By on May 7, 2010

Suburbans are jacks of all trades. One like this taught me the valuable lessons of the limits of vehicle dynamics on winding country roads that others might have had in their MGs. Does that not define the name sport utility vehicle?

It’s Suburban Friday, and let’s see what I have in the files. Sadly, I have not yet stumbled across my favorite, the 1947 – 1955. Or my second favorite, the 1955 – 1957. It’s just a matter of time. In the meanwhile, we’ll have to content ourselves with this still regularly used 1964. Not a bad consolation prize.

This body style was built from 1959 through 1966, and was the last to be built on the short wheelbase pickup chassis. In 1967, the Suburban migrated to the long-wheelbase frame, so it would be fair to say that these earlier short versions were really predecessors to the Tahoe.

These were popular utility vehicles at the time, in almost totally different use than today’s plush Suburban. The four wheel drive versions were extremely uncommon, as that necessitated a drastically jacked up body, a solid front axle, and very harsh springs. It was how lumber jacks were ferried into the wilds, not a passel of kids to school.

As is plain to see, the interiors back then were even more different from today’s Suburbans than the exteriors. Harsh steel almost everywhere. And only two doors. If you had the three seat version, getting to it required a maneuver the Marines might use in boot camp. The right front seat flipped forward, and one crawled past it and beyond the reduced-width second seat to get to the back seat. No wonder kids weren’t obese; they had a workout every time they got in the Suburban.

I have fond memories of a Suburban just like this. I worked at a tiny corner gas station in Towson on weekends during my junior year in high school, and because of my illicit driving issues, I still didn’t have my license. But there was a Suburban just like this at the station, used for parts and customer hauling. Out of desperation to keep my skills up, I would go back on Saturday nights and take the Suburban out for extended drives in the country, or whatever else was on the agenda.

It had the 250 six and the three-speed manual on the column. This was during the typical teen aged hating-on-stupid-sixes era, when visions of hemis and 427s danced in one’s head. But I was pleasantly surprised; with its fairly low (high numerically) gearing, the well-tuned six was brisker than I expected. And this was a fairly light vehicle. Obviously not fast, but responsive, with a certain willingness. The trick to sixes back then was to avoid the slushboxes.

Anyway, I spent many a Saturday night probing the limits of the Suburban on the winding back roads of Northern Baltimore County. Good experience! The skinny little tires had very little grip, the big (unassisted) steering wheel needed lots of flaying, and it had huge amounts of play. It probably replicated what GP racers dealt with in the early part of the 20th century. One just had to use a little imagination, which was never a problem for me. Inevitably, I got caught, when a customer saw me and snitched to the owner. He had not choice but to fire me. What I learned hanging on to that steering wheel for dear life was worth the humiliation in the end.

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17 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1964 Chevrolet Suburban...”

  • avatar

    Mr. Waring, the headmaster of my Quaker elementary school, drove his six kids around in a very similar vehicle, a GMC if memory serves. He also always wore a work shirt with a plaid tie, and a paper clip as a tie clasp, and when he wasn’t ferrying people or stuff he rode a 3-speed Raleigh around the streets of Cambridge.

    Somehow, years later, though, he ended up driving a sports car.

  • avatar

    In northern Indiana I recall seeing more Travelalls than these. It seemed that the only Suburbans I can recall seeing were driven by painters or handymen. Why these came only in 2 doors I think has to do with the fact that these Burb’s were panel trucks with windows and seats.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t doubt that for it’s time the Travelall was likely a superior vehicle as a passenger hauler, but wouldn’t it be MORE surprising not to see IH vehicles around Indiana? Weren’t many of them built there? That would be like going to Flint, MI in the early 1960s and finding out that the cop cars were made by AMC.

  • avatar

    My neighbor has one of these as a daily driver. It’s a sharp truck and he’s kept it up well.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    Proof that “the past is a different country”. If we saw this vehicle coming out of China or India today we would laugh at how crude it is, but this represented GM’s finest at the height of its powers. Part of it is advances in technology but a lot of it was because we were a just plain poorer country then and a vehicle equipped with lots of amenities (like 4 doors instead of 2) would have been unaffordable by its target market. Note btw that there’s not one bit of chrome on the outside of this vehicle – every last inch is painted (though chrome would have been an option). And next time people bitch about hard plastics and “decontenting” have a look at that interior.

    The “brisker than you expected” is all in your head – these things were so loud and unstable that they felt like they were going a lot faster than they really were. “Fairly light” still meant somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 tons, and it had the aerodynamics of a breadbox and all of 150 hp (measured on the old method) split up among all of 3 gears to push that around. Not to say that they weren’t fun at the time – if what you were coming from was a bicycle (which is what you drove before if you were a teen) then 150hp is 149+ more than you had at your disposal before.

  • avatar

    >>>And next time people bitch about hard plastics and “decontenting” have a look at that interior.

    It was a truck. And in those days, a truck wasn’t full of nandy pamby amenity. A truck was strictly a work vehicle, even if for some people, part of work was hauling the family around.

  • avatar

    Actually, the door handles are chromed, as are the edges of the bezels around the taillights and the handle on the rear liftgate. It’s also possible that the bumper bolts are chromed, as well.

    Not to mention that there are lots of chromed parts in the interior.


