The Last Redoubt?

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Some of you may remember station wagons.

Before SUVs and crossovers – before minivans – station wagons were the family car of choice for millions of American families. They were as everywhere as SUVs and crossovers are today. As minivans were, before SUVs and crossovers supplanted them.

Wagons were natural things, created as the result of market demand for them. They were in demand because they could comfortably carry more than five people and a bunch of stuff in the back plus pull a trailer, if the need was there. Such attributes appeal to families, to people who have kids and often have to cart around other people’s kids, too.

The big wagons were based on the big sedans that were dominant at the time – the time being the ’60s and ‘70s.

This was the time before government got into the business of dictating to the car industry how many miles-per-gallon cars would have to deliver in order to avoid being fined for noncompliance. When cars were designed to meet buyer – rather than government – demands

When that reversed, the car business hit the equivalent of a patch of black ice and skidded in a different – and unplanned – direction. Station wagons disappeared almost overnight, because the large sedans they were based on had been fatwa’d out of existence by fuel economy mandatory minimums which made them too expensive to build, due to the “gas guzzler” taxes heaped on them.

But – at the time – there was an end-run.

Pick-up trucks were not yet subject to the fatwas – which only applied to passenger cars. It occurred to someone at one of the car companies – it was Ford that hit paydirt first – that pick-ups share the same basic attributes which made large sedans – and the station wagons spun off from them – so popular with the market. The were big and had lots of room inside. They had big engines.

And they were rear-wheel-drive.

Exactly like the big sedans and wagons extincted by fatwa. Just with a bed out back, open to the elements.

Well, how about we enclose that bed? Lay down some carpet, bolt seats to the floor? Add extra doors?

Voila – the SUV.

It was Ford’s Bronco II which began what would soon become a boom. It was a Ranger pick-up with an enclosed bed. Which made it agreeable as a passenger carrying vehicle that wasn’t – in regulatory terms – a passenger vehicle; i.e., a “car.”

It was – for regulatory purposes – a “light truck” and these skated elegantly past Uncle and his fatwas, as they did not have to abide by the MPG mandatory minimums that had forced an unnatural changed in the way cars were designed. But the most unnatural thing was the sudden effusion of these SUVs, which Blitzkrieged the roads like the panzers into Poland. Within three years of the Bronco II’s appearance as a new model in 1983, others had joined in. By 1990, every major car company had at least one SUV in its lineup – and those that didn’t were working on it.

It was like the muscle car frenzy set into motion back in 1964, when John DeLorean pretty much invented the muscle car by taking a mid-sized Tempest coupe and replacing its small V8 with a huge V8 from Pontiac’s full-sized cars – with the difference being that DeLorean was end-running GM’s internal edict that its smaller cars must only have engines so big (and no bigger) while Ford and the rest were end-running Uncle.

But there was a common thread – the car companies were trying to give the people who bought their cars what they wanted, not for altruistic reasons but rather because that’s how you made money. Well, used to – before it became possible to make money by passing laws forcing people to buy your goods or services (e.g., car insurance, Obamacare).

And now comes the next end-run, the last redoubt.

Uncle’s MPG fatwas have been applied to “light trucks” – and so, to SUVs built off them – and these fatwas are already at a level that cannot be complied with. Uncle demands they – like “passenger cars” – average 35.4 MPGs – or else. And the fatwa is on track to almost double, if the National Cockatiel doesn’t intervene. The good news is it looks as though he might. The bad news is that even if he does, the odds of his successor re-imposing the fatwas are high.

But the fatwas do not – yet – apply to heavy-duty trucks in the 2500/3500 series (and up) class. Why not let history repeat? Why not take, say, a Chevy Silverado 2500 dualie pick-up and enclose the bed.

Voila – instant super-sized SUV!

With an even bigger V8!

If people can no longer buy “light truck” – and SUVs – on account of their having been fatwa’d out of existence, but the same basic thing is still available to them in something even bigger and heavier and – the irony is almost too much – even less fuel-efficient – then they will buy it because the car industry will build it.

Because there’s money in it.

It’s what people want – a concept the people who work as Uncle’s minions seem congenitally incapable of grokking. Stifle what people want and people will find a way around it – often, with the net result being more of what the government claims it didn’t want and tried to prevent via the original fatwa.

Right now, Uncle – his minions (and this includes the media, which might as well be officially christened the Ministry of Truth or some such equivalent) moan mightily about what they regard as the not-so-great economy of the average new vehicle. Which is an SUV – or a crossover SUV, which is the same basic animal (i.e., big, heavy and so, thirsty).

