11 Classic Off-Roaders That Are Still Off The Radar
Let me be the first to say that if you’re not into Jeeps, Land Rovers, Toyotas, Hummers, Unimogs—you get the picture—it’s indeed possible to find an off-roader to suit your particular taste. In Europe especially, smaller off-roaders found favor with many drivers after the Second World War, and companies everywhere sketched, prototyped, and tested to destruction thousands of variants.
For anything, from hunting pheasant to traversing the Alps, there is definitely a rugged, go-anywhere vehicle to fit your needs: here are nine of my favorites.
I’ll admit some trepidation on this one, as it’d be a shame if the prices for a used Windhound shot up into the stratosphere after this article. Question is: why aren’t prices already there? Built to order, it was sort of like a 1978 Porsche Cayenne (when fitted with a formidable Mercedes-Benz 6.9-litre V8 engine). Underneath is a Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen chassis, inside most buyers spec’d an ocean of leather, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a 6×6 with a telescoping-out-the-roof chair for falconing (or launching drones). Fourteen were made.
Citroën 2CV Sahara
An unlikely choice, perhaps, and definitely not an inexpensive one: in good condition, you’ll have little change left from $100,000. Why so serious(ly priced)? It’s pretty much the only series production 4×4 to get its rear-drive from a second engine, mounted in the trunk. Sadly, the addition of a second flat-twin out back got rid of its “umbrella pull” gear lever, in favor of a floor-mounted shifter. Sold mainly to utilities and tough enough to prospect for oil in the desert, the air-cooled Sahara is worth every penny.
The Volkswagen Iltis is to be credited for quite a lot: it was not only developed by Audi engineers in the mid-to-late ’70s, but it directly contributed to the firm’s future in the World Rally Championship, its famous ski jump advertisement, and why everyone wants a car with quattro. Built to replace the almost-useful two-stroke DKW Munga, the Volkswagen parts bin was raided for Audi 100 drivetrain components, a 1.7-litre Volkswagen inline-4 engine, and Passat seats (really!)—the package not only won lucrative military contracts around the world, but also the 1980 Paris-Dakar in a 1-2-4 finish.
Monteverdi Safari / Sahara
Believe it or not, but this is an International Scout that actually crossed over to Europe for some higher education. If you can’t stretch to a Windhound, the more common Safari is in many ways equally grand: V8-powered, lots of leather inside, and switchable 4WD for when the going gets rough. Only sold in 3-door guise, it’s almost sporty enough, too: with the optional 7.2-litre Chrysler 440 underhood, top speed is said to be 125 mph. Miles per gallon? With more than 4,300 lbs to lug around, figure around 7 mpg if you drive gingerly. The Sahara, if you’re wondering, was the entry-level model with a bodywork largely unchanged from AMC’s design.
Volkswagen Golf Country
Dude! Bro! Don’t come at me with stories of the Subaru Impreza WRX Gravel Express, this is the O.G. off-road hatchback. Built to take European hunters off the beaten path, its drivetrain is not from an Iltis, or Audi—but the Austrian experts at Steyr-Daimler-Puch Spezialfahrzeugtechnik. Using Synchro components, the company took built Golfs, lifted them into the air, and added skid plates, the 4×4 hardware, rear tire carrier—and enough unobtanium parts to win any Volkswagen car show you’ll enter it into. Similar treatment was given to the Fiat Panda 4×4, though at least the tiny Italian runabout had a tasteful “Steyr-Puch” badge on the boot.
Volvo C202 / C303
It’s not the box all other Volvos were carved from, but the truth isn’t far off—the C303 used a straight-six B30 Volvo engine, with a number of different civilian and military variants produced (that all have about 10 different alphanumeric names). It wasn’t “…just a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but a cross country in the true sense of the word”.
Both the C202 and C303 evolved from the earlier Volvo Laplander L3314, which used a 4-cylinder engine; the C202 is the civilian variant of the L3314, but was introduced for sale after the C303, as a less-expensive option. (You could also just buy yourself an equally rugged Pinzgauer, but where’s the fun in that?) In typical Volvo fashion, the model was uprated and improved over 25 years, from when the first was delivered to the Swedish Army in 1959 until production ended in 1984, in Göteborg, Sweden.
