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

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1937 Chevrolet Carryall Suburban
1937 Chevrolet Carryall Suburban by Alden Jewell (CC BY)

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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Willys Jeep Station Wagon
Willys Jeep Station Wagon by Matt Morgan (CC BY-SA)

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. 

Related: 24 Timeless Jeeps Everybody Still Loves

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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Toyota Landcruiser FJ40
Toyota Landcruiser FJ40 by Jeremy (CC BY)

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." 

Related: The Surprising History of the Toyota 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. 

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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. 

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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 and one of the most easily recognizable vehicles on the road. Recently, however, the chief of the Cherokee Nation has asked that Jeep stop using the tribe's name on the company's SUVs. 

Related: 23 Big Names and Companies That Had to Rebrand to Avoid Being Canceled

Hummer H1
Hummer H1 by Motoring Weapon R (CC BY-SA)

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. 

Related: 12 Gas Guzzlers We're Ashamed to Admit We Still Want

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 hit 300,000 units in 1999, and production of the Grand Cherokee still continues in a variety versions. 

Related: 17 Things You Didn't Know About Jeeps

2002 Nissan Pathfinder photographed in Fort Washington, Maryland, USA.
2002 Nissan Pathfinder photographed in Fort Washington, Maryland, USA. by IFCAR (None)

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. 

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Second-Generation Subaru Outback
Second-Generation Subaru Outback by OSX (None)

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. 

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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. 

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1992 Jeep YJ
1992 Jeep YJ by Sfoskett~commonswiki (CC BY-SA)

Jeep Wrangler

The long and storied history of Jeep goes back to Willys-Overland Motors and its roots as an icon of World War II. The Civilian Jeep (CJ) series ran from 1945 to 1985 and bridged the gap between Jeeps as military vehicles and — as they improved in both function and form over the years — modern Jeep SUVs. In model year 1987, however, the beloved CJ series was put to bed forever and a new icon emerged, one that would go onto define the Wrangler brand whose slogan is "Go anywhere. Do anything." Still among the most popular off-road ready SUVs on Earth, today's Wrangler still looks strikingly similar — it can't possibly be mistaken for anything else — to the original 1987 YJ.  

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2005 Cadillac Escalade (front view)
2005 Cadillac Escalade (front view) by Bejara70 (CC BY)

Cadillac Escalade

For decades, Cadillac defined luxury, style, and class for generations of athletes, stars, celebrities, and celebrity gangsters. By 1999, however, the brand's prestige had faded and fallen out of fashion, but a new nameplate was about to change all that. The Cadillac Escalade was not the first full-size luxury SUV to hit the market — it was preceded by the Lincoln Navigator — but it was the one that became the go-to ride for movie stars, ballers, and wannabes across the land and that continues to define the segment to this day.

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1986 Ford Bronco Eddie Bauer
1986 Ford Bronco Eddie Bauer by Joost J. Bakker (CC BY)

Ford Bronco

When it comes to big, capable, muscular American vehicles that can rumble off-road and also get you to work at the office, the Ford Bronco stands out as an icon. With a production run from 1966-1996, it offered 30 years of awesomeness across several generations. Gen 1 ran from '66-'77 and included several body options, including what would become the familiar wagon, as well as a tiny pickup clearly designed to parrot the Jeep CJ, and even a roadster. The second and third generations ('78-'79 and '80-'86, respectively) were the Bronco's heydey. Then came the third generation, the Bronco II, which was a smaller, less capable, poorly made, and terribly dangerous machine that represents an unfortunate chapter in the Bronco's otherwise proud lineage. That mess ended in 1987 to make way for the fourth generation and finally in 1992, the fifth generation, made famous by O.J. Simpson. Bronco fans have reason to cheer, as Ford has brought it back. 

Related: 19 Reasons Why Drivers Love the Ford Bronco

A 1989 Centurion Classic; a Ford F-350 crew cab mated with rear bodywork of a Bronco
A 1989 Centurion Classic; a Ford F-350 crew cab mated with rear bodywork of a Bronco by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA)

Ford Centurion Classic

The Bronco wasn't Ford's only casualty in 1996. That year also saw the end of the run for the Ford Centurion Classic, which started production in 1980. A beastly vehicle, the Centurion combined the rear components of a Bronco with the front components of an F150/350 to create something that could compete with Chevy's popular Tahoe and Suburban — a super-Bronco with four doors. 

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International Harvester Scout
International Harvester Scout by Dutchtower (None)

International Harvester Scout

Like so many other early precursors to modern SUVs, the International Harvester Scout was originally designed to compete with mighty Jeep CJ. I.H. was known for making farm machinery before it developed the robust and boxy Scout, which reigned from 1960-1980. It all started with the Scout 80, which was more of a classic pick-'em-up truck that came with a removable travel top—there was also the imaginative but ill-fated Campermobile. From 1961-67, the Scout came into its own with the Scout 800, which came with a huge range of upgrades, the most important of which was a V8 engine. The Scout II, Terra, Traveler, SSII, and other variations would follow, but in the end I.H. Scout actually outsold Jeep in the 1960s.

Jeep Grand Wagoneer (SJ) full-size
Jeep Grand Wagoneer (SJ) full-size by Mic (CC BY)

Jeep Wagoneer

Until 1963, Jeeps still looked like Army cars, but that all changed with the introduction of the Wagoneer, which many consider to be the first true SUV. It existed at the intersection of station wagon and off-road vehicle, and it represents a clear departure for Jeep in terms of both function and style. An innovative, practical, and beautiful vehicle, it was the first 4x4 with an automatic transmission and an independent suspension. It ran all the way through the 1990s and was briefly available as a luxury Super Wagoneer in the late '60s. Jeep fans can also look forward to a sleek, updated Wagoneer coming back this year.

