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1946 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall

Motoring Memories:

Chevrolet/GMC Suburban, 1935-2006

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Ours is an evolving automotive world where fads and fancies, not to mention names and models, come and go. But through the years some vehicles, such the Model T Ford and the Volkswagen Beetle, did remain constant to their original calling.

The T is gone of course, and Beetle production ended in Puebla, Mexico in July, 2003. The Volkswagen Beetle has even been reincarnated, albeit now with a front engine and front-wheel drive.

Another model that has stayed the course is the truck-based all-steel Suburban (called the Suburban Carryall until 1973) station wagon. This big eight-to-nine-passenger General Motors workhorse has been on the scene since 1935. Not only has the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban (GMC's version is now called the Yukon XL) been around for over 60 years, until the arrival of the 1997 Ford Expedition it had virtually no competition. The International Travelall introduced in 1953 by International Harvester was an earlier exception.

The original Suburban Carryall all-steel station wagon arrived as a mid-year model in 1935. Based on the Chevrolet half-ton panel delivery truck, it was little more than a panel with windows cut into the sides, and some utilitarian seats installed to provide its eight-passenger capacity.

Because it was basically a panel truck, the passengers had to climb awkwardly through the right front door to get to the removable middle and rear seats. The vertically hinged truck door at the rear could be replaced by an optional station-wagon-like tailgate for access to the cargo area.

While not a sales sensation in its first few years, the Suburban was sufficiently popular to encourage GM to resume building it after the Second World War with the return to civilian vehicle production. As with cars, the first post-war trucks, including the Suburban, were virtually carbon copies of prewar models.

Because truck production had continued during the war, companies like GM and Ford could resume civilian production more easily than they could with cars. The result was that development of new trucks was started sooner than it was for cars; GM was able to introduce its more modern Chevrolet and GMC trucks for 1947. Its full line of new post-war cars would not arrive until 1949.

Thus the Suburban, like the rest of the line, benefited from such improvements as a wider, roomier cab area and a 25 percent increase in the expanse of glass. During this era, trucks began to take on a less utilitarian appearance as truck makers realized that work-a-day haulers didn't need to look like all work and no play. This trend to handsome trucks really emerged in 1955 when Chevrolet introduced its Cameo Carrier pickup with a sculpted, cab-width box, car-like taillight, flashy two-tone paint and a deluxe cab.

But the Cameo Carrier wasn't the only Chevy truck that took on more glamour when the new '55s were introduced as mid-year models. Regular Chevs and GMCs borrowed heavily from the dramatic new Chevrolet car with such features as wraparound windshields, "eyebrow" headlamps and, on the Chev, an eggcrate grille.

The Suburban enjoyed these improvements along with the rest of the truck line, and had available as an option the sensational new overhead valve V8 engine. The standard powerplant was an overhead valve, in-line six.

It was also during this period that convenience and luxury items became available on trucks. Options like power steering, power brakes and automatic transmissions turned commercial vehicles into much more car-like machines, and paved the way for the current use of trucks as passenger vehicles.

The Suburban soldiered on through the years unchallenged as the only large, truck-based station wagon in the business - the Travelall faded from the scene in 1975.

The Travelall did have one advantage over the Suburban for several years, however: a second door on the passenger side. General Motors finally got around to adding a second right-side door to the Suburban in 1967, and made it a full four-door in 1973. We can't imagine it being any other way now.

Optional diesel power was added for increased fuel economy, and four-wheel drive was also made available.

GM had a good idea back in 1935, so good that it has lasted right up to the present time. Everything is big in Texas, and it's no surprise that Suburbans have found particular favour there.

Minivans and sport utility vehicles largely displaced station wagons as the family hauler of choice, although wagons are coming back into popularity. But for carrying a real load of passengers and cargo, the Suburban is still, after all these years, the quintessential hauler.

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Great post Harley! I remember a couple of years ago reading the history of the Suburban and up until that time i honestly didn't know it was as old as it was, I thought it was a creation of the 1960s or late 50s, but to think that the monster was around all the way back in the mid-30s made me really think. Then I realized the first "sport utility vehicle" was the suburban, and not as I thought (misguidedly) the Jeep (as in the World War II workhorse GP)

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No vehicle can ever best the Suburban. Ford tried and I'm sure others will in the future but its not about making a big truck bigger, its about making it better. Good luck to all who attempt it.

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