Classic Chevs: World’s 'first SUV' meets its successor in SA

Ferdi de Vos
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 OLD MEETS NEW: Ferdi de Vos lines up the facelifted Chevrolet Trailblazer with its 80-year-old predecessor. Image: Ferdi de Vos ~ Wheels24

Cape Town - Mention the word Suburban and it instinctively conjures up Hollywood-esque scenes of a tight convoy of black trucks, crawling with dark-suited CIA special agents with even darker sunglasses, speeding along a desert highway in some god-forsaken third-world country…

It is quite apt too, because seven decades ago the Chevy Suburban started life as a model specifically built for the military National Guard units and semi-military Civilian Conservation Corps units in the US. 

At the time much of its body was still constructed from wood, and it could seat up to eight - three occupants in the front row, two in the middle row, and three at the rear - while either the side-hinged rear panel doors or a rear tailgate/lift window could be selected to give access to the cargo area.

The Suburban is also very important in Chevy folklore, as it is the longest-surviving vehicle nameplate in the world. 

Image: Ferdi de Vos

Eight decades, 11 generations

Now in its eleventh incarnation the Suburban is the longest continuous model still in production - spanning eight decades. It came into being when early in the 1930’s GM acquired the company Martin-Parry to build bodies for commercial chassis. 

By 1935 Chevrolet offered a station wagon body built on the half-ton truck frame, and while initially produced for military use, the 1936 “Carryall Suburban” was aimed at private buyers and became one of Chevrolet and GM’s most profitable vehicles.

Ed Welburn, who recently retired as global vice president of design at General Motors, described the 1936 Suburban as one of the all-time great Chevrolets and “arguably the first sport-utility vehicle (SUV) in the world".

The first Suburbans

While the term "SUV" did not become popular until the late 1980s early sport utilities were descendants from commercial and military vehicles such as the World War II Jeep and Land Rover. The earliest examples of these longer-wheelbase wagon-type vehicles include the Suburban, the Russian GAZ-61 (1938) and Willys Jeep Station Wagon (1948).

The first generation was offered by Chevrolet as the “Carryall Suburban” and shared its front sheet metal and frames with the half-ton pickup models of the same year. However, it featured an all-metal wagon body differing very slightly from the contemporary “woodie” wagons.

READ: Chev's new flagship SUV - New Trailblazer rolls into SA

Compared to the GAZ and Jeep the first Suburbans, being only two-wheel drive (4x4 was only available as standard from fifth generation models in 1960), perhaps did not fully comply with the modern day definition of a SUV.

However, from 1942 four-wheel drive assemblies called the Power-Pak kit could be ordered from the company Napco. This kit even had a “shift on the fly” rubber mounted transfer case with a dual-range option.

From 1957 the Power-Pak option could be ordered directly from GM and installed on the factory line with very few modifications to the original chassis. In South Africa GM already in 1926 established a production facility, and from 1937 onwards started assembling the Chev Suburban in Kempston Road, Port Elizabeth. The second generation model (1940) was also produced in right-hand drive form.

While it’s not exactly clear when local Suburban assembly stopped, demand for the outsize vehicle dropped with the influx of smaller, cheaper and more frugal vehicles from Japan in the ‘Sixties.

Also, stricter local content regulations, the decision to only produce it in left-hand drive, and the fuel crisis of 1973 hastened its local demise.

Image: Ferdi de Vos

Trailblazer road-trip

Imagine South Africa in the early ‘Forties. 

With only about 2000km of paved roads in and around the major cities, it meant any trip past city limits was inevitably on rutted dirt tracks, with rocks, water splashes and a couple of farm gates thrown in for good measure.

This was the type of roads vehicles like the Suburban had to traverse, and even a relatively short road trip – to the then newly built Hartebeespoort Dam, for instance – could become a major trek…

Driven: Chevrolet Trailblazer - ageing but still in the SUV fight

So, back in the day vehicles needed to be hardy and sturdy, possess a high ground clearance, and also needed to be easily fixable, as service stations (not to mention mechanics) was virtually non-existent in the bushveld…

Fast forward seven decades, and our trip following the Magalies Meander from Jozi over Harties to Rustenburg, in the very recently revamped 2016 Chev Trailblazer was routine. 

The purpose of our trip? 

To meet up with a classic South African assembled Suburban in a place close to Rustenburg one can only describe as pure Chevy heaven.

You see, Philip Classics, the private collection of Philip Mostert, consists mainly of Chev vehicles from as early as 1926 to the 1980’s; most bought and restored locally, but some also imported.

