The History of the Suburban
All good suburbans congratulate
  themselves on their choice of abodes.
(Westminster Gazette, September 1, 1906)

     The first known written use of the word "suburban" was in 1625, when it appeared in one of John Fletcher's last plays -- spelled "suburbane."  John Milton's "Paradise Regained" of 1671 was the first appearance of the modern spelling without the final e. By 1817, "suburban" was being used as an adjective to describe someone of inferior manners.  By the end of the 1800's, it had dropped this negative connotation, opening the way for its use as a product name.
     Of slightly less antiquated origins, the term "carry-all" first saw print in 1837, and had lost its hyphen by '51.  A common, 4-wheel wagon, the carryall seated 4 and had some space for luggage.  Unlike the word "suburban," "carryall" is not of the King's English but originated in the US, though it may have been influenced by "carriole," the French word for cart.  Also, "carryall" has always been a noun, whereas "suburban" has been most commonly an adjective for half its life -- a situation that likely caused subsequent difficulties in registering it as a trademark.
     With the beginnings of railroads in America, the word "depot" was applied to train stations while the British usage leaned toward "terminal."  Combined with "hack" (a vehicle for hire) we got the term "depot hack," which, with  "carryall" and "break," all began being applied to forms of the versatile passenger/goods wagon.  Although the fine distinctions of nomenclature were never rigidly adhered to, a buggy was lighter than a wagon, and both had a single transverse seat.  The carryall had a second transverse seat and the break had a seat placed longwise along each side, behind the 2 seats of the carryall.  There was often an awning or roof for shade, though the break was more apt to be uncovered as it originated as a vehicle from which to shoot game.  (From the term "shooting brakes" for game thickets)  The styles typified by the depot hack and the carryall saw wide use as business pick up and delivery vans, as family conveyances, and, with the rise of public education, as rural school busses. 
basic configuration of the "carryall" wagon
{derived from a drawing}
     The 4 wheel wagon, with its required steerable axle, dates from about 2600 BC, with finds coming from both the Sumerian and the Indus cultures.  The more complex Sumerian designs crossed into Europe first, but during the explorations and colonizations of the 15 & 16 hundreds, the simpler designs from the Indian Peninsula became better known.  The basic Indian configuration was that of a tray like platform with the axles sprung below and the seat(s) above.  This method of wagon construction was strong and simple and saw unprecedented popularity in North America.  It was but one of several trends that arose in the 1800's and which would ultimately influence today's vehicles and the terminology applied to them.
     Lack of an ossified social structure, the growing freedom and affluence of the individual, and the propensity to travel prompted by steady westward expansion all helped increase the private ownership of wagons in America.  While design and nomenclature were taking shape in the 1830's 40's and 50's, the privately owned wagon was becoming a middle class symbol of "having arrived."  A century later, the horseless carriage was to play much the same role, for blue collar families as well as middle class.
     A growing country and a growing economy fostered a steady demand for wagons, both commercial and private.  This demand built an extensive industrial base, and by the end of the 1800's over thirty thousand manufacturers were involved in the North American wagon industry. Some small builders turned out as few as a dozen rigs per year, while 100,000 per year came from Studebaker Brothers Mfg. in Indiana, and were distributed all across the continent. 
     In 1876, Nikolaus Otto patented the gasoline engine developed by his chief engineer, Fritz Ring.  Before that decade closed, Ring's engine had been applied to the wagon.  Eventually, a steel frame was needed to reinforce the basic wagon platform, both to bear the concentrated weight of the engine and to handle propulsive forces now applied to the rear axle suspension points.  This construction layout prevailed well into the 1960's, when unit-body construction began supplanting the separate frame for all but some heavy duty and commercial vehicles.  (In fact, this influence is still visible in the early stages of present day unit-body manufacture.) 
1896 King.  Note similarity to buckboard in the ad at the right.
{from 19th century ad for Bradley wagons}
1899 Panel from Detroit Automobile Co.

     Through the 80's & 90's, various wagon builders began turning out light runabout horesless carriages.  Almost immediately, owners began improvising cargo platforms on the rear of their cars, and grossly overloading them.  Builders followed with sturdier versions for such use.  Motor trucks quickly appeared in configurations based on the long proven utility of the basic wagon designs.  It was during this period that variants of the depot hack evolved into the panel, the canopy express, and the station wagon.  It was the canopy express which eventually became the Chevrolet Carryall-Suburban and today's ubiquitous SUV. 

