Before SUVs Everything Was An SUV: Cold Start

Cs Volarecamp

You know how part of the alleged appeal of crossovers and SUVs, usually conveyed via large wheels and tires and black cladding and fake plastic “skid plates” is that it can’t be just a parent car and grocery grabber because look how rugged it is! At any moment, a CR-V owner could just quit their job and drive out into the wilderness and start fresh, eating roots and tubers and living off the land!

Maybe that’s just a myth we tell ourselves. If it is, it’s one that’s been hinted at long before crossovers and SUVs, because, before those were around, we just told ourselves we could do that in anything, bishes. Like this 1978 Plymouth Volare wagon, seen out in the middle of the forest, no obvious roads around.

These things were RWD with 3-speed slushboxes on crappy street radials and had all the traction of a hungry dog on a freshly-waxed kitchen floor. Maybe it could have gotten there if the photographer is standing on the road?

Anyway, it’s a fun dream still. Enjoy it.

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39 Responses

  1. My family had a green Aspen like that. I didn’t miss it. All this off road nonsense is overrated for the gravel roads with a few ruts and roots that make up the most challenging extent of what most people might go down. Are you a HS guy looking for a place to park in the woods with your GF? A damn RWD Delta 88 with worn, cheap tires and chrome impact bumper “brush guards” will easily get you where, today, some tool in a muscle shirt thinks he needs a Wrangler with $20k in suspension mods to traverse, though he’d still never try it lest a pebble gets kicked up and causes a scratch. If your Delta is a coupe, make sure you’re between trees enough to swing the big doors.

  2. “[…] on crappy street radials[…]”

    Here’s an article idea for the engineering side of things: Bias ply vs. radial. What is the difference? Pros and cons? When did bias ply finally fade into oblivion, or has it? What is the impact on suspension engineering?

    In the mid-1980’s I was buying used bias plys for my 1973 Dodge. I don’t know if I could have replaced all 4 with radials and still had the same performance, except I didn’t have money for a full set of tires.

      1. ” Most people under the age of–40, maybe?”

        I’d guess most people under the age of (at least) 65 have no idea what a bias-ply tire is…
        hell are bias-ply tires even vulcanized? 🙂

        Quick search turned up this blog post* suggesting approx. 1975/76 as when GM vehicles came from the factory w/radials, so 1975-20 = 1955, since I’m guessing the majority of people under 20 weren’t likely to be buying their own tires (their parents were instead…), which gives an age of 67 yrs. old….

        The majority of people don’t even have a basic “XYZ Book for Dummies” level of knowledge for the technology involved for the products they interact with daily. (basics of batteries, cell phones, computers, etc…)

        I’m under 50 & I’m certain that I only know about bias-ply tires (and vulcanization for that matter) b/c I love cars and technology.


        1. I can remember Pontiac advertising “radial tuned suspension” (actually a real thing due to different tire dynamics) but the last family vehicle with bias ply tires was the 64 Valiant, sold in 69. My parents drove subsequently imports which rode on radials.

      2. I’m 45 and am still haunted by a British public information film from the early 80s which I am sure featured an Austin 1100, and the tag line ‘don’t mix Cross Plies and Radials or you might not live to regret it.’ I’ve certainly never seen cross (bias) ply tyres on a car since I’ve been driving though.

    1. And add to that the conversion from tubed tires to tubeless. A deep dive into tire mechanics and forces would be quite welcome. I had to ask around when thinking of changing to radials for my stock ’64 F100 bias-ply designed rims. The side forces on the rim are different. How much I would like to know.

  3. I learned to drive in a very similar 1977 Dodge Aspen station wagon with the 225 slant six and a three-speed slushbox. I still to this day find the styling oddly attractive, although the quality of the car itself other than the motor was not great. That was the era where you always needed to carry a spare ballast resistor.

    In the article you question the ability of the car to get into remote places. As people like Mercedes have shown with her Smart, you can actually get a lot of “inappropriate” vehicles into some very bad places with judicious wheeling. The reason people like me have off-road capable vehicles is not only to get into really bad spots, and I do sometimes, but also to have a vehicle that won’t be torn apart by a lot of the crappy roads and conditions I get into. That doesn’t mean I haven’t gone plenty of places with vehicles that had no business doing so.

  4. Did you know you could get these with 4 on the floor? Around 1990 an occasional customer at work had one of those and another had a 78 or 79 Chevy Malibu wagon with 4 on the floor.
    In the absence of modern soft readers you run what you brung. In the 70s our BMW 2000 saw a lot of dirt roads and when he was in college my son’s Buick LeSabre logged more off road mileage than the average Subaru Outback.

