Not too many years after passenger cars and trucks became commonplace, lots of drivers began to wonder: What if you could combine car-like comfort and truck toughness into the same vehicle?
In the 1920s, the answer to that question hit the marketplace, in the form of the now-familiar station wagon. You could even say that station wagons were the first "crossover" vehicle -- appearing decades before the trendy blend of truck-like bodies bolted to car frames that are so popular today.
Following the introduction of the station wagon, other shapes that combined the functions of car and truck would emerge over the next several decades.
By the 1980s, the station wagon was eclipsed and then abandoned (at least in the United States) for a new vehicle category called the "minivan." The minivan, in turn, would be toppled a decade later as backlash against its "mom-mobile" image opened the floodgates for ever-increasing sizes of sport utility vehicles -- SUVs.
Fast-forward to the present, when $4-a-gallon gasoline spikes and heightened environmental awareness have made monstrously huge SUVs a liability. The solution: Crossover SUVs that blur the line even further between purpose-built passenger vehicle and occasional stuff hauler.
But crossovers, it seems, aren't as uniquely modern as the marketing honchos at auto companies would like us to believe. In fact, they're just one more quirky example of how trends in the car world tend to come and go -- and come back again.
Come on, now. Think about it. If station wagons hadn't come to be permanently associated with the Brady Bunch and the Griswold family vacations, they'd still be ruling the roads and considered a prime symbol of upwardly mobile socio-economic status. Instead, they became a mobile metaphor for middle-class blandness and found themselves vanquished by the minivan in the mid-1980s. The wagon body style never went completely away, really. Especially in Europe and other places abroad, where car culture can differ from that in the United States as much as social culture. One thing's for certain, with their introduction in the 1920s, station wagons were the first vehicles to execute on the idea of melding a car's comforts and everyday drivability with the practical hauling ability of a truck.
So how did station wagons get their name? Back in the early days of automobiles, they were originally called "depot hacks," since they were hacks (taxicabs) that people used in coming and going to train depots (stations).
The earliest station wagons were regular cars such as the Ford Model T modified with more expansive back ends to accommodate the luggage of taxi customers. The first "production" car that was purpose-built as a station wagon, according to the site, was the 1923 Star, built by Durant Motors Co. [source: Manning].
Early station wagons had all-wood or wood-paneled wagon bodies, and were called, appropriately enough, "woodies." In later years, manufacturers transitioned to all metal or to vinyl insert panels made to resemble wood but last longer.
Distinctive features of station wagons are that they have between three and five doors; a configurable interior that allows for either more passenger room or cargo room in the back; an extended rear with a steep vertical drop at the back (as opposed to a trunk); and possibly a beefier rear suspension than a sedan model, to better handle heavy cargo loads.
Many of today's crossovers perform the exact duties of the station wagons of antiquity, just updated with more avant garde styling and higher ground clearance. They even share the familiar "two-box" profile. Just please don't call them "station wagons."
If ever there were a customer that really needed a car-like, compact vehicle that could do the impossible, Uncle Sam circa World War II would be it. Out of an urgent request from the U.S. Army was born one of the most iconic car brands of all time: Jeep.
The original Jeep design was developed by the Bantam Car Company in 1940, meeting an incredible 49-day deadline imposed by the government. With worries about Bantam's ability to produce the vast war-time quantities the government would need, Willys-Overland and Ford were called in to actually produce the vehicles [source: Heritage Region Jeep Alliance].
From its early testing, through its stellar military service in World War II, through its transition to civilian life in multiple variants, the Jeep proved rugged, versatile and highly capable. No one would ever mistake it for a Lamborghini in the looks department, but even art critics came to praise its utilitarian melding of form and function. The Museum of Modern Art in New York praised it as "a purely utilitarian design that forgoes styling in favor of efficiency and function" [source: Museum of Modern Art].
It could tow artillery cannon onto the battlefield. It could cross shallow rivers and flooded areas on the count of spark plugs, air filters and oil filters that were placed high in the engine compartment. It could traverse muddy, hilly and overgrown terrain that stopped other vehicles in their tracks.
It kicked behind on the battlefield -- thanks to the provision of a machine gun mount. And it ferried enlisted men, officers, dignitaries, even movie stars, around military installations quickly and efficiently [source: Archive.org].
After the war, "Jeep" became much more than a tough vehicle -- it became a brand synonymous with adventure, ruggedness and four-wheeling fun.
