Suburban Memories on its 75th Anniversary

By Chris Haak

GM’s long-running Suburban – which made its debut in 1935 as the Suburban Carryall – is celebrating its semisesquicentennial for the 2010 model year.  (I don’t generally use that word in a sentence; in fact, I had to look it up.)  I’ve always been a fan of the Suburban; perhaps that is partly because my parents have owned one Suburban or another for many of my 35 years on this planet.  In fact, the Suburban is the longest-running nameplate in automotive history.

My earliest Suburban memory was taking a familiy trek from Pennsylvania to Florida in 1978 (I was three) in the family’s 1973 Suburban, with a tandem-axle travel trailer in tow behind.  The first Haak Suburban (or “Sub” in our vernacular) was a goldenrod color with, of course, the classy vinyl woodgrain decals on its sides (much like the one below, but in goldenrod).

The family’s next Suburban came in the early 1980s, and was a maroon 1978 model with GM’s ubiquitous 350 cubic inch V8 under its hood.  Even though it was just a few years old, and well taken care of, the 1978 Sub required frequent body repairs to fight the rust-through problems inherent in the 1973-80 generation of GM trucks.  I remember as a small child (probably less than 10 years old) playing in this Suburban while the engine was idling one day, and deciding that I wanted to try to drive it.  I didn’t understand the concept of shifting into gear (fortunately!) and only revved the engine a little bit.  I already must have had gasoline coursing through my veins at that point!

We spent the next few years as a family in cars, until the late 1980s dad bought a brown/tan two-tone, two wheel drive, half ton, 454-equipped 1977 Sub as his work vehicle.  We could shuttle the dog around in the old Sub, and the four of us fit comfortably in it.  Though dad loved the notion of a big block in a half ton, this one got terrible fuel economy (not to mention pretty pathetic horsepower, given its 7.4 liter displacement), and its timing always seemed to be out of adjustment.  One improvement that we made to it was to paint the tan area between the mouldings the same brown metallic that the rest of the vehicle was.  This Suburban was the first vehicle I had the chance to drive more than a few feet, when I’d be permitted to drive it down the stone lane to and from Boy Scout meetings each Tuesday night.

While we owned the 1977, the family decided to order its first brand new Suburban, in the summer of 1987.  The 1987s were the first Suburbans to have electronic fuel injection (though it was only throttle body injection), and ours was to be a 1988.  I remember memorizing every photo, statistic, and detail in the 1987 Suburban brochure, and kept pushing my parents to buy one of the color combinations featured in the brochure – either brown/tan two-tone or dark blue/light blue two-tone.  Instead, dad chose steel gray metallic, which actually looked great (and in fact, the monochromatic treatment may have been ahead of its time).  The salesperson slightly messed up our order, and neglected to order rear air conditioning (which, with its giant unit hanging from the roof at the rear, looked like the afterthought that it really was), but we never seemed to have any issues with the front-only air conditioning performing well enough to cool the first two rows.  With a family of four, we rarely if ever used the third row seats.

Within the first hundred miles of owning that new 1988, the springs had to be adjusted because it wasn’t sitting level (it was far enough from level that my dad noticed it without a ruler), and the transfer case failed.  With another road trip to Florida pending, the dealer swapped out our defective unit for one in an in-stock new K5 Blazer.  Aside from those initial hiccups, I am not aware of any other mechanical issues with the gray Sub during our years of ownership.

When the Suburban and Blazer (and the other Suburban (GMC), and Jimmy) finally migrated to the GMT400 platform for the 1992 model year, it had been the first complete overhaul for the beasts in 18 years.  It was much needed, and added interior volume, comfort and convenience features, and brought the trucks’ design out of the early 70s and into the 1990s.  Our family got a used 1993 two wheel drive model at an auction in 1993, and used that for a while, then eventually owned several others in this generation, occasionally diverting to a Tahoe instead.

There were rumors a year or two ago that GM was considering moving the Suburban and other full-size SUVs onto a unibody platform based on GM’s Lambda architecture (which underpins the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, and GMC Acadia).  Fortunately, the company reconsidered, and is working on the next-generation of large, body-on-frame SUVs, basically the same way they’ve always been made.  And for many fans of the Suburban and its ilk, that’s exactly how they want it to be.

Aside from my own memories above, there have been many more milestones for GM’s cowboy limousine.  From GM, below is a timeline of significant moments in the Suburban’s first 75 years:

1935: Suburban Carryall introduced with a signature two-door body style that would last through 1967. Power came from Chevrolet’s stalwart “Stovebolt” inline-six that produced 60 horsepower (45 kW) for the half-ton chassis.

1937: New, streamlined exterior styling carried Art Deco cues, and horsepower from the Stovebolt six increased to 79 (59 kW).

