Four-Wheel-Drive Fantasies

A defense of the SUV


Here comes Mickey Mouse, riding in the back of an open-topped Jeep. Clinging to the roll bar with his big three-fingered gloves, he's wearing fatigues and a 10-gallon pith helmet. Donald Duck, who scandalously wears no pants, is in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser. Minnie Mouse just rode by in a Land Rover Defender.

Spend enough time in Orlando's Walt Disney World, and you begin to distrust everything. In recent years, Disney's park designers have filled the place with what look like real antiques, genuine artifacts, authentic junk. At a water park called Typhoon Lagoon, for example, there's a fake 20-foot trawler marooned on a cement volcano, ringed by trails that are lit by replica brass sea lanterns. Each lamp has been brushed carefully with a briny patina. In Animal Kingdom, the ruins of a bogus Buddhist temple have been constructed, with frescoes sandblasted and smeared with rusty water to simulate the ravages of time. In the Magic Kingdom, the architecture is richly appointed with counterfeit second and third stories. Cinderella's Castle sends its gothic spires 300 feet up into the cloudless Florida sky.

None of it serves a purpose beyond giving the appearance of volume, substance, extension. As much as it all makes you feel like you're stuck in The Prisoner, this detailed artifice is obviously crucial to the overall effect—the effect I'm paying $200 a day to see. It certainly makes no difference to my kids that everything is a prop or a set. At Disney World, the chief distinction between reality and fantasy seems to be that if it's not nailed down, it's reality. In which case it will quickly be swept up and disposed of by a legion of custodians in knickers.

Fantasy brings me back to Mickey Mouse in a Jeep. Here at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the streets are cleverly paved to look like wet dirt and mud—ancient footpaths through an Asian village or an African rainforest. Everywhere the red-tinted cement is impressed with the footprints of children, feral dogs, rickshaws. It looks wet. It looks like you'll have mud up to your knees—and yet magically your tennies squeak as if you're on a basketball court. When Mickey's Jeep drives by, I notice that his beefy off-road tires are showroom clean. Minnie's and Donald's SUVs are painted white, with explosions of parti-colored confetti.

There was a wonderful Isuzu commercial years ago. A man wheeling his shopping cart through a toy store pulls up short in front of a huge box on a shelf. Inside is a full-size Trooper. The man's mouth falls open, and his eyes light up. Great advertising is like great art: It's a lie that tells the truth.

And so, the boy is the father of the man. Fantasy sustains us all, and we should stop pretending that adult toys are any less important—or any more complicated—than children's toys. Mickey Mouse rides in his Jeep through Disney World. That's one fantasy sitting in another fantasy riding through a third. As I've been telling my children ever since we got back, Mickey and Disney World live in Orlando—and, of course, in our hearts.

But we can take our Jeep anywhere.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

What do sport utility vehicles say about us? First, they say we're herd animals. The latest numbers from the auto industry say that every other new car driven off a dealer's lot is a "light truck," the category that includes pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs. Five million new SUVs are sold every year. And the numbers keep growing. There are now more than 70 distinct models identified as SUVs. Recently the Ford F-series became the best-selling automobile of any kind or class, finally vanquishing the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry after their many years atop the sales charts. Of the five top-selling vehicles in the U.S., three are now light trucks or SUVs. Whatever else you want to say about the SUV, you certainly cannot call it a passing fad.

Aside from the more pragmatic reasons people like to drive them—they're big, they feel safe, they're full of luxurious options—there are lots of less rational reasons, and these are never made more explicitly clear than in SUV advertisements. A recent ad for Nissan's Pathfinder carries the tag line "Not That You Would, But You Could." It shows a young man bouncing through ditches and racing jets down runways, a rooster's tail of sand and mud shooting immodestly out the back of his Pathfinder. This ad is just about the purest distillation of SUV spirituality there is. Take your pick of any recent Jeep commercial—the stereotypical Wrangler, say, perched on the edge of a precipitous canyon at sunset—and you have a snapshot not only of modern 4X4 marketing but of the somewhat dreamy soul of an entire nation.

If we are what we drive, SUVs have some interesting things to say about us. Some things they say may be ugly: We are excessive, solipsistic, wasteful, indulgent, egotistical. Some of what they say may be noble: We are free; we are individuals; we want access to wilderness and new frontiers; we are self-reliant. Taken as a whole, the qualities of the SUV are quintessentially American. Although there are certainly more remote and rugged nations than the U.S.—even in the industrialized West—the SUV could not have originated in any other country.

