SUVs are more popular than ever, and the technology available on modern 4x4s is amazing, but it’s tough to beat those old-school originals in terms of character and charm. These are the hardcore heroes that started it all.
All-wheel-drive vehicles have come a long way. These days, 4×4s are large, technologically advanced and capable of both travelling over ugly terrain and barrelling along at 200km/h on tarmac. There is no doubt that modern 4×4s are infinitely better than their basic and boxy predecessors. By comparison, 4×4s from the mid-1900s were cramped, uncomfortable, slow and unsafe. But still… they had an undeniable charm. These were iconic vehicles that launched the trend towards off-road leisure vehicles designed for the public. With a brand-new Wrangler, Defender and G-Class on the horizon, here’s a look at five old-school 4×4s that started it all.
5. Jeep CJ-2A
The Willys-Overland CJ-2A was the first Willys Military Jeep to enter full-scale production for the public. Originally created for use in the Second World War, the Jeep was later modified for more general applications (in the forms of the CJ-1 and the CJ-2), but these modified vehicles were never officially sold to the public through normal retail channels. With the release of the CJ-2A, the Jeep brand, which is still so strong today, was born. The CJ-2A was produced from 1945–1949, and on the whole, the vehicle looked much like its military progenitor. One difference worth mentioning, though, was the updated front end. The original had recessed headlights and a nine-slot grille. The CJ-2A had a save-slot grille that all Jeeps still wear today. This funky colour combination (Harvest Tan body with Sunset Red wheels) is exactly as the CJ-2A was originally produced.
4. Land Rover Series I
The Land Rover Series needs no introduction. For many, it remains the quintessential overland/adventure vehicle, featured in countless history books. Of course, the Land Rover has a special place in many people’s hearts because it has been with us for so long. The Series eventually morphed into the Defender, with the get-the-job-done ethos and the majority of the visual cues remaining firmly in place. The original Land Rover (it was later called the Series I) was the brainchild of the Rover Company, which wanted to create a simple utility vehicle for agricultural applications. It was unveiled at the Amsterdam Motor Show, and entered production in 1948. The Land Rover had an 80-inch wheelbase, a 1.6-litre petrol engine with 37kW
on offer, and a four-speed gearbox from a Rover P3.
3. Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen
The Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen was created 20 to 30 years after the other vehicles on this list, but it is unique in that it is still popular to this day. The Gelandewagen (now called the G-Class) is still coveted by both serious off-roaders and Hollywood celebrities. Like the Series Land Rover (which became the Defender), the G-Wagen soldiered on in basic original form for a long time, until this year, in fact. The unveiling of a new G-Class is apparently imminent. Development on the G-Wagen started in 1972, and was the result of a partnership between Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria. By 1974, extreme testing in areas like the Sahara and the Arctic Circle was underway, but full-scale production only started in 1979, since a factory had to be built in Graz where the Gelandewagen could be constructed by hand. Production of the G-Wagen remained in Graz throughout its lifecycle. The next-generation G-Class will also be built in Graz.
2. Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40
Inspired by the Willys Jeep, Toyota started developing a Jeep-like vehicle as early as 1941. These dabblings resulted in the Land Cruiser, with the first version (the BJ) being produced in the early 1950s. While these early progenitors are certainly classic and notable, it is a later model that truly put the Land Cruiser name on the map. That vehicle is the FJ40. The popularity of the FJ40 has skyrocketed in recent years, especially in the United States, where companies (like the appropriately-named FJ Company) restores, updates and sells these vehicles for a tidy sum, around $90 000 (R1.2 million), in fact. Old FJ40s without any updates are equally valuable. A Concours condition 1969 FJ40 can go for $85 000 (R1.1 million). The vehicle was produced for the global market from 1960 to 1980, although production in Brazil continued until 2001. The ‘FJ’ name remains loved and respected in many 4×4 circles, and Toyota released the FJ Cruiser as a sort of homage to the old FJ in 2006.
1. Volkswagen Kubelwagen
There was a lot of outrage among sportscar purists when Porsche started selling the Cayenne SUV in 2002, but the truth of the matter is, the nameplate was right in the thick of it when the entire off-road segment was born. As early as 1934, Adolf Hitler purportedly discussed the possibility of a practical, off-road military vehicle based on the Volkswagen Beetle with Ferdinand Porsche. For a few years, nothing happened, but in 1938, representatives of the Third Reich officially approached Porsche to create a lightweight military vehicle based on the Beetle. Porsche had a prototype ready in under a month, but he quickly realised that the Beetle underpinnings were not strong enough for military applications. These would have to be strengthened, which meant more weight. To keep the weight down, Porsche contracted military coachbuilder Trutz to create the (very) light and iconic body. Interestingly, the Kubelwagen was 2WD only, but it outperformed many of the military’s 4×4 vehicles during testing.
Text: GG van Rooyen