     Both "carryall" and "suburban" began being applied to automotive models in the early 1920's.  Dodge listed various wood bodied station wagons as "Suburban" or "Suburban Carryall," and Chevrolet reportedly had several models called "Suburban," although General Motors officially only claims "use in commerce" since 1934.  Throughout the 20's, 30's and 40's, there were numerous automotive brands using these two words for model names. (see list at the end of page two)  Usage and hyphenation varied considerably, often within the same piece of writing.
     During the first 2 decades of the 20th century, many automotive brands offered depot hacks, station wagons, panels, and canopy expresses.  These bodies were of wood construction and were made by numerous specialty body builders ("coach builders" such as Cantrell, Hercules-Campbell, US Body)  The 1923 Star (another brand from Durant, founder of General Motors) is credited with being the first "production" station wagon, and it was likely the first to have been styled by the car company instead of the aftermarket body builder. In 1929, Ford became the first car manufacturer to build its own station wagon body and these were carried on their car chassis.  The move toward placing station wagon bodies on commercial chassis got a boost in 1933, when Dodge contracted  with U.S. Body & Forge of Tell City, Indiana to produce wooden station wagon bodies on their 1/2 ton truck & pick up chassis.  Known as the "Westchester Semi-Sedan Suburban," this early commercial station wagon was the first to have roll up windows -- front doors only.
1932 Canopy Express and Panel.  Note the fabric roof.
{from a 1932 ad submitted by Lou}
1936 'Burb {a contemporary ad submitted by Lou}
     In 1934, the name was shortened to "Westchester Suburban" and Dodge was selling them to the army.  (This contract was most likely a legacy from Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing, who had used 250 Dodge touring cars in the 1916 campaign against Pancho Villa.)  Plymouth also jumped in for 1934, having a similar USB&F wooden wagon body on a whopping 35 of their top of the line sedan chassis.  Plymouth was also calling it a "Westchester Suburban"  In 1937, Studebaker also began using USB&F woody bodies for their pickup based "Suburban Car," and Dodge and Plymouth changed roles, Plymouth going to their commercial chassis for the Westchester Suburbans, and Dodge reverting to their car chassis. The following year, Plymouth shortened the name of their wagons to just "Suburban," and by 1941 they were again being built on the car chassis.
     In 1933, while Dodge was preparing to sell wood bodied wagons to the army, Chevrolet began building an all steel version of the venerable canopy express for the National Guard and the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Significantly, the bodies utilized a one piece steel roof, not the fabric covered insert then prevalent.  There is evidence that the steel bodied Carryall-Suburban made its appearance for this Government sale, probably in '34.  During '33 & '34, Chevy had a station wagon which was a typical "woody" on a car chassis.  Bodies for these were supplied by Hercules, but by '37, the car based wagon was carrying a Campbell wood body and the name "Suburban." 
Cantrell bodied 1937 
Chevy wagon on the car chassis
{submitted by Lou}
Note the hyphen in 
Carry-all in this ad for the 1937 'Burb
{contemporary ad submitted by Lou}
     The steel wagon on a commercial chassis was dubbed "Carryall-Suburban" and saw listing in the Chevrolet catalog for '35, and GMC brought out its version for '37.  Although the panel was evolving towards a steel body during this same time, it still had the fabric covered wood roof in '36.  The Carryall-Suburban traces its heritage to the Canopy Express.  This is not just because of the gov't sales of these models in 33 & 34, but because of the parts used to build them.  The first Carryall-Suburbans had a drop down tailgate in the rear opening.  The hinges and fixtures for this tailgate were incorporated into the rear edges of the body sides which were manufactured for a tailgate, not for (a) side-hinged door(s).  The "barn doors" option for the rear of the Carryall-Suburban was first listed for '38.  As often happens, this option actually appeared in production sometime during the model year prior to its official listings.  Some unknown number of '37 model Carryall-Suburbans left the factory with the double rear doors.  This is attested to by Lou, an Early 'Burb member who owns a pair of unmodified '37 barn door Carryalls.  That these are not early '38 models is shown by the VIN's as well as the placement of the gas tank attachment points.  ('37 tank attached to body, '38 to frame) 
Max, Ginny, Roger & friend with their 1937 Canopy Express {by permission}
1937 'Burb 
{contemporary ad submitted by Lou}
Lou still drives this unrestored '37 Canopy Express 
{submitted by Lou}
1938 'Burb
{from contemporary ad submitted by Lou}
To: Suburban History page Two
Navigate the Early Suburban Owners Club Site:
For Sale
You are here
Return To:
Main Page
 On the 'net Since: February 22, 1999
Page last updated: Friday, June 2, 2000
FastCounter by LinkExchange
This page is best viewed with
Netscape Navigator
640x480 High Color mode or higher
Formatted for appearance on WebTV browsers