Talk about the long haul. For the longest-running nameplate in the automotive industry, General Motors has honored the 75th year of consecutive production of its Suburban sport-utility vehicle with a special-edition model. But although the 2010 Suburban Diamond Edition showcases the capabilities of the current Suburban, the hauler had much more humble beginnings.
The Suburban began life as the Suburban Carryall in 1935, a two-door utility vehicle with a wooden roof that cast a footprint no larger than a modern Chevrolet Malibu sedan. It was outfitted with a 60-horsepower, six-cylinder engine and cost just under $700 -- a pricetag that would barely fetch an Aveo in converted 2010 dollars. It had seating for eight, but GM Heritage Center manager Greg Wallace pointed out that "people were smaller back then."
Although the body style and wheelbase eventually grew larger, respectively, the six-cylinder engine continued to power the Suburban Carryall until 1955, when a V-8 became optional for the first time. And it was only in the mid-1960s that the Suburban became available with four doors, and the "Carryall" moniker was dropped.
After that, as they say, the rest was history: the four-door V-8-powered Suburban set the pulse for the Heartbeat of America virtually unchanged from 1973 until 1991. By the time the current GMT-900 Suburban was introduced in 2007, the Suburban's overall length had ballooned by 39.1 inches, and its basic level of kit would shame even the most luxurious of the '30s Suburban's competitors.
With so much invested in the Suburban nameplate, Chevrolet marketing manager Mark Clawson stands firm that it will stick around for years to come.
"There's no sign of the Suburban name going away," Clawson said. "The Suburban name will definitely outlive me, as well."
Clawson was resolute that preserving the Suburban's name and character is a "balancing act," between maneuverability and size, and hinted that the Suburban isn't likely to grow any larger than the current model. At an event to highlight the Suburban's evolution over time, at which Chevrolet unearthed pristine examples, Clawson pointed to a white '66 example, a version of which he used during his days as a volunteer fireman. From my perspective at the event held on Belle Isle, a short distance from GM's Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit, it looked to be eight feet off the ground, and not particularly suited for family hauling.
"And that was the stock ride height for four-wheel-drive models that year," he noted.
Most of the models were examples taken from the GM Heritage Center, but two employees volunteered their own Suburbans for the event. Analyst Scott Fricker, who has worked with GM at Pontiac and Saturn, offered his 1999 Suburban, pushing 140,000 miles, which is his wife's daily driver.
"I wouldn't have anything else," Fricker said. "For the type of activities we do, the Suburban is still the one I'd choose, and I average 18 miles per gallon. My neighbor was proud of that figure in her newer, smaller SUV, and was shocked to hear I get the same mileage."
And as for the 75th-anniversary model itself? The model run of just over 2500 started life as top-level Suburban LTZ models, and were outfitted in Diamond white paint and special badging. Since the model debuted at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show, Clawson estimates that 600 already have homes. In addition to the in-car goodies, Chevrolet included an iPod and commemorative "Diamond Edition" case, preloaded with an app that details the Suburban's history, with each purchase.
Clawson was tight-lipped about what's to come for the Suburban, but confirmed that it would "never" be a Lambda-based crossover ("we have the Traverse for that"). He hinted that the next Suburban, still several years away, will focus on retaining the capability of a full-size SUV while making improvements in fuel economy. In the meantime, the 75th-anniversary model is a way to honor the Suburban's name and impressive history.
We're not exactly sure what's next for the Suburban, but if its past performance of rolling with the punches and adapting to keep America's large families moving is any indication, the long haul may only be just beginning.