1936: Chevrolet Invents the SUV

2000 and 1936 Chevrolet Suburban
2000 and 1936 Chevrolet Suburban

The Suburban points the way

Press Release

The Suburban points the way

In 1936, Chevrolet invented the SUV – and the station wagon as well. In this respect, the Suburban, the designated forefather of the Captiva, was already a classic example of a crossover.

When the roads were still dusty and cars were loud and slow, the railway was the most popular means of transport for long distances, also in the United States. The arriving passengers with their luggage then wanted to continue their journey in comfort, perhaps to one of the city suburbs. Consequently, in the early days of the motor car, a species of vehicle was developed to satisfy this need: An open, engine-driven carriage with an additional platform for the luggage. People called them “suburbans”. A number of car makers used this generic name, and it was not until 1988 that General Motors protected the name “Suburban” for its model.

The origins of the station wagon were similar to those of the suburban. The first models were built on a car chassis with a wooden rear section. This created the extra space needed to accommodate several passengers and their luggage when they were picked up from the station – consequently “station wagon”.

In autumn 1935, Chevrolet merged the two ideas, and in 1936, the US market leader brought out a spacious station wagon made of sheet metal, which was based on a half-tonne delivery van. With the crossover Suburban it was now possible for the first time to transport up to eight people comfortably in an all-steel body. Priced at just $685, it launched the triumphant career of a model that has continued to the present day.

Another innovation that was also destined for worldwide fame came in 1938 with the horizontally split tailgate. The original version with rear doors continued to be built in parallel with this for several years, but the customers’ verdict was unmistakable: the first model of the Suburban with a tailgate netted sales of 16,696 up to 1947 – interrupted by the War – and proved far more popular than the rear-door version, of which 4,799 were sold.

In addition to the originally targeted taxi companies and hotels, large families also soon recognized the utility value of the Suburban, as did enthusiasts of all kinds of leisure activities. In contrast to the cars of that time, they could now carry not only passengers but also a whole stack of luggage. And they soon realized that the luggage space could be made even larger by taking out one or two of the back seats. This was an idea that only really spread to other vehicles with the arrival of vans in 1980s.

It was in 1957, the year that 4WD first became available as an optional extra, that the Chevrolet Suburban – fondly called “Burb” by its fans – truly became the forefather of the SUV (sports utility vehicle) and the darling of all off-road enthusiasts, even though nobody actually called it so. Two years previously, GM had, for the first time, installed a V8 under the powerful hood and thus provided the pulling power that was lacking in the ageing straight six.

In total, several million Suburbans (including its close relatives like the somewhat shorter Tahoe) have so far been built. With the new Captiva, Chevrolet will for the first time apply its crossover success formula to Europe: Compact and with a self-supporting body, but just as versatile, spacious and comfortable as the original.

Chevrolet Suburban Carryall 1936

Frame & Body

2 door, 8 passenger window truck
based on Series FB ½ ton truck. Steel ladder frame (wheelbase 2,844 mm), steel body panels, wood frame roof with black vinyl cover

Engine & Transmission

Inline 6-cylinder with overhead valves (OHV), bore x stroke 84 x 101 mm, displacement 3388 cm³, Carter single barrel carburettor, 79 hp. Three speed manual synchromesh transmission, rear wheel drive


Straight front axle with live rear axle, semi-elliptic springs, hydraulic four wheel brakes, wheels 5.5 x 17

Technical milestones

The highlights of the eleven model generations since 1935:

  • 1954: Automatic transmission optional
  • 1955: 180 hp V8 engine optional
  • 1957: Four-wheel drive available
  • 1965: Air conditioning available
  • 1967: Second door on the passenger side
  • 1975: Catalytic converter
  • 1978: Diesel V8 available
  • 1987: Gasoline engines with fuel injection
  • 1995: Driver airbag as standard
  • 2003: Four-wheel Quadrasteer steering and StabiliTrak
  • 2006: Cylinder deactivation „Active Fuel Management“
  • 2007: Dual-Mode hybrid transmission
Source: Text & Photos courtesy General Motors
Published Jul 20th, 2006 6:56am

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Comments (1)

LeeHenderson LeeHenderson
I would have to argue that the model T Depot Hack was the first SUV...
Mar 20th, 2013 4:12am
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