Curbside Classic: 1966 Chevrolet Suburban – Finding The “Sport” In SUV

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(first posted 5/12/2013)    Suburbans are jacks of all trades, capable of playing so many varied roles. One like this taught me the valuable lessons of the limits of vehicle dynamics on winding country roads that others might have had in sports cars. Does that not define the name sport utility vehicle?

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This body style was built from 1959 through 1966, and was the last to be built on the short wheelbase pickup chassis. In 1967, the Suburban migrated to the long-wheelbase frame, so it would be fair to say that these earlier short versions were really predecessors to the Tahoe.

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These were popular utility vehicles at the time, in almost totally different use than today’s plush Suburban. The four wheel drive versions were quite uncommon, unlike today, as that necessitated a drastically jacked up body, a solid front axle, and very harsh springs. It was how lumberjacks were ferried into the wilds, not a passel of kids to school.

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As is plain to see, the interiors back then were even more different from today’s Suburbans than the exteriors. Harsh steel almost everywhere. And only two doors.

Chevrolet 1964 Suburban int

If you had the three seat version, getting to the rear-most seat required a maneuver Marines are taught in boot camp. The right front seat flipped forward, and one crawled past it and beyond the reduced-width second seat to get to the back seat. No wonder kids weren’t obese; they had a workout every time they got in the Suburban.

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I have fond memories of a Suburban just like this. I worked at a tiny corner gas station in Towson on weekends during my junior year in high school, and because of my illicit driving issues, I still didn’t have my license. But there was a Suburban just like this at the station, used for parts and customer hauling. Out of desperation to keep my skills up, I would go back on Saturday nights and take the Suburban out for extended drives in the country, or whatever else was on the agenda.

It had the 250 six and the three-speed manual on the column. This was during the typical teen aged hating-on-stupid-sixes era, when visions of hemis and 427s danced in one’s head. But I was pleasantly surprised; with its fairly low (high numerically) gearing, the well-tuned six was brisker than I expected. And this was a fairly light vehicle. Obviously not fast, but it had a certain willingness that I hadn’t expected in a six. The trick to sixes back then was to avoid the slushboxes.

Maryland road

Anyway, I spent many a Saturday night probing the limits of the Suburban on the winding back roads of Northern Baltimore County. Good experience, and many lessons learned! The skinny little tires’ limit of adhesion was readily explored, the big (unassisted) steering wheel needed lots of flaying, and it had huge amounts of play. It probably replicated what GP racers dealt with in the early part of the 20th century. One just had to use a little imagination, which was never a problem for me.


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Inevitably, I got caught, when a customer saw me and snitched to the owner. He had no choice but to fire me. But what I learned hanging on to that steering wheel for dear life was worth the humiliation in the end.