Like all cars, sport utility vehicles are about the freedom of mobility. But more than that, they are about absolute mobility—mobility that transcends pavement and even civilization itself. (Of course, airplanes do this even better, but populism and price converge on the ground: Any 16-year-old can get a license to drive dad's Explorer.) At the same time, SUVs are ostensibly about access to wilderness and about self-reliance, although real wilderness and authentic self-reliance are shibboleths of the 19th century. Emerson and Thoreau surely would have understood the appeal of the SUV.

Back here in the 21st century, there's growing concern that the automobile is killing the planet. Presumably, bigger, dirtier cars capable of making their own roads aren't a part of the solution. There's plenty of evidence that SUVs contribute to our environmental dilemma. It takes more resources to make them; they burn more gas, oil, and rubber during their useful lifetimes; and they continue to pollute disproportionately once they've been scrapped.

On the other hand, the difference between SUVs and other cars is one not so much of degree as of perception. Picking on SUV owners is probably as misguided as it is disingenuous. New SUVs, for example, are a far sight more responsible than the 15 million used cars that become obsolete each year. Even the greenest autos built in the 1980s, for example, are 90 percent dirtier and less efficient than new SUVs. Anyway, if I really wanted to get serious about reducing my daily contribution to the planet's carbon dioxide, I'd be pumping two wheels instead of driving four. The anti-automobile crusade is hopeless, and singling out any particular model is an exercise in pointlessness.

The Road Less Taken

The Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevadas is often described as the worst 12-mile stretch of road on the planet. To call it a road is a bit wishful, since even horses and mountain bikers have been known to balk at the rock-strewn mountain pass just outside Georgetown, California. The Rubicon is both Mecca and Medina to serious off-roaders. Hundreds go there every year to test their skills and their rigs against the Rubicon. Countless groups hold 4X4 driving camps here, including the U.S. Army.

Critics are fond of pointing out that only one in 10 SUV owners actually takes his vehicle off road, and this is true. But that misses the point, as far as that 10 percent is concerned. Those who can't tolerate the recent growth in popularity and upscaling of SUVs might be surprised to learn that people have had the sport utility impulse for a lot longer than SUVs have existed. Just 10 years after the first Jeeps were built during World War II, a chapter of civilian 4X4 enthusiasts was chartered by a Rotary Club in California. Their purpose? To coax their decommissioned Jeeps over the Rubicon. This summer, the 50th annual Jeepers Jamboree will take place there.

It is cause for concern or celebration, depending on your perspective, that just about every SUV today is built to serious off-road specifications. Except for the most recent trend toward car-SUV hybrids (such as the Toyota RAV, the Subaru Forester, and the Honda CRV—cars that are referred to by industry folks as CUVs, "crossover utility vehicles"), these vehicles are built with special low-speed gearing and lock-out differentials, high clearance, roll bars, and all the other apparatus of genuine four-wheeling. Even the august Mercedes M Class, the ridiculous Toyota FJ80 Land Cruiser, and the odious Lexus RX 300 are as capable in the mountains as they are in the suburbs. While the interiors often are designed by people with their minds in the boardroom, the engineers who design the drive trains are thinking about high water, turning radius, and exit angle. The Rubicon is frequently occupied by major automobile manufacturers who are developing new models. It's not uncommon to see executives and engineers helicopter prototypes down to the trail, where a test driver puts the new vehicle through its paces. Like military vehicles, SUVs not only have to look the part, they have to act the part—a rare case, perhaps, of hyperactive truth in advertising.

In recent years, the military pedigree of the SUV has become explicit. At last year's spring auto show in New York City, The New York Times reported, most automakers were displaying vehicles that looked less like sedans and limos, and more like tanks. Cadillac recently announced that it will be offering a fully armored model with bulletproof windows and steel plating. The privatization of the U.S. Army's "Humvee"—now known as the GM Hummer—also represents a reversion to origins. And if bigger is better, then brace yourself for the best: DaimlerChrysler has announced plans to roll out the world's largest SUV, a German military vehicle repurposed for the civilian market. The Unimog weighs five tons, stands 12 feet tall and seven feet wide, and will cost around $150,000.

There's ample evidence that these massive trucks are a form of escapism. But what, after all, is wrong with escapism? From one point of view, all of post-industrial capitalism is a form of escapism, a bulwark against harsh realities the rest of the world still faces on a daily basis. Pre-packaged chicken, herbal shampoo, ESPN Sports Center—our more conspicuous forms of consumerism have always been as much about putting to use the opportunities of our privileged lives as about gaining any useful leverage against true adversaries such as time, space, and the income tax. Of course, the more radical our dreams get, the more they begin to look like our nightmares. Weren't the Taliban most easily identified from the air by their fully loaded Toyota 4Runners? In the isolated comfort of our luxury SUVs, we see the afterimage—or perhaps the harbinger—of war.

