Although the 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon is widely credited as the first sport-utility vehicle, the basic form for modern car-based crossovers is a trend that my dad totally predicted. I’ll explain.
My father, George Koscs, Sr., was not a car designer, engineer, or collector, but he was something of a casual car enthusiast. He sometimes spoke fondly of the 1953 Mercury he owned from new until it was replaced with our first family station wagon, a 1962 Mercury Colony Park. After another Colony Park (1967) and then a Ford Country Squire (1973), and long after family hauling was needed, he bought a 1984 Ford LTD sedan, the downsized model based on the Fairmont platform.
Although he liked the LTD, my father occasionally missed the practicality of the old wagons. He admired Chrysler’s minivans, but not the truck-based SUVs of the time. Around the late 1980s, he suggested to me that carmakers ought to consider updating the general form of certain late 1930s and ’40s sedans—not the old styling, but rather the way they maximized passenger room.
About 10 years later, Chrysler brought back that form, and some of the styling, for the PT Cruiser. The result was, as my father had envisioned, a more practical package compared to a similarly sized sedan. And the PT was a big hit, too. My father thought the approach might work on a larger vehicle, as well, but again, he was not necessarily advocating for retro styling.
The example my father liked to use was a 1939 Buick Limited once owned by his brother-in-law, my uncle Jack, who had bought it in the late 1940s. It was the limousine version with the jump seats, essentially making it a three-row car. My parents (before they were married) and my uncle ran in the same circle of friends, and since Jack’s big Buick was one of the few cars in the group, and the roomiest, it was often pressed into service for carrying seven or eight into New York City.
Some background on the Buick Limited will help put such outings into perspective: Introduced in 1936 as the Series 90 Limited (succeeding a model called Series 90), this top-line model rode on an enormous 138-inch wheelbase, which was increased to 140 inches starting with the 1938 model. Yet, at about 219 inches long, the Limited was a bit shorter overall than Buick’s biggest land yachts of the late 1950s and ’60s.
My father referred to my uncle’s Buick Limited as “a tank” for its size and nearly 5000-pound heft. Add seven or eight passengers, and weight eclipsed 6000 pounds. Imagine wielding that beast around Manhattan, grappling with a three-speed manual transmission and non-assisted brakes and steering.
The maneuverability of a Buick Limited is not the issue here, however. My father made some other salient points about the cars of that period that he thought might be translated into a modernized form. The big Buick and its ilk rode higher than modern cars and were easier to get in and out of, especially for older people. There was good visibility from windows all around. Passengers had plenty of headroom. Trunks were tall and generally a good size, but more critical was that liftover height was low for easy loading. One drawback of the era’s designs was that, before enveloping car bodies, passenger cabins were narrow.
The Buick Limited, by the way, was so named because it was a premium, limited-production model. Buick made about 16,000 over seven model years. The brand’s later use of the name diluted its meaning, and “Limited” today is simply a high trim line from several brands.
Ghosts of Buicks past
But I digress. The Buick Limited rode high because, like other cars of the period, the body rested atop a separate frame. Hudson’s “step down” construction introduced for 1948 revolutionized car design by lowering the roofline by several inches compared to many other contemporary cars. Through the 1950s, car models got longer, lower and wider.
Coupes became more prevalent, and station wagons grew in popularity as family vehicles in the 1960s and ’70s. Full-size wagons offered up to three seating rows with nine-passenger capability, with folding seatbacks to expand cargo space. The boxy minivans of the 1980s put station wagons in a downward spiral, and the SUV trend later put the bite on minivans while finishing off most wagons. Buyers loved the practicality of SUVs but not the truck-like ride, handling, and fuel economy, and so the car-based SUV, or “crossover,” came to save the day.
And what is a crossover? It’s based on a unibody car. It rides higher than a sedan, so it can be easier to get in and out of, and it gives a better view of the road ahead. It has a taller roofline than a sedan for plenty of headroom. Hmmm, sounds familiar.
My father passed away in 2003, so he was around to see the rise of the SUVs but did not care for them. In 1994 he’d bought a Chrysler LHS, impressed by its design and roominess. I think he would have recognized his late 1980s idea in some modern SUVs and crossovers, including luxury models like the Audi Q7, Bentley Bentayga and, of course, the Buick Enclave. One look at the Lincoln MKT, which to my eye seems much like those tall, late-1930s sedans, and I think he would have felt vindicated.