Trailhead Classic: 1987 Chevrolet Suburban 4×4 – America Falls In Love With the Big SUV – Me Too?

Looking at this picture, I ask myself: why didn’t we have one of these? Back in the day, a Suburban would have been a lot more practical for hauling three kids, their friends, grandma, auntie, dogs, bikes and all the requisite gear to remote trailheads and campgrounds than our poor overloaded Dodge Caravan; no wonder it went through four transmissions.

At the time I just wasn’t able to fall in love with the Suburban. It wasn’t for lack of exposure to them, considering that our hometown Chevy dealer in Los Gatos, CA stocked only Suburbans and Corvettes. Seriously.  And he proudly advertised that fact: Biggest Corvette and Suburban dealer in Northern California! We lived there from 1987 to 1992, and Los Gatos and its neighboring tony hamlets were already some of the wealthiest enclaves in Silicon Valley. Suburbans were hot. I remember seeing a Boy Scout troop loading up for a camping trip at the temple parking lot down the street: a flotilla of Suburbans piloted by affluent-looking dads that would carry them up into the high Sierra. California—as usual—was a trendsetter in America’s love affair of big SUVs.

But it wasn’t the primary one this time.

The Suburban had already been well established as “The National Car of Texas”. Alternatively dubbed “The Texas Cadillac”, it suited Texans to a T. Here’s a great article at the Texas Monthly from 1986 that explains why Texans ditched their Cadillacs for Mercedes in the seventies, and then quickly ditched them for Suburbans, which were much better suited for them on many levels. The writer also fell under the spell of the Suburban, in his case trading a little Toyota wagon.

The reasons enumerated for the Suburban’s inexorable rise in Texas even includes xenophobia, given that the rapidly-expanding Japanese (and the Germans) had nothing remotely comparable. Of course that’s long changed, but the fact that Suburbans are built in Arlington, Texas is icing on the cake.

I had my first deep immersion in this phenomena on a business trip to Houston in 1986. My hotel was next door to a park with several soccer fields. When I got back from meetings in the late afternoon, there was a long line of Suburbans alongside the playing fields. At first I thought it might be a dealer using it to store excess inventory or such, but a closer look showed a gaggle of elaborately-coiffed Texas soccer moms wearing mom jeans chatting in clusters, waiting for the practice or game to finish.

During our Los Gatos years, a friend of ours we met at our kids’ school got a 4WD Suburban. They lived way up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which somehow made it more acceptable in my eyes. But I did wonder how it handled on narrow Hwy 17, with its fast pace and relentless curves. It just seemed so huge, and they only had two kids…

Of course we were SUV trendsetters ourselves, just on a smaller scale, having bought a Jeep Cherokee back in the fall of 1984 when we were living in Santa Monica. And there was quite a number of Cherokees lined up at the West LA Montessori School; the West Side Cadillac of the times, along with Mercedes 300TD wagons. California’s Mercedes Mania was longer lived than Texas’.

We had two young kids at the time, and it managed to haul us and our gear on plenty of trips, including some memorable ones that required 4WD. I built a little plywood rear-facing seat (with seat belts) for when grandma or others joined the party. A flexible big rooftop luggage bag came in handy too.

After out third was born in 1992, we needed something bigger. Like a Suburban, perhaps, in retrospect. But no, we went for a Grand Caravan. And somehow we made it work, even when I took five teenage boys and my younger son camping for several weeks. How’s all this going to fit? Careful planning. The roof-top bag was for reserved for their personal gear, and we made it work, barely.

Here it is loaded to the gunnels again, with my brother and his three kids who were visiting.

A Suburban would have made it all so much easier. Except of course for the other 320-some days of the year, when the Caravan was used to shuttle kids and do errands. Who wants to park a Suburban in a crowded parking lot? And we kept the Cherokee, which the boys and I used for some great Oregon back roads adventures.

So why did the Suburban’s popularity begin to explode in the 1970s, as a family hauler? Suburbans and their ilk had been around for almost forever, but their common name “utility wagon” pretty much summed it up. The 1967-1972 generation clearly was more civilized, with its lower profile, longer wheelbase, and…three side doors. But outside of the work truck market, it was largely the province of hard core trailer towers and a certain kind of family that put a preference for utility over stylishness and comfort.

Those latter qualities were still the domain of the big station wagon in the ’60s, and in particular, the best selling Ford and its Country Squire. Chevrolet perpetually lagged in this key market segment.

It’s probably no coincidence that the all-new 1973 Suburban was the first of its kind to espouse such smooth and well-detailed styling for a truck. And now with available wood-grained sides. If Chevy couldn’t beat the Country Squire head on, how leap-frogging it?

Wait a minute; didn’t GM already try that with their “clamshell” wagons, that came out in 1971? They had an extended wheelbase, raised roof and three forward-facing rows of seats.

