When we are not gazing at the future trying to figure out what is to come, we like to take a look at the past. So between all those articles about new and shiny stuff, I decided to squeeze in some nostalgia.
People already know that the rise of the crossover has begun. But before crossovers, there were SUVs. Some of those monsters have survived through the years to give us a lesson in hardcore car design. I invite you to take a seat with me. Together we will explore the off-roaders of the ages past!
What constitutes a vintage SUV?
Of course, I have to mention a few things about which cars fit the bill with the term “vintage”. Some heavy purists would not count anything younger than the Cold War. Others would consider their 15-year-old Land Cruiser to be pretty “vintage” already. How do we solve that?
As with many other things in life, I figured that we should take the middle ground here. The law has determined what a classic car is and I think it will serve us fine. So what is it? Anything older than 25 years.
Here is a thread that you will notice in this article – the SUVs that we know today have little to do with their predecessors. They differ in both aesthetics and purpose. I suspect that somewhere along the way the whole SUV term changed its meaning. To be fair, modern “sport utility vehicles” are not much about sport or utility. This makes it even more interesting to see where this category of vehicles came from. Let’s start with the first entry on our list!
Case in point – Toyota J40
I was not joking when I told you that people had a very different idea for these vehicles back in the day. So what can better illustrate that than a car, which has its own modern equivalent? If the J40 model name does not ring a bell, I bet its more famous alternative will. I am talking about Toyota Land Cruiser 40!
Obviously, most people will never guess that the J40 has anything to do with modern-day LCs. When you hear Land Cruiser you imagine a big monstrosity that can take your whole family for a ride. Thankfully, even the modern LC retains some of its off-road capabilities, though nothing close to the J40.
Interestingly enough, the Jeep-like Toyota garners a lot of attention even today. People are still using it in their off-road pursuits. Plus it was such a success that it had a 24-year manufacturing run. I always find it interesting when vintage vehicles are still performing well (sometimes even better than modern cars). It goes to show that back in the day vehicle development had a much different focus.
If you are wondering how this small off-roader became the huge Land Cruiser of today, you would not be alone. Technically there is no true continuation. The current line of LCs started with the J50, which was produced alongside J40. The true successor of the latter is the J70 model, but it is also fairly big and bulky. So I guess the desire for big cars can be traced quite far back!
The American workhorse – Ford Bronco
As far as iconic vehicles go, Ford Bronco is definitely up there. However, not all Bronco generations are that noteworthy. While all of them are considered classics, the fifth-gen is perhaps the most popular. However, today I want to focus our attention elsewhere.
The first-generation Ford Bronco is what piques my interest the most. It carries a lot of history with it. For example, its design elements are reminiscent of certain competitor models. That said, when it comes to vintage SUVs it seems like all of them had a similar look. So I cannot really fault Bronco for that.
Here we can also trace the trend of progressive vehicle growth. The first-gen was fairly compact, and the second one had already grown to a full-size SUV. That sounds very funny to me, but you can notice it with virtually all off-road vehicles. Even the RAV4 (which is fairly new, as far as models go) started out small and is now getting bigger with each gen.
Naturally, there is a reason for all that. Even though smaller vehicles can be arguably better off the road, people want to purchase more versatile cars. Ford failed to see that though. Other companies were quick to respond and the sales of the first-gen Bronco started to diminish.
This is how the second and third generations came to be. They were both bigger to accommodate the demand at the time. On top of that, they started leaning more towards on-road than off-road. Looking at Ford Bronco’s history you could tell why the current crossovers are a far cry from their predecessors. People do not really want off-road vehicles, they just like the look. This is even more evident in modern SUVs that are going electric.
Back to the off-road – Geo Tracker
We saw how the divide between off-road and on-road SUVs emerged. To this day both lines of vehicles exist in their own niches, with their own fan bases. Obviously, the on-road crowd is much bigger, but that does not mean that manufacturers have given up on off-road completely.
One car that has only recently become a classic is the Geo Tracker. It is highly likely that you are not familiar with it. You may have heard about the Chevrolet Tracker though. The Geo is basically Chevrolet before being rebranded.
What makes the Geo Tracker so interesting though? Plenty of things, actually! Firstly, it is Chevrolet in name only. In fact, it is Suzuki through and through. Secondly, the company developed it for Canada with the idea to provide a versatile compact vehicle. The crowd embraced it as it proved to be one of the best light trucks on the market.
Currently, the Tracker lives on with a Chevrolet name, but its actual successor is the Suzuki Vitara. It has a fairly loyal customer base, who loves the fact that it is sturdy, easy to maintain, and cheap at that. Though, as it is with most of the recent trends, many things around the vehicle are getting way too modernized for the worse.
The true SUV staple – Jeep CJ
Are you looking for the most iconic off-road vehicle ever? Then you should not look any further than the Jeep CJ. Sadly, the earlier generations are pretty hard to find and even the later ones are really sought after. Of course, that is not without reason!
The CJ model has proven itself to be one of the most reliable vehicles in history. A quick search will show you that it has been used for a wide variety of purposes. The military has adopted it, it has been through countless safaris, and some have even used it as an emergency vehicle. You would be hard-pressed to find a more versatile car that has spanned 30 years of improvement but has yet kept its spirit.
On top of that, you can see different CJ models in use even to this day. Provided that you take care of it, it can probably last through a couple more generations. Jeep CJ has become so popular that people around the world associate the off-road term with it. In many parts of Europe, the word “jeep” means SUV precisely because of the CJ!
The everyday British SUV – the original Range Rover
What do you think about when you hear “Range Rover”? If you are like me, you immediately make the connection to Land Rover, Jaguar, and most recently – Tata India. Furthermore, you probably think about their luxury modern SUVs. Truth be told they are my favorite crossovers in terms of design. But the Range Rover I have in mind today is a totally different beast!
The first-generation Range Rover stakes its claim as one of the best workhorses in SUV history. Among the reasons for that was its affordability. See, Jeep had already come up with the Wagoneer by that time. The problem with it? It was marketed as a luxury vehicle. Competitor models also targeted the upper segment of the market. So Land Rover saw the opening and decided to step up their game with an interesting offer.
As far as cars go, the Range Rover would have probably been considered mid-range in terms of price. But when it came to the SUV market, it was a steal! More people could afford a reliable car that can not only drive a family around town but would serve working folk just as well.
Sadly, with each subsequent generation, the car became more and more luxurious. This trend began by the end of the first-gen cycle with higher trims. Once Range Rover became popular and gained its own customer base, the people behind the company decided that they could just pump the price up. For better or worse the move proved a success and now we all know Range Rover to be one of the premium SUV marques.
Which vintage SUV catches your eye?
To say that this list is exhaustive would be a serious lie. I have left out dozens of notable vehicles, which are no less deserving. The VW Vanagon Synchro, for example, is an interesting one to check out. The International Harvester Scout also makes for a great honorable mention.
But I can only cover so much with an article. This is why I turn to you! What do you think are some great SUVs from the past? Do you have your own favorite, or do you think that vintage SUVs may even be overrated? I would be happy to hear your opinion!