His collection now totals 52 driveable cars – including Chevy Coupes from 1931 to 1941, Phaetons from 1926 to 1928, wagons from 1953 to 1960, the full 1960 Chevrolet model range, as well as Impalas and Corvettes…

However, it was his well-preserved dark blue 1940 Chev Suburban Carryall that caught our attention – as the Trailblazer for all intents and purposes is the spiritual successor to this model in South Africa.

Image: Ferdi de Vos

Classic encounter 

The 1940 model was the final version of the first generation Suburban Carryall and it was available with either rear panel doors, designated 3106, or with tailgate doors, designated 3116. 

Chevrolet’s description of this model would not have been out of place depicting a modern SUV like the Trailblazer today: 
“The first generation Suburban was often put to work carrying up to eight persons, plus their gear and luggage, to rugged and remote locations — where work, play or the pursuit of adventure awaited…”

READ: Five countries, 21 days... Here's how to have a epic African Road Trip

Still, its 216 cubic-inch (3.5litre) inline six-cylinder engine, affectionately called the Stovebolt, produced only 63kW at 3400rpm and 230Nm of torque at 1200rpm. Combined with a three-speed manual gearbox it had its work cut out to propel the heavy Suburban (it weighed a massive 3.43 tons) forward.

In size it is also comparable to the latest Trailblazer. It is marginally longer (4994mm vs. 4887mm) but their wheelbases are virtually the same (2883mm vs. 2845mm), and in terms of height and interior space there’s also not much difference.

However, when it comes to cargo capacity the seven-seat Trailblazer has the edge (1830 litres available with the rear seats folded down).
Both have as a ladder-frame chassis and independent (called “knee-action” in the Suburban’s heyday) front suspension.

But the oldie’s hydraulic drum brake system, high white sidewall tyres and sealed beam headlights is replaced by an advanced disc brake system, wide lower-profile tyres and halogen headlights, including LED daytime running lights, for the Trailblazer.

The classic Suburban wagon shares its design cues with the 1935 half-ton pickup truck, and it still looks classy and distinguished next to its modern counterpart.

The Trailblazer’s trademark ‘bowtie bar’ is now wider and the grille sections with bolder horizontal slats now run the full width of the nose. The new bonnet also has sleeker contours on the leading edge.

Inside it’s another matter altogether. In stark contrast to Chev’s latest SUV the Suburban’s interior is Spartan, with bench seats, no carpets to speak of, and no amenities such as aircon, electric windows or even a radio… 

More refined and safer than before, the flagship 2.8 LTZ 4x4 auto model now has a next generation MyLink 2.0 multimedia interface and driver aids such as lane departure warning and blind spot alert.

It also has adjustable air conditioning for passengers in all three rows, fold-flat third row seating, a revised sound-deadening package, more soft-touch materials and standard leather upholstery.

Image: Ferdi de Vos

On the road

Given its age the Suburban’s six-pot mill is surprisingly smooth and quiet, but not very powerful, and on the road patience is the name of the game…
While supposedly synchronised, the gearbox needs to be treated in the same way as a crash ’box, matching engine revs to your shifts to ensure a smooth change. 

This is quite taxing, made worse by heavy clutch action, and the steering – with no power assistance – is slow and cumbersome, and its turning circle tank-like, while the brakes, compared to the boosted systems nowadays, are virtually non-existent.

To drive the old wagon takes a fair amount of concentration, while the Trailblazer is a total breeze in comparison.

Its new power steering system, featuring Active Pull and Smooth Road Shake Compensation, adds to a smoother, refined driving experience, while big ventilated discs (300mm) in front and 295mm discs at the rear, plus four-channel ABS and Brake Force Distribution, provide deadly stopping power.
Other safety features include PBA (Panic Brake Assist), HBFA (Hydraulic Brake Fade Assist), seven airbags, ISOFIX child seat anchors, front park assist, Stabilitrak, HDC (Hill Descent Control), TSC (Trailer Sway Control) and a rear mounted camera parking assistance system - all technology that didn’t exist seventy years ago…

With the proven 2.8-litre Duramax turbodiesel engine with 144kW and a class-leading 500Nm of torque, cruising on the highway or tackling tough off-road challenges are made easy.

Due to its good torque delivery, acceleration is brisk (0 to 100km/h takes 10.4 seconds) and even towing a braked trailer weighing 2965kg is easy, making the Trailblazer a true “carryall”.

The LTZ 4x4 auto is now available for R613 200, which includes Chevrolet’s Complete Care after sales package, a five-year or 120 000km warranty and a five-year or 90 000km service plan.

Actually, the first generation Suburban was the original SUV trailblazer, while the new, upgraded and refined Trailblazer is more of a suburban cruiser. Yet, both of them still exemplify the ideal type of vehicle for extended road trips…

*This 1940 Chevrolet Suburban belongs to Philip Mostert of Philip Classics.

Image: Ferdi de Vos