Which is a class of vehicle that would not exist – not as a mass-market offering – were it not for the distortion of the marketplace caused by Uncle’s fatwas. Trucks would have remained trucks – built in small proportion relative to cars and sold mostly to tradesmen, farmers and so on. Most people would have bought cars – and if the market signaled that most people pined for smaller, gas-sippier cars, the car industry would have made them, no fatwa necessary.

Because there would have been money in it.

Doubt this? Check into how many old Beetles VW sold. Or Honda Civics. Pre-fatwa, when market demand for them was what served as the genesis for their manufacture.

But this was not enough for Uncle. It never is. He had to meddle. Had to intervene – had to supersede and second-guess. And thus was born the arguably grotesque SUV boom, which continues to blossom like an endless far cloud to this day. Vast fleets of jacked-up hybrid truck-car things that suck oceans of gas – not that there is anything wrong with that; people have every right to be as profligate with their resources as they wish to be. Once pumped, gas is their to burn and the idea that a third party busybody should have anything to say about it is as obnoxious as a busybody issuing fatwas about what kind of carpet you may throw down in your own home.

But it’s silly for so many millions of people to be driving around in these grotesque truck-car things, which are creatures of Uncle.

And it may just be about to get a lot sillier, once production of of 2500/3500 series SUVs ramps up.

. . .

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  1. My father had a Chevy station wagon for a few years when I was a child in the ’70’s. It had a 283 engine, AT, and a rear suspension that would make a sound when something heavy was removed from the rear of it. I almost called it an air suspension, but that sound I heard was not a release of air pressure. Hydraulics? I don’t know. I haven’t heard the same sound since then.
    Eric, you credit Ford Bronco for being the first truck to replace the station wagon in the early ’80’s, but my father bought an International Scout 4X4 in the mid to late ’70’s that was a cross between a station wagon and a truck. I recall dreaming of buying a two-toned blue Chevy Suburban 4X4 when I got old enough during the late ’70’s, and there were plenty of Chevy Blazers around. I never did buy a Suburban because the price of gas doubled just before I turned 16, and the price of 4X4s were out of my league anyway. The formerly cheap Volkswagon Beetle leaped out of my price range during that time as well. I was born a bit too late apparently.

    • Hi Brian,

      I remember them all!

      The main thing in re the Scout and Blazer, etc., is that they were not mass-market and not called “SUVs.” The Bronco II was the first – successful – attempt to make such a vehicle a mass-market vehicle, built for A to B driving by people who went off roading about as often as I watch fuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhtttttttttttball! 🙂

  2. What are the odds of seeing SUVs in that payload class? Well…

    The Ford Excursion was a Super Duty–based SUV, and it was discontinued in 2005 after six years of production because of falling sales. Admittedly the lousy economy then did not help. A long version of the Expedition has since served as the closest replacement.

    Chevrolet/GMC/Cadillac does not seem to offer a 3/4–ton equivalent in the Suburban/Yukon/Escalade line, but maybe I’ve missed something. Ram (which was Dodge years ago) has not offered a full-sized SUV in some years, let alone one in the 3/4–ton class.

    I think Eric is onto something, but the automakers might fear the wrath of government and various whiny ninnies should they introduce “super-duty” SUVs. With the push to force the fleet to go electric, this all might be a dead issue several years from now anyway—or so I fear.

    By the way, government attempts to force those who want to buy a new pickup or other light truck to prove a need for the capabilities of the vehicle are increasingly likely, or at least that’s my hunch. Such proposals have appeared in various quarters. That alone would short-circuit any attempts to offer such SUVs.

    What we desperately need is someone to write a sequel to B. Bruce-Briggs’s classic book of 40 years ago, The War Against the Automobile. We’re damned sure in an even worse war today than in the 1970s.

    • I’d LOVE to find a non-rusty 3/4 ton 4×4 Suburban from the 70’s! I’d just modify it buying putting a manual tranny in it, and talk about a SHTF vehicle!

      • I just sold a big old jacked up 4×4 suburban – for $1000 and a S&W m&p 40
        I have a 1952 Suburban in the barn I’m trying to sell? It hasn’t run in 10 years since I parked it there LOL!

