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Top 20 Best 4X4 Classic Off-Road SUVs in History

Vukasin HerbezAugust 7, 2017

Nowadays, SUVs occupy the automotive market as well as the streets, homes and parking lots around the world. However, things were a lot different 30 years ago when these cars felt much more at home in nature or on the back roads. They were far from shopping malls, expensive nightclubs and suburban driveways. As sports utility vehicles, these cars were rugged and capable machines to conquer a variety of terrain types with ease.

And all while providing some degree of comfort to differentiate them from the most spartan off-road vehicles. Slowly but surely, the active lifestyle aspect of early SUVs gave way to comfort, gadgets and amenities. So the cars that originated as comfortable wild beasts became tame city dwellers who could still handle their share of mud, sand and deep gravel. Looking for fun and escapism from everyday urban life, more people are turning to classic SUVs.

And these cars offer much more than just everyday usability, including off-road performances with a spirit of freedom and adventure. So, if you want a car to explore the wilderness or a cool, reliable and rugged companion, these 10 classic SUVs are ideal vehicles for your lifestyle.

  1. Jeep CJ-5

As one of the longest running models in Jeep’s history, the CJ-5 dates to 1954. The Kaiser used an M38A1 Jeep in the Korean War by the Kaiser, a long-forgotten Jeep owner. It’s worth noting that the CJ-5 was a basic car, even by classic SUV standards. But it is on the top of the list as the most influential car that started the SUV craze. Both as a model line and a mechanical contraption, the Willys CJ-5, which followed the Jeep CJ-5 after 1964, was an extremely durable car.

Also, it was the vehicle of choice for many generations of driving enthusiasts. Apart from regular versions powered by a wide palette of engines, this Jeep also had numerous special editions to attract even more customers. Some of these cars are popular among Jeep collectors of today, like the 1979 Silver Anniversary edition, which they limited to 1,000 pieces.

Then there was the 1970 Renegade I and 1971 Renegade II, with their own special sets of colors and low production numbers. They produced the CJ-5 until 1983 in more than 600,000 vehicles. This means there are still hundreds, if not thousands of these off-roaders to keep fans entertained as restoration projects.

For those with limited time or talent, go with an already restored vehicle, which is just one turn of the key away from your first CJ-5 adventure. Whatever path you choose, one thing is for certain, you’ll have tons of fun while driving this capable, legendary American icon.

  1. International Harvester Scout

As one of the proto-SUVs, the International Harvester Scout helped shape the class. And it prompted the creation of the Chevrolet K5, the Ford Bronco and the Jeep Wagoneer. These three cars were the pioneers of SUVs. This legendary car started its life as the Scout 80, between 1960 and 1965. And it was followed by the Scout 800, 800A and 800B models.

The Scout II was the biggest departure from the previous models. Jeep sold it from 1971 to 1980. The International Harvester Scout was available in various special editions. Also, they made some in cooperation with several factories. But the rarest of them all is the 1980RS, a luxurious special edition they built to commemorate the end of production of this fabulous car.

But, perhaps the most intriguing version of the International Harvester Scout was the Monteverdi Safari. The famous Swiss luxury car company that has been sadly defunct for decades re-equipped, upgraded and re-badged it. Although the Scout is not known to the worldwide public, it has an extremely strong cult following on American soil where it’s famous as one of the ultimate classic SUVs.

With a distinctive design, adventurer attitude and quality, the International Harvester Scout is a wise choice. And it’s a stylish car that can take you everywhere you’d like, thanks to its phenomenal mechanics.

  1. Ford Bronco

As one of the most successful small SUVs of all time, they produced the Ford Bronco between 1966 and 1996 in five generations. The Ford company conceived it to compete with the Jeep CJ-5 and the International Harvester Scout, two of the most established all-terrain vehicles of the era. Ford constructed the Bronco on a shortened F-Series truck chassis.

And it proved to be an instant success, prompting other big manufacturers to enter the same game with their contenders. Ford’s offering resulted in Chevrolet presenting the K5 Blazer and Dodge introducing the Ramcharger. They produced the first generation between 1966 and 1977, marketing it as a station wagon, pickup or a roadster. And it came with two inline six and two V8 engines.

Due to the Blazer’s popularity, they revised the second-generation Bronco. It had only V8 engines under the hood, and the only available body was a three-door wagon with a removable hard top. They produced this generation for one year only, from 1978 to 1979. But in 1980, they replaced it with the third generation Bronco. This model was upgraded in various ways.