You’re looking at the French Military’s pick to replace its aging fleet of Jeeps, c.1982. Let’s address the elephant in the room: it looks like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class because it is 50% of one. Most were pressed into military service, and apart from a light restyling, major changes over its German-Austrian cousin were a Peugeot 504 engine, 604 transmission, electrical systems, and paint. The one to get, of course, is one of the rare civilian models…or one of the official Peugeot Sport Paris-Dakar support trucks.
Don’t want a Mercedes-Benz star but still want a G-Class? In Austria, they’re sold as the “Puch G”. Still don’t want a Mercedes? You’ll want a Peugeot 504 modified for 4-wheel-drive by Dangel.
Though other makes had dabbled in car-based off-roaders, in the mid-’70s, the Italian coachbuilder Moretti attacked the genre with gusto, changing nearly all of its existing sporting coupes into chunky-ish off-ish road-ish machines. That move saved the company, long enough to plan a new model. Launched in 1979, the Sporting has obvious similarities with the two-door Mercedes-Benz G Class, 3-door Land Rover Range Rover, and other luxury off-roaders. Based not on a compact car but on the Italian military’s Fiat Campagnola—today a collectible in its own right—the Sporting took the seriously capable 4×4 underpinnings of the donor truck and topped it with a modern body and luxurious interior.
Made for just two years, the Sporting was rare in its day and has to be close to extinction today—if you like it and have the means, I can think of no better way to completely confuse fellow enthusiasts at the next car show.
A Volkswagen Golf Country for grown-ups, er, speed freaks, the Hunter was conceived by 1/2 of the minds that led the charge at Audi to develop the Iltis (and later, quattro) into all-conquering machines: Ferdinand Piëch and Walter Treser. Treser, after the World Rally Championship was locked up, started his own firm to show the world what could really be done with Audi parts: hardtop convertible Quattros, the aluminum-framed TR1 Roadster…and the Hunter.
It’s a tidy piece, with great specs: a 5-cylinder engine with 160 horsepower, top speed of more than 111 mph, and could handle an up to 45% grade. Buyers also got: power steering, a five-speed gearbox, three selectable differential locks, and 7 inches of ground clearance. You could ask for more power, of course, and the hottest ones had about 250 turbocharged horsepower. At most, 45 were built across two generations, making the Hunter more rare than many so-called “exotic” cars.
The Citroën Méhari is hardly the only off-roader of its ilk, with 2CV-based machines developed around the world by smaller manufacturers, usually in knock-down kits for local assembly. If you want one of those, fly to, say, the South of France and scour local classified ads for a “Teilhol Tangara”. After seeing the success of its rival’s truggy, Renault made the similar Rodeo off the 4. It’s even more uncommon than the Méhari in the U.S., as are several Fiat-based cars. Think of these ruggedized (largely) 2WD machines as “soft roaders”, even though they’ve been proven everywhere. Sadly, when the company offered 4-wheel-drive on the car, it didn’t fit a second engine out back.
Moving as quickly as possible across any terrain is a lofty goal by any measure. Rough, flat-out cross country rallies have been around for a long time, and engineers everywhere have been trying to design, enter, and win using the “perfect” off-roader. Bowler has since gone on to develop some thunderous on-roads-and-off-them machines, but one of its first no-compromise machines was the Tomcat—which is sort of like a cross between a Shelby Cobra and a Land Rover Defender. Built to win in the toughest off-road competitions using a space frame roll cage welded to the original Land Rover chassis, with a fiberglass body on top and thundering V8 up front, they’re not slow, not at all. It was developed into the better-known, still-built Bowler Wildcat.
Want one? Tomcat Motorsport says on its site: “After being introduced in 1997 over 100 have been built and while originally designed as an out and out competition vehicle there are many now used as just road motors with standard suspension. In fact many are very highly thought of for this use alone!”
Following the logic of semi-competition cars from the ’60s being highly sought-after today, perhaps when SUVs truly own our streets there will be a premium placed on these types of machines. What’s your favorite?