If War Is Hell, You'll Want Four-Wheel Drive

War has been very good to us. Not necessarily morally, of course. And not even economically. But automotively, there's little doubt that armed conflict has led to dozens of industrial innovations that have eventually trickled down to middle-class Americans—even if these innovations are as specious, supposedly, as the SUV.

In a small shrine in the foothills of El Dorado National Forest rests what may be the SUV's fossilized archetype. At a homespun private museum in Placerville, California, the oldest existing military Jeep rests in its own split-cedar carport. Dating from 1941, it's the older of two surviving prototypes built by the Willys Overland company. And lest there be any mistake that this is an off-roading museum, rather than a military museum, the curator is most proud of the fact that the oldest surviving Jeep has participated in two Jeepers Jamborees.

The original Jeep, of course, is not technically an SUV at all. In many interesting ways, it's the antithesis of the contemporary sport utility vehicle. And yet it is the first passenger vehicle designed with four-wheel drive—and this essentially fits the definition of the SUV. (Definitions of the SUV differ so radically that the only common factor seems to be four-wheel drive. Many pickups, of course, also are equipped with four-wheel drive. One might easily argue that pickup trucks, which predate SUVs, represent the same things spiritually, emotionally, and socially that late-model SUVs represent.)

While there were four-wheel-drive vehicles that predated the military Jeep, they were mostly highly specialized trucks and pickups. Many of these vehicles were developed during World War I, which was the first broadly mechanized war. But most military vehicles were either massive two-wheel-drive trucks, track-driven tanks, or motorcycles. When the French used Parisian taxi cabs to rush soldiers to the German front in 1914, military officials realized that light and fast passenger cars might be useful to military campaigns—as long as there were passable roads between here and there.

As war smoldered in Europe in the late 1930s, American military officials began to prepare for the inevitable. In updating the military's fleet, they saw a gaping hole: There were no smaller passenger vehicles capable of light reconnaissance and general-purpose transportation, i.e., moving information, people, and equipment quickly and efficiently. There were heavy, two-ton personnel carriers, motorcycles with sidecars, and ceremonial sedans. But there were no small cars that could handle off-road conditions. In World War I, the mule had actually filled this role. (In fact, early prototypes of the Jeep were sometimes nicknamed "mules.") In the 1920s and '30s, pickup trucks were fitted with four-wheel drive and tested, but it was thought that their profile was too high on the battlefield, and they were too heavy. No single vehicle existed that was adequate for the job.

So in the summer of 1940, a group of officials from the Quartermaster Corps and the U.S. Infantry drew up a list of specifications for their ideal scouting vehicle. First, they wanted an automobile that weighed less than 1,200 pounds, a car that could conceivably be lifted by three or four men, thus making it easy to transport around the globe without support vehicles. Second, the car had to have plenty of power. They wanted it to be able to pull at least half its own weight—the better to tow trailer-mounted artillery such as the 37-millimeter anti-tank gun. Powerful but light and able to handle off-road duty, the proposed car would need four-wheel drive and a wheelbase under 80 inches. Even with these rigorous field requirements, the Army also wanted the car to be capable of driving at least 50 miles per hour on pavement. On July 2, 1941, this seemingly impossible list of specs was distributed to every American auto manufacturer. It was an open invitation for bids to design and build such a vehicle. Any takers were given 90 days to build a prototype from scratch.

Only two companies responded with bids: Willys Overland and a small Pennsylvania car company called American Bantam. The only two companies that took an interest in this new vehicle had been building small, unprestigious passenger cars for the civilian market. American Bantam was the failing remains of a company that had been established to manufacture a domestic version of the Austin, a lightweight economy car from Great Britain. Willys Overland was building stripped-down commercial trucks and vans. Already during the '30s, American cars generally sported V-6 and V-8 engines; both Bantam and Willys were throwbacks, barely holding on with dependable but unglamorous four-cylinder engines favored by niche markets.

Only American Bantam came through with a serious bid and a prototype. Willys drew up a weight-and-cost bid but couldn't meet the 90-day deadline. Bantam, on the other hand, was a company on the brink of insolvency—a successful government contract could give it new life. It hired a designer named Karl Probst, who went to work designing the new vehicle. Within 10 days, Probst had more or less drafted the Jeep as we know it today. While the Army's list of specs was highly defined, it was Probst who really put a face on the new car, still meeting all of the performance requirements laid out in the solicitation—except for the weight restriction, which turned out to be impossible. The Jeep was designed as a boxy vehicle to minimize the need for complicated sheet metal drawing and braking. It was supposed to be no more difficult to put together than a refrigerator—an antique aesthetic that has improbably survived into the 21st century.