Also, it got a 300cu inline six as standard accompanied by three V8 engines, a 302 V8, 351M V8 and 351 Windsor V8. They upgraded the fourth generation Bronco even more. But the fifth generation gained notoriety in 1994 during the infamous O.J. Simpson car chase in Los Angeles, California.

  1. Chevrolet K5 Blazer

The smallest SUV of the Chevy bunch, the K5 Blazer is also the most fun one to drive. It has a short wheelbase and a formidable off-road performance, even in stock form. Chevy introduced the first generation in 1969 as a competitor to the already established International Harvester Scout and Ford Bronco models. The K5 Blazer was initially available only with four-wheel drive, but starting from 1970, two-wheel drive was also available.

One of the most interesting features of the K5 Blazer is that it was a truck, but also a convertible with a removable top that covered the passenger cabin and the truck bed. However, Chevy abolished that feature in 1976 when they gave the K5 Blazer a conventional cabin. The production of this compact SUV spanned two generations. The first was from 1969 to 1972, and the second was until 1991.

During the production run, the K5 endured numerous upgrades, as did the GMC Jimmy, a GMC counterpart they introduced in 1970. Today, you can find dozens of K5 Blazers all over the country, powered both by inline six and V8 engines. They come in all conditions, starting from barn-find survivors, all the way to fully-customized show cars.

  1. Dodge Ramcharger

The least known classic SUV from Detroit’s “Big Three,” Ford, Chevy and Dodge, they introduced the Dodge Ramcharger in 1974. This was a lot later than the K5 Blazer and the Bronco. Mopar was never close to FoMoCo and GM, so the late introduction of the Ramcharger attributed to a lack of knowledge about this car. But this lack of the facts shouldn’t deter anyone from this vehicle.

They built this two-door until 2002, spanning three generations. And the first generation was the Plymouth Trailduster. Initially, it was an all-wheel-drive model only with rear-wheel drive (RWD) in 1975. And like its competitors, it also had a roofless body they dropped with the second generation in 1981. The second generation Ramcharger also lost the Plymouth version.

And in 1981, they trimmed the engine palette down as well. So, consumers could order the first generation with one inline six and four V8s. They offered considerable power, while the second generation saw just two V8s, with the performance drastically toned down. Interesting options for the first-generation Ramcharger were 400cu inline and 440cu inline V8s.

But the second generation dropped those engines in favor of the smaller 318 and 360 ones. Overall, the Ramcharger is a well-built, cool classic SUV worthy of your attention, even with the de-tuned engines and an inline six. Even though it’s not as popular as the Bronco or K5 Blazer, the Ramcharger has its own enthusiasts ready to welcome a new member into the family.

  1. Jeep Grand Wagoneer

Currently, SUVs are bloated sedans with little to no off-road performance. And most look like big off-roaders with lots of space and luxuries. But, the Jeep Wagoneer looked like a big off-roader and was quite luxurious for the era. It included an enormous amount of space and offered respectable off-road skills. And all that makes the Wagoneer the ultimate vintage luxury SUV.

Jeep produced it from 1963 to 1991 with just a few tweaks, which is a true proof of its qualities. At first, the Wagoneer was available as a two-door or four-door SUV, and a two-door panel truck. As the model progressed, it became available with more luxurious features, including wooden side panels. An interesting fact about the Wagoneer is that a compass was available as standard equipment.

That proved they never meant this vehicle to be a car for the streets, but rather a luxurious land barge for navigating through ranches, fields and mountain trails. Also, the Wagoneer was powered by numerous inline six and V8 engines. It had both rear wheel and all-wheel drive. The most coveted models are from the 1987 to 1991 Chrysler era when the car went through a series of upgrades.

The Wagoneer comes with air conditioning, high-quality audio and comfortable power seats. Also, it has lots of chrome and optional woodwork, making it a well-equipped car. And, since it’s the first true luxury SUV, it holds a special place in the automotive industry.

  1. Toyota J40 Land Cruiser

The car that made the Land Cruiser nameplate world famous entered the automotive market in 1960 as a purely utilitarian 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 of them were valuable due to unmatched off-road performance, it gathered a cult status among mud-loving enthusiasts.

One of them is the FJ40, a version with a 3.8L inline six engine. However, the ultimate version was the 2FJ40 with power coming from a 4.2L inline six. The J40 had a few memorable diesel versions as well, with the biggest one being the 2H 4.0L straight six. And the J40 series was available as two or four-wheel drive with two or four doors or even as a pickup. But the two-door four-wheel drive model is the most popular model.

However, all versions can provide drivers with endless fun. This is especially true since the J40 Land Cruiser is easy to modify and customize any way you want to. As previously mentioned, the J40can offers phenomenal off-road performance and experience.

