There’s a book I’ve been reading from 1958, written by a man named John Keats (not this one), and called The Insolent Chariots. At its core, it’s a guy bitching about the absurd excesses of the American automotive industry in the 1950s, along with some wonderfully unhinged illustrations from Robert Osborn. But at this moment, I just want to point out something incredible about this book: it predicts the modern SUV with chilling accuracy.
The prediction comes in a chapter called “Execrable Shape,” in a section where Keats bemoans the station wagon design because it places the spare tire under the cargo area, necessitating the removal of all the carefully-packed stuff (by a hypothetical everyschlub he calls Tim Vandervogel) in case of a flat.
He wishes that the tire was mounted outside the car, on a non-existent runningboard or perhaps a tailgate. That train of thought leads him to this remarkable paragraph:
“If Detroit were to build an honest-to-goodness family vacation car for athletes like the Vandervogels—and people who look like the Vandervogels are shown simpering at us from every station wagon advertisement—it would seem logical that such a car would not only have high road clearance but more enduring paint, a larger gas tank, stiffer springs, a truck transmission and four-wheel drive. In short, it would be a machine able to go anywhere in any weather and it would resemble an Army weapons carrier, complete to water cans, shovels and picks strapped to its sides.”
Um, if we ignore the part about cans and shovels strapped to it, John here has basically just described most modern, full-size SUVs pretty much exactly.
High clearance, big gas tank, truck-based drivetrain, four-wheel drive—John nailed it, and not just the rough technical description, but the concept that, one day, the default family car will not be a station wagon or sedan, but a capable off-roadable beast like this.
That’s a hell of an accurate prediction; based on the context, I think Keats felt he was describing something so practical and functional it could never, ever be possible to the Detroit slingers of bulbous, chromed barges.
Joke’s on him, though, since that’s what everyone is buying today, and they’ve morphed into the same ornate bloat and excess as the worst 1950s wraparound-windshield and torpedo-taillight offender.
Sort of related, the illustrator of the book, Robert Osborn, was known during WWII for creating a character of a total fuckup pilot named Dilbert. I’m including this WWII training video that features an actor playing Dilbert because I think the title is incredible: Don’t Kill Your Friends.