Huge they were. Maybe too much so?

Here’s a comparison of a few vital statistics of the 1976 Buick Estate Wagon and the 1976 Suburban.

Gee, maybe the Suburban wasn’t so big after all? Shoulda’, woulda’, coulda’

So we already know why the Suburban was so popular in Texas. They like to ride tall in the saddle as well as on big horses.

How about the rest of the country? I couldn’t find readily Suburban sales stats from the ’70s, but it’s probably pretty safe to say they were in the 30-40k range, roughly.  The second energy crisis and the nasty recession of 1981 hit car sales hard, especially big ones. In 1982, 28k were sold. By 1989, it was 65k. The 100k mark was crested in 1998. And by 2001, it was 154k.

The Suburban’s appeal to affluent buyers had been spreading beyond Texas for some time, as noted vividly at that Chevy dealer in Los Gatos with rows and rows of them. It was becoming the new Cadillac, and a perfect companion to the BMW or Mercedes in the driveway. Suburban buyers’ demographics, along with the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, were at or near the top of the charts, in terms of education and income.

Undoubtedly someone will say that one (or even the main) drivers of the Suburban’s growth trajectory was CAFE. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations required manufacturers to slim down their big cars and wagons, and cut back on the really large engines as well as improve efficiency with overdrive automatics, fuel injection, and other means. Some will say the result was in wimpy little wagons that couldn’t get out of their way, hence folks snapped up big Suburbans.


It’s not nearly as simple as that. The downsized wagons that came along in 1977 were still mighty big, and longer than the Suburban; this ’82 Buick wagon measures a whopping 220.5″ from stem to stern. Hardly so small, and their substantially improved space utilization thanks to taller bodies, higher seats and shorter hoods resulted in as much or more usable interior space in almost every metric than their predecessors.

True, larger engine options were trimmed starting with 1980; 5.0 L V8s with 135- 160 hp or so became the norm. But then the speed limit was 55 and gas was decidedly more expensive, so buyers appreciated the substantially improved efficiency. Why else did GM’s 350 V8 diesel sell so well, until its infirmities made it a pariah? It was slow and noisy, but very economical. CAFE didn’t force it down their throats.

It’s not like the Suburban was any better endowed. The standard 305 V8 in 1982 was rated at 130hp, the optional 350 V8 at 165hp. The 305’s output later increased to 160hp.  There was a big block 454 still available, but only on C20 2WD versions, specifically targeted at the big trailer towers. And the new 6.2 L diesel joined the party, with 130hp (148 in the C20) and 240 ft.lbs of torque, the same as the 305 V8.

Thanks to CC Contributor Vince, a Peterson 4WD magazine test of a 1985 148hp diesel C20 Suburban yielded a 0-60 of 15.7 seconds. A 160hp 305 Blazer, which weighed less, took 14.6 seconds. A 500lbs heavier Suburban would be lucky to equal that.

Fuel economy? The 305 Blazer managed 15 mpg in that test; the 6.2 diesel Suburban got a loft 18.3. Given the extra weight and bigger engine, a 350 Suburban likely got 12-14 mpg. I just remembered why I didn’t buy one.

The weakest of those 305 sedan/wagons, the 1980-1984 version, still ran the 0-60 in 12-13 seconds. In 1985, the 305’s performance increased, and 0-60 times were now in the quite brisk 10 second range, with 1/4 mile times in the mid 17s. That’s decidedly faster than a Suburban, and actually very competitive with the pre-energy crisis/CAFE big cars from the ’70s and even the typical pre-smog cars of the 1960s. And after 1989, the fuel injected versions were tested in the 9 second range. And the LT from 1994 on were 7 second cars.

So how come almost nobody was buying these? They were big, wide and fast; more so than the wagons of the glorious ’60s. Did someone say CAFE?  And just how many big wagons did Chevy sell in 1994? Exactly 7,719. In 1996, it was…485. The big RWD wagon was dead, and GM retooled the Arlington plant where the last B-Bodies had been built to expand Suburban and Tahoe production.


This generation of Suburban (and Blazer/Jimmy) was built for nineteen model years, 1973 through 1991, in both Chevrolet and GMC versions. That must be some kind of record.

Why wasn’t there a Suburban (or Blazer) version of the new 1988 GMT-400 pickups? Did you have to ask? GM didn’t want to spend the money for its tooling, when the existing generation was still selling so well and had effectively zero competition. In 1992, the next generation finally appeared.

Let’s get back to the question at hand: just what was it that ignited American’s love affair with the Suburban? And killed the station wagon? A key factor is that that Americans’ love affair with full size wagons had already peaked back in 1969 (Ford sold 239k that year), and was on a steady decline ever since. By 1969, the main bulge of the baby boomers were past riding in their parents wagons. Family size was decreasing.