But be sure to find a four-wheel drive model to squeeze the most out of this car, although they come with a higher price tag. Once you sit behind the wheel of a Land Cruiser, there won’t be any mountains and creeks that you can’t conquer in this legendary Japanese vehicle.

  1. Range Rover

Known for their spartan and rugged vehicles, Land Rover introduced the Range Rover in 1970. Land Rover developed the car after noticing a new trend with the Jeep CJ-5, Ford Bronco, International Harvester Scout and Jeep Wagoneer slowly conquering the U.S. market. To enter the battle, Land Rover made a vehicle that was both luxurious and capable of conquering rough terrain.

Also, they constructed the bodywork in aluminum. And it was initially a three-door SUV with the five-door version coming out in 1981. At first, there was just one engine choice in the 3.5L Rover V8. But in the early 90’s, the engine grew to 3.9L and 4.2L. In 1986, the 2.4L inline four diesel from VM became available. And its displacement was increased to 2.5L in 1989. In the 90’s.

Also, the Range Rover came with two 2.5L diesel engines directly from Land Rover. Today, the original Range Rover is gaining more popularity because it offers a blend of performance, off-road capabilities and British class. Queen Elizabeth II has famously enjoys driving a Range Rover. And with that in mind, it’s probably the most practical and versatile royalty-endorsed car you can own.

  1. Mercedes-Benz G-Class

While Mercedes-Benz is a big innovator in the automotive business, it is also a company that knows when it’s time to stick to something that works. And so far, the G-Class has outlived dozens of models for a big reason. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class started its life in 1979 as a purely utilitarian vehicle they initially developed for the Iranian army.

Its civilian counterpart was not so different from the raw Puch version in the early years when the two were raw off-roaders. Later, they equipped the G-Class with updated interiors and comfortable seats. This helped it gain more power until it got its own AMG versions and endless interior gizmos.

But even though they equipped as an S-Class, Mercedes-Benz never abandoned three of G-Wagon’s main features. They included a body-on-frame construction, fully locking differentials and boxy looks. But the trickiest part with the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon is that they didn’t import it to the U.S. until 2002. And that left buyers with either a gray import or importing one themselves.

The famous 25-year old import rule enables you to get a 463 G-Class. This is the model with the updated chassis, ABS and an interior resembling a contemporary Mercedes-Benz sedan. Also, it comes with optional leather seats and wood trim. All in all, the G-Class is one of the ultimate classic SUVs and a legendary Mercedes-Benz. It offers an uncompromising off-road experience with highway performance and luxury, too.

  1. Toyota 4Runner

Toyota’s answer to the Bronco and K5 Blazer came late in 1984. And it followed the same recipe as its competitors. It had a shortened Hilux truck chassis with a single cabin and a removable hardtop. But the 4Runner came in time to battle with the second generations of the Bronco and the K5.

And while it couldn’t compete due to a lack of V8 power, it gained recognition due to its ruggedness and durability. However, even without the V8 under the hood, the 4Runner was a great SUV and especially capable in off-road conditions. Today, people consider the palette of inline four engines the most reliable.

So, try to find one of these versions, despite the obvious 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.

  1. Jeep Jeepster Commando

The Jeepster Commando is a forgotten Jeep model they produced between 1966 and 1973. And it was an upscale version of those pure off-road models that featured removable hardtops and a small truck bed behind the front seats. Also, it was a practical model for cruising, as well as carrying smaller items and going off-road.

And buyers had a wide selection of engines, from small inline four and six cylinders 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.

  1. Hummer H1

Although they produced the Humvee for the military, the requests for a street legal version made AM General think about entering the civilian market. So, in 1992, they presented the civilian Hummer H1. 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 HP but loads of torque.

Basically, the only real difference between the military and civilian Hummer was the interior. The street legal model had a much plusher interior with air conditioning, leather upholstery and a premium audio system. However, the Hummer H1 was expensive and terrible to drive, impractical and as big as a house.

  1. Nissan Patrol

Today, most U.S. customers recognize the Nissan Patrol as the Armada. It’s a big and heavy luxury SUV often in a two-wheel drive configuration. But long ago, the Patrol was a serious off-road vehicle for heavy duty use with mechanics for the toughest terrain. Also, Nissan designed it as a competitor to the FJ 40 Land Cruiser.

And the Patrol had grown and matured by the early ’80s into a modern SUV with global appeal. But Nissan redesigned its chassis and engines, as well as the interior and introduced a third generation of the Patrol in 1980. But it was a boxy SUV with lots of interior room, tough mechanical components and undeniable off-road capabilities.

