Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Mercedes-Benz G-Class by IFCAR (CC BY)
Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Mercedes-Benz G-Class by IFCAR (CC BY)

DRIVING FOR SPORT

Sport utility vehicles — combining the comfort of passenger cars, the capabilities of off-road vehicles, and the storage and towing capacity associated with trucks — were driven into prominence in the 1990s by soccer moms and weekend warriors, and their popularity has never waned. But the earliest versions of what we call SUVs date back to the 1930s. Here's a look at some of the most innovative, popular, and enduring models ever built.

Jason Notte contributed to this story.

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1991 Ford Explorer
1991 Ford Explorer by Bull-Doser (CC BY)

FORD EXPLORER

The Ford Explorer gets a lot of credit for starting the sport utility vehicle revolution that dominated the final decade of the 20th century. Based on the compact Ranger pickup and designed as a four-door replacement for the two-door Ford Bronco II, the Explorer was first built in 1990 for model year 1991. Big, powerful, roomy, and reliable, the Explorer was an instant hit that sold 300,000 units a year in the first generation and 400,000 a year for the second generation — more than its most popular American competitors and more than all foreign SUVs combined.

1935 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall
Courtesy of GM Corp

CHEVROLET SUBURBAN CARRYALL

Described by Automotive News as the seed that would grow into the SUV, the Chevrolet Suburban Carryall arrived in 1935. It was built on a half-ton commercial truck chassis, was fully windowed, carried up to eight passengers in three rows of bench seating — two rows of which could be removed — and featured external running boards. Replacing wood with steel, the Carryall was in a class by itself in terms of durability and cargo and passenger space. Although it did not yet have four-wheel drive, it was the prototype for the station wagons and SUVs to come, and the Chevy Suburban would go on to become history's oldest continually produced vehicle.

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1949 Willys Jeep Station Wagon
Courtesy of mecum.com

WILLYS JEEP STATION WAGON

In 1946, the Willys-Overland Co. introduced a revolutionary wagon that was far safer and offered far more interior room than the so-called "woodies" that came before. The all-steel wagon seated seven and was easy to maintain. In 1949, the Willys Jeep Station Wagon got a major upgrade that could qualify it to be classified as one of the first true SUVs: It became available in four-wheel drive.

1948 Land Rover Series I
1948 Land Rover Series I by Sicnag (CC BY)

LAND ROVER SERIES I

The British answer to the Jeep, the first Land Rover debuted in 1948 — 30 years before the Land Rover company was formed. Although the Jeep-based, four-wheel-drive bruiser was military inspired, it was the prototype for what would become luxury off-road vehicles. The so-called "go anywhere vehicle" was the start of a 70-years-and-counting production run that spawned iconic and enduring luxury off-road brands such as the Range Rover.

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1957 Toyota Land Cruiser
Courtesy of hymanltd.com

TOYOTA LAND CRUISER

The origins of the Toyota Land Cruiser date to the Korean War, when the Japanese company delivered a prototype utility vehicle to the U.S. Army that was more powerful than the American Jeep. Mass production of the Toyota Jeep BJ began in 1953, but a year later the war was over and Toyota found itself marketing the rugged, durable, powerful utility vehicle to civilian consumers. In a not-so-subtle bid to position itself as a direct competitor to the Land Rover, Toyota in 1954 renamed the "BJ" the "Land Cruiser."

1956 International Harvester Travelall
1956 International Harvester Travelall by Charles01 (CC BY)

INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER TRAVELALL

The New York Times once referred to the International Harvester Travelall as "an S.U.V. pioneer that left before the party began." The International Harvester brand was known for its commercial trucks and farm tractors when it unveiled the Travelall in 1953. The 1956 model, however, is the first that can be considered an SUV forerunner because that's when it was offered with four-wheel drive, beating the Chevy Suburban to the punch by four years.

1971 Range Rover
1971 Range Rover by Paul Townsend (CC BY)

RANGE ROVER

The Range Rover has long been synonymous with luxury performance off-road vehicles. It all started in 1969 with a design so top-secret that the first 26 prototypes were all named "Velar," based on the Italian word that means "to veil" or "to cover." In 1970, the Velar concept car was unveiled as the Range Rover, the first early SUV to offer permanent four-wheel drive and a split tailgate.

