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Off-Road Vintage: Classic SUVs That Still Pack A Punch

Vukasin Herbez January 11, 2024

If you follow the automotive industry, you know there are an enormous number of SUV models available today. However, only some of those models are usable off-road. When the SUV became more of a fashion statement rather than an actual all-terrain vehicle, the industry started delivering cars that were lifted-up sedans underneath. So even though modern SUV drivers believe that their electronic stability systems will beat the older cars off-road, this is simply not true.

Classic SUVs with their rugged chassis and primitive but very effective 4×4 drivetrains still pack a mighty punch and can teach newcomers a thing or two when the asphalt stops. We found the best classic SUVs that still hold their own when it comes to off-roading. Here are the best of them.

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Toyota 4Runner

Toyota’s answer to the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet K5 Blazer came late in 1984. It followed the same recipe as its competitors: a shortened Hilux truck chassis with a single cabin and removable hardtop. The 4Runner came in time to battle with the second generations of the Bronco and the K5. While it obviously couldn’t compete with the two due to its lack of V8 power, it gained recognition for its ruggedness and durability (via T4RF).

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Even without the V8 under the hood, the 4Runner was an excellent SUV for the period. It was especially capable in off-road conditions. So the best way is to try and find these versions despite the apparent lack of power compared to the V6 models. If you wish to go off-roading in the 4Runner, the models with smaller engines have better all-terrain capabilities than their big-engine counterparts.

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Jeep Willys

Off-road vehicles were born out of necessity and the legendary Jeep Willys is the best example. It was conceived just before the Second World War as a light military vehicle capable of going over any terrain, durable enough to withstand bullets, explosions, and harsh conditions. The Jeep turned out to be one of the weapons that won the biggest war in history. The production of the original Jeep started in 1942 as the US entered the war. It ended in 1946 after more than 600,000 examples were built and exported to all parts of the world. Also called Willys MB or Ford GPW, it was a simple machine yet incredibly tough and dependable (via Jeep).

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It had a diminutive 2.2-liter four-cylinder with 60 hp. Its simple four-wheel-drive layout was an innovative concept for the 1940s. Despite being a military vehicle, the Jeep proved its worth after the war. As an efficient machine that could be equipped to do numerous things. From towing and plowing to even being turned into agricultural equipment. The unique concept of a rugged, compact, and extremely capable off-road machine evolved into the Jeep brand, the biggest producer of off-road vehicles and SUVs and a true legend of the segment.

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Chevrolet Suburban

An interesting thing about the Suburban is that it is the longest-serving nameplate in car history. The first model under this name was introduced in 1935. Right from the start, the Suburban defined itself as a people carrier in body style closer to a minivan than a regular wagon or SUV (via Donoho Chevrolet).

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During the ’50s and ’60s, the Suburban moved to a truck platform and benefited from advanced construction, tough suspension, and a long list of engines and options. At the same time, Chevrolet started introducing the all-wheel drive option for its truck line. The Suburban could have an AWD drivetrain as well. This was the moment when the Suburban became an off-road model. The all-wheel drive option proved popular during later generations.

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Range Rover

If the Land Rover Defender was the definitive off-road vehicle, the Range Rover introduced in 1970 took the concept and improved it far beyond anybody could have guessed. Most car historians agree Range Rover started the modern SUV class. With a unique blend of off-road capability, elegant design, and luxury appointments. After this model, more and more manufacturers decided to try to sell comfortable off-road vehicles. And that’s how we got the SUV craze sweeping through the industry (via Top Gear).

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Range Rover was simply an answer to the customers who needed a capable car but not a Spartan off-roader the Defender was. The company expected little in 1970. But soon, sales were encouraging, so Range Rover invested in the concept. During the ’80s and early ’90s, the original Range Rover became the best-selling vehicle in its class and a legend of the industry. The idea of owning a classic Range Rover is appealing. But be ready to search far and wide for good examples at affordable prices.

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Hummer H1

In the mid-’80s, the US Military started using the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), affectionately known as the “Humvee”. This was a big, heavy military truck capable of running over anything and surviving even the land mines. Even though the Humvee was strictly made and engineered for the military, constant requests for a street-legal version made AM General think about entering the lucrative civilian market (via Hummer1).

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Finally, in 1992, the civilian Hummer H1 was born. It looked almost the same as the military version and featured the same technology and engine. The power came from a 6.2-liter diesel V8 with just 165 horsepower but loads of torque. The only real difference between military and civilian Hummer was the interior, as the street legal model had a much nicer interior with air conditioning, leather upholstery, and a premium audio system. The Hummer H1 was expensive, terrible to drive, impractical, and as big as a house. However, it was extremely popular with wealthy customers who wanted something different and ignored practicality and fuel economy.