          • Those old K5 Blazers are sweet. I used to have an ’85. If you could find one of the rare ones with a stick…ya really had something. (I knew a guy what had one’a them; only one I’d ever seen- but even 20 years ago, the rust had already done it’s thing on it…)

            A real travesty: My best friend’s father had an awesome, mint 87 K5….spent most of it’s time just sitting in the driveway. I would have bought it for a fair price, but his dad never wanted to sell it; and when he finally did start to think of selling it, he thought it was made of platinum or something…. It just kept sitting there, and by the time he finally sold it in the late 90’s, it was a pile of rust- and of course, he had to sell it for practically nothing. What a shame.

  3. Heavy duty trucks are great for heavy duty applications. But for mere commuting, they are almost ridiculous.

    I’m not talking about the mpg, but rather the ponderous handling, and the high difficulty factor involved in parking in even a generously sized suburban spots. Although riding high has its charms, all other “fun to drive” factors are completely gone.

    They’re not exactly affordable, either.

    So I really doubt that new 3/4+ ton trucks will prove to be the “last redoubt” for very many buyers.

  4. Do you mean, emulate the caricatures of people LeMay they have in their heads? Oh, probably quite a few.

    If you mean the actual historical man, though, then not too many, apparently, because he tended towards brutal but also honest and frank descriptions of the command of a total war. Sure, they’d say something like the quote above, celebrate it even, but chances are you couldn’t also get them to say anything as plain and honest about war as other quotes from him on that very same page, like the following:

    “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”


    “I’d like to see a more aggressive attitude on the part of the United States. That doesn’t mean launching an immediate preventive war…”


    “As far as casualties were concerned I think there were more casualties in the first attack on Tokyo with incendiaries than there were with the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that it’s done instantaneously, maybe that’s more humane than incendiary attacks, if you can call any war act humane. I don’t, particularly, so to me there wasn’t much difference. A weapon is a weapon and it really doesn’t make much difference how you kill a man. If you have to kill him, well, that’s the evil to start with and how you do it becomes pretty secondary. I think your choice should be which weapon is the most efficient and most likely to get the whole mess over with as early as possible.”

    His capability to approach and accept such realities of war made him a pretty good general, actually. Doesn’t mean you’d want him in charge of anything else necessarily, to say the least. Professional soldiering tends to ruin most people for any other place in society, given enough time and involvement. In fact, I’d argue a frank assessment of the sordid nature of any combat is absolutely necessary to wholly appreciate why war ought not to be entertained so lightly as so very many governments and even individuals are wont to do.

    War is what happens when civilized processes, both formal and informal, break down to the point that one state decides to settle some grievance- real or perceived- with another (or more) by large-scale murder. LeMay made statements to that effect several times, and quotes like the one in the parent comment were generally in response to questions about the rule or law of war from idealistic journalists, sometimes preening about the allies’ moral superiority in WWII. He saw the notion of any law or morality or honor in warfare as self-evidently absurd, as law and rule and basic human decency had necessarily been completely abandoned already at that point, or else there would have been no war to deal with in the first place, so just end it as quickly as possible. Brutal, arguably either from a schizoid or psychopathic mind, but also a very good reason to to say that you’d damn well have a *very* good reason for war in the first place if you even entertain the notion, to put it lightly.

    Unlike the frequent regional and proxy wars waged for indeterminate duration and for nebulous to foolhardy to downright reprehensible motives and goals that I’ve been witness to my whole life.

    • I guess if you’re good at something why not be the best?

      The problem becomes that we are forced to begrudgingly accept the idea that we need people like him to protect us, much like the famous “you can’t handle the truth” speech from A Few Good Men. Once you accept that the only solution is violence you open up a Pandora’s box of horrible atrocities. Atrocities that destroy everyone. The victor (no winners) at least only has to deal with the aftermath of his action. The loser of course loses his life.

  5. I figure that if the market had been left largely alone, with only the real emissions to be concerned about a 2017 large station wagon would probably pull in somewhere in the low 20s mpg wise if not higher in real world use. This would be as good or better than most of what people have ended up driving instead.

    But the market hasn’t been left alone so no balance can be found. Everything is pushed to extremes to pass government tests.

    Of course the goal is that we aren’t to have private passenger automobiles. Those aiming for that goal likely didn’t think the automobile manufacturers would be able to make it this far.

  6. my family is a perfect example of this article. My wife and I both went to trucks in the early 90’s cause the cars sucked. And we didn’t like the trucks, but we dealt with them because of the simple facts you mentioned.
    We even went 3/4 ton trucks in the early 2000’s because the 1/2 ton engines got smaller and smaller, I guess right around the time ‘light trucks’ became part of CAFE. makes sense.

    ps: we just vacationed in the carribbean (non-US), and the cars here are all different than ours. I asked the cabbies how much for really nice vans they drive. $20K new. That similar vehicle here in US would be $35-40K easy. Our crony capitalistic system between our Gov and automakers has and will continue to hurt us.