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1982 AMC Eagle
1982 AMC Eagle by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY)

AMC EAGLE

By the end of the 1970s, the American Motor Corp. existed in the shadow of the Big Three automakers and was known for a run of poorly received lemons including the Concord, the Gremlin, and the Pacer. In 1979, however, AMC turned to its Jeep division to create a genre-busting passenger car with extra storage room, extra ground clearance, and full-time four-wheel drive. The next year, it debuted as the AMC Eagle, which could be considered the world's first crossover SUV.

1985 Jeep Cherokee XJ
1985 Jeep Cherokee XJ by Niels de Wit (CC BY)

JEEP CHEROKEE XJ

The second generation of Jeep Cherokee was the XJ, which debuted in 1984. It set itself apart instantly from its sport-utility competitors and every Jeep that had come before — and might just be the most famous Jeep in history. It was the first of its kind to feature a unibody design, and it was smaller than its peers, had four doors and a much higher towing capacity, and it boasted much higher ground clearance than its contemporaries. Unlike so many competitors, it was more than just a souped-up station wagon. The groundbreaking Jeep Cherokee XP would sell nearly 3 million units between 1984 and 2001, making it one of the most popular SUVs in history.

1992 Hummer H1
Courtesy of carsforsale.com

HUMMER H1

In 1992, a macho monstrosity called the Hummer H1 hit the streets, a huge, heavy, bright, and loud civilian version of the military Humvee both reviled and revered almost instantly. For some — who drove them around as if they didn't have a 10-foot wheelbase, nearly a foot and a half of ground clearance, and nearly 4 tons of curb weight — it was the physical embodiment of the no-apologies, in-your-face excess of outsized American consumerism. For environmentalists and anyone who had to drive or park near one, it was a menacing and gas-guzzling road-hog. Either way, it is an undeniable classic and a symbol of a bygone era where less was definitely not more, even if fewer than 12,000 were sold before sales halted in 2006.

1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee
1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee by IFCAR (CC BY)

JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE

The Ford Explorer didn't have close competitors until the Jeep Grand Cherokee came along. The Grand Cherokee was supposed to replace the Cherokee XJ, but the trusty XJ kept on selling; debuting at the Detroit Auto Show in 1992, the Grand Cherokee stood apart for its luxury, comfort, and innovative safety features such as a driver-side airbag. It sold 200,000 units in its second year and would peak at 300,000 units in 1999.

1996 Second-Generation Nissan Pathfinder
Courtesy of bouldervalleymotors.com

SECOND-GENERATION NISSAN PATHFINDER

Nissan introduced the Pathfinder in model year 1987, but the two-door hardbody was more of a closed pickup than an SUV. That all changed in model year 1996, when the second-generation Pathfinder emerged to compete with the industry-leading Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Featuring a unibody design, the new Pathfinder broke away from its pickup origins and focused more on handling and interior comfort.

2000 Second Generation Subaru Outback
Courtesy of awdautosales.com

SECOND GENERATION SUBARU OUTBACK

The Outback is the flagship model of the Subaru brand and the vehicle that commands the most admiration from Subaru loyalists. Based on the AMC Eagle, the original Outback debuted at the 1994 New York Auto Show. It would run through 1999 and grow to include spinoffs such as the Legacy and Sport. Even though it featured Subaru's famous and long-running all-wheel-drive system, it was, in essence, a powerful, capable station wagon. The 2000-04 Generation Two Outback, however, raised the ride height, offered a roomier interior, and added plastic body cladding. It was an SUV all the way, and many consider it to be the most capable, most dependable of all time.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Mercedes-Benz G-Class by IFCAR (CC BY)

MERCEDES-BENZ G-CLASS

The evolve-or-die doctrine applies to virtually all things, but not the Mercedes-Benz G-Class — a big, boxy, hulking status symbol Autotrader once compared to horseshoe crabs and hammerhead sharks. The "G" stands for Geländewagen, which means "cross-country vehicle," and Mercedes produced the first ones in the 1970s for the Shah of Iran. Even though it remains one of Daimler's longest-running vehicles, the G-Class has undergone few fundamental changes since it first appeared. Although it was supposed to be replaced by the 2006 GL-Class, the G-Class remains in production and in high-demand among well-heeled motorists who crave its luxury and instant recognizability.