We all tend to divide classic cars up in all sorts of ways, based perhaps on their age, country of origin, or bodystyle. However, there seems to me to be one particular group which is left out on a limb – namely classic off-roaders.
Maybe it’s because enthusiasts of classic off-roaders prefer mud rather than carnauba wax. They prefer rugged tracks rather than flowing backroads. They impress their mates with severe approach angles rather than brisk acceleration stats. I must confess that I thus far haven’t tried owning a classic off-roader – yet. But I want to! However, which one to choose? Which one would you choose?
I suppose living in the UK, a classic Land Rover – from before they started calling them Defender – is the perfect choice. It’s certainly more than just a little difficult to argue against the Land Rovers many virtues and its position as King of the Mountain. If you’re not convinced, just have a look at some of the first Camel Trophies that were run. While I believe most purists would probably opt for a SWB series 1 or series 2, for me it would simply have to be a 109” 5-door Stage 1 V8. With a production run from 1948 to 2016 the variety is really very broad. But while I don’t want to upset any Landie fans, I just feel it is perhaps too much of an obvious choice. A Land Rover is just never going to be the funky and exciting choice. There are other alternatives.
Another all-time-great among off-roaders is of course the Willys Jeep, which made history back in the Second World War. A true icon! So much so that this whole genre of vehicles is by the public often referred to by its model name – Jeep. But much as I acknowledge its iconic status, it’s just not for me. While I can easily see myself in an off-roader, I suppose I just can’t fully relate to military vehicles. I realize I could overcome that by opting for a later Jeep CJ-5 or CJ-7. I even remember a short period in my early teens where I was convinced that a CJ-7 Renegade was the coolest set of wheels anywhere. But the sparkle has somehow faded.
In my eyes, there are frankly more exciting American off-roaders. Enter the first incarnation of the Ford Bronco which was produced from ’66 to ’77. Here’s a simple, utilitarian off-roader with Tonka Toy looks. While I usually prefer my classics left largely stock, I must confess that the stock wheels are quite under-dimensioned on the Bronco, so a very slight lift and some fat, knobbly Mud & Snow tyres would be required. However, I’m sadly not the only one to have realised just how good a package the original Bronco is, and as a result – especially in the USA – prices have really gone north in recent years.
So how about the International Harvester Scout then? It seems to have always lived in the Bronco’s shadow, both when new and perhaps even more so as a classic. The original Scout 80 and 800 is obviously the most comparable with the Bronco, but I have always had a weak spot for the successor – the Scout II which was produced from “71 to ‘80. Here’s a really rough and tough looking off-roader, with the kink up of the rear side window adding a bit of character. Find one in a lurid colour along with the Rallye stripes, and it all adds up to the perfect 70’s image. As an added bonus, prices are still very reasonable for Scout II’s. Hmmm… but I would of course have to invest in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a belt buckle the size a smaller European country.
But classic off-roaders need not have crawled through the Grand Canyon or powered across the Baja. The Germans have possibly built one of the most durable 4×4’s ever. Okay, so please ignore the later overly-BLING, pimp-my-ride, AMG-spoilered parodies of what a L.A. hip-hop gangsta regards as stylish. Let’s instead stick to the original Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen with relatively narrow steel wheels and zero body kits draped over its otherwise stringent lines. Developed and built to this day by Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Austria, who also built the impressive 6-wheel-drive Pinzgauer, these G-wagens are highly efficient off-road tools. In order to steer well clear of the current joke which the Mercedes-Benz has morphed into, I reckon I’ll take my G-wagen as a totally stock and very early 5 door LWB 280GE in hearing-aid-beige with a simple tartan cloth interior. Bizarrely appealing!
But the Japanese probably have the widest range of 4×4 models to choose from, with both Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Suzuki and Daihatsu having had their go at building off-roaders. They’re typically smaller than their American cousins, but almost as a default by-product of being Japanese, they are also immensly strong and reliable. Toyota have always been the ones to beat here. I dare not even attempt to count how many different 4×4 models they have on their CV. But one stands out as the mother of all 4×4 Toyota’s. The Land Cruiser BJ / FJ40 shouldn’t require any further introduction. Personally, I reckon this is probably the ultimate classic off-roader. It encompasses everything a classic 4×4 should have, and even looks fabulous in the process. Production continued from ’60 right up to ’84, with only minor visual differences, but with the technical specifications constantly being improved upon. I only have two small grips with the BJ / FJ40. First of all, prices have really taken off, with perfectly restored examples selling for thoroughly silly money to the rich and famous. Secondly, just as with the Land Rover, the BJ / FJ40 has almost become too obvious.
Though considering just how many variations on the 4×4 theme Toyota have gone through, there’s no need to leave the marque quite yet. While the whole world has been escalating the BJ / FJ40 to stardom, I have always quite fancied the larger Land Cruiser FJ55. The styling is not quite as distinct as the smaller BJ / FJ40, but with its added 33 inches in length and two extra doors, it’s more practical. It was also the first Land Cruiser to have a proper station wagon body, thereby starting a long tradition, as Land Cruisers to this day are still station wagons. The tailgate with the window retracting electrically down into the tailgate is also a cool feature, and they do look rather macho in two-tone off-white over olive green. This is no doubt the Toyota 4×4 for me, though finding a good one could prove a challenge.
However, if you don’t require – or maybe don’t even want – the size, then the Japanese have another fabulous little package in the diminutive Suzuki Jimny. The first generation Jimny called the LJ10, LJ20, SJ10 and SJ20 depending on the engine, was Suzuki’s very first attempt at producing a 4×4 vehicle, and it’s utterly bonkers! With the exception of the final SJ20, they all had small two-stroke engines, and to the best of my knowledge, it is the only production off-roader to have ever had a two-stroke. It’s tiny size and simple construction resulted in it being a real featherweight at less than 1,400 lbs, and that in return ensured the Suzuki was extremely capable when you headed off-piste. It’s a car which inevitably makes you smile.
Last but not least, we have a bit of a joker. A word of warning: if you have the slightest of posh inclinations, then you better look the other way now. But if you’re serious about off-roading, then you really can’t justify disregarding the Lada Niva. This little Russian off-roader was built for trans-Siberian motoring through the harshest of winters. It might be small and not much of a looker, but it’s tough as nails. The Niva entered production in 1977 and is still going strong to this day in largely unaltered form, except for newer engines. Personally, I would easily choose the Niva before many of its more expensive rivals despite their iconic status.
In all honesty, any of the above would make me a happy man, and I’m sure you could even think up a few other options which would work too. Yet my off-road dreaming keeps revolving around two specific 4×4’s. They both happen to be from the Land of the Rising Sun too. Either the Land Cruiser FJ55 if I wanted the space for the whole family and the option of undertaking longer journeys, or alternatively the smile-inducing Suzuki LJ20 if I just fancied a bit of local fun on my own or with a mate. But which would you choose? Or are you just going to stick with carnauba wax and smooth tarmac roads?