By 1978, a very good year for the industry and the last year for Ford’s really big cars, they sold all of 71k of their big wagons, still available with the husky 400V8. That’s down a whopping 70% from 1969. Was that because of CAFE? Of course not, as it hadn’t even taken effect. Big cars, and especially wagons, were already in terminal decline, as a younger generation came into their prime new car buying years and looked elsewhere.

And how many wagons did Ford sell in 1982, when Suburban sales were still at a paltry 28K? All of 22k. And except for a slight rise to 30k in 1984, Ford RWD wagon sales kept dropping, 15k in 1988, and all of 3,685 its final 1991 outing. By then, Ford’s Aerostar was selling in vastly larger volumes. The reality is that Suburban sales (and minivans and other SUVs) only really took off after traditional wagons were already essentially toast. And Suburban sales never came even close to the numbers that big wagons used to sell at. So what killed the traditional wagon?

Meanwhile, in 1988, for example, GM sold 140k of its space-efficient FWD A-Body wagons, and Ford moved 126k of its sleek beast-selling Taurus and Sable FWD wagons. There was still a healthy market for wagons, as long as they were modern, FWD, space-efficient, with good performance and economy.

Its image. If you haven’t already, go back and read that article I linked to. There’s a very good reason the Suburban was dubbed “The Texas Cadillac”; its prestige and image were comparable. A 1980s station wagon wasn’t. That’s by far the biggest single factor.

There were others too, the same things that killed the big American car in general, a subject that we covered in great detail here. The boomers were on the ascendancy, and their parents’ generation, who had ferried them in their Country Squires, were quickly moving past the peak child-rearing years.

And their kids just plain didn’t want to drive what they had grown up in. The ’60s and ’70s were a time of many vast social changes. Station wagons (and big cars in general) were just collateral damage, along with some others.

Watch me make a Ford Country Squire magically disappear! For ever!

They wanted something different; anything different. In the late ’60s, the VW Beetle and bus became symbols of that change. In the ’70s it was the full-sized van. Or maybe a Jeep or big Blazer. And when the boomers settled down to have kids, in an era of significantly higher gas prices and greater environmental awareness, the minivan was what they wanted. Chrysler had sold over a million of them by 1987, in its fourth year. They soon were selling at a much higher rate than big wagons ever sold. In 1999 alone, 1.4 million minivans were sold, and Chrysler had the biggest share of that.

Power? What power. These early minivans were slugs, with their wheezy fours. It wasn’t CAFE that created an avalanche of minivan buyers. It’s what a new generation of buyers wanted; well, some of them.

The SUV market had been growing steadily ever since WWII. It was still a niche in the ’50s, but it started to take off in the ’60s. The Big Three and International took notice, and the Scout, Bronco and Blazer joined the expanding family of Jeeps.

Jeep’s 1963 Wagoneer was a milestone in that category, as it blended uncompromising 4WD capability with a stylish, low-profile four door wagon body. The family-friendly SUV had arrived.

It wasn’t just the Wagoneer either. International’s Travelall had pioneered the four door utility wagon back in 1961, including a version with a smooth riding torsion bar IFS, as well as 4WD versions, like this ’65. This is the proto-Suburban, and Chevy soon followed suit with more doors, a better ride, lower and more civilized 4WD versions, and plenty of room, even in the three-row version.

Were these early big SUVs objectively better cars for most of the daily driving tasks than big wagons? Quite likely not. But tell that to a generation that had grown up with cramped and noisy VW Beetles and equally cramped Mustangs. What’s objectivity got to do with it, for the most part? The buyer knows what they want, and they wanted SUVs, and minivans.

And I get that now, better than ever. As I said at the top, if I could do it over, I’d probably have been better served by one of these, especially after moving to Oregon. Their utility for certain lifestyles is unassailable. Like this 33 year-old Suburban is demonstrating. For others, the utility is obviously a secondary factor.

This one is quite the veteran, showing the scars of an active lifestyle, probably all in the West, as this rust is clearly from rain water trapped in that cavity. My F100 has a similar issue in the cab roof just above both doors, where condensation pools that formed on the inside of the cab roof.

More patina, but harmless stuff.

The interior shows commensurate wear, but it’s hardly excessive. I wonder how many miles it has covered.

It’s not like it would be hard to keep its 350 running. Or running better, given the lack of smog inspections in our part of the world.

I’ve never thought of myself as a Suburban owner, but this picture makes it very possible to imagine. I get it now, thirty years later. And isn’t that what Curbsiding is all about? Falling in love with the cars and big SUVs that I never owned?

Briefly; and then climbing into my car of choice and driving off, until the next unrequited love affair.