  5. I’d love a wood-paneled wagon to turn into a nice family cruiser for weekend trips! I don’t want an SUV or minivan (although I see the practicality), I want a low-slung wagon with a decent stereo in it!

  6. Wow, look how ruggedly Marlboro that man is! He’s straight-up channeling some Jerry Reed there. I feel like he should be on the CB with Bandit instead of camping in the woods with his secret road family.

  7. I have an XJ 4×4 now, but by far the car I owned that got the most miles on logging roads and other unpaved stuff was my first car, a ’91 Festiva. Never got stuck, and only had to turn around once.

  8. “Maybe it could have gotten there if the photographer is standing on the road?”
    I once knocked the muffler loose on an ’81 Chevy Citation going down a road with pretty big rocks. It was meant for log trucks, but I took the Citation down it a lot. And other logging roads that were more mud than road. If it could (mostly) handle that, I believe that this station wagon could drive out into a field in what appears to be pretty ideal conditions.

  9. For lack of anywhere else to put this I saw my first Polestar 2 on the road this morning on the way into work. Usually I find that I like cars better when I see them in person than I do in pictures but that was not the case in this instance. The front and back ends looked chopped off and the rear seemed absolutely massive and the taillight bar looked so huge that it seemed to extend beyond the vehicle. I was hopeful from the pics I had seen but I found it truly unpleasant to look at.

  10. Years (decades) ago me and a group of friends used to go softroading in Pennsylvania. Because, well basically any Ford of off roading was against the law, and none of us really had a 4×4. Most of them had 2wd trucks and whatnot. I however had a mid 80s retired Ford LTD (before they were just called Crow Victorias) crank up windows and 351 with the horrible variable venturi carb. It replaced my much loved, but very dead Baja bug (I gave it a glorious death)
    A lot of people asked me why I chose that car to do this. I of course didn’t tell them it was because I was broke, and this is all I could afford. So I just told them my car is basically a 2wd truck. Full frame. Solid axle. Engine in the front. It’s just a little lower.

    1. I know so many people with 4X4’s who’ve actually never put their vehicles into 4 wheel drive. One guy I knew didn’t even know how and he had owned the vehicle for over a year. They need to create a new trim level called Faux X Four where you get the stickers and big wheels and painted on mud splashes.

      1. “They need to create a new trim level called Faux X Four where you get the stickers and big wheels and painted on mud splashes.”

        The saddest examples of which I’ve come across were people who put 4WD badges on their FWD Subaru wagons.

  11. In another life as a reporter, I covered what passed for a forest fire in New Jersey. The photographer goaded me to drive my ’88 Horizon down a fire road into the woods to meet up with the firefighters. We had to stop and hoof it eventually, but I didn’t break anything or get stuck.

    The best part was riding on (not in) a brush truck to the actual fire. Then somebody came on the radio asking about this car blocking the road…

  12. Torch makes a good philosophical point here about cars in general.

    I grew up in the heyday of the “sport coupe.” Eventually owned one, and still love ’em (why I’m so happy to watch our resident conservationalist Mr. Gossin try to keep their dwindling numbers as strong as he can.)

    But in a certain way, they were no different than crossovers…they represented a sort of aspirational thing that lived in your imagination, and at the end of the day, were somewhat fake in real life. As in, no matter how much we wanted them to be, they weren’t performance cars. But we dreamed.

    I wonder if any crossover buyers eventually find themselves in a real off-road capable SUV that they’ll actually use as such, and think back fondly to when they got their start?

    1. The 1st gen CRV and Rav-4 have both aged well. I occasionally see one with a mild lift and knobby tires and am shocked at how much I like it ( my teenage self wouldnt have been caught dead in either when they were new. I owned both an 89 Bronco II and an 83 Bronco then and considered myself to be a “real” off roader guy).

    2. I am very fond of the sports coupe, especially econobox based ones as I said on my Helios article. It’s impractical for a family but it exudes the cool of a Marlboro man in front of a rocky mountain sunset.

      Living in the snowbelt I can’t fault people for wanting an awd vehicle with ground clearance, you will need it 4 months of the year. I can fault them for not buying snow tires but that is another argument. What I don’t get is people in Cali or south of the mason-dixon line in general owning them. Like it snows what, once a year? Go buy a damn fwd hybrid sedan or minivan if you really need three rows.

      1. “What I don’t get is people in Cali or south of the mason-dixon line in general owning them. Like it snows what, once a year? Go buy a damn fwd hybrid sedan or minivan if you really need three rows.”

        The Donner party didn’t think snow in California was a big deal either.

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