Many people will be surprised to know that in the off-road and four-wheel-drive realm, many enthusiasts hold on to their classic 4WD vehicles which were produced between 1940 and 1980. For purists, the year model of a classic 4WD may go as far as a Burstall and Hill steam coach from 1824! But let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s just stay that right after World War 2 when hundreds of thousands of US military surplus equipment were left behind, the Willy’s “flat fender” Jeeps ended up in the civilian market and started recreational 4WD off-roading.
After the Willy’s Jeep, the Wilkes Brother’s came out with their version of the off-roader when they designed the Land Rover Series 1 in 1948. Civilians saw the potential as well as the exciting adventures 4WD vehicles can provide, resulting in the strong demand for off-roaders for civilian use.
Immediately after World War 2, countries devastated by the conflict, like Japan, badly needed 4WD vehicles to help in the rebuilding of cities—so it is no surprise there was a very high demand for the first Land Cruiser, the BJ20 (which looked similar to the Jeep), when it was produced right after World War 2. After the war, Mitsubishi was licensed to make the Willy’s Jeep. It was only recently that Mitsubishi stopped making the model. India, through Mahindra, still produces the “high hood” jeep as the demand for it remains high.
It was only in the early 1970s when 4WDs begin shedding their basic utilitarian suspension system, which were leaf springs in both front and rear, in favor of a more car-like suspension system that, among others, had coil springs. These could be found in the earliest Range Rovers that sported steel wheels, very basic interiors and no carpeting, with air conditioning as an option. Do note that these specs are for the high-priced 4WDs of the time. It must be said that at that time, all 4WDs were slow, uncomfortable and brutal in terms of driver comfort. Trail performance was only good and at least adequate. Back then, off-road driving skills were a dark art discovered by only those who dared.
These utilitarian qualities are what appeals to the true enthusiast; the lack of modern electronic traction aids, the lack of sound dampening and noise reduction, and the fear of dealing with a not-so-reliable engine. The entire lack of comfort and conveniences makes for a very primal appeal to the classic 4WD enthusiast. No other classic brand describes these characteristics best than the old Series 1 to 3 Land Rovers. Finding these old Land Rovers are very hard, because enthusiasts are building them back or hoarding them. Your best bet to get into the classic 4WD scene in terms of availability and affordability are the old Land Cruiser 40 Series and Suzuki Samurais. These two models are guaranteed to give you teeth-shaking, bone-grinding and neck whip-lashing sensations.
Old school 4WDs also make excellent modification platforms for improved trail performance. The combination of modern suspensions and powerplants mated with traction-aiding devices makes for extremely capable trail vehicles that will keep pace, if not leave their modern counterparts behind on the trails because they were built primarily for a utilitarian purpose, with multipurpose duties not factored in.
More importantly, classic 4WDs are not hampered by the numerous electronic sensors that may fail in harsh conditions. As the years march on, the more popular classics are still supported by parts and upgrades for the aftermarket equipment segment of the auto industry.
Retro mods or modifications are another variation of classic 4WDs. These are classic looking 4WDs on the skin but modern vehicles underneath. These mods can range from a simple engine swap, to whole new components underneath the sheet metal. So if you want your old school look minus the old school mechanicals, then this maybe your way into the 4WD realm.