Meet the Trail­blazer’s 1940 an­ces­tor

Ferdi de Vos treks to Rusten­burg to com­pare Chevro­let’s orig­i­nal Sub­ur­ban with its new Sport Util­ity Ve­hi­cle

The Witness - Wheels - - ROADTRIP -

CAPE TOWN — Men­tion the word Sub­ur­ban and it in­stinc­tively con­jures up Hol­ly­wood-es­que scenes of a tight con­voy of black trucks, crawl­ing with dark-suited CIA spe­cial agents with even darker sun­glasses, speed­ing along a desert high­way in some god-for­saken third-world coun­try…

It is quite apt too, be­cause seven decades ago the Chevy Sub­ur­ban started life as a model specif­i­cally built for the mil­i­tary National Guard units and semi-mil­i­tary Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps units in the US.

At the time much of its body was still con­structed from wood, and it could seat up to eight — three oc­cu­pants in the front row, two in the mid­dle row, and three at the rear — while ei­ther the side-hinged rear panel doors or a rear tail­gate/lift window could be se­lected to give ac­cess to the cargo area and — pre­sum­ably — the Tommy guns. The Sub­ur­ban is also very im­por­tant in Chevy folk­lore, as it is the long­est-sur­viv­ing ve­hi­cle name­plate in the world. Now in its eleventh in­car­na­tion the Sub­ur­ban is the long­est con­tin­u­ous model still in pro­duc­tion — span­ning eight decades. It came into be­ing when early in the 1930’s GM ac­quired the com­pany Martin-Parry to build bod­ies for com­mer­cial chas­sis.

By 1935 Chevro­let of­fered a sta­tion wagon body built on the half-ton truck frame, and while ini­tially pro­duced for mil­i­tary use, the 1936 “Car­ryall Sub­ur­ban” was aimed at pri­vate buy­ers and be­came one of Chevro­let and GM’s most prof­itable ve­hi­cles.

Ed Wel­burn, who re­cently retired as global vice pres­i­dent of de­sign at Gen­eral Mo­tors, de­scribed the 1936 Sub­ur­ban as one of the all-time great Chevro­lets and “ar­guably the first sport-util­ity ve­hi­cle (SUV) in the world”. While the term “SUV” did not be­come pop­u­lar un­til the late 1980s early sport util­i­ties were de­scen­dants from com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles such as the World War II Jeep and Land Rover. The ear­li­est ex­am­ples of these longer­wheel­base wagon-type ve­hi­cles in­clude the Sub­ur­ban, the Rus­sian GAZ-61 (1938) and Willys Jeep Sta­tion Wagon (1948).

The first gen­er­a­tion was of­fered by Chevro­let as the “Car­ryall Sub­ur­ban” and shared its front sheet metal and frames with the half-ton pickup mod­els of the same year. How­ever, it fea­tured an all-metal wagon body dif­fer­ing very slightly from the con­tem­po­rary “woodie” wag­ons.

Com­pared to the GAZ and Jeep the first Subur­bans, be­ing only two-wheel drive (4x4 was only avail­able as stan­dard from fifth gen­er­a­tion mod­els in 1960), per­haps did not fully com­ply with the mod­ern day def­i­ni­tion of a SUV.

How­ever, from 1942 four-wheel drive as­sem­blies called the Power-Pak kit could be or­dered from the com­pany Napco. This kit even had a “shift on the fly” rub­ber mounted trans­fer case with a dual-range op­tion. From 1957 the Power-Pak op­tion could be or­dered di­rectly from GM and in­stalled on the fac­tory line with very few mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the orig­i­nal chas­sis.

In South Africa GM al­ready in 1926 es­tab­lished a pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity, and from 1937 on­wards started as­sem­bling the Chev Sub­ur­ban in Kemp­ston Road, Port El­iz­a­beth. The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion model (1940) was also pro­duced in right-hand drive form.