    • $20K for a nice van…meanwhile here, $20K would buy a UTV that isn’t even street legal, and is little more than a glorified golf-cart.

  7. Eric, this a terrific article explaining why Crossover Hell exists!

    Even though they rotted on the vine, you have to give Ford credit for keeping the Panther sedans around as long they did. Panther was a result of the downsizing that took place after Uncle stuck his nose in, but they still remained large enough to be a true full-sizer. Those cars ended up being the last of the true, traditional full-size sedans. They were far more useful than the modern sedan. They didn’t have fastback rooflines that cut into headroom. They also had the bench seat to accommodate an additional passenger. The trunks were spacious, and they didn’t have those stubby decklids like modern sedans have.

    If it wasn’t for Uncle, these cars would be thriving. I can easily imagine a new traditional full-sizer that’s fresh and attractive (including the bench seat) without alienating younger demographics. They would even come with a big, powerful V8 and offer performance upgrades.

    • Thanks, Handler – and amen re the Panther and the last of the traditional sedans. These new fastback/high-assed things are atrocities. Functionally as well as regards – yes – saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety! The visibility rearward is horrendous (hence all the Band Aids, such as rear cross traffic alert and back-up cameras) and the trunks tend to be absurdly small relative to the size of the car.

      It makes my teethe ache…

      • Last Sunday I went for a drive on some forest service roads. It had snowed on Saturday so the roads had a layer of slush and mud. At one point the chimes went off and the display warned “Blind spot detection disabled,” or words to that effect. I looked at the mirror and the yellow triangles were both on, even though I was the only vehicle for miles around. It was the mud. It covered the sensors so badly that they shut down.

        Kind of funny considering I was driving it in a way the marketing suggested is appropriate for the vehicle. I even put the transmission in mud mode. That it even has a mud mode should send a red flag to the blind spot sensor engineers that perhaps they should test on muddy roads.

        Seems to me if you’re going to engineer something that you want us to rely on you better damn well make sure you make it reliable.

      • eric, I’ve seen people do a bit of body work to Suburbans and adding fenders off one ton dually trucks with a dually axle for decades. They look fine when done correctly and are hellacious people and tow vehicles rolled into one. An old 3/4T 4WD done that way is quite striking looking.

        I have never understood why GM didn’t make a Duramax Suburban like Ford did with the Excursion. Go to Mexico and you can have one……but you’d have to sneak one over in an enclosed trailer to even get one into the US. Fatwa’s……dammit!

        • Better yet, 8, drop a 12V Cummins in an Excursion! I believe it’ll bolt up to V-19’s tranny. Now we’re talkin’! Hmmm… a few hundred thousand miles, if my V-10 ever blows (‘Course, with how little I drive, I’ll be 187 when that happens…)

  8. Have been looking without success to purchase a low miles (under 120K) Excursion(Enclosed F250) with Eddie Bauer Package, 4×4, 7.3 Diesel…They haven’t been made since 2003…I have also been looking a a Crew Cab 2500 of the GMC variety in Diesel, the latest two styles…and noticed that the prices are nosebleed…almost as much as when new…

    My reason…Diesel (600 mi highway range-room for a reserve tank), no EPA fatwa yet…

    Would I buy an available Jetta TDI? Yes, if I could register it…which seems like no…Would I consider the RAM 1500 in EcoDiesel, or the GMC/Chevy Colorado with Diesel? Yes, but seems like same issue…Buying a Work Truck with Sedan like luxury seems the only option…Shame really…

    • Stucki,

      If you come across a V10 Excursion, GRAB it! They can often be had for half or less the price of a 7.3 (You’ll have to drive a long way before you’d use enough gas to make a higher-cost 7.3 pay…); they’re geared really low, so can tow like a diesel, and they’re AWESOME. Eddie Bauer? Didn’t know they came in that- but I got my Limited for $4500 and it’s the best vehicle I’ve ever had. I’ll never get rid of it untill I leave this country.

      The 7.3’s, while the best of the “modern diesels”, still are not like the good old simple *real* diesels…and they’re now at the age where all of the electronics and delicate fuel system components are failing left and right; ditto the turbo stuff, and all the little O-rings and seals which keep all that high-pressure oil inside. Everyone I know who has one (just about everyone!) is going nuts fixing one thing after another.

