Motor Life Editorial, January 1960: Where’s The Crossovers?

I was reading through a Motor Life magazine from 1960 that Stephanie picked up for me at a thrift store, and came across a series of editorials from the staff writers on their perceptions of the new 1960 domestic cars. This was a big year for the Big Three, given their all-new compacts that substantially broadened their range from just the single size standard cars they had been selling almost forever. One might have thought there would be a lot of praise, and there was a fair amount. But there was also plenty of dissatisfaction with the still too-limited range of vehicles by the domestics.

This one by Bob Ames struck me more than the others, because it’s quite prescient, especially in light of the Jeep Wagoneer review I posted yesterday. Not only does he point out that the domestics still aren’t really competing with VW and the other truly cheap and small imports, including diesels, but he also identifies a category that’s been grossly under served: “an all-round automobile for the outdoor enthusiast”. And he calls for more civilized pickups.

And today “an all-round automobile for the outdoor enthusiast” (CUVs) dominate the passenger car sales stats, and of course pickups are the top sellers overall. But the big difference is that the CUVs are predominantly import brands. Why was Detroit so slow in identifying what has become the heart of the market?

He points out that “There are several models which fill one or more of the necessary qualifications for an outdoor use car. But no single car is designed to fill them all”.  Quite true, inasmuch as in 1960 there was the Jeep CJ, which was extremely compromised for daily use. The Jeep Wagon was available in 4×4 version, but it too was severely lacking in the comforts of a typical car, and was pretty out of date by 1960. And there were 4×4 versions of the Suburban and International Travelall, but these were gnarly, hard-sprung work trucks.

He continues: “The fantastic climb in demand for station wagons should be a clue for manufacturers, but they seem to ignore it completely.” And he goes on to say that the wagons available are just sedans with rear cargo areas, but are as poorly designed for outdoor use as the sedans, with soft suspensions and poor ground clearance. And pickups “ride rough and have little in convenience extras”.

What he’s calling for is the SUV/CUV, and a somewhat close approximation arrived just three years later, in the form of the Jeep Wagoneer. It was the proto-SUV, being reasonably civilized, with four doors and relatively few trade-offs, although it was actually none too roomy. But the Big Three (and International) ignored that formula and instead came out with what were really just slightly civilized Jeeps CJs, in the form of the Bronco, Scout and Blazer. Little 4×4 trucks they were, hard riding, crude handling and decidedly compromised for daily use.

Meanwhile, in 1977 Subaru brought over their first 4WD wagon. It was something utterly new; a compact, efficient and affordable little wagon that could climb like a mountain goat yet no trade-offs in comparison to its FWD version or other comparable little wagons. Is this the car Bob Ames was calling for?

Needless to say, Subaru started small, but now its a monster, although its “wagons” are realistically CUVs at this point. But that’s become a blurred distinction.

Yes, AMC launched its AWD Eagle in 1980, and it had an excellent AWD system. But it was compromised by its 10 year old body with marginal space efficiency, never mind fuel efficiency. It had no real future.


The real irony is that twenty years later, when the first-wave SUV boom was already huge but the big and thirsty domestic trucks needed to be downsized, Jeep again led the way in innovation with its compact four door Cherokee. Meanwhile Ford and GM again came out with 2-door only downsized SUVs. Little or no innovation; just smaller than their big brothers. They were an improvement in respects, but still had issues with handling, efficiency, comfort and performance.

Obviously both the full size and downsized SUVs filled a huge need, and sold in ever greater numbers. But they were all still compromised.

The Japanese previewed the ultimate solution with their AWD tall-boy wagons, like the Tercel, Civic and Mitsubishi. They were the proto-crossovers, with raised roofs and unique bodies (also available in FWD form) that signaled their utility as well as sport.

Toyota’s 1996 RAV4 was the final evolutionary step, and changed all of that forever. And it was quickly followed by the Honda CRV. The Rav4 and CRV are now the bestselling passenger cars in the land.

Looking back to 1960, it’s pretty obvious that the domestic industry missed a huge opportunity, which even the heavy and somewhat clunky Wagoneer missed: a truly civilized “outdoor car”. Of course they didn’t miss out totally, by a long shot. The Explorer was a huge hit, although it never appealed much to the genuine outdoorsy set, seen as a suburban poseur. And Detroit still has almost a lock on the large SUVs. And some of their CUVs do fairly well too. But just like they failed to maintain their grip on the family sedan, so did they fail to ever get serious traction in the heart of the CUV market

And just what would “an all-round automobile for the outdoor enthusiast” have looked like, in 1960? A Corvair wagon with high ground clearance? A 4×4 Econoline van? An AWD Valiant wagon? A truly civilized 4-door Suburban?