It sports the front end of a car, and if you face it head-on, you might mistake it for one. But look again: from any other angle you can clearly see that it's attached to the bed of a pick-up truck.
The Chevrolet El Camino, which ceased production in 1987 after more than three decades of sales, has over the years gained something of a cult following among muscle car enthusiasts. At one point in the model's lifecycle, buyers could get it with a 350-hp V-8 engine! With its sweeping lines and powerful engine options, the El Camino provided the answer to the ages-old "car or truck?" dilemma by answering, "Both."
It enjoyed an extremely long life, as far as car models go. After a brief hiatus, the El Camino graced new car lots from 1964 to 1987, and was badge engineered -- changed cosmetically without altering major components -- into different models for Chevy's sister brands at General Motors [source: ElCaminoCentral.com].
Unfortunately for the El Camino and its kind, the 1980s meant curtains for entire categories of cars as their markets vanished. Muscle car buyers of the '60s and '70s were by this time owners of minivans and holders of mortgages. Gas guzzling, rubber-laying beasts with little room for families were no longer selling well. Thus, Chevy declared the year 1987 the last for its living classic El Camino.
Considering the crowded pantheon devoted to unfortunately named vehicles, you could do worse, believe it or not, than to name a car after a spoiled and whiny child. Actually, Subaru's BRAT -- or Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter -- by most accounts did a pretty good job of providing on- and off-road capability during its production run from 1978 to 1987.
In the tradition of the Ranchero and El Camino, the BRAT used a blended car-pickup truck body design. One of its neatest features was an "on-the-fly" all-wheel-drive feature that let drivers switch to a better-traction mode at the press of a button when the going got tough. This ability to switch back-and-forth to adapt to road (and off-road) conditions made the BRAT a "crossover" in the truest sense of the word.
Earlier versions of the BRAT had plastic seats installed in the pickup bed, facing rearward. We're not sure who would actually sit in them voluntarily, but their inclusion allowed Subaru to sidestep sizeable import tariffs on trucks brought into the United States (the extra seats allowed the BRAT to be classified as a passenger car and elude the added tax).
The little BRAT boasted neither huge horsepower (a full 93 ponies in the model with the 1.8-liter turbo engine) nor overall units sold (a little over 92,000 total). But it could claim an owner who was about as big a celebrity as they come. None other than former U.S. President Ronald Reagan owned a red 1978 model, for getting around his sprawling California ranch [source: Burry].
The BRAT wouldn't be the last undeclared crossover to prove that when it comes to vehicular versatility, size doesn't matter.
Baby SUV. Cute ute. Compact SUV. The Toyota RAV4 was like a category unto itself when it rolled onto the automotive scene in 1994. For the U.S. market, the first- and second-generation RAV4s arrived at a time when U.S. auto buyers were just starting to suffer big SUV fatigue: many enjoyed the elevated seating position and perceived safety advantage of the sport utility vehicles proliferating in the mid-1990s. But for some, the almost big-rig proportions seemed like overkill, the ride quality was jolting, and well, SUVs' reputations as gas hogs are legendary.
The diminutive RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle, 4-Wheel Drive) solved many of those problems by attaching a downsized SUV body to the chassis of an ordinary passenger car. In the first- and second-generation RAV4's case, it shared its under-the-body bits with the Toyota Corolla. The RAV4 is in fact credited with being the first compact SUV [source: MotorWeek].
While today RAV4s are in fact classified as crossovers, it made our list because it came out in 1994, many years before the term entered popular use. And the ground-breaking RAV4 proved that even in a time when massive Hummers freely roamed the roads, that there was a market for the non-extreme SUV.
For more information about crossovers and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
What are the best reasons to buy a crossover vehicle? Read about 5 reasons to buy a crossover vehicle at HowStuffWorks.
- 5 Crossover Vehicles with the Best Fuel Economy
- 5 Strangest Vehicles Ever
- How Four-wheel Drive Works
- How Three-wheel Cars Work
- Why are crossovers good for retirees?
- What are the benefits of crossover vehicle design?
- What's the difference between a crossover and an SUV?
- What are the benefits of crossover vehicle design?
- Archive.org. "Autobiography of a Jeep." 1943. (July 17, 2011) http://www.archive.org/details/autobiography_of_a_jeep
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- Neil, Dan. "The 50 Worst Cars of All Time." Time.com. January 2007. (July 12, 2011) http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/completelist/0,,1658545,00.html
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