1973–91 Suburbans Are the Affordable Way to Square-Body Ownership


Believe it or not, America’s longest serving nameplate isn’t the Mustang. It isn’t the Corvette, either. Nope, it’s the Suburban. Debuting as the Suburban Carryall in GM’s 1935 lineup, the first Suburbans were a new take on the station wagon body style but built on a truck chassis, making it the earliest successful iteration of the “Sport Utility Vehicle” as we know it today. Eighty-nine years later, GM is still selling the same basic concept with the same famous name.

While we’ve gotten used to the Chevy Suburban and its GMC-badged cousin the Yukon XL as expensive, cushy trucks, that’s not where they started. If you wanted a comfy people hauler back in the day, you bought a Station Wagon. Trucks were designed to do work, and the Chevy/GMC Suburban was essentially a panel truck meant to haul people. In 1973, though, the Suburban got a significant redesign that brought on a combination of rugged utility with real luxury and usability for passengers. That seventh generation lasted for nearly two decades, and helped define the Suburban as we see it today. As a classic truck, it’s also surprisingly attainable.

1991 Chevrolet Suburban front three-quarter
1991 Chevrolet SuburbanGM

Among the most important changes for ’73 was the introduction of the four-door body style, making passenger access easier. A generally cushier and quieter interior also made it a nicer place for riders, all while keeping ample cargo space and enough towing capacity to pull a house. The appeal of previous Suburbans was more limited and skewed toward utility, but now the Suburban was an attractive alternative to the station wagon. As we now know, it would eventually outsell and outlast the wagon in America’s new car market.

Like their pickup counterparts they share a chassis with, seventh gen Suburbans adopted the C/K naming system, with “C” denoting two-wheel drive and “K” denoting four-wheel drive, while Suburbans would be offered in both ½-ton and ¾-ton configurations. They also shared powertrains with their pickup siblings, offering a six-cylinder as a base engine through 1976, as well as a variety of small-block V-8s ranging from the economical 307 and later the 305, to the ever-popular 350 as well as the 400 small-block in 4WD trucks. Opting to stay with a 2WD version opened up the availability of the 454 big-block for those seeking a bit more grunt. A 6.2-liter diesel option also appeared in 1982 across all configurations.

While we use the term “square-body” as an all encompassing phrase for this series of truck, there is quite a bit of nuance throughout the model’s long production run. Earlier trucks running from 1973-80 are easily distinguished from later ones by a pair of round headlights, a styled hood, and vertical side marker lights. The 1981 range received more simplified styling with rectangular headlights, a flat hood, and horizontal side marker lights. The final change in 1989 was a minor one, with an update to four smaller rectangular headlights.

Three main trim levels were offered by both Chevrolet and GMC included the more “fleet” grade Sierra and Custom trucks with rubber floor mats and bare bones options, a mid-tier trim package in the form of the Sierra Classic and Custom Deluxe/Scottsdale, and a decked-out range-topping Sierra Grande and Silverado package that came with better sound deadening, power everything, and front and rear heater and air conditioning. In the context of the ’70s and ’80s, this was serious luxury for a truck.

1974 Chevy Suburban front three-quarter
1974 modelGM

Today, life with a square-body Suburban is fairly similar to keeping one of its truck siblings. Parts support is excellent, and the tried and true small-block Chevy is famously reliable. The driveline is similarly robust with the TH350 transmission being installed on most earlier trucks, and transitioning to the 700R4 overdrive in the ’80s. The ¾-ton trucks also have the bulletproof TH400 transmission. Axles are stout and easy to fix, from the corporate 10-bolt to the over-engineered 14-bolt full-floater axle behind the 454. In other words, you don’t need to worry about the driveline.

While the mechanicals are not a point of worry, rust is. This is especially true of the earlier Suburbans. Rocker panels are especially susceptible to rot, as are floorboards and wheel wells. The interior is fairly robust, but the dash almost always cracks right down the center and fixing Suburban-specific bits such as the rear HVAC may pose a bigger challenge if something breaks.