While it’s not ex­actly clear when lo­cal Sub­ur­ban as­sem­bly stopped, de­mand for the out­size ve­hi­cle dropped with the in­flux of smaller, cheaper and more fru­gal ve­hi­cles from Ja­pan in the ’Six­ties.

Also, stricter lo­cal con­tent reg­u­la­tions, the de­ci­sion to only pro­duce it in left-hand drive, and the fuel cri­sis of 1973 has­tened its lo­cal demise.

Imag­ine South Africa in the early ’For­ties. With only about 2 000km of paved roads in and around the ma­jor cities, it meant any trip past city lim­its was in­evitably on rut­ted dirt tracks, with rocks, wa­ter splashes and a cou­ple of farm gates thrown in for good mea­sure.

This was the type of roads ve­hi­cles like the Sub­ur­ban had to tra­verse, and even a rel­a­tively short road trip could be­come a ma­jor trek. So, back in the day ve­hi­cles needed to be hardy and sturdy, pos­sess a high ground clear­ance, and also needed to be eas­ily fix­able, as ser­vice sta­tions (not to men­tion me­chan­ics) was vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent in the bushveld…

Fast for­ward seven decades, and our trip fol­low­ing the Magalies Me­an­der through this bushveld to Rusten­burg, in the very re­cently re­vamped 2016 Chev Trail­blazer was rou­tine.

The pur­pose of our trip? To meet up with a clas­sic South African as­sem­bled Sub­ur­ban in a place close to Rusten­burg one can only de­scribe as pure Chevy heaven.

You see, Philip Clas­sics, the pri­vate col­lec­tion of Philip Mostert, con­sists mainly of Chev ve­hi­cles from as early as 1926 to the 1980’s; most bought and re­stored lo­cally, but some also im­ported. His col­lec­tion now to­tals 52 drive­able cars, in­clud­ing a well-pre­served dark blue 1940 Chev Sub­ur­ban Car­ryall that caught our at­ten­tion — as the Trail­blazer for all in­tents and pur­poses is the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to this model in SA. The 1940 model was the fi­nal ver­sion of the first gen­er­a­tion Sub­ur­ban Car­ryall and it was avail­able with ei­ther rear panel doors, des­ig­nated 3106, or with tail­gate doors, des­ig­nated 3116.

Chevro­let’s de­scrip­tion of this model would not have been out of place de­pict­ing a mod­ern SUV like the Trail­blazer to­day: “The first gen­er­a­tion Sub­ur­ban was of­ten put to work car­ry­ing up to eight per­sons, plus their gear and lug­gage, to rugged and re­mote lo­ca­tions — where work, play or the pur­suit of ad­ven­ture awaited…”

Still, its 216 cu­bic-inch (3,5-litre) in­line six-cylin­der en­gine, af­fec­tion­ately called the Stove­bolt, pro­duced only 63 kW at 3400 rpm and 230 Nm of torque at 1200 rpm. Com­bined with a three-speed man­ual gear­box it had its work cut out to pro­pel the 3,43-ton Sub­ur­ban for­ward.

In size it is also com­pa­ra­ble to the lat­est Trail­blazer.

It is marginally longer (4994mm vs. 4887mm) but their wheel­bases are vir­tu­ally the same (2883mm vs. 2845mm), and in terms of height and in­te­rior space there’s also not much dif­fer­ence.

How­ever, when it comes to cargo ca­pac­ity the seven-seat Trail­blazer has the edge (1830 litres avail­able with the rear seats folded down). Both have as a lad­der-frame chas­sis and in­de­pen­dent (called “knee-ac­tion” in the Sub­ur­ban’s hey­day) front sus­pen­sion.

But the oldie’s hy­draulic drum brake sys­tem, high white side­wall tyres and sealed beam head­lights is re­placed by an advanced disc brake sys­tem, wide lower-pro­file tyres and halo­gen head­lights, in­clud­ing LED day­time run­ning lights, for the Trail­blazer.