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Suzuki Samurai

The Samurai sold in the States from 1985 to 1989 before its career was brutally interrupted by a harsh Consumer Reports article stating that the Samurai was a small death trap on wheels. The article explained that this diminutive SUV was prone to rollovers. Which had been the cause of many accidents, even some with fatal outcomes (via Top Speed).

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Suzuki sued Consumer Reports, claiming that this wasn’t true, and the case dragged on for a decade, eventually settling out of court. Independent reporters proved that the Samurai was, in fact, a bit unstable but not as catastrophically as Consumer Reports claimed. Unfortunately, the damage was done and the Samurai was withdrawn from the market. It continued to be sold in the rest of the world. Today, the Samurai can be found here and there and the controversy about its stability could add value at some point. It’s small but very competent off-road.

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Ford Bronco

Everything started in the mid-’60s when Ford realized the market for compact and off-road capable SUVs was emerging. Ford invested a lot of effort and money into constructing the Bronco since it had its platform, suspension, and drivetrain components. Finally, it was equipped with straight six and V8 engines, giving it enough power and decent performance (via Bronco Tuned).

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

The Bronco was very compact, which helped it be very maneuverable on and off the road. The small dimensions mean the interior was cramped, but buyers loved it nonetheless. Sales numbers went through the roof. The second and third generations were even more successful. They were bigger and more comfortable vehicles with a longer list of options and better equipment. Despite solid sales, Ford decided to retire the Bronco in 1996 and concentrate on its pickup truck lineup as well as new SUV models. The first-generation Bronco is rapidly gaining popularity and will soon be beyond the reach of average customers. So if you want this model, you should act fast.

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Isuzu Trooper

Introduced in 1981, the Isuzu Trooper was the perfect car for the time. It was a relatively spacious, great-handling off-road SUV with dependable mechanics, an excellent design, and lots of character, something that Japanese cars often lacked. The Trooper was a very capable off-road vehicle but still retained a certain level of on-road highway manners, making it equally at home on dirt roads and the interstate (via Isuzu).

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Even though US competitors all had V8 and more significant engines, Isuzu’s 2.8-liter V6 didn’t sound as much, but it was enough for all purposes and off-road driving. From today’s perspective, the Trooper looks a little boxy, but that’s what the SUVs from the ’80s looked like. Also, one of the critical characteristics of this model is its impeccable build quality, which means that there are a fair amount of survivors on the road today, and this model has a sort of cult status amongst classic SUV fans.

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Plymouth Trailduster

In Mopar nomenclature, Plymouth was always an economy or muscle car brand dedicated to family cars, small sedans, or two-door copes. During its history, it did produce some pickup trucks but never any off-road models. Dodge was more into that market with a series of SUV models and big success. However, in the late ’70s, Plymouth tried its luck in the off-road market with the Trailduster, a two-door, all-wheel drive vehicle identical to the Dodge Ramcharger (via Driving Line).

Photo Credit: Auto Week

The idea was good, and the Trailduster was a good-looking truck identical to the Ramcharger but with different trims and details. Plymouth even offered all-wheel drive at a cheaper price and more equipment than Dodge to promote the product in that market. But it had no luck. After a couple of years, the Trailduster was discontinued while the Ramcharger stayed on the market. All of this means that Trailduster is rare and could be expensive soon. It also means you must search all over the country for a decent example.

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Nissan Patrol

Today, most US customers recognize the Nissan Patrol as Armada, a big, heavy luxury SUV, often in two-wheel drive configuration. However, long ago, the Patrol was a serious off-road vehicle intended for heavy-duty use with mechanics to cope with the most challenging terrains (via Car Expert).

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Designed as a competitor to the FJ 40 Land Cruiser, the Patrol has grown and matured by the early ’80s into a modern SUV with global appeal. Nissan redesigned its chassis, engines, and interior and introduced the third generation of Patrol in 1980. It was a boxy SUV with lots of interior room, rigid mechanical components, and undeniable off-road capabilities.

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Jeep Commando

The Commando is a forgotten Jeep model. It was on the market between 1966 and 1973. This is an upscale version of those pure off-road models that featured removable hardtops and a small truck bed behind the front seats. It was a practical model that drivers could use for cruising, as well as carrying smaller items and going off-road (via Hemmings).

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Buyers had a wide selection of engines, from small inline-four and six-cylinder engines to V6 and V8 engines. AMC produced most of the engines because they owned the Jeep brand at the time. Also, Buick produced a 225 V6, known as the Dauntless V6. Despite solid sales results, Jeep decided the Commando had no future. They discontinued this attractive, capable convertible SUV in the early 1970s. With the Wrangler prices already going strong, Commando could be a more exciting option since it is cooler, rarer, and has the same technology and a bit more comfort.