While modifications are a bit less common on the ’Burb than their pickup siblings, the same caveats apply. Lift kits with bigger tires on the 4×4 trucks require extra frame bracing at the steering box, otherwise cracking is inevitable. As with anything that has been upgraded, follow the cardinal rule of “don’t buy until you’ve inspected the quality of the work.”

While the market for classic trucks and SUV’s has blown up in the past several years, Suburbans remain an affordable entry point to square-body ownership. Depending on year and configuration, it is still possible to put yourself behind the wheel of a perfectly usable one for under $10,000 and a truck in excellent condition can be had for $25,000-$30,000. Chevrolet-badged versions can command a small premium, but none are particularly expensive. Relative to comparable Blazers at nearly twice the price, Suburban ownership is understandably alluring.

Speaking of buyers, square-body ’Burbs are quite popular with younger ones. Hagerty’s insurance quote data, which is a good benchmark for interest, shows millennials as the primary generation coming to Hagerty for coverage on these trucks, closely followed by Gen-X. This is the reverse of the interest in square-body Blazers, which are dominated by Gen-X, with millennials trailing.

There could be many factors at play here, but the most likely is substitution. The affordability of Suburbans compared to the Blazer may have comparatively cash-strapped millennials flocking to the more affordable option.

Regardless, seventh gen Suburbans are historically significant classic trucks that are stylish, usable, capable, and comfortable. And, despite all that, they come at a surprising and tempting discount relative to their contemporaries.

1991 Chevy Suburban front three-quarter


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    Several manufacturers made “suburbans”, it was a type of vehicle… like if GM had said “Chevrolet Station Wagon” or “coupe” as the name of a vehicle including badges. “Carryall” is also a term from wagon-era terminology.

    Everyone else stopped making that body style and/or marketing it as such though. Now it is probably copyrighted* so no one else can use that name for their suburban configuration vehicle.

    *online sources say GM got that copyright in 1988

    I owned a 1989 2wd 2500 Silverado that had the 7.4 454. It was purchased from the original owner and was well cared for. Outward appearance was beautiful with onyx black and quicksilver color. Mechanically, it had a horrible driveline vibration that I never did get figured out in the time period I owned it. When gasoline prices tripled in the mid nineties going from $1.03 a gallon to $3.10, it was time to let it go since it averaged around 8mpg. The body rust was just starting in the lower rockers and bottom of the barn doors, but the local Chevy dealer gave me very close to the same amount I bought it for as a trade in on an 89 Grand Marquis they had on the lot. I kind of miss it, and the prices they’re selling for now would have made the juice worth the squeeze.

    Something was wrong with it.
    My non OD 90 with a 454 and 3.73 gears would get 11-12 consistently.
    My 88 K20 with. 350 and 4.10s was only slightly better.

    I had a 97 Suburban 2500, dark green with dual exhaust and big tires.
    An exquisite beauty who loved taking trips and visiting gas stations!
    I miss her 🥹

    Undeniable allure in that first picture towing an Airstream, but at least here in Canada Hagerty does not permit towing under terms of their agreed value policy. To use these vehicles as intended you’d have to find an insurer that covers older vehicles (few do, and if modified forget it) and even then you’re getting book value coverage, whatever that may be. Perhaps if Hagerty covered our vintage/restored trailers and/or boats they might also provide coverage when occasionally towed behind a vintage vehicle?

    Great point, thanks for letting the rest of us know about this fine print. I have a ‘70 Burb with a hidden hitch now apparently rendered useless.

    Interesting. Our Sub is covered under an agreed-value policy from a very major insurer, and apparently does not prohibit towing. (If I decide to tow, I will verify that.) There is a 2500 mile/year restriction, but that is livable for us; after all, it IS a collectible vehicle.