The clas­sic Sub­ur­ban wagon shares its de­sign cues with the 1935 half-ton pickup truck, and it still looks classy and dis­tin­guished next to its mod­ern coun­ter­part. The Trail­blazer’s trade­mark ‘bowtie bar’ is now wider and the grille sec­tions with bolder hor­i­zon­tal slats now run the full width of the nose. The new bon­net also has sleeker con­tours on the lead­ing edge.

Inside it’s an­other mat­ter al­to­gether. In stark con­trast to Chev’s lat­est SUV the Sub­ur­ban’s in­te­rior is Spar­tan, with bench seats, no car­pets to speak of, and no ameni­ties such as air­con, elec­tric win­dows or even a ra­dio.

More re­fined and safer than be­fore, the flag­ship 2,8 LTZ 4x4 auto model now has a next gen­er­a­tion MyLink 2.0 mul­ti­me­dia in­ter­face and driver aids such as lane de­par­ture warn­ing and blind spot alert.

It also has ad­justable air con­di­tion­ing for passengers in all three rows, fold­flat third row seat­ing, a re­vised sound­dead­en­ing pack­age, more soft-touch ma­te­ri­als and stan­dard leather up­hol­stery. Given its age the Sub­ur­ban’s six-pot mill is sur­pris­ingly smooth and quiet, but not very pow­er­ful, and on the road pa­tience is the name of the game…

While sup­pos­edly syn­chro­nised, the gear­box needs to be treated in the same way as a crash ’box, match­ing en­gine revs to your shifts to en­sure a smooth change.

This is quite tax­ing, made worse by heavy clutch ac­tion, and the steer­ing — with no power as­sis­tance — is slow and cum­ber­some, and its turn­ing cir­cle tank-like, while the brakes, com­pared to the boosted sys­tems nowa­days, are vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent.

To drive the old wagon takes a fair amount of con­cen­tra­tion, while the Trail­blazer is a to­tal breeze in com­par­i­son. Its new power steer­ing sys­tem, fea­tur­ing Ac­tive Pull and Smooth Road Shake Com­pen­sa­tion, adds to a smoother, re­fined driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, while big ven­ti­lated discs (300mm) in front and 295mm discs at the rear, plus four-chan­nel ABS and Brake Force Dis­tri­bu­tion, pro­vide deadly stop­ping power.

Other safety features in­clude PBA (Panic Brake As­sist), HBFA (Hy­draulic Brake Fade As­sist), seven airbags, ISOFIX child seat an­chors, front park as­sist, Sta­bil­i­trak, HDC (Hill De­scent Con­trol), TSC (Trailer Sway Con­trol) and a rear mounted cam­era park­ing as­sis­tance sys­tem - all tech­nol­ogy that didn’t ex­ist seventy years ago.

With the proven 2,8-litre Du­ra­max tur­bod­iesel en­gine with 144 kW and a class-lead­ing 500 Nm of torque, cruis­ing on the high­way or tack­ling tough off-road chal­lenges are made easy.

Due to its good torque de­liv­ery, ac­cel­er­a­tion is brisk (0 to 100km/h takes 10.4 sec­onds) and even tow­ing a braked trailer weigh­ing 2965kg is easy, mak­ing the Trail­blazer a true “car­ryall”.

The LTZ 4x4 auto is now avail­able for R613 200, which in­cludes Chevro­let’s Com­plete Care af­ter sales pack­age, a five-year or 120 000km war­ranty and a five-year or 90 000km ser­vice plan.

Ac­tu­ally, the first gen­er­a­tion Sub­ur­ban was the orig­i­nal SUV trail­blazer, while the new, up­graded and re­fined Trail­blazer is more of a sub­ur­ban cruiser. Yet, both of them still ex­em­plify the ideal type of ve­hi­cle for ex­tended road trips.


Philip Mostert’s 1940 Chevro­let Sub­ur­ban of­fers more space but less com­fort than its 2017 de­scen­dant.

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