Winter is coming soon so it is about time to think about our desire for a machine that can go anywhere and in all weather conditions. The snow may fall, rain too, and a walk in the sun, in the mountains or elsewhere in the valleys, remains tempting whatever the season. So here is a small selection of cult-like, as well as, little known off-road vehicles to choose from in order to satisfy that itch to go 4 wheeling.
Like the Land Rover Defender or the Toyota Land Cruiser, the G-Class is an automotive legend, one of the last representatives of the old-fashioned 4 × 4, designed for military use but having become over time the darling of the well heeled off-roaders of the world. But the advantage with this vehicle is that its long and wide production run have made it accessible to all markets.
Launched in 1979 by Mercedes and Steyr-Puch (who manufactures in Graz, Austria, the G bearing the name Puch for some « alpine » markets such as Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia), it was designed to respond to a tender by the German army (unsuccessful…) then for the Iranian army (unsuccessful again, the revolution having passed by there). Fortunately, the civilian market looked promising. An agreement with Peugeot allowed the German 4 × 4 to be made also to French specifications (with a 504 engine and a gearbox of the 604) for 15,000 units under the name of the ‘P4’.
Meant to be an utility vehicle in its infancy, the G-Wagen (which became the G-Class with the appearance of the C-Class in 1993) became little by little over the years a luxury 4 wheel drive vehicle for the urban rich. Power and luxury have been constantly on the rise. Available in a short chassis version, a cabriolet, a long version, in diesel or regular gasoline, from 4 to 12 cylinders, hardcore off-road or « deluxe », there is something for all tastes and all budgets without ever losing its aura or its ability to be best in class for off-road capability.
A curious creation, designed by Bertone to fill its production lines at Grugliasco, with BMW motorisation (gasoline or diesel) and Japanese 4 × 4 running gear from the Daihatsu Rocky, the Freeclimber was a niche product, a connoisseur’s vehicle, combining off-road capability, Japanese quality, German mechanical reliability and Italian luxury.
The defining quality of the Freeclimber was its versatility for everyday use combined with its high off-road capacity, especially in the mountains. Relatively compact, quite rare (2,795 units built of the first series; 2,860 of the second), the small 4 wheel drive took the place of all three of FIAT’s X 1/9, Spider Europa and Ritmo cabriolet, on Bertone’s production lines. A bit of a whim for the off-road vehicle lovers, it would be fun to have a vehicle that no one else is driving.
The first series, produced from 1989 to 1992, has slightly heavier aesthetics while the second series, driven by the restyling adjustments of Daihatsu and Bertone, seems lighter on its feet. The Freeclimber is definitely a 4 wheel drive not to be overlooked when making the choice of which to buy.
International Harvester Scout
Here is a little-known off-road vehicle in Europe: the International Harvester, the example of a brand that never really crossed the Atlantic, except for some sporadic imports, and a few ‘Europeanised bootleg’ versions, much like the Monteverdi Safari. In the United States, however, the Scout was the direct competitor of Jeep CJ for years, with a look very sixties, fitting with the Beach Boys, hotdogs and apple pie.
Born in 1961 as a work vehicle, equipped with big, good ‘ol American V8, the Scout would gradually conquer the hearts of Americans and evolve towards more mundane use. In 1971 it became the Scout II, with a more modern design, and with the option of either a Nissan Diesel L6 of the AMC V8. The two oil crises however, first in 1973 and then in 1979, got the better of it, disappearing completely from the market in 1980 rather discreetly after almost 200,000 total units were sold over the years.
If you are looking for a change of scenery without forgoing highly efficient off-road capability, and if you like the big American V8, as well as the heavy duty work vehicle, the Harvester Scout is just the gear you’ll need. The biggest challenge will be to find one for sale in Europe. But victory only belongs to the brave.
Here is a cute little 4 wheeler that can fulfil two missions: take you everywhere you might want to go while also serving as a beach buggy. An excellent 4 wheel drive alternative to the eternal and omni present Citroën Méhari, but more practical, seductive and modern. For a time distributed in France under the Spanish brand Santana (Suzuki’s Trojan horse in Europe in the 80s when import quotas were all the rage), the Samurai can do anything and go anywhere.
A vehicle with urban undertones, useful in the countryside, and indispensable in the mountains, the Samurai is not the warrior that its name would suggest: it is a little SUV, from the period pre-dating cross-overs, that invaded our cities. Rustic, economical (to purchase as well as to maintain), never reluctant to take on a hill or snowy street, all the while turning the heads of passers-by (remembering Gerard Depardieu in « My Father the Hero”, among others), here is a quirky and rational choice, all in one.
They can be found at all prices either under the brand name Suzuki, or perhaps more often, Santana. For the self-indulgent showoff seeking an inexpensive 4 wheel drive, the Samurai is the connoisseur’s choice.
Just take a stroll in the French countryside and you will see that the real all-terrain / all-road vehicle in vogue since 1984 is the Citroën C15. With its front half from the Citroën Visa, this little work van has gone through the decades populating the towns, fields and little country roads of our beautiful provinces.
No need to double check, the C15 is everywhere. And despite the absence of all-wheel drive, it combines all of Citroën’s ‘go anywhere in any and all circumstances’ knowhow that so typified, the 2CV, the Dyane and the Acadiane. Of course, the C15 has not really managed to be fashionable probably because it is still mostly used by farmers, hunters and market merchants, confirming its image as the peasantry’s top choice. But there is no denying that it is one of the few vehicles that everyone in France recognises today.
At a time when old work vehicles are already gaining in value (the 2CV in particular and others, even the Acadiane), placing a bet on the C15’s proven robustness may be a good way to combine business with pleasure, no?