    When satellite maps were first available, my neighbor looked at our street from outer space and the most identifiable sight was my bright Yellow 3/4 ton ’85 Suburban that began life with Southern California Edison. It was 2-wheel drive, had a 350 engine and automatic, a bench seat, rubber mats and very little comfort equipment. It easily towed my car trailer all over the Northeast loaded with a variety of collector and daily driver cars. I now tow the same trailer with a 2009 1/2 ton Yukon XL and it’s not the same experience. The Yukon has far more equipment (front & rear A/C, etc), but the concept of doing work seems to have been forgotten. Finding a “Work Truck” version of a pickup truck is very difficult and finding a workhorse Suburban/Yukon is just about impossible. The best source may still be the utility company auctions.

    little known fact, 1987 there are no C or K series trucks or SUV’s they are all either R(2 wheel drive) or V(4 wheel drive) and in 1988 the C/K was only used on the new body style so any suburban from 1987 to 1991 is either an R series or a V series, and crew cab square bodies were the same with the 3/4 ton R/V series crew cabs ending in 1989 but the 1 tons going till 1991 alongside the suburbans. I still mis the 2 90 4×4’s I had one was sent from the factory to a custom interior shop and the other was nearly fully loaded, 350 engine, 700r4, factory quad front shocks, skid plates, upper center console, power windows and locks, but it also had one of the rarest options I’ve ever seen for a square body suburban, factory power mirrors.

    True indeed about those R and V Suburbans. We have a 1991 R1500. We ordered the power mirrors, and they are very handy. I think 1990 might be the first year they were available, although they might have been available for 1989 also.

    Splitting hairs.

    Besides, my early production 88 GMC had K25 fender badges. My late 88 and 91 Chevrolet both had 2500 badges.
    I’m old school and call all the solid axle trucks K10/K20/K30 because the IFS GM trucks are pure trash and why I left GM completely. My 2000 K2500 split a differential housing on a gravel road at 19,000 miles and GM wouldn’t cover it.

    I digress. Barn door ‘burbs rule.
    The push-pull steering needs to be reworked for off road use and the Dana 44 or 8.5 10 bolt front isn’t ideal, but they are great family haulers and tow rigs.

    For hunting I used to camp inside them and it was cozy. I had a V10 Excursion for a while. It was tough as nails, but just not the same.

    From a collector standpoint, rust, hoods bending, aftermarket doors, and mis-matched interior stuff is worth looking out for. 4L60 and 4L80E trucks are desirable, where as the old Quadrajet trucks had a ton of smog equipment that is obsolete and likely deleted. (Those are my favorite – cheap in AZ)

    As A Gen -Xer, I practically grew up in Suburbans. During my childhood, my father had 3 different Chevy Suburbans, all purchased new. A blue 1973 C20 Custom Deluxe w/454, a two tone brown 1978 C10 Scottsdale w/350 and my favorite, a 1984 C20 Scottsdale w/454. My father was a carpenter so the rear layout was perfect for his ladders, planks and other tools. His 73 had the 3rd row seat which was never in the truck unless we were traveling on vacation. For us 3 kids traveling in this enormous vehicle, we would be hopping over seats to get to the coveted rear cargo space. Our luggage would be stacked on one side with just enough room for me to claim the other side with my sleeping bag. Although the electric rear tailgate window was good for adequate air circulation, it wasn’t until he purchased the 84 that we had our first ever vehicle with factory AC.
    When my father opted to get a 4×4 Silverado pickup in 1990 instead of getting a record 4th Suburban, I was saddened. I thought he would have for sure would have gone for a V2500, maybe with the 6.5 diesel?
    I think that once the redesign came in 1992, the Suburban lost its work truck persona. It started to become an “SUV” , the soccer mom truck. No longer a truck for a public works department, a utility company or a carpenter like my father. The marketing shifted to it being a family vehicle, and the prices shifted upwards as well.
    I ended up purchasing a used 1997 Chevy Suburban 4×4 in 2005. At this time, my family was growing and it fit the need along with its capacity to pull a 26 ft travel trailer. It was a great truck for my use but lacked the character from the 73-91 era. That was the last Suburban I ever drove in. The newer versions are simply way too expensive and look like they are too nice to do anything with. Thinking back, I should have asked my dad if I could have bought his 84 Suburban instead of trading it in. Great memories of a great truck. Long live the square body Suburbans.

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