Many of you probably don’t remember the OPEC Oil embargo and consequent gasoline shortages of the 1970’s. Truth be told, I don’t recall it much either, I was young and my family was stationed thousands of miles away in Iceland. My attention was more devoted to simpler things like Legos and pretty colored rocks found among the rocky fields of Reykjavik. Others of you probably remember the gas shortages all too well. You probably remember lines that went around the block and gas stations that went days, even weeks, without receiving a fresh shipment of the precious petroleum distillate. Whether you remember it or not, the fuel shortage had dramatic and long lasting consequences not the least of which was the popular emergence of the Sport Utility Vehicle. Scoot up close kids, I’ll tell you a true story of acts of congress, corporate greed and marketing genius.
Many people will tell you that the SUV dates its true origins to the development of the Willys Jeep in the early 1940’s and its release to the public market in 1947. The Willys Jeep was the result of a military endeavor to develop a multi-role, off-road, dependable vehicle for general and combat use. Of course it wasn’t called the Jeep; it had some arcane military acronym that referred to its role and function. The soldiers who drove it nicknamed it the jeep after a character in the popular Popeye comic strip.
The name stuck and so did the vehicle. Light, dependable and easily configurable for a variety of roles and missions the Jeep ushered in a whole new era of vehicle use. It was popular among a certain rural demographic of Americans, but it wasn’t long before its shortcomings as a civilian vehicle began to show. It had little in the way of cargo room, lacked the weight necessary for heavy towing and was entirely too open and drafty for the rest of the family’s comfort.
To meet this demand several manufacturers began to offer what they called “light trucks.” These were similar to pickups, but had more in the way of passenger comfort and enclosed cargo space. Chevrolet had been selling its Suburban for several years, but it was really little more than a panel van. These new vehicles were perfect for rural customers who might not be able to afford more than one vehicle. It had passenger room, cargo room and towing capacity. They were big vehicles though, and most had engines on the largish side that required significant portions of gasoline to operate. Because of its large fuel capacity and decidedly uncarlike appearance, the vehicles never really hit it off with the suburban crowd.
Cars were just nicer and although the infant SUVs had roomy passenger compartments, they lacked many of the creature comforts that station wagons and other sedans had. Station wagons were the luxury ride of the 50s and 60s. They too had large engines but didn’t have the low gear ratios the SUVs needed for towing and consequently didn’t suffer the acceleration lag of those vehicles. By the middle of the twentieth century practically every family had a station wagon and they accounted for 18% of all vehicle sales. They were perfect for the mother on the go, holding both groceries and children with equal aplomb while providing the acceleration requisite for highway merging and the comfort she needed to maintain her sanity between home, soccer practice and school.
And so things may have remained until the OPEC embargo. It became swiftly apparent to many in the federal government that maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to be so dependent on foreign oil reserves. After only the smallest amount of debate, a bi-partisan supported bill called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE) shot through congress and was signed into law by President Ford in 1975.
CAFE was a relatively well written piece of legislation and was one of the most successful energy saving laws ever passed. Unfortunately it didn’t account for the sneakiness of the manufacturers and the capacity of the Fed to fold under pressure from lobbyists.
The initial standards of CAFE were set by Congress to require a minimum miles per gallon rating for different classes of vehicles to be met by specific dates and for those standards to be updated and maintained by the Executive branch as technology and the automobile market changed. Passenger cars were supposed to reach a standard 27.5 mpg by the 1980s.
This new law put the kibosh on the station wagon. Manufacturers were now federally regulated and taxed on how many fuel inefficient models they could produce. At the time CAFE was passed the SUV, remember it’s really a “light truck,” was enjoying mostly rural use. You’d be hard pressed to find one outside of a heavy duty work application, and so the standards were relaxed in regard to “light trucks” as they were supposed to need their big engines for towing, hauling and off road driving.
As sales of the station wagon dwindled the automotive industry scrambled to provide an alternative that was both roomy and fuel efficient. Thus was born the mini-van. The mini-van did everything the station wagon or the SUV could do. It had roomy comfortable passenger compartments and had plenty of cargo space. It was more fuel efficient than the “light truck” though and thus won favor with many American families who still remembered the fuel shortages and its troubles.
All was not well in Mudville though. The mini-van was adequate, but suffered from a marketing perspective. It just wasn’t sexy. Kids didn’t want to take it on dates and Dads didn’t want to be caught dead in them. Along came the loophole and the SUV.
At the time of CAFE’s passing most manufacturers had SUVs available for purchase. Chevy still had the reliable Suburban, Ford the Bronco, and even Toyota had the rugged Land Cruiser. It wasn’t long before someone figured out that SUVs did everything a mini-van could and was sexy as hell doing it because you didn’t have to worry about those pesky Laws, they didn’t apply to SUVs.
In the Mid 1980s Ford attempted to market a scaled down version of their Bronco, the Bronco II, as an alternative to the mini-van for the dad on the go and the Kid who might want to go hunting after school. The Bronco II met with limited success. It wasn’t as bad as new coke but it lacked the powerful engine of its larger brethren and didn’t have the storage capacity of a mini-van. The marketing campaign was a success though and it was swiftly rerouted to the full sized SUVs.
How do you make someone buy a vehicle that gets bad gas mileage though? The same way you get them to buy anything they don’t need, advertise to their pecker, their unfulfilled fantasies and their desire to believe anything to satisfy the first two.
Chicks dig SUVs, buy one.
Really hot chicks dig SUVs, buy one.
You can drive it anywhere, even places only accessible by helicopter, spider monkeys and mountain goats.
They’re great for taking the kids to soccer practice and you can hump your tennis instructor in the roomy cargo compartment.
Oh, they’re like safe or something, cause they’re big and stuff.
The marketing Industry should be investigated by Amnesty International; as I'm sure they must use the same coercive techniques as a Peruvian torture camp to garner such success. I’m sure that if an ad agency could secure legal permission to enter my home and smash my toes with a hammer in order to convince me to buy a car I don’t need, they would. And they’d sleep like babies.
By the mid 1990s SUVs started flying off lots faster than dealers could order them. Everybody wanted one and didn’t seem to mind that fuel costs had risen either. They satisfied the niche that our beloved station wagons had filled for so long and the advertising had convinced many that it was the safest vehicle on the road, despite the exclamations of many watch dog groups that claimed the contrary.
The Executive branch oversight that was supposed to raise the standards for minimum MPGs never really did anything. Reagonomics wouldn’t allow for it and everyone else seemed to forget. In 1994 the Department of Transportation attempted to raise the standards on “light trucks” to equal those of passenger cars, citing that many were not being used for their intended purpose and largely served the same role as sedans. As one would suspect, the auto industry lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill like flies on stink and the administration largely folded.
So why are SUVs so popular in the United States? Corporate greed revealed and exploited a loophole in legislation created to prevent this very thing and then capitalized on their lobby power against a weak administration. Does that relieve the average American from their responsibility in the purchase of the vehicle? Not really, but in their defense, the same legislation that was supposed to prevent this travesty was also responsible for the destruction of the station wagon, a much more suitable, efficient and safer vehicle.