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Suzuki Escudo/Sidekick/Vitara

In the late ’80s, Suzuki Motor Company needed something to make buyers forget the Samurai scandal and regain the positions lost in the compact SUV market. The answer was a new and modernly styled model called Sidekick or Vitara. Suzuki’s global project was to introduce a modern-looking and more on-road-oriented model that would appeal to the younger crowd and was safer, better equipped, and more usable than the small and problematic Samurai.

Photo Credit: Suzuki

The first-generation Sidekick or Vitara, was born in 1988 and immediately got universal praise from the buyers and the motoring press. It was the suitable model for the times, with cool looks, excellent options, longer and shorter wheelbase versions, and an optional open top. It could be a family SUV and a fun vehicle for weekend trips to the forest. Under the hood were several gasoline engines, all relatively small in displacement and power but good enough to propel the compact Sidekick to performance similar to or better than the competitors.

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Dodge Ramcharger

The success of the Blazer and the Bronco inspired Dodge to offer its off-road model, which was based on a shortened truck chassis and had a closed body style. The new model was called Ramcharger, which was introduced in 1974 along with the Plymouth Trailduster (via Driving Line).

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The base engine was Chrysler’s venerable 225-slant six-unit. But buyers could choose between four more engines, including the mighty 440 V8. The power level of this famous big block was relatively low in 1974. But loads of torque were more critical for off-road driving and pulling the Ramcharger out of the mud. The second generation was introduced in 1981 and discontinued in 1994. It was an update of the original design. This means that Ramchargers are standard and affordable, so you should easily find decent examples.

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International Scout

The International Scout was a small, very usable off-road SUV with a choice of engines ranging from a 2.5-liter straight four to a 4.4-liter V8. It also came with a removable hard top, which meant that every Scout was also a convertible and had a fold-down windshield. The first models were pretty basic and used by nature lovers, hunters, and forest patrols. Still, the second generation introduced a more luxurious Scout with more options, better engines, and exterior trim (via Hemmings).

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The Scout was one of the first SUVs to gain a significant increase in value. Since it was relatively rare in comparison to the Bronco or Blazer and also way cooler. Also, many Scouts were affected by rust issues, and examples in good condition are complicated to find and expensive. However, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes find a decent Scout for an affordable price.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Chevrolet Blazer

In 1969, Chevrolet was caught off guard by the success of the Ford Bronco, Jeep CJ, and International Harvester Scout. The market wanted small, good-looking, and capable off-road SUVs, and Chevrolet didn’t have any in its model lineup. Then Chevrolet engineers had a brilliant idea. They used the existing pickup truck, mounted the full interior and roof, and called it the Blazer or GMC Jimmy (via Car and Driver).

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The idea was great and soon, Chevrolet fans had a new SUV model with bigger dimensions than the competitors and some bigger engines under the hood. At first, all-wheel drive was only an option and some versions even came with rear-wheel drive only. But AWD soon became standard. The Blazer quickly gained popularity as civilians and the US Military used it. It sold well in America and the rest of the world, especially when it was equipped with a 6.2-liter diesel V8 engine. The Blazer was so popular that the second generation stayed in production from 1973 to 1991 with minimal modifications. Prices are on the rise, so you should hurry up.

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Toyota Land Cruiser J60

It’s insane that good examples of the J60 series Land Cruiser are bringing north of $30,000 today, but this is the reality of the collector’s car market. The classic ’80s SUV was affordable not long ago, but now the prices are getting out of hand. However, the restoration projects are still cheap, and if you have the means to perform them, you should consider finding the ’80s Land Cruiser (via Silodrome).

Photo Credit: Toyota

Introduced in 1980 and discontinued in 1989, the J60 was sold all over the world and very popular in America. It combined the ruggedness of the classic FJ40 with a durable 4.2-liter inline six-engine and a more extensive, more comfortable body. The combination proved influential and the J60 is now the focus of collectors worldwide.

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UAZ 469

If you want something different and are not afraid of importing a car from overseas, we have a special vehicle for you – the Russian UAZ 469. Introduced in 1971, the UAZ 469 was a successor of the GAZ 69, a simple and rugged military jeep-like vehicle. The 469 was pretty much improved with a new chassis, live axles in the front and rear, and a more powerful engine in the form of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline unit (via Military Today).

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However, despite various improvements, it was still a very crude car. It was extraordinarily durable but made for the most challenging off-road courses and military use. The UAZ was uncomfortable and straightforward but effective. This off-roader is still in production in Russia and is still in use all around the world.

Photo Credit: Jeep

Jeep Cherokee XJ

Introduced in 1984, the Cherokee (XJ generation) was an enormous success for Jeep. With its boxy yet elegant looks, excellent build quality, and many usable features, the second-generation Cherokee was the SUV of the ’80s and a globally successful model (via Gear Patrol).

