LUV FOR THE SUV: The Evolution of the Sports Utility Vehicle


Over fifty years of the format: we pick a fistful of our favourite real SUVs

The SUV is everywhere. But in a way, it is strangely absent.

Because let’s face it – the SUVs we see out there in the streets are a million miles away from being how they were originally conceived: hard-wearing, utilitarian workhorses – a one-car solution for a family, a farmer or a sporty type.

These vehicles were never really meant to be about super sized bling. They were never meant to be pootled around in the Waitrose Car Park.

The current full fat Range Rover or Land Cruiser may be equipped to circumnavigate the world the hard way – but they are of course ridiculously over-engineered for most people’s requirements.

The fact is that the genius behind the original idea of a go-anywhere, do anything vehicle is contrary to the concerns of the mainstream car industry. Once you bought a Range Rover, for example, particularly one from the early seventies, you didn’t really need to buy another car for at least a couple of generations. As long as you cared for it, of course. But capitalism doesn’t work that way. Globalised car companies need you to buy a car at least every four years.

These early SUVs were engineered to last, simple to work on and had DNA that reached right back to the (literally?) bulletproof Willys Jeep. Strange then, that the current crop of extremely luxurious hypercars that use the SUV format are encoded with the sort of built-in obsolescence of your average iPhone. They are ridden with software. Addled with tech that only a corporate specialist can service. Many have alleged that the companies that produce them greenwash their emissions figures – and as studies have revealed time and time again they are the most dangerous vehicles on the planet, not via the noxious gases they emit – but the consequence on humans when their steel hits flesh.

But still. We continue to love them. This is because they represent the sort of imaginary machismo that was once associated with a beard and a plaid shirt – but is now equated with the size of your bank roll and the colour of your credit card.

There are many opinions on the rise and rise of the SUV. For some, the Willys Jeep was the genesis – but when you’re talking about a mass-market crossover from the sort of pure ‘Utes’ into the realm of the family wagon, then for us, this starts in the early – mid sixties.

And conveniently this allows us to commemorate half a century of the format.

1961: International Harvester Scout

The Scout was conceived in the mid-fifties, when the market for a go-anywhere 4×4 vehicle was a totally unknown quantity. All that existed was the Willys Jeep. Head honchos at Indiana-based firm International Harvester came up with a rather broad brief for designers. “Design something to replace the horse.” When you think of the audacity of that statement at the height of a boom time that knew no bounds, in a country where the stallion-mounted cowboy was the totem of totems, and you can catch the drift. The square, contour less box format was indeed the shape that defined the genre – and it followed broadly the aesthetic of the military jeep. Over half a million Scouts were made in various evolutions. You won’t see many on this side of the pond – but they remain for us the true genesis of the SUV – and one of the purest and most simple car designs of any post-war vehicle.

1966: Ford Bronco

Ford product manager Don Fray came up with the idea of using an off-road vehicle for the basis of a consumer car. Of course, the Willys Jeep and the IH Scout had been the inspiration – but the Bronco was an audacious venture – being contracted with its very own platform from the ground up. Though the platform was unique the Bronco used suspension elements from its perennial F-series wagons. It came with a standard 2.8l straight six and in station wagon, pickup and the beautiful roadster format pictured here. Though it was overtaken by the Chevy Blazer in sales and then by the Jeep Cherokee SJ, the Bronco’s boxy simplicity makes it one of the purest and most attractive ancestors of the modern SUV.

1974: Jeep Cherokee

Jeep’s Cherokee was launched in 1974 as a full-size counterattack to Ford’s Bronco – and as a sportier, three door version of the existing Jeep Station Wagon. It came right from the start with a beefy V8 and with a multitude of variations – and even more larger, wider tracked options with four doors came along labelled as the Cherokee Chief in 1977. Many sources claim that it was in the launch catalogue to for the Cherokee that the term ‘Sports Utility’ was first consistently coined – thereby creating the world-dominating genre that we see today.

1980 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60

The Land Cruiser we love the most is the FJ60 series, which was produced from 1980 until 1990. This was an epoch making Cruiser – as it was the first to really up the stakes and challenge in the ‘luxury’ utilitarian end of the market – which had been cornered by the imperial leanings of Range Rover. In the 60 series luxury meant things like air-conditioning and heating throughout its upgraded, very adaptable interior. But these things aside, we think the chunky format in terms of simplicity of aesthetics arched its apogee here – before concessions to aero and drag and economy of movement approached in the 1990s – along with the demon of all things down to earth. Computer Aided Design. We’ll have ours in Beige, please.

1990 Land Rover Discovery

The Disco was a revolution – in that it carved out a new space for cars with genuine utilitarian brawn combined with a hint of refinement. It sat perfectly between the farmer’s market of the Defender and the self-consciously uppity Range. The Disco was right from the start unashamedly aspirational – and there’s a period feel to the very first versions that shout of the early nineties. This is because it used bits and pieces from the Leyland scrapheap, including lamps from Maestros and twiddly bits from Morris Marinas. These cars are mostly to be seen picked apart by green lanes these days – but we reckon if you can find a pristine version (and there aren’t many of them about) they just might be a canny investment.