Fearless SUV drivers, terrified passengers

Bob McKee

Since the 1960s and 1970s, Sport Utility Vehicles have increased in popularity with the driving public. That demand for SUVs has added to car makers’ bottom lines and increased profits for car dealers.

Four-wheel drive pickup truck sales also have surged but that’s a different animal designed more for rough work in harsh conditions and rough terrain with farmers, ranchers and construction companies in mind, or to show your neighbors you can afford one.

Today’s SUVs are descendants of the famed military Jeep of WWII and Korea which endured itself to soldiers who wanted one when they returned to civilian life. To meet that demand, Willys made the Jeep CJ 5 and later the CJ 7. Direct descendants still exist in the form of Jeep Wranglers and similar SUVs.

Not willing to let Willys monopolize that market, International Harvester came out with the Scout, GM chimed in with the K5 Blazer and Ford added the Bronco to its lineup. The Scout is long gone but versions of the Blazer and Bronco hung around.

While still in college I had a Willys station wagon. It wasn’t four-wheel drive but it did have high ground clearance and got me to classes as well as to hunting and fishing spots around Springfield. My first real four-wheel drive was a short-wheel-base pickup truck version of the 1967 IH Scout the finance division of the company I worked for repossessed from a rancher in Oklahoma. I got it for the outstanding balance on the loan but had to go down and pick it up myself.

I was so proud of it that I stopped to show it to my dad who walked around it, looked under the hood, and said the only difference between my truck and his truck was that I would have to walk farther to get help. He was right, of course, as I quickly learned. To get a tow truck with a long enough cable to reach the bogged down Scout was expensive even then.

My next 4x4 was a 1975 Chevy K5 Blazer bought new for about $6,700 from McQueen Chevrolet. It finally bought the farm at a little over 314,000 miles. I’ve had some form of SUV ever since but none are remembered as fondly as that one.

Real SUVs start out on a light truck frame. They have high ground clearance and a transfer case to engage four-wheel drive. They get notoriously poor gas mileage.

In my opinion, some of the vehicles car makers are hyping today as SUVs are not SUVs. The proper term for them is Crossover Utility Vehicles. CUVs are put together in unibody fashion just like cars. They don’t have transfer cases because they’re all-wheel drive all the time. Their ground clearance isn’t much more than is a family sedan.

With a skilled driver, some of them might be capable of getting to a few of the places real SUVs can go. Unless greatly modified, they will not be used in rock climbing competition. Nor would they pass my unscientific test for a true SUV.

A SUV should be able to get around on the muddy farm roads in western Kansas, endure a genuine South Dakota blizzard and negotiate the back roads two tracks of Wyoming’s high plains. But the biggest test, again in my humble opinion, is traveling the “Jeep” trails in Colorado. Known as the Alpine Loop connecting Lake City, Ouray, Silverton and Telluride over unpaved, high mountain passes, it puts tough SUVs and fearless drivers to the test.

These trails were cut into the sides of mountains in the 1870s so gold and silver ore could be hauled from the mines to town and supplies from town to the mining camps. They have no guard rails, no traffic lights, rarely a place wide enough to meet and get by another vehicle, and no speed limit. Drivers need not worry about getting a ticket as their vehicle picks up speed free falling into the canyon 800 feet below after they slide off the road.

There are several ghost towns along the loop and some are still standing, preserved by the dry mountain air. Mine tailings are visible on the sides of mountains well above timberline and heavy mining machinery lays abandoned in several locations. The cost of moving it up the mountain could be justified when the mines were producing but hauling it down after the gold and silver veins petered out could not. It was left behind.

Drivers on these Jeep trails appear fearless because they have a steering wheel to hang onto and feel they are in control. That doesn’t make terrified passengers in the vehicle feel any better especially when their side is on the outside edge and they are looking straight down at the bottom of that canyon 800 feet below.