      And of course, don’t even THINK of a 6.0.

      Mine with the V-10 drives like a sports car. 175K miles on it. Still feels like a new vehicle, ’cause unlike pick-ups, they’re not used like “trucks”.

      There is NO going back once you get one.

      • Nun, not sure I could deal with a Triton if it were given to me. The company has a 3/4T 4WD crewcab with Triton power. I’ve never seen anything eat so much gas. It sits a lot cause nobody wants to feed it cue Little House of Horrors.

        I had no experience with one before and now know why so few were sold and why they can be had cheap.

        • 8, you’re a brandist! [It’s like a racist, only for cars… 😉 )

          Tell ya the truth, I’ve been driving nothing but Tritons for the last 17 years- 4.6, 5.4 and 6.8. NEVER one problem with ’em (But I stick to pre-’04….don’t want none’a that variable cam timing or propensity to drop valves…).

          Yeah, they’re not going to win any points with the greenies for MPG- but then again, that has more to do with Ford gearing everything so damn low. My Exc. gets 11MPG (driving briskly rural roads and town) with 4.30 gears. Imagine if it had 3.73’s?! She’d get 15MPG easy…not bad for an 6,000 lb, vee-hickle.

          What Ford gas truck gets good MPGs? My 81 2-wheel drive F250 back in the day with the 300 I-6 used to get 10MPG!

  9. F this country!
    F this gov’t!
    F the people who support it!

    Is there anything they haven’t totally ruined? From toilets, to cars, to women!

    (Hmmmm, I’m seeing a pattern here: Pretty much everything men love!)

      • Hi Escher,

        Triple amen that.

        For me, a DUI would be a career-ender as far as reviewing cars. The car companies check for such convictions and if you have one, forget it. Worse than being politically incorrect, even.

        Now, I don’t drive “drunk.” I don’t consider a beer or two “drunk” or even close to “drunk.” But it’s too close to comfort for any encounter with an armed government worker manning a checkpoint (sieg heil!) so I don’t ever have even a single drink if I am going to have to drive.

        Which, of course, is what they want. De facto Prohibition.

        I am amazed there are still bars; that they are able to keep their doors open. That restaurants have enough people buying alcohol to make it worth serving.

        • Hi, Eric,

          “I am amazed there are still bars; that they are able to keep their doors open. That restaurants have enough people buying alcohol to make it worth serving.”

          It just shows how utterly clueless and unconcerned most people are. Just like with the TSA.

          The country nextdoor to me voted to go “moist” a few years ago. Which meant that you still couldn’t buy a beer or a bottle of booze…but you could go to a restaurant and drink. Just shows that it’s not about “saaaafety”, but rather about the thousands the system makes off of every DUI.

          Now the county has gone totally wet….

          Funny thing too: The former sheriff of that county, who used to arrest people for bootlegging (Selling alcohol in the county, brought in from elsewhere) after being convicted of beating a handcuffed suspect and conspiring with deputies to cover it up, now works at a liquor store…selling alcohol. Oh, it’s O-K, because now some guys somewhere wrote on a piece of paper that it is now, and had some other guys sign the piece of paper. Before that, it was “wrong” and so one would go to jail for selling alcohol.

          If that isn’t the most perfect example of the mercenary nature of pigs, I don’t know what is. You cage people one day for doing something…and then the next, you can do the very same thing with no penalty because apparently the only thing defining morality to these creeps, is what some other “special” men decree- they apparently believe that SOME men have the right to define what is right and what is wrong; and the decrees or prohibitions of such men are the only things which they feel obligated to force others to abide by.

          • Rumor has it that the Vail (Colorado) police chief and Eagle county sheriff were amongst the first applicants for recreational marijuana permits after the town voted for allowing pot shops.

  10. “Once pumped, gas is theirs to burn ” Amen. I remember back in the Carter “oil crisis” days the whole meme that “if the trucks stop running WE ALL DIE” This lie is still repeated to this day. Its like the old book from the 30’s “Disaster through air power” which argued that bombing was SO effective that there would never be another ground war. In fact after bombing a plant in Germany, the workers would show up the next day, clear away the debris and be back to making the product within days. Had they dropped money instead of bombs those workers probably would stay at the beer garden instead of going back to building artillery pieces. Fact is the free market handles scarcity awesomely efficiently. No need for central planners to “keep us safe”. (from ourselves)