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Despite being a modern and comfortable vehicle, the Cherokee XJ retained all the major Jeep characteristics like rugged mechanics, a dependable AWD drivetrain, and good engines. It helped the XJ claim the title of one of the best SUVs of all time. In some foreign markets, the Cherokee XJ was produced until 2014, which shows how good of a car this Jeep was. The XJ is the next big thing since good examples are hard to find. People remember this great vehicle fondly.

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Lada Niva

Conceived in the early ’70s, the Niva was the most common SUV in the ex-Soviet Union. It was also sold in significant numbers abroad and could often be seen on dusty roads in Third World countries. The all-wheel drive and the somewhat anemic four-cylinder engine were standard, which limited its on-road performance (via Lada).

Photo Credit: Lada

The Nivas were in production for a long time. They might not be the best, fastest, or toughest classic SUVs out there, but they are cheap and unique in America, so if you are looking for something to confuse your neighbors, this could be it.

Photo Credit: Auto Week

Dodge Carryall WC53

Only a few people know that Dodge is one of the pioneers of off-road vehicles and trucks on the American market. One of the first was the very innovative and influential Carryall WC53, which was introduced as a military vehicle at the beginning of WW2 (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: Auto Week

The Carryall got its name for using a 1939 Carryall body but mounted on a WC54 chassis. The WC Series Dodges were military vehicles with ¾ ton capacity, rugged underpinnings, and durable 4.0-liter straight six-cylinder with around 90 hp. This was one of the first closed off-road vehicles for transporting critical military personnel. After the war, Dodge concentrated on the Power Wagon truck production.

Photo Credit: Jeep

Jeep Wrangler

A classic American off-road vehicles list would only be complete with the Jeep Wrangler. A direct descendant of the famous original Jeep Willys, the Wrangler is the evolution of a small, compact, competent, and everyday usable all-terrain vehicle (via Jeep).

Photo Credit: Jeep Forum

The Wrangler is one of the models that endured all market changes and never compromised the characteristics that made it legendary. Despite necessary improvements in design, safety, and fuel efficiency, the Wrangler is still the rugged and dependable Jeep it has always been. This makes it one of the rare models that didn’t crumble under a wave of plastic SUV models.

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Toyota Land Cruiser FJ 40

The car that made the Land Cruiser nameplate world-famous entered the automotive market in 1960 as a purely practical short-wheelbase off-roader. During the production run, which lasted until 1984 and until 2001 in Brazil, the J40 had dozens of iterations. Because some were particularly valuable due to unmatched off-road performance, they gathered cult status among mud-loving enthusiasts. One of them is the FJ40, a version powered by a 3.8L inline-six engine, while the ultimate version was the 2FJ40 with power coming from a 4.2L inline-six (via The Classics).

Photo Credit: Richmonds

The J40 also had a few memorable diesel versions, with the biggest being the 2H 4.0L straight six. The J40 series was available as a two or four-wheel drive with two or four doors and even as a pickup. The two-door, four-wheel drive model is the most sought-after. However, all versions can provide drivers with endless fun. Especially since the J40 Land Cruiser is easy to modify and customize any way you want to. As previously mentioned, the J40 can offer phenomenal off-road performance and experience. But be sure to find a four-wheel drive model to squeeze the most out of this car. However, these models will come with a higher price tag.

Photo Credit: Auto Blog

Jeep Willys Wagon

After the war, there were lots of used Jeep Willys military vehicles that proved their worth on battlefields all over the world. However, post-war buyers wanted something a bit more civilized and with a closed body. So Jeep produced the Willys Overland SUV as well as a panel truck (via Auto Blog).

Photo Credit: Auto Blog

Those cars used Jeep’s rugged mechanics and chassis construction but offered more comfort, usability, and features. Using proven four and six-cylinder drivetrains, the Willys Overland Jeep came in a pickup, station wagon, or panel wagon version. Buyers loved these models and they assembled these Jeeps in the US and South America as well.

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Meyers Manx

The original Meyers Manx is a kit car based on the VW Beetle floor plan and engines. But this car was so essential to the American off-road scene that it simply has to be on this list. They introduced it in 1964. The Meyers Manx was a brainchild of Bruce F. Meyers, an American boat builder, and surfer who wanted a dependable yet cool beach car (via MeyersManx).

Photo Credit: Silodrome

They finished the prototypes in 1964 and full-scale production soon followed. By the early ’70s, they had made more than 6,000. The construction was simple, using a fiberglass tub they mounted on VW Beetle mechanics. The rear-wheel-drive car was light and could tackle almost any terrain. Some owners even installed more powerful boxer engines from Corvair or Porsche. Due to its characteristic design and excellent driving capabilities, the Meyers Manx became one of the symbols of surf culture.

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