Cars We Remember: The first ever SUV

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1963 Jeep WagoneerBy Greg Zyla

Q: Greg, I enjoyed reading your column about the first ever domestic hatchback, which you gave to the 1949-1954 Kaiser Traveler utility sedan and sibling Frazer Vagabond from 1949-1951. You said that both had had “all of the necessities to be called the ‘Godfather of the modern era hatchback.’ If you could mention what you feel is the first ever Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), which model would it be? Of course, we’re looking for made in America vehicles. Thanks, George Andrews, Dover, Delaware.

A: George, thanks for remembering my column concerning the Kaiser Traveler and Frazer Vagabond, both available starting in 1949. These vehicles offered the consumer a hatchback style drop-down trunk, a flip up rear window and rear seats that folded down. The cabin featured wood skid strips that helped hold the cargo in place, and Kaiser advertising pointed to the fact that an owner could put a double bed in the pickup truck like cargo space.

As for naming the first ever SUV, that’s an easy call to make.

Of all vehicles out there, the 1949 Willys Jeep Station Wagon in my opinion is the very first SUV ever built, as it included a strong four-wheel drive under body with the flexibility of the station wagon body design.

Willys-Overland called the creation simply the Jeep Station Wagon, which debuted as a standalone model in 1946 but available in rear wheel drive configuration only. Available through 1948, this initial rear-drive wagon received power from a four cylinder for the first two years and then a new six-cylinder in 1948.

However, when Willys offered four-wheel drive as an option on its 1949 wagon, the die was cast. Not only was Jeep the first ever official SUV, this vehicle laid the groundwork for a great future ahead that includes eight decades through 2014. Notable, too, is the rarity of that first SUV, as less than 4,500 1949 “4×4” wagons were produced at Jeep’s Toledo, Ohio, factory.

The importance of this end of the Forties decade innovation, however, cannot be disputed. To this day, Jeep inspired 4×4 SUVs still combine passenger room, off-road capabilities, towing ability and cargo space are the hallmarks of success. Today, millions of modern-day Jeeps travel the nation’s highways, with a lucky few still motoring in 1949 wagons.

Produced through the 1962 model year, the original wagon received an upgrade in 1963 dubbed Jeep Wagoneer (see photo). Next came the Jeep Cherokee in 1984 and then a bevy of modern day marvels culminating in this year’s brilliant 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4.

Thanks for your question George, and also thanks to Willys-Overland, AMC and Chrysler LLC for keeping the Jeep SUV brand at the top.

(Greg Zyla writes weekly for Gatehouse Media and and welcomes reader questions on auto nostalgia and old-time motorsports at 116 main St., Towanda, Pa. 18848 or email at

Greg Zyla

Greg Zyla

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