(first posted 5/4/2015) The GM-800 Suburban CC the other day made me realize that we’re closing in on full coverage of all the Suburban generations, except of course the most important one of all: this one. The 1977-1991 was the true breakthrough Suburban, the one that transitioned from what had been a tough working rig for utility and ranch crews into the ultimate suburban-mom soccer wagon. Given that it was built for an almost infinite nineteen years, there’s still a few out there earning their keep. This one sure is.
Actually, for a vehicle that goes back to 1935, our CCs start fairly late into its long career. The oldest one in our archives is for the 1959-1966 generation, of this particular ’66. Back then, the Suburban had only two side doors, one on each side. Which sent a pretty clear signal to prospective buyers: this is not an alternative to your beloved Country Squire. It’s a pickup with a long roof, and climbing into the second seat is a chore. Climbing into the third seat is a Marine-certified obstacle course.
The next generation moved closer to that possibility of competing for the more genteel part of the wagon market, but it was still a bit short on a few key amenities, including a second rear side door on the driver’s side. Yes, this was a rare three-door utility wagon, and when you think about, not such a terrible compromise. This was before kids each had their own electric-closing side mini-van door, giant throne, rear air conditioning, a full home theater system and a refrigerator. Did I miss something? A dedicated robot?
But the all-new 1973 Suburban really upped the ante. Not only four doors, finally, but even fake wood sides to strongly suggest the market it was now pursuing. Interiors were plusher, the ride smoother, the sound deadening was thicker, and the big 454 V8 was on tap (optionally) was mission appropriate. The Suburban was shaking its blue-collar roots and heading straight up into more affluent territory. And it really worked.
Within some years, GM realized that the Suburban’s (non-fleet) buyers were actually more affluent than Cadillac’s, which had been on a downward trajectory for some time already anyway. In a flip-flop that is perhaps the ultimate reflection of the modern American automotive scene, a big truck-based wagon became the vehicle of choice over a Cadillac for America’s wealthiest car buyers.
Of course that played out over several decades, and today, Cadillac’s Suburban-based Escalade is their most successful product. In 1973, nobody would have guessed that yet. The new Suburban was being pitched as an über-wagon, with greater room, towing capacity, and all-round utility.
By 1977, it had developed the moniker ‘Superwagon’. And its qualities were really coming into their own about then, as all of the big passenger-car based station wagons were sent in for major size and weight reduction surgery. And with the second energy crisis and CAFE, which emasculated those wagons further, the Suburban became ever more super-desirable, for those looking for a big, husky wagon.
Somewhat oddly, Ford just sat back on its lazy Country Squire butt and watched the Suburban’s sales grow year by year, and never did anything about it, even when IH pulled the plug on its light-truck line including the Travelall, which really pioneered the truck-based four-door utility wagon, back in 1961.
It wouldn’t have been all that hard. And since Ford wouldn’t, others did it, but of course that made it more expensive. Centurion built a fair number of these Centurion 350s, marrying Ford pickup and Bronco parts to create a credible Suburban competitor. But one had to be a die-hard GM hater, as the prices were sky-high.
This generation suburban is one of those rare vehicles whose length of time in production comes close to a human generation; a full 19 years. By 1991 (above) it was looking more than a bit outdated. Why GM waited three years to come out with the GM-400 version of the Suburban is a mystery; well, maybe not, since it sold well enough and had no competition, why bother?
Which places this 1982 model right in the middle. I’ve run into it out on the streets for a couple of years, but never stopped. This well-used ‘burban has been the faithful companion to its owner for quite some years, and he’s wavering now about getting rid of it or keeping it. At the beginning of our visit, he said it was a good thing I came by today, as it was going to be gone in a matter of days. By the end of the shoot, he was talking about detailed plans to fix various things and keep it going forever.
They’re both from North Dakota, so they have some joint history. or di he say he was from Montana? I need to write stuff down. Either way, it’s cold and snowy there in the winter.
Which explains the rust on the Suburban’s sills. That’s fixable, as is anything else.
Since patina is in, he was also talking about clear-coating it as is. And I think he mentioned that its rear axle came from a Camaro, but I’m not sure that makes sense. On the other hand, Chevy is the ultimate plug-and-play manufacturer, so why should that not work?
And I think he also said something about the origins of the ubiquitous 350 V8 being some other vehicle. Swapping SBCs is so deeply ingrained that some folks just have to do it every few years lest they fear losing this vital skill.
An all-too familiar sight for anyone who lived though this generation of Chevy trucks. There were a lot more plastic surfaces than its steel-lined predecessor, but it wasn’t all of the highest caliber. What else is new?
Here’s the most important shot of all. These superwagons are super big, and just the ticket for the person that needs to haul many (all?) of life’s possessions around with them. Although it’s probably not exactly what Chevy originally had in mind.
Suburbans came with either a drop-down tailgate, or these barn doors, which were favored by those that used its rear loading capabilities on a regular basis. Coincidentally, there’s a Chevy truck of the same generation down the street. Still plenty of them around.
At the time, my feelings about these was not generally favorable, in terms of their growing use by families at the time we had young kids. Our Cherokee looked minute compared to them; these Suburbans were enormous compared to most family cars in the 80s, including the new Chrysler minivans. But their appeal was not to be denied, especially for those that wanted it all. And that is a very common desire.