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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 24, 1996

About a year ago, we were given a new Chevrolet Suburban to evaluate for a week and while the "regular" version is in itself quite a machine, this one was something special. It had been highly "upscaled" at the shops of custom-designer Bruce Canepa and included every amenity known to the automotive world from full leather upholstery and a Sony state-of-the-art sound and television system inside to a 500 horse supercharged 454 cubic inch engine under the hood. The chassis and suspension had been modified to the point where the big SUV (sports/utility vehicle) handled like a nimble European sports sedan.

At the time, I wondered how the instigators of the original Suburban would react if they knew that their utilitarian panel-truck-with-windows had become the darling of the country club set and had acquired an almost cult-like status 61 years later.

Ron Sykes is an friend and fellow high school auto shop teacher who is a true Suburban enthusiast. "I've got two of them," he told me, " a '71 and a '77 and I've had them for years. I use the '77 most of the time and pull my racers around with it. I can cruise from here down the 500 mile stretch to Los Angeles in the summer and go up the Grapevine almost as fast as I go down. And I can do it with nine people in the back." For non-California readers, the Grapevine is an infamous multi-mile uphill pull through the mountains north of Los Angeles and a notorious engine-killer.

Sykes is a typical Suburbanphile. His vehicles are anything but pristine and, in point of fact, his '71 version (a gift from his brother) has considerable body rust. "But it's still a solid old rig and I'll get around to restoring it some day."

When it was first introduced in 1935, the Suburban name carried the suffix Carryall and it was aptly named. It was, in reality, a Chevy panel truck with two extra windows in each side and a pair of bench seats bolted to the floor in back. The engine was the venerable overhead-valve 203 cubic inch Chevrolet Six that had a propensity to knock out connecting rod bearings at speeds over 50 MPH due to its "whippy" crankshaft and inefficient "splash and dash" lubrication. I had to re-shim lots of those old Chevy rod bearing in my early days as a high-school amateur mechanic and learned to curse the design.

The first Suburban was something less than a booming success and only 78 were built. One of its drawbacks was that while the back of the body carried a conventional pickup tailgate, it was left to a canvas flap above it to keep out water kicked up by the rear wheels in wet weather. It had only two doors and access to the rear seating required some gymnastic ability. A third door appeared on the right side a few years later which increased it appeal to the general public but the it took until 1973 for General Motors to add the fourth.

But in the '30s, the general public wasn't really interested in using a converted panel truck to transport family members and, indeed, Americans hadn't even made the exodus to the suburbs. That didn't occur until after World War II ended in 1945. As I recall, early Suburbans were used as light duty busses, and during the war years, lots of them wore khaki paint and served their country in the same capacity.

The original Suburban of 1935 has been touted by some as "The Great Granddaddy of Sports/Utes," but if four-wheel-drive is part of that SUV criteria, the Suburban didn't become a true off-roader until 1976. That was the year that 4WD appeared as an option.

But the option that made a real performer out of the ponderous Suburban came in 1955. The famous Chevy "small-block" V8 burst on the automotive scene that year and along with powering various Chevy passenger cars and the early Corvette, it was put into the commercial line and that included the Suburban. The "standard" engine remained the ubiquitous in-line six but the V8 was immediately the engine of choice. Today, it's rare to find a vintage Suburban still in service that hasn't had the original anemic six cylinder powerplant replaced by a V8 of some displacement.

Chevrolet itself gave the Suburban a shot of steroids in the mid-'70s when it made the huge 454 cubic inch V8 an option. This combination quickly became a favorite with owners of large recreational trailers.

The SUV is a modern phenomena and they've long since shed any traces of their humble beginnings. Bigger means better in that niche and the new Suburban is the biggest of the bunch. It makes me wonder what Bruce Canepa might have done with the Suburban has he been around in 1935.