  1. Isuzu Trooper

When they presented it 1981, the Isuzu Trooper was the perfect car for the time. It was a relatively spacious, great-handling off-road SUV with dependable mechanics. Also, it had a nice design and lots of character, something that Japanese cars often lacked. The Trooper was a capable off-road vehicle that retained a certain level of on-road highway manners.

And that made it equally at home on the dirt roads as well as the highway. Although it’s U.S. competitors had V8s and bigger engines, the Isuzu 2.8-liter V6 didn’t sound as much. However, it was enough for all purposes and off-road driving. From today’s perspective, the Trooper looks a little boxy, but that’s how the SUVs from the ‘80s looked.

  1. Land Rover Defender

Lots of car enthusiasts tend to write off British cars as quirky, rust prone and problematic. And to be honest, some of them are like that. But, there are several examples where British cars are durable, dependable and legendary in their ruggedness. And one of those machines is the epic Land Rover Defender.

Introduced in 1948, Land Rover was a simple but effective off-road vehicle. Along with the Jeep Willys, it was the pioneer of the segment. However, they built it out of necessity to be a capable vehicle for military and civilian purposes. And soon, Land Rover started exporting these cars all over the world, so millions of buyers found out how good it really was.

  1. Ford Centurion Classic

Ford offered the Bronco as its prime off-road SUV model and a lineup of full-size trucks with truck beds, designed for towing and carrying stuff. However, this left space for the Centurion company of White Pigeon, Michigan to produce its combination of a Bronco closed body and big F- Series chassis.

And the result was the Ford Centurion Classic, a conversion job they sold in two versions. They based one on the F-150 with AWD as an option and the other on the F-250 truck with AWD as standard. Also, Centurion produced interior kits that transformed the crew cab F-series trucks into fully operational nine passenger SUVs.

  1. GMC Jimmy

The rising interest in classic off-road cars means that most legendary models like the Wagoneer, FJ40 or Bronco are out of reach for average enthusiasts. However, there is a solution and that is the 1973 to 1991 GMC Jimmy.

The Jimmy has classic, rugged off-road looks with simple but durable mechanics. Customers get a wide choice of engines including a diesel unit. And the Jimmy has uncompromised off-road capabilities. Fortunately, GM produced millions of them in a long production span, so finding one at the right price shouldn’t be a problem.

  1. Meyer’s Manx

The original Meyers Manx is a kit car they based on VW Beetle floor plan and engines. However, this car was important for the American off-road scene. They introduced it in 1964 and the Meyers Manx was the brainchild of Bruce F. Meyers. He was an American boat builder and surfer who wanted a dependable yet cool beach car.

With the first prototypes in 1964, full production followed. So, by the early ’70s, they made more than 6,000 of them. The construction was simple and used a fiberglass tub mounted on VW Beetle mechanics. But the rear wheel drive car was light and could tackle almost any terrain.

And some owners even installed those more powerful boxer engines from the Corvair or Porsche. But due to its characteristic design and great driving capabilities, the Meyers Manx became one of the symbols of the surfer culture.

  1. International Travelall

Even though the International Scout is the most famous and sought-after SUV model from this factory, it is not the only one. Even before they introduced the Scout, International produced a big SUV model they called the Travelall. This model was a step beyond the Chevrolet Suburban since it offered powerful engines and all-wheel drive.

Also, the build quality was second to none. Some people say the Travelall was a car built with industrial strength materials for trucks. So, that was the secret to its durability. International presented the first generation in 1953, and the fourth and the last one in 1969.

They discontinued the Travelall in 1975. But this was a shame since the company had high owner loyalty and satisfaction due to the quality and power of its vehicles.

  1. Mitsubishi Pajero

Mitsubishi presented the Pajero in the early ’80s. Soon, it became popular in Europe, the Middle East and America. It was a simple but effective off-road SUV that came in many varieties. Also, it had a couple of powerful engine choices. The construction of the original Pajero was basic with a ladder chassis and leaf spring suspension in the back.

But its off-road performance was more than good. Over the years, they upgraded the Pajero to a more luxurious machine, and it even went racing. However, with the introduction of European SUVs in that class and market, the popularity of the Pajero started to decline.

These were the top 20 best 4×4 classic off-road SUVs in history. So, if you’re shopping for a classic, off-road SUV, you have lots of great choices, depending on your tastes, budget and lifestyle. But, no matter what you want to take four wheeling, there is an SUV to suit your needs and wants.

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