  • avatar

    Paul, I’m gonna be a nitpick. Unless the fenders/or fender badges were changed, that’s a 1966. The ’64’s kinda looked like the ’63’s except they were turned the opposite way. For ’65 they put the badges up on the cowl and for ’66, they were as shown.

    My dad had a ’66 back when they were new, I had a ’61 with that ugly hood, and came close to buying a ’62 and ’65. Currently I’m in the ’67-’72 camp although if someone brought the above Suburban in on a flatbed and left it in my driveway I wouldn’t mind a bit.

  • avatar

    You are right about that, educatordan. Growing up in Fort Wayne Indiana may have skewed the sample as there was an International plant there that built semis and Scouts, and employed a lot of people who likely got an employee discount.

    But still, this was a Chevro-freeking-lay, sold by a network that had a dealer every 15 miles in the early 60s in the midwest.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes you are correct, Sir. You also jogged memory about some strange dealer combos from way back. Like the John Deere tractor/Ford car and truck dealership in Continental, Ohio from the early part of the 1900s till the late 40s early 50s.

  • avatar
    George B

    My dad still has a 66 Suburban with the original 283 V8 and 3 speed column shift. These trucks come with coil springs at all 4 corners and the ride quality is less harsh than one would guess from the painted steel interior. The fold down tailgate allows the 66 Suburban to handle long cargo and the interior is easy to clean with a broom. Really easy to get at everything under the hood.

  • avatar

    What a good week. First the Scout, like the one my wife drove when I met her in art school. And now the ’64 Carryall (Suburban) like we bought when we first married.

    The Carryall served us very well once we learned to turn the fan to position the flywheel to where the teeth weren’t worn. Then it would start right up.

    It was a breezy thing, with excellent ventilation, summer and winter–which was fine driving around the Deep South with no air conditioner. But then we moved to Connecticut. It was no easy thing getting it through the DMV inspections there. We finally sold it for nothing to a guy who painted unicorns on it. Forgive me, old truck.

  • avatar

    I too wondered if the picture is of a 1964. We had a 1964 and it had dual headlights. Ours may have been a fancier model, since it had chrome bumpers and more chrome trim than the one here. I think ours had an automatic, but I may be wrong. It had the cream/green paint job, and I think all four rear windows could slide open. We had the narrow second seat, but no third seat.

    It also had broken engine mounts and a speedometer that read much slower than the thing was moving.

    It had the 283 V8 and should never have been “floored”. Several times, people “floored” it. Unknown to us, the broken engine mounts would allow the engine to shift and jam the throttle on full, resulting in early cases of Unintended Sudden Acceleration. It would take off like a rocket, and you’d be fighting the steering wheel to keep it in a straight line and on the road. Eventually this led to it hitting a brick building, but fortunately no one got hurt before we learned of the problem and got it fixed.

    Another time we were cruising in the fast lane on Hwy 401 through TO. I thought we were doing about 80. Years later, we discovered the speedometer error, and we had actually been doing 95MPH. It seemed quite stable and fairly quiet even at that speed. It could go that fast without straining. Anyway, I suddenly realized there was a pileup happening just ahead, across all 4 lanes. It was also downhill. I hit the brakes, locked the back wheels but not the fronts, and as they faded, I just kept standing on them harder. I decided it would be cheaper to smash the back end than the front end, and recalled Stirling Moss’ recent big accident when he deliberately hit going backwards so he wouldn’t be hurt as badly. So I put it into a spin, but got only sideways before slewing to a stop just 2 feet from the car ahead of me. Had I not “reduced the length” of the Suburban by putting it sideways, we would have hit. And it seemed stable going sideways. We must have traveled a very long distance under braking. Check behind, no one going to hit us. End of event. Phew.

    I remember catching up to and passing a police car one time on the 400 up near Barrie. We were well over the speed limit, but didn’t know it because of the unknown faulty speedo. I remember he just looked at us as we went by, but didn’t react. Eventually an inexplicable speeding ticket led to the determination the speedometer was off.

    Anyway, we had tons of good times in this thing, a versatile cross between a sedan and a truck. Rust eventually claimed it, out in Vancouver.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      “We had a 1964 and it had dual headlights.”

      Are you sure it wasn’t a GMC? Chevy trucks only had quads from ’58-61, while GMC kept them through ’72. GMCs of this generation were six-cylinder-only in the US, but Canadian GMCs were retrimmed Chevys so the V8 was available there.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re probably right. Seems to me the GMC version was also called “Suburban ” back then. I recall it being a Chev, but perhaps it really was a GMC. Or the rebadging got mixed up.

      Here’s a story about one just like it, except for the wheels:

      It has the same paint scheme, chrome bumpers and trim, and even the sliding windows in the cargo area.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    As a young un I was transported about in a 49 then a 54 Carryall. It didnt even have a radio. My father bought them used from MIT . He worked just up the street at Polaroid. They were essentially a panel truck with seats and windows. Looking back, the 50s were austere compared to modern glitz. But we didn’t realize it , it was all we knew, and for the ‘rents it was way better than the Depression and WWII.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Keep in mind the Suburban in question is from the mid-60s, not the 50s. But it is just as austere as your 49 Carryall (well it does have an AM radio and lap belts). It is over a decade closer to our time of glitz but there’s no clue of the power windows and climate control to come. I think the biggest change has come at the bottom end – luxury cars even in 49 or 64 were well equipped (within the limits of the technology of the day) but in the old days a stripper was really a stripper.

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