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SUV's Are History -- sort of

The priHummerThe priHummerYou want a PriHummer? It’s easy, just get an SUV grille, mount it on your Prius with a few zip-ties, and... instant mojo. Feels so good, right? But, where does that SUV mojo come from anyway? Product designers know how to convey status, and SUV design navigates American status narratives like a 4x4 bounding over desert arroyos. Maybe once we know why we find these vehicles so appealing we can finally stop buying them.

The first SUV’s -- Broncos, Wagoneers, and Suburbans of the 50’s and 60’s -- were farm or ranch trucks. They weren’t stylish, but they implied the driver owned a lot of land and that he was definitely the boss. Workers rode in pickup trucks while the Big Man -- gentleman farmer or swaggering rancher -- drove the passenger truck. These proto-SUV’s conferred a salt-of-the-earth royalty, though they still stayed down on the farm.

The pickup truck craze of the 70’s ushered SUV’s into mainstream popularity. After a decade of consciousness-raising and Kumbaya, Americans were ready for some red meat, so Detroit  jacked up their pickup trucks and sanded off the rough edges, selling them as quirky fun buggies with a gritty blue-collar vibe. By the 80’s the rising class of yuppies found their family-friendly euro-wagons surrounded by hulking Detroit intimidation machines. Not much prestige in that, so the aspirational class traded in their Volvos and Mercedes for tall American luxury SUV’s, allowing the whole family to man-up. Still, American gas guzzlers of any type leave a whiff of amoral heedlessness, so for those desiring a shot of virtue with their carbon cocktails, Japanese and British SUV’s offered a mix of ruggedness and cosmopolitan benificence.

Ecotourism’s faux green cachet rubbed off on the Land Rovers that safari outfitters used to whisk tourists through the peaceable African kingdom. Those vehicles never saw pavement, but were forebears of the sniffy Brit SUV’s bravely venturing into American suburbs. Even more noble, Japanese SUV’s were favored by international charities that sent fleets of white Troopers, Monteros, and Toyota Land Cruisers rushing to help distressed natives. In the globalized US, imported SUV’s wear an air of compassionate civility, making it seem ok to drive a truck to fetch a gallon of milk.

The warm glow of a family ranch, an endocrine squirt of machismo, and a balm on the rash of first-world survivor’s guilt; SUV design declares a driver’s status or aspiration, and helps everyone feel okay about it. But, when our blithe embrace of status became complicated after the 911 attacks, SUV design veered onto two separate paths, both unhinged from history. Some resemble massive, lumbering toddler’s toys, evoking twin plagues of childhood obesity and testosterone poisoning; see Nissans and Lincolns. Others, like Lexus and Beemers, morphed into sleek, tasteful pods suggesting escape capsules from a planet facing ecosystem collapse. But no matter which fantasy we drive, we’ll eventually find out who wins when delusion collides with reality.