If you’re looking for someone to blame for the whole yuppie-SUV fad, look no further. Back when I was bouncing over Rocky Mountain off-road trails in my VW bug, I sneered at actual Jeeps. And when I headed out across the desert in my Dodge van, I (almost) never missed having four-wheel drive. The moment we became city folks with kids, we just had to have a genuine 4X4 SUV.
When we were first married, Stephanie and I would jump in the van and head for the woods or desert every weekend. But when the two rug-rats appeared (not so mysteriously), it wasn’t so easy anymore. We spent most weekends at the park, zoo or beach. Turns out there’s nothing like feeling trapped in the city to make you a sucker for the scale-the-Himalayas SUV marketing fantasy.
Initially, I was infatuated with the idea of an International Scout, then available with a turbocharged Nissan diesel engine. But it was too gnarly for Stephanie to take seriously as a kiddie-taxi. Not for the first time in my life, fantasy outstripped practical reality.
But Detroit was reading my mind; they launched a wave of civilized cute-utes. In 1983, a Ford dealer leased us a fresh-as-a-filly Bronco II for six months, in exchange for TV ads. Within ten blocks of handover, I was ready to take it back.
Driving the Bronco was like riding a unicycle; staying upright was a constant struggle. The combination of a short 94” wheelbase, swing-axle front suspension and a high center of gravity turned out to be… challenging (deadly for others). As a practiced unicyclist, I eventually got the hang of keeping the Bronco upright, but I was never fond of vertigo.
After six months, I sent the lil’ Bronc back home, hopefully to grow up. We checked out the newly-released Jeep Cherokee (XJ). One short test drive and– predictably enough– we bought it on the spot. Compared to the Bronco, the Cherokee handled like a Ferrari.
Though launched four years after John Travolta’s hard hat days and honky-tonk nights, the Cherokee was the fuse that led directly to the explosion of four-wheeled Urban Cowboys. Virtually overnight, our pre-school parking lot was full of Cherokees. And I gotta say, the Jeep was a brilliant piece of kit.
At 3100 lbs, the Cherokee was a featherweight by today’s bloated standards. [A 4,225 lbs. Jeep Liberty? Don’t try to tell me that air bags weigh half a ton.] Foreshadowing the current trend, the Cherokee was a unibody SUV, and a tough one at that. With solid axles and a Quadra-Link suspension up front, it could hop boulders with genuine élan.
I never got into four-wheeling as a sport; ours was bone-stock. But that didn’t stop us taking long rambling trips throughout the West, getting as close to lost as possible. I always carried detailed maps that showed unimproved roads and trails. Usually, there weren’t any “consequences.” But we sure came close.
We were heading for Bryce Canyon National Park from the south. The only roads into Bryce are from the north; it was going to be one Hell of a detour. But one of my maps indicated a faint line. Good enough for me. We worked our way higher and higher into exquisitely pristine back country. Eventually our “road” became a steep trail. Then we started crossing banks of snow in the shadows.
It was late in the day. The spring-time snow became deeper, the trail steeper. I figured that backing down was riskier than keeping up our speed. So I kept the hammer down and maintained enough momentum to crash through the ever bigger snow banks. We had no sleeping bags, shovel, or winch. But we did have two little kids.
I didn’t stop sweating bullets until we reached the top.
Of course, most of the Jeep’s miles were racked up less eventfully, bombing down the freeways of LA. After we moved to Oregon and sold the Benz, the Jeep became my car.
Oregon is a back-roads paradise. The boys and I took full advantage of our new-found freedom. We’d “get lost” in the high desert and mountains for weeks at a time.
Ah, memories— bought and paid for at the pump. Yes, the Cherokee certainly conformed to the old stereotype of Indian thirst; there were times when I wondered if I’d ever left the service station. And despite slurping gas prodigiously through its miserably complicated carburetor, the Chevy-sourced 2.8-liter V6 was a pokey turd.
And after 15 years and almost 200k miles, the Cherokee began to show the effects of its endless abuse. Right to the end, it was happy drifting on Oregon’s endless gravel logging roads.
We finally replaced it in 1999 with a Subaru Forester. So you can blame us for starting the CUV fad too.