Geneva Bites – Origin of the SUV Species

Who would have thought it? Kaiser-Willys are stablemates with Ferrari and Maserati…

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The word ‘icon’ was tediously ubiquitous in the media day presentations, but Jeep served us up a veritable triptych on their stand: Willys Jeep in military trim, Willys Jeep Station Wagon, and a fine example of the 1963-91 Jeep Wagoneer. The original Jeep needs no introduction, but the station wagon possibly does. It is significant that Willys carried over the military vehicle’s name for the steel-bodied passenger utility, even though 4WD only became available three years after its 1946 launch.

The front end makes unmistakable reference to the military Jeep, but this is no cobbled-together Army surplus. Rising industrial design star Brooks Stevens was employed to design the station wagon, and the steel superstructure was cleverly designed to be far cheaper to build than wood-framed rivals, while avoiding high tooling costs by keeping panels small.

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With around 63 bhp from its 2.2 litre Go-Devil four, the vehicle had no sporting pretensions, but lasted long enough to offer the 3.8 litre 133bhp Tornado six from 1962 to 1965, its final year of production. The first SUV – or possibly Crossover Utility Vehicle. It’s open to argument. I find it interesting that two similar vehicles appeared around the same time; the 1953-69 Volvo Duett and the 1950-57 Renault Colorale. Of the two, only the Renault had a 4WD option.

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There’s no contemporary British equivalent – Land Rover dabbled with various “Road Rovers” but nothing reached production. Perhaps Len Lord could have combined the mechanicals of the Austin Champ with an Oxford Traveller body to make a BMC rival, but his mind was probably on other things.

And so to the Wagoneer. Not only seven years earlier to market than the Range Rover, but in its presentation and equipment levels closer to the current Solihull products than the austere, but brilliant 1970 original. The Wagoneer’s styling is also the work of Brooks Stevens, who is credited with popularising the concept of “planned obsolescence”. It’s ironic (Situational or Morissette – you tell me…) that the Wagoneer remained in production substantially unchanged for 28 years. Even the original Range Rover didn’t quite match that.

One thought on “Geneva Bites – Origin of the SUV Species”

  1. I’ve got a bit of a problem with the great American icons. Although a V Twin rider myself, I actually have an intense dislike of Harley Davidsons, based on the fact that I find them aurally odious. Driving an Eldorado convertible would be a guilty pleasure, but it would also seem a culturally inappropriate thing for me to do as a Brit. But, as I mentioned on these pages a few weeks ago, when I sat by chance in a Jeep Wrangler, I felt oddly at home.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Brooks Stevens’ faux woody, ever since I saw one in an old movie or TV series in the Sixties – one of those confusing ones that seems to be a Western, but where all the cowboys are driving cars. The Jeep Station Wagon was the only vehicle that didn’t seem incongruous.

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