The concept of a large, truck-based wagon is not a new one by any means. The Suburban nameplate has existed since 1935 and passed through no less than 12 generations in that time. The 2021 Chevy Suburban is built on that tradition, and while it has features that were simply not possible at the time of its inception, the history of this truck is worth looking into. The SUV you see today has its roots in The Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Oil Embargo, to name a few events that the legendary Suburban has had to overcome. With such a long history behind it, there is so much to discuss about this model, but today we are going to look at some of the most notable versions of this beloved SUV.
In the Beginning: The First Suburban
The 1930s was a watershed period of history for the entire world, and America found itself in the depths of one of the worst financial crises it had ever seen. The Gilded Age with its Jazz and ticker tape parades must have seemed like a distant memory to the men and women suddenly finding themselves without work, without homes, and many… without hope. Listen to the song Pennies From Heaven by Bing Crosby, recorded in 1936. Imagine that playing through the crackling radio in your sitting room as you prepare to walk to your train stop in the drizzling rain some lonely morning.
You brace yourself for the ride to your job site in the same old woody station hack as you sit on the train leaving the city. You know for a fact that the wood-framed wagon will leak and creak the whole way there. The ride will jar you and your fellow workmen around like a ball bearing in a paint shaker. The work you do is hard enough without needing to endure that! However, as you step off the platform, you see something that makes you stop, and as you wring water from your felt fedora, it looks like your company got you and the boys a new way to work. A Chevrolet, with an all-steel body, a rear heater, and a rear bumper to boot!
Introduced in 1935, the “Carryall” Suburban was the first all-steel bodied station wagon to hit the market. Unlike the wagons before it, which were based on cars, the Carryall was based on a truck, and that let it stand up to the use and abuse of a growing nation. While primitive with its straight-six and solid axles, it can seem very different from the SUV we know today, but the modern Suburban carries with it the fighting spirit and optimism that America is known for.
Advancing Forward: Third and Fourth Generations
The body style of the fourth generation ditched the boxy, upright styling of the previous two for a wraparound windshield, more power from the venerable Stovebolt in-line six, and better visibility from larger back glass. This generation was one of the most popular, and its signature rounded hood and fenders would inspire cars like the HHR and the SSR many years later. It’s worth taking a listen to the song Pennies From Heaven again, but this time try the Louis Prima version. The basic theme of hope is present in both, but they are very different songs. The brass section is bright and happy, the lyrics practically leaping from your speakers in jubilation.
In just 20 years, America had seen a massive upturn in its economy and overall perception of the future at that time. Men returning overseas from the Second World War would start huge families, and those families needed a vehicle like the fifth generation Suburban to shuffle them around the newly-formed suburbs. The introduction and installation of Chevy’s near-immortal small block V8 for this model meant one could take the whole family across the state or coast to coast thanks to Eisenhower’s Autobahn (the new Interstate Highway system), with the speed and comfort one can still find represented in the 2021 model.
Long Live The King: The Seventh Generation
Lasting for 18 years, this generation of the Suburban is known as the “Squarebody” and remains incredibly popular among collectors. Far less utilitarian on the inside than its forbearers, it featured air conditioning for front and rear passengers and third-row seating. It was the very start of the family SUV, focused on the comfort of its passengers as well as being just as sturdy as the ones that came before it. Gone were the days of in-line sixes; the V8 was here to stay. One could even have a heavy-duty big block for those jobs that needed an excess of power. One could haul their family, all their gear for a weekend getaway, and the RV to stay in once they arrived!
Up and Coming: The GMT 400 Platform
While the last of this model rolled off the line in 1999, they are still sought after by those wanting a large SUV with old-school styling and modern touches that might be otherwise out of their price range. The engines on offer are familiar to any mechanic, and parts are dirt cheap thanks to the proliferation of the drivetrain throughout Chevy history. Collectors have largely ignored this truck until recently, but with every generation, we move farther away from its styling, and some are finding the rugged simplicity and the last of the boxy body styles worth adding to a collection.
Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Twelfth Generation
Newly introduced for the 2021 model year, the 12th generation Suburban is the most capable yet, loaded with features that carry on GM’s decades-long tradition of innovation. While we look back at its past, no one can argue the new Suburban is what it’s always been: a large, well-appointed wagon made to carry lots of people and cargo reliably. While the new 2021 Suburban pays homage to the decades past in terms of its design philosophy, it is a thoroughly modern SUV inside and out. The bold grille is in line with the rest of Chevy’s cohesive design language, and the crisp lines retain the handsome bodywork found on the rest of GM’s truck lines.
Inside, you’ll find best-in-class second-row legroom, best-in-class cargo volume, and a power-operated center console. This allows it to slide backward out of the way of the front seat to give passengers a secure place to store items out of the range of prying eyes. Road trips will never be the same for the rear seat occupants because there is an available entertainment system featuring a screen for each occupant on either side of the vehicle that is able to display two separate things at once.
For almost 90 years, the story of the Suburban has been the story of America. Through all the troubles we’ve faced, we have found a way to move forward while never losing sight of where we came from. Rugged, dependable, willing to do what needs to be done to get to see the job through. Take a chance on America’s legacy; you won’t be disappointed.