The road as we know it, the smooth ribbon of tarmac that dashes underneath us, does not share its age with the automobile. Far from it in fact. Cars arrived without the infrastructure to support them. As such, when the first cars gained popularity, they had to traverse the rutted, rough, dirt tracks that had been popularised as routes for people on foot, or with horse and cart. As such, we can say with some certainty that the car has been an off-road vehicle for a lot longer than it has been a road vehicle.
It makes sense then, that should you wish to go off road, a classic is well worth your consideration. Okay, so an older off-road vehicle won’t have the clever computers to split torque and power and raise and lift the suspension. But who needs all that stuff anyway? An old Land Rover will happily prove you don’t, as it glubs through waist-high mud and up 45 degree hills. Plus, in a classic off roader, you learn more about the terrain, and you learn more about what you need to do to traverse it. With no computers to do all the work for you, it becomes a rewarding exercise for man and machine.
Then of course, there is the fact that a classic off-roader will be infinitely more easy to fix should you bash it into a tree, or a rock, or another Land Rover. Bash it a bit with a hammer, spray some WD-40 on it and you’ll be good to go. Yep, a classic off-roader is a brilliant thing, which is why we’ve rounded up five of our favourites here.
1) The Land Rover
Could we really open proceedings with anything else? When you think of a classic off-roader, your mind goes straight to the Land Rover, right? If it doesn’t, it should. The Land Rover was the product of a country that needed to rebuild after the destruction of World War 2. It was a vehicle built to be sent into a world that was no longer equipped to accept the car. It was also built to be a workhorse for those in agriculture, so they could quickly and effectively get back to speed and put food on our tables.
The beauty of the Land Rover is the ongoing passion for them, and subsequently, the huge aftermarket. This means that you can lean on your classic Landy hard, without fear of being unable to repair it if you do manage to break it. Admittedly, the early Series 1 models are getting a bit on the pricey, and as such, delicate side. But that’s the market for you. The reality is that it’s still a capable, plucky off-roader if you want to use it that way. And you should, or any generation Landy for that matter, because it’s what they were built for.
2) The Nissan Patrol
The Nissan Patrol is one of those cars we often forget about here in the UK, which is a shame given just how capable it is off road. Introduced in 1951, the Patrol has a surprising amount of heritage. Like the Land Rover above, the Patrol was built as a tool for the Japanese to use post-war. Early models are pretty much non-existent today though, and they were never offered in Europe. As such, you’re going to be looking at a third-generation, 1980-onwards model. This era represents the Patrol filling out. It is a big, big car. But that’s good, as it means it can grab more of the muddy trail beneath you.
Offering a significant amount of ground clearance, a range of impressively strong petrol and diesel engines (turbo diesel is the one you want, either a 3.2 in the third-gen or a 2.7 in the fourth, though you get a 4.2!) and plenty of space. You have to remember that the Patrol was, for a long time, one of the vehicles of choice for the United Nations, and they hardly spent their time on the M25. Admittedly, parts availability isn’t great, so joining an owner’s club is a must. Find a good one though, and it’ll go wherever, over whatever you point it at.
3) The Suzuki SJ
Yes, the teeny, tiny Suzuki SJ. The trouble with off-road vehicles is that people think they need to be massive machines that laugh in the face of mountains. And for some applications and adventures, that’s very true. However, for many, there is a lot to be said for something small, light and with four-wheel drive. Something that can skip over rough terrain like a giddy terrier. Remember, James May plucked for an SJ for Top Gear’s Bolivia special, and his battered, neglected example made it to the end. That’s impressive.
The Suzuki SJ has lineage that runs from 1970 through to today in the guise of the incredibly popular, but still tiny, Jimny. And that is the key. Suzuki has never used the SJ to take the fight to the bigger boys. Instead, it’s created a niche for itself as a small and nimble off-roader. The four-wheel drive system is basic, but excellent, the engines (from less than 1.0 up to 1.3) have more than enough pep to fire the SJ along, and the whole thing is simple to work on. A thriving aftermarket will see your SJ grow taller, with winches, lights, roll cages and more, if you so choose. It is a proper off-roader.
4) The Toyota Land Cruiser
The Australians have a saying: If you want to get out to the Bush, take a Land Rover. If you want to get back, take a Land Cruiser. And while we’ll fight the defence of the Land Rover to the bitter end, we must concede that the Ozzies might be onto something. The Bush is a terrifyingly bleak, hot, arid place that welcomes little life. Other than life that wants to take yours, like snakes and spiders. Ugh. You don’t want to be stuck there, and the mighty Toyota Land Cruiser has seen to it that many an Australian hasn’t been. It’s a Japanese 4×4, from one of the most trusted brands in the world. Of course it’s going to be reliable.
The Toyota Land Cruiser, like the Suzuki SJ, can trace its roots back to ‘51 as a production vehicle. However, the story started years prior. The Japanese got hold of a Willys Jeep and, in essence, copied it. Their vehicle, known as the AK, looked slightly different, but took a lot of mechanical cues from the Jeep. However, Jeep got wind and brought in lawyers, and thus after another prototype, the Land Cruiser was born. This was a completely different vehicle to those before it, and it was 100% Toyota. Since ‘51, the Land Cruiser had been in constant production – you can buy a brand-new one today.
5) The Panda 4×4
Off-roading is not about driving up mountains, or driving through volcanoes. It can be about just getting on the path less travelled, it’s about having an adventure where your ‘normal’ car can’t. And for some gentle exploration, you can’t go far wrong with a Fiat Panda 4×4. Look, don’t laugh, don’t overthink it. The Panda 4×4 is nothing short of brilliant. Fit a set of grippy, chunky tyres to one of these and you’ll be set. It might only have 43bhp from its 965cc engine, but it’s enough. The 4×4 system is manually selectable, so your Panda can be a front-wheel drive daily driver when you’re not hunting mud.
The Panda was the first small, transverse engine car to be offered with all-wheel drive. It was a clever, but basic system consisting of a live rear axle and differential with a three-piece prop shaft and traditional front driveshafts. The suspension was jacked up to offer better ground clearance. The result was a plucky, revvy, cheeky terrier of a vehicle. Buy one – it won’t cost much – and head for the mud. You’ll thank us, once you’ve stopped smiling and giggling.