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Opinion: It was the Americans who inspired the SUV coupe trend

By David Morley, 27 Sep 2019 Features

Opinion Americans SUV coupe origin feature

The Germans might be responsible for starting the SUV coupe trend of recent times, but its origins can be traced across The Pond.

I used to think jacked-up SUV coupes like the BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE were about the most inexplicable (to me) vehicles I’d ever seen. I still do, as it happens, but one thing has changed.

Mind you, a lot of things haven’t changed. Stuff like wondering what sort of dude wakes up one morning and decides that the black hole of hopelessness in his meaningless life can only be filled with an SUV that doesn’t fit any gear inside it. Or his barbecue buddy who decides that a coupe on stilts and compromised tyres is just the sort of non-sporting sports car for him (yes, it’ll be a him; possibly a Russian oligarch). Different what-the; same lost-on-me. Nothing new there.

So what has changed? Well, I’ve stopped blaming ze Chermans for the whole CoupeUV phenomenon. Turns out we can now all blame – drum roll, please – the Mercans. Yep, the race that brought you the Oldsmobile Toronado (optional 455-inch plant, front-drive and crossplies), the civilian version of the Hummer (and the war that went with it), and an Oval Office where the portrait of Honest Abe now weeps real tears.

Thing is, the car that I now blame for this modern plague of Bloke-usts isn’t actually very new at all. Oh, sure, it sticks to the puzzling notion of a swept-back coupe plonked on a four-be-four chassis. And, yes, it is just as compromised in every regard as the modern stuff. But get this: The car in question was launched in 1981! And its name? The AMC Eagle SX/4.

The SX/4 was based on the AMC Spirit – a compact two-door that was remarkable only for its use of a liftback design that, like a police black-and-white passing a doughnut store, was still a bit out of the box in the US at the time.

MORE: Why SUV Coupe owners are buying the wrong car

 

Technically, the Eagle SX/4 was a bit interesting. Yes, even ahead of its time. It used a permanent all-wheel drive system and lots and lots of ground clearance. Billed as ‘the sports car that doesn’t always need a road’, AMC’s design vision was for a car that could handle light-duty off-road work as well as offering two-door functionality (fnarf) to those attempting to survive a Minnesota January. But it was the ‘sport machine’ line that had ’em guffawing as they walked out, heading for a Chevy showroom.

You could have your SX/4 with the basic 2.5-litre cast-iron four-banger (built by Pontiac) and a heady 67kW, or you could really get in touch with your inner redneck and tick the box for the 4.2-litre straight-six. Either way, fuel consumption was so crapola that midway through 1981 AMC re-engineered the driveline to allow it to be switched to two-wheel drive as a fuel-saving measure.

The extra driveline added almost 150 kegs to the weighbridge ticket and, especially with the four-potter, performance was, um, leisurely and braking, er, relaxed. If you’ve ever flung an X6 or similar around a racetrack, back to back with an M5, this will be ringing a bell.

But Billy-Joe Jim-Bob didn’t stop there. There was a second two-door model dubbed the Kammback (even uglier) and, wonder of wonders, a convertible version. Just when you thought the Range Rover Evoque was about as stupid a thing as you’d ever clapped eyes on, you learn that the Yanks had been drinking from the same well of crazy. Just 35 years earlier.

But, believe it or not, there was an AMC Eagle model that made a bit of sense. The same platform, but topped with the four-door wagon body from the AMC Concord, suddenly gave the concept a bit of cred and remains widely hailed as the first US-made cross-over.

Think of it as a Stateside Subaru wagon and you’re probably getting the idea. Of course it didn’t sell. Meantime, is it any wonder AMC is better known for the Gremlin? Oh, and stop picking on the Germans. 

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