The Centurion Classic Was the First Modern SUV

When you think of the modern full-sized SUV, what comes to mind?

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When you think of the modern full-sized SUV, what comes to mind? All the latest tech, four-wheel-drive, three rows of seats, room for at least six or seven adults and long enough to rival a stubby school bus? All those features have been commonplace in SUVs for the better part of 30 years, but there was one family hauler that made an extra leap — one that wasn’t (technically) made by any of the big manufacturers. Centurion Vehicles took then-contemporary Broncos and F-350s and converted them into SUVs to rival the Chevrolet Suburban and Jeep Grand Wagoneer when Ford apparently couldn’t be bothered to do so itself.

As far as a four-door, three-row SUV goes Ford didn’t build its own until the Expedition in 1997, which was followed by the even larger Excursion in 2000. Until then, Chevrolet was uncontested after the Jeep Grand Wagoneer all but disappeared in ’91. To give Ford a presence in the segment, Centurion Vehicles, an outfit which specialized in Ford vehicles, converted F-350 pickup trucks by tacking on Bronco rear quarter panels, hardtops and tailgates, then shortened wheelbases to taste. In the end, the Centurion Classic C350 (and smaller C150 based on the F-150) went toe-to-toe with the Suburban, which say on a shorter wheelbase (140 inches, which was still nine inches longer than the Suburban yet carried a one-ton chassis). Up front, the C350 used either a 7.3-liter diesel V8 or 7.5-liter gasoline V8 for power while the smaller C150 made due with 5.0-liter and 5.8-liter V8 engines.

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Where the Centurion separated themselves from the pack and pushed the SUV envelope is the vehicles’ interiors — and their lists of standard equipment. Captain’s chairs for the driver and front passenger were par for course, but instead of a bench seat for the middle row, the Centurion had a second pair of individual leather thrones. And where most three-row SUVs today more or less cram the third row in the trunk, the backbench passengers sat comfortably with nearly as much leg room as the row in front. Moreso, the third row laid flat into a pseudo-bed — Rolls-Royce can’t even brag about offering that. And when it came to creature comforts, the Centurion was equipped with a cooler, CB radio, six-inch color TV and a VHS player.

It would seem Ford caught on to how much money it was losing in the segment that’s now one of the biggest cash cows in the industry. In 1996 Ford dropped the Bronco and introduced the Expedition, bringing an end to what was America’s first luxury SUV. It might have been an aftermarket conversion, but the gargantuan Centurion C350 and C150 SUVs will go down in history as game changers.

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