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Toyota 4Runner
Toyota 4Runner by IFCAR (None)

Toyota 4Runner

The 4Runner started as a follow-up to the Trekker, a Toyota truck conversion from the early 1980s. The 4Runner debuted in '84 and the first generation ran through the decade, with successive follow-ups starting in 1990 and continuing on today with the current fifth generation. The original was built on the body of a Hilux truck that was modified for comfort and back-seat passenger space and that came with a fiberglass shell over the bed. What really set the beloved and capable 4x4 apart, however, was its retractable windshield in the rear tailgate.

Late Euro-spec Samurai
Late Euro-spec Samurai by Unknown (CC BY-SA)

Suzuki Samurai

Launched in 1985 for model year 1986, the Suzuki Samurai was a short-lived yet beloved part of the Japanese automaker's long and storied run in the 4x4 off-road segment. The Samurai sold more than 150,000 units in its first three years of production, and a lot of the reason was that it was cheap for a bonafide four-wheel-drive vehicle capable of real offroading — it started at just $6,200. With 28 combined mpg, it was also great on gas. Unfortunately, it was plagued by a negative piece in Consumer Reports about rollover potential, which led to conflicting reports and ultimately long, drawn-out lawsuits that spelled its demise. 

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Suzuki Jimny SJ20
Suzuki Jimny SJ20 by TTTNIS (CC BY)

Suzuki Jimny SJ20

The Samurai was just one model in the long and storied Suzuki Jimny line of off-road vehicles. The first generation ran from 1970-81 and included four distinct models, the last of which was the SJ20. Like most early Jimnys, it was definitely more Jeep-like in both form and function than later incarnations. It was the first of the bunch that was available, however, with a four-stroke engine, and got its power much a much improved 800cc unit.

1993 GMC Typhoon
1993 GMC Typhoon by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY)

GMC Typhoon

The Typhoon holds a brief but important place in GMC history, with its production run lasting only from 1991-93. Based on the big, powerful Syclone pickup truck that debuted the year before, the Typhoon never really caught on, in large part, because it was expensive — $29,470 was a lot of money at the end of the George H.W. Bush presidency. Those who had the means, however, reveled in its turbo engine, luxurious interior, and 280 horsepower. 

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2015 Land Rover Defender
2015 Land Rover Defender by OSX (None)

Land Rover Defender

The Land Rover Defender emerged in 1990 and ran through 2016, but it hardly came out of nowhere. Built on the shoulders of the 90 and the 100, which ran from 1983-1990, the Defender came with a slew of custom and special edition models available until the end of its run. It offered all the improved interior upgrades of the 90 and 100, as well as the same cutting-edge engine lineups, but it also boasted a much-improved powertrain. The Defender L663 is new for 2020. 

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Land Rover Discovery
Land Rover Discovery by Vauxford (CC BY-SA)

Land Rover Discovery

The Land Rover Discovery came out in 1989, a year before the Defender, for model year 1990. It evolved through several series upgrades and remains in production today. What set it apart was cost. It was basically a cheaper version of the Range Rover and the first new major model since the pricey original debuted in 1970, essentially making the Range Rover available to the masses.

1979 Chevrolet K5 Blazer Cheyenne
1979 Chevrolet K5 Blazer Cheyenne by 79k5driver (CC BY-SA)

Chevy Blazer K5

In 1969, General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Blazer K5 as a direct competitor to the Ford Bronco and International Harvester Scout — and compete it did. It was so well received, in fact, that GM followed it up shortly after with the remarkably similar GMC Jimmy. Essentially a pickup with a removable shell, it had all the off-road moxy of the off-road warriors it was designed to challenge, but it also offered features that were commonly found on trucks like an automatic transmission and air conditioning.

Nissan Patrol Y60
Nissan Patrol Y60 by OSX (None)

Nissan Patrol Y60

The Nissan Patrol has a lineage dating back to the years immediately following World War II, when Japan turned to its automotive industry to lead the country's economy out of the ruins of war. It started as a Jeep knockoff, but evolved into the 1960 G60, a well-built vehicle that was both affordable and capable — it was the first vehicle ever to cross Australia's Simpson Desert. By 1987, however, the Patrol had evolved into a true, modern SUV built with comfort, style, and tech in mind, but with all the robust, off-road heft that its proud lineage deserved — the Patrol Y60.

1990 Dodge Ramcharger
1990 Dodge Ramcharger by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY)

Dodge Ramcharger

Dodge built the Ramcharger between 1974-1993, and it was a big, brawny, full-size, truck-based SUV built on the chassis of a Dodge D Series/Ram pickup. Built to compete with the K5 Blazer and the Ford Bronco, it was spread out across three generations of vehicles, each improving upon the last. 

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Lamborghini LM 002, 1988, seen at CLASSIC REMISE, Duesseldorf, Germany
Lamborghini LM 002, 1988, seen at CLASSIC REMISE, Duesseldorf, Germany by Detectandpreserve (CC BY-SA)

Lamborghini LM002

Between 1986-1993, drivers could get inside a big, heavy, powerful SUV that came from the company that gave the world the Countach and the Diablo. Made from aluminum and fiberglass, the Lamborghini LM002 had specially made gripping tires and a massive V12 engine, which allowed it to climb a 120% gradient and roar from 0-62 mph in 7.8 seconds.