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A Look Back: A History of Crossovers

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author photo by Autotrader October 2007

Crossovers are becoming all the rage these days. But where did they come from? Why were they built? Where are they now? Let's take a look back at their humble start and ongoing legacy.

The art of mixing features from different body styles really kicked off in the late fifties, with the Ford Ranchero and the twins from GM: the very popular Chevrolet El Camino and its lesser-known sister, the GMC Caballero. These hybrids combined the body of a full-sized sedan with the bed of a truck. The 1957 Ranchero originally sold so well that it made GM sit up and take notice; they responded two years later with 1959's El Camino, based on their Impala platform. These combination vehicles were very popular up into the eighties, going through various revisions, changes, and coming out with optional high-performance models. Many are still on the road today and are sought out by collectors.

The crossover took a different direction in the sixties and seventies with the emergence of what would eventually be known as the SUV. It began with vehicles like the Chevrolet Blazer, which combined the ruggedness of the pickup truck with the practicality of the station wagon. And as history repeats itself, the success of the first few models led the way for other automakers, notably the Cherokee from Jeep and the Bronco from Ford. The Jimmy and the Blazer took it even further with a redesign that added the benefits of a convertible to the truck-wagon combination in the form of a removable hard top. This trend ushered in the long legacy of the Suburban, which had basically been a tall wagon since the 1930s. Adding the elevated truck platform to the giant body concept of the earlier models created a true giant of the roadways, generating such success that it is still in production today.

This trend was not exclusive to domestic manufacturers. One of the more notable foreign contributions was the Subaru Brat, which came along in 1978. Like the Ranchero and the Camino before it, the Brat combined Subaru's station wagon platform with a truck, but in a more compact and "cute" package. Although it was shelved for a while, Subaru has recently revived the concept with a suite of new design ideas and a new name: the "Baja".

The lessons learned from the fuel crunch of the seventies spawned attempts by manufacturers to try combining elements from larger vehicles with the popularity of the economy car platforms. In 1980, the American Motor Corporation (AMC) took the car platform of its Concord and combined it with elements of its Jeep 4×4 SUV, creating the Eagle,a high-riding four-wheel drive economy car. Although often referred to as somewhat of an albatross, the Eagle is increasingly regarded as simply ahead of its time, as we are now seeing a wave of popular models being released based on this concept.

The SUV craze took hold in the eighties and nineties, quickly rocketing sport utility vehicle sales into the stratosphere. But as the body style matured into the mainstream, new concerns arose. Consumers loved the look, the large passenger/cargo area, and some safety aspects, but matters such as fuel economy, handling, and safety trade-offs became the driving forces that once again sent the engineers back to the drawing boards. One of the most critical factors realized was that most SUV drivers never went off-roading. They liked to look like they could, and enjoyed the ruggedness to a degree, but for the most part, their lifestyles had other important needs. By taking the more cosmetic design elements of the SUVs, combining the under-pinnings of car platforms with slightly raised suspensions, and adding in many other smaller features normally reserved for non-SUV vehicles, automakers stumbled upon a new breed: the crossover.

Today, this trend is getting hotter and hotter. In addition to the car-SUV blending, consumers can purchase minivan-SUV, truck-SUV, and even station wagon-SUV melds. As this new wave of concepts rolls out, we find ourselves eagerly watching to see not only which will make it into the mainstream but also what innovations are to come.


©2006 AutoTrader.com L.L.C.

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A Look Back: A History of Crossovers - Autotrader