By the end of September 1941, Probst's design was approved, and the Army processed an order for 4,500 vehicles. Willys and the Ford Motor Company were asked to share in the manufacturing because Bantam was too small an operation. The automobile was already being called a "general purpose" vehicle. Predictably the military abbreviated this to G.P., which presumably was foreshortened in speech to Jeep. There are other theories about how the car got its name. For example, E.C. Segar's Thimble Theater comic strip in the 1930s featured a character named Eugene the Jeep (and one called Popeye). Earlier tractors and earthmoving vehicles were occasionally referred to as jeeps.

The rest is military history: The Jeep performed beautifully during World War II, and its presence was felt on every continent. By V-Day in June 1946, more than 300,000 Jeeps had been built, mostly by Ford and Willys. Although the U.S. government asked both companies midway through the war to remove their logos from the production vehicles, Willys officials quietly and presciently had the term Jeep trademarked. They seemed to intuit the value of the vehicle during peacetime, and they were already positioning themselves for whatever civilian market there might be for the beloved vehicles.

A Chicken in Every Pot, a Jeep in Every Driveway

Throughout the war, the Jeep came to be considered the automotive companion of the serviceman. Military men saw the Jeep, more than any other vehicle, as an everyday helpmeet. The automotive culture that had flowered in the 1920s, when cars first became aesthetic extensions of young men and women, migrated naturally to the military. Cars already had assumed a role at the center of the American and English identity. It was only fitting that the military's equivalent of the utility passenger vehicle would become an icon not only of Allied military strength but of Western values. In fact, the Jeep was so ubiquitous around the globe that the locals, especially in Europe, fell in love with it. While Europe rebuilt, Jeeps were useful literally and figuratively, and many civilians bought up decommissioned vehicles for personal use.

The history of the SUV proper doesn't really begin until World War II ends. During the postwar expansion of the American economy, Willys exercised its trademark and became the sole owner of the Jeep name. It also was the only company willing to continue building the vehicle. By 1949, Willys began to expand its model lines to include a four-wheel-drive station wagon that combined the comforts of a family car with the stripped-down utility of a commercial truck. This "woody," so called because of its distinctive wooden side panels, was effectively the first SUV.

The market for such a vehicle was limited mostly to farmers, ranchers, and sportsmen. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Americans were enjoying the golden age of the behemoth land yacht—the age of the Cadillac Sedan DeVille and the Lincoln Town Car—that signaled a different sense of self than the SUV. While there were small pockets of off-roading enthusiasts, the mentality and culture of the SUV would remain on the fringe for 20 years. In fact, through the 1970s, and especially in the midst of the first and second OPEC energy crises, the trend was decidedly in the direction of smaller, more efficient cars. By the time Jimmy Carter took office in 1976, the Volkswagen Beetle had become the best-selling automobile on the planet.

Yet almost as soon as Ronald Reagan became president, American automakers suddenly and inexplicably turned their backs on the "small is beautiful" aesthetic. Once again, land yachts became the order of the day. But this time they weren't DeVilles and Town Cars; they were Grand Cherokees and Suburbans, Broncos and Troopers. The sudden convergence of cheap steel with plummeting oil prices set the automotive industry back 30 years in terms of fuel economy. The recent recession notwithstanding, we have been in the midst of an SUV explosion ;for almost 20 years. And even in the dawning days of the 21st century, with our whole world turned upside down, the SUV is the most popular vehicle in the nation. Perhaps it's precisely because our whole world has been turned upside down. Zero percent financing certainly doesn't hurt.

Extreme times accentuate our faith—and our foibles. The SUV, with its origins in war and its maturation in peace, is a powerful synecdoche. The artifice of these cars—the rugged look, the impression of self-reliance and security they give—is complimented by real brawn under the hood and on the chassis.

Back in Disney World, I am reminded how important fantasy really is. And how, when the details all fall together, the line between fake and real is not only negligible but ultimately irrelevant. If at this point in history there is anything more American than Mickey, Donald, and Minnie, then surely it's Mickey, Donald, and Minnie in an SUV. As if to avoid the appearance of favoritism or brand nationalism, they ride in the triumvirate of authoritative, historical SUVs: the American Jeep and its direct postwar descendants, Britain's Land Rover and Japan's Toyota Land Cruiser. Still, beneath the confetti paint job, the spit-shined hubcaps, and the bootblack tires, those are some serious off-roading vehicles. The children and the adults are impressed, each in their own way.