The Good Oil: How the Jeepster got it on
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What was the first SUV? While the term “Sport Utility Vehicle” wasn’t widely used until the 1980s, the concept of an off-road style vehicle intended mainly for urban/leisure use (which is what an SUV really is these days) emerged much, much earlier.
There are candidates from the 1930s, including the Chevrolet Carryall Suburban – essentially a two-door wagon body on a truck chassis. It’s in the name, right?
But the Suburban was pretty utilitarian; a bit too sensible to achieve true SUV-dom. For our money, the first SUV in the modern sense of the term was the Willys-Overland Jeepster of 1948.
Willis (later to become Jeep, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year) worked quickly to adapt its military vehicles for the post-Second World War market, including the hard-working Civilian Jeep (CJ) for farming and forestry use.
But in 1948 it went next-lifestyle-level with the Jeepster, which was based on the tougher military-derived models, with the same frontal styling and flat guards, but reimagined as a sporty convertible with bright colours and luxury trim.
Jeepster boasted whitewall tyres, shiny hubcaps, sun visors and a locking glovebox. It was powered by the war-proven “Go Devil” 63kW engine and had decent ground clearance, but it wasn’t meant to go too far off the beaten track because it was rear-drive only, which makes it a very modern SUV in our eyes. Willys reckoned War veterans would love to have it parked outside their houses in Civvy Street.
Jeepster wasn’t a huge success in the end; it was underpowered and expensive compared with other sports minded models of the time (a six-cylinder engine option was added just before production ended in 1950). And maybe it was a bit too… weird.
The name did come back on a similar 1966 model, the C-101 Jeepster Commando (above). And again this year for the Jeepster Beach concept (below)… although making a Jeepster that’s truly off-road-capable kind of defeats the purpose.
The “Jeepster” name came from Willys of course, but the Urban Dictionary says it’s a slang term for an average person who pursues a dream with great tenacity.
It cites the 1971 T-Rex song Jeepster as an example, which uses cars as a metaphor for difference in social status: “Just like a car you’re pleasing to behold/I’ll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold/’Cos you’re my baby, ’cos you’re my love/Oh girl I’m just a Jeepster for your love”.
Or maybe Marc Bolan just had a deep and abiding interest in the origin story of the SUV genre, perhaps even foreseeing the launch of the Jaguar F-Pace SUV in 2016. It’s impossible to say.