told it to. Roads were not essential for a horse to get close to the enemy – hidden from them, of course. World War I changed the face of war, because of the mechanization of arms or other instruments used in intelligence and battle. Many vehicles were used in place of the horse. The most sophisticated of these vehicles was the motorcycle. One thought it could do the same job as a horse. The roads and terrain were not amenable for a motorcyclist to do recon missions, let alone anything else other than a horse.

Two decades after the end of World War I, another series of threats to global security loomed on the horizon. The USA was coming out of the Great Depression and was trying to not get involved in another major war. Instead, the nation concentrated on improving their might through advanced airplane design, strategic transportation of arms and developing a better reconnaissance vehicle.

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The call from the US Army came to the automotive industry to come up with a solution for a light motor vehicle. Their specifications required a "general purpose vehicle" capable of going anywhere in and outside a battle zone with four-wheel drive and could be classified as a quarter-ton truck. As the war loomed in Europe, the specifications became clearer – a 75-inch wheel base with a body for three people on board. By the time the bid was awarded, three companies came in as finalists – American Bantam, Willys-Overland and Ford. Willys came in as the low bid, but the Army awarded the contract to Bantam. There was a problem – production capacity. Bantam could not meet the numbers to send the required vehicles for the contract. Eventually, Willys-Overland and Ford took over the production contract. By the end of World War II, over 643,000 Jeeps were made between Willys and Ford.

With so many Jeeps made, the question of what to do with them was brought up. Rather, whether the design would be amenable for civilian use outside of the Department of Defense. The public knew of the legend of how the Jeep truly won the war and began to snap them up. Still, what would any civilian want to do with a military surplus Jeep?

In the years after the war, a few developments occurred. One was the development of the Land Rover in 1948 from a surplus Jeep in the UK. Second was the eventuality that Willys would build civilian versions of the military Jeep – and it did so immediately after the end of World War II. Lastly, the trademark of the name Jeep went through one legal battle after another. By 1950, American Bantam shuttered for good. At that point, Willys-Overland trademarked the Jeep name and became sole owners of the vehicle's legacy.

The next year, Jeep and Land Rover would be joined by Toyota and Nissan in the development of civilian off-road vehicles. While the Land Cruiser was born from supplying Jeeps to the Korean conflict, Nissan introduced their answer – the Patrol. Though it looked like the Willys Jeep, there were some marked differences. A 3.7liter engine drove the Nissan, despite all other similar vehicles being powered by smaller engines. The Patrol would have its own legacy similar to the Toyota, as it began to forge its presence in Japan and around Asia.

There is a little known fact that Mitsubishi built completely-knocked down production Jeep CJ3Bs for the Asian market. If you thought that the Montero was a fluke that came from experience dating back to the Korean War, when they were also contracted to build military Jeeps for the US Army. The same would say for Suzuki, they would not start getting into the recreational four-wheel drive vehicle business until they bought the Hope Motor Company in 1968. Hope made a small Jeep-like vehicle in 1967, which the designs were transferred to Suzuki upon completion of the transaction.

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The sports utility vehicle was slowly taking off worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s. They found several purposes for their use, but all of them had one thing in common. All of these early vehicles were capable of off-highway use to the point of forging new roads where they once never existed. As stated before, these vehicles found places uncharted and simply explored them. From the Continental Divide to the Sahara Desert, Land Rovers, Jeeps, Land Cruisers and Patrols began to show up and drive though these places. Burmese jungles and the Australian Outback fell in their wake. Even the vast cold and ice of Alaska and Antarctica saw these vehicles tested to their limits.

Since the foundation was laid for Jeep-like vehicles, another development came about in the SUV realm. One figured that some people would rather have more creature comforts to go along with their adventure. Some even thought of creating wagon versions for more civilized customers. They did exist in small numbers, since they fashioned four-wheel drive systems to trucks and truck-based wagons. These were available in the Americas from General Motors, Kaiser-Jeep and International Harvester.

The Chevrolet Suburban was the passenger version of a panel van that was gaining ground among commercial vehicles. Willys began selling a station wagon version of the CJ, GM figured they would start promoting the Suburban as a modern competitor. International Harvester introduced the Travelall in 1953 as a response to both Willys and GM, but did not introduce a four-wheel drive version until 1956. Chevrolet did not introduce a four-wheel drive Suburban until 1957.

After Kaiser bought Willys-Overland, they went to work on their own truck-based station wagon. The Wagoneer arrived for 1963, an output from the Gladiator pickup truck. Compared to its competitors, the Wagoneer was modern – even ahead of its time. This big wagon would send its competitors back to the drawing board.

While most SUV producers kept to a rugged, quasi-military design, others began developing their own products with some civility designed in them. Though it looked modern, the 1961 International Scout 80 was rugged at the get-go. It would signal a new era for the SUV, holding true to the off-road performance of the Jeep, but with a more boxy body. This would encourage Ford to jump into the market with its 1966 Bronco. General Motors answered with an off-roader based off of their pickup line with the 1969 Chevrolet K5 Blazer, followed by the 1970 GMC Jimmy.

All the while, Kaiser Jeep had its own answer to the Scout and Bronco – the Jeepster Commando. Though it shared a lot of the CJ Jeep, it had a more "civilized" body that was part-convertible, part-pickup truck. The available hardtop helped the Commando's cause – right through when Kaiser sold Jeep to American Motors. By 1975, Chrysler would join in with their truck-based Dodge Ramcharger, soon joined by a Plymouth version.

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Through the 1970s, American consumers knew these SUVs existed, but they were merely seen as vehicles used in the outdoors and on farms. They were "third" vehicles for those who are into recreation deep into the mountains or the woods. Mostly, they were rugged machines that were not exactly comfortable for a family to run across town or to travel between cities in.

Because of their limited appeal, the SUV market was stagnant, while losing competitors. In 1969, the Nissan Patrol was dropped by Datsun dealers. In 1974, International Harvester got out of the truck/SUV business completely. In the same year, British Leyland stopped importing the Land Rover to the USA. At the end of 1979, AMC, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota would remain offering these rugged machines to the public.

A new decade would change everything. Yet, from humble beginnings as a war hero, the SUV would be primed for a new chapter that would catapult it into fame…and a backlash.

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