1942: Production of almost all civilian cars and trucks halted during America’s involvement in World War II, although many Chevy trucks – including the Suburban’s body style – were pressed into military duty.

1947: The first significant redesign of the Chevrolet’s truck line – including Suburban – since before the war. Torque from the inline-six engine was 174 lb.-ft. (217 Nm) at only 1,200 rpm, giving the Suburban excellent towing capability.

1950: Suburban models are offered with either a tailgate/top-opening rear window configuration or conventional “barn doors” at the rear.

1955: Revolutionary new styling is introduced midway through the model year. Known as the “second series” design, it features a wraparound windshield and the elimination of running boards – the body is flush with the fenders for the first time. The second series model also introduces the ubiquitous small-block V-8.

1957: Factory-installed four-wheel drive is offered for the first time, with the famous NAPCO-supplied “Powr-Pak” system.

1960: Chevrolet institutes the C/K designations to denote models with 2WD (C) and 4WD (K). Front-end styling is also new.

1967: All-new styling of Chevy’s half-ton trucks is introduced, including Suburban. It carries a unique three-door arrangement with a single door on the driver’s side and front and rear doors on the passenger side. This configuration makes the Suburban popular with ambulance companies.

1973: A new generation of Chevy trucks is launched, with Suburban offered in a conventional four-door body style introduced for the first time. Its 129.5-inch (3,289 mm) wheelbase was only 0.5-inch (12.7 mm) shorter than the 2010 model’s. Also debuting is the Suburban three-quarter-ton model, which could be had with a 454 big-block engine that delivered 335 lb.-ft. of torque (455 Nm).

1975: Increased focus on interior comfort and amenities in the 1973 models bring more customers to Suburban for use as a personal vehicle. Chevrolet responds with more comfortable seats and greater amenities, including simulated buffalo hide vinyl upholstery, wood grain dash inserts, fully trimmed door panels and more.

1981: Updated styling brings stacked rectangular headlamps for the 1980s. The 4WD system adds automatic locking hubs and the 454 big-block is still offered, giving customers great towing capability.

1987: Electronically controlled fuel injection and a four-speed overdrive transmission bring greater efficiency.

1992: An all-new Suburban features sleek styling with flush glass and composite headlamps. The 5.7L small-block V-8 powers 1500 models, while the 454 (7.4L) engine is still available in the 2500 series. Other updates include four-wheel anti-lock brakes, Insta-Trac on four-wheel-drive models and a suspension system designed to provide a more carlike ride.

1998: OnStar and the full-time AutoTrac all-wheel-drive system are added. In Australia, right-hand-drive versions of the Suburban are offered through GM’s Holden brand.

2000: Launched in 1999 as a 2000 model, the next-generation Suburban brings new styling, new interiors and new powertrains. The engines include the Vortec 5.3L and 6.0L V-8s that were from the same Gen III V-8 “LS” family that debuted a couple of years earlier as the LS1 in the Corvette. Other new features include four-wheel disc brakes and a load-leveling suspension system.

2007: The latest generation of the Suburban is introduced, featuring a wind tunnel-shaped exterior and the elimination of traditional chrome front and rear bumpers. More efficient, comfortable and capable than ever, the Suburban continues to offer customers of all walks of life uncompromising capability and versatility.

2010: The 75th anniversary is marked with a limited-edition model, the 75th Anniversary Diamond Edition Suburban.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Happy 75th Suburban!

    The Suburban get some imitators over the years, Jeep with the old Wagonner/Cherokee/Grand Wagonner. Plymouth once got its station-wagons known as Suburban and Ford tried with the Expedition.

    If Chrysler hadn’t dropped the New Yorker nameplate, it could had celebrate its 75 anniversairy as well…

  2. I completely forgotted one imitator: the Renault Colorale built from 1950 to 1957, its front end looks like the “Advance design” gen of the Suburban.

    Dodge also got a “Suburban” competitor with a Town Wagon version of its “Power Giant” pick-ups, when they switched to the “Sweptline” gen for 1961, the “Town Wagon” keeped the old design until 1966. However I spotted an “pick-up oddity” on a Spanish site, a Dodge D200 who looks like a Suburban who was sold in Argentina with the Sweptline design on the following link.

  3. Don’t forget the International Harvester Travelall. It was very much in the same format as the current Suburban, even beating it to market with the left-rear side door.

  4. My aunt and uncle had a Suburban when I was growing up. My uncle had custom ordered it with the 454 and trailering package. It was a really pretty truck and I had always wanted one. Finally about 3 years ago I had an opportunity to get one. My old Suburban is an awesome truck! Its carried camping gear, helped friends move and will cut through a winter snow storm like a hot knife thru soft butter. I’d buy another in a heartbeat!

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