When you hit the road in a really well-made vehicle, the thought naturally occurs – how much better would it be if I went off road with this $40,000 worth of machinery? While this isn’t the best idea in your Tesla, some cars and trucks eat it up. Off-road vehicles have a certain air of outlaw adventurism, if only because they don’t need your dad’s conformist roads, man. It turns out this is a selling point a lot of people will pay for. More than a few manufacturers over the years have played up the rebel angle to move a lot of metal. Sometimes, the place that metal gets moved is right into a ditch, followed by the junkyard. Right up until that happens, you’re going to look awfully cool spraying twin fountains of mud off your rear axle in one of these best off-road vehicles of all time.
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The first Land Rover came out in 1948, part of postwar Britain’s effort to get back into the global economy and start making consumer goods again. After some initial success, by the 1980s the marque was in severe financial trouble. The basic idea behind the early Land Rovers was to make comfortable vehicles with all-terrain capabilities, which is a noble goal but a little hard to pull off when you’re limited to drum brakes and a suspension made out of the kind of metal rods they put in a broken kneecap. Maybe worse, all through the 1950s and 60s, as the British Empire (and most of Britain’s captive car market) became independent and rapidly modernized, the assumption was that dirt tracks and game trails were inevitably going to be replaced with smooth paved roads in places like Tanzania and Kenya. In other words, Land Rover bet on a Star Trek future where everything was going to get better and better, and so backed off the 4-wheel-drive aspect of the original models.
Sometime in the 70s, somebody smart at Land Rover realized Africa wasn’t paving anything, and that even Australia still had thousands of kilometers of dirt track that was barely fit for a horse to gallop over. In that spirit, they went back to the drawing board and designed an off-road coach that was built from the chassis up to handle mud, monsoon and those weird pointy rocks that are all over South Africa. The result was the Defender.
The Defender hit the market in 1983, with a 110- or 90-inch wheelbase and coil springs in the suspension at last. They also had a two-speed transfer gearbox with a lockable center differential, plus an interior that didn’t resemble the National Geographic Club lounge from 1893. To top off the package, throughout the 80s, as every other manufacturer seemed to be forgetting horsepower as a feature a car should have, the Defenders were cycling through power-ups like Halo players with unlimited credits. First came the 2.25 L 11H petrol inline-4 engine, then the 2.5 L 11J/12J diesel, then the 3.5 L Rover V8 petrol V8, which transitioned nicely into the improved 1986 version that produced nearly 200 hp when it was bored out.
The Dodge Power Wagon was an American answer to the Land Rover, introduced around the same time and built for very similar environments. If you were ever a fan of M*A*S*H*, you know what these look like. Power Wagons were used by the U.S. Army as the standard field ambulance for decades, starting around 1949. The original Power Wagons had an advantage in the civilian market too, since they were nearly the first postwar all-purpose truck to hit the market. By 1950, the Wagon was America’s most popular tow truck, grocery truck, milk truck, and what-you-will. The relatively efficient flathead inline-6 engines and high-centered 4-wheel drives gave them equally good purchase on city streets, pre-interstate American highways, and the occasional sand dune. Dodge made a good run, and then discontinued the Power Wagons in 1981, replacing them with the Ram. And then Dodge went insane. In 2005, the company slapped the Power Wagon marque on a special edition Ram 2500 with the idea they’d maybe sop up some of that Humvee money that was floating around the U.S. car market. Because customers at the time were apparently in the mood to work off some repressed daddy issues, the received wisdom was that there was no such thing as too much power in a huge truck. So naturally, Dodge dropped a 5.7L Hemi V8 into the new Power Wagon and gave it Bilstein monotube gas-charged shocks. I don’t know what those are any more than you do, reader, but it sure sounds like it kicks ass. In 2014, they tossed out the crappy little 5.7L the Wagon was using for training wheels and made the 6.4L Hemi standard. This new engine had a rated output of a reasonable and conservative 525 hp, though a friend swears he got his to 540 by flooring it and hitting 5,500 rpm.
Throughout the Cold War, American intelligence types used to invest a lot of imagination into what terrible things Soviet engineers were cooking up to win WWIII. The wildest rumors went around about ultra-fast jet fighters and tanks that could climb vertical rock faces. These were almost always exaggerated, and many rumors turned out to be nothing more than that. The ZiL Punisher isn’t a rumor. You can seriously buy one right now if you’re a millionaire who lives in Dubai or one of the other few countries where the Punisher is being exported. Designed as a troop carrier for the Russian army, the Punisher has a colossal wheelbase and slicked-back profile that calls to mind the armored vehicle Ripley used to save the team in Aliens. Rumored to be resistant to “light” gunfire from an AK-47, these crazy things seat ten people – slightly fewer if they’re in full battle dress – and push a sickening 730 hp through the monster truck tires to hit a max speed of 93 mph over tightly packed snow. Somebody, please buy one of these and get a picture of yourself at the drive-through next to a Mini Cooper.
Subaru has made a fortune selling the Crosstrek and Outback in the modern American car market. Crossovers like these have actually gotten so popular, they’ve started displacing old-fashioned family cars. Somewhere in the universe, a long-dead AMC engineer is rubbing his chin and grinning at the irony of it all, since the Eagle was basically the car the Outback fantasizes about being all the way back in the 80s; and it failed miserably.
The AMC Eagle was a part-station wagon/part-sport coupe that hit the market in 1980. Behind its vast wood paneled sides and probably very dangerous high-sloped windows, the Eagle had a high wheelbase and powerful 3.6 L VM I6 turbodiesel engine that were perfect for cutting across highway medians to get out of traffic, or for cruising around the lake with friends. Despite having the aesthetics of a Pacer from most angles, the Eagle was everything the market would love post-2010. It’s too bad the ‘80s market preferred RX-7s and Toyota Camrys – the last Eagle was made in Wisconsin in 1988.
Like everything the U.S. military buys, the original "High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle" (HMMWV) was overdesigned and underpowered, plus it went through a development cycle longer than Chinese Democracy by Guns and Roses. Starting in 1979, with a frankly nonsensical call to replace the venerable old Jeep the military had ironed the bugs out of and got working fine. The first generation of Hummer didn’t show up on military bases for ten years and had a huge 6.2 L Detroit Diesel V8 engine that somehow failed to get past 152 hp flat out. The per-unit cost was $220,000 in great big fat 1990 dollars, and so naturally the Army ordered 22,000 of them. In 1992, the first civilian models hit the market, buoyed by a cunning strategy of giving free ones to celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and units started selling. A quick sale to GM, followed by the launch of slightly less overdone and better-powered models like the H2, helped the Hummer gradually find itself and become a decent civilian car, though the Pentagon is still paying cost-plus for them, according to insiders.
The VW Beetle was designed to be a general-purpose People’s Car, meant for cruising the broad Autobahns of the brilliant Nordic German Empire. That didn’t work out, though the basic design was pretty popular for the rest of the century. As an off-road vehicle, the Beetle had some huge advantages that made it possibly the most fun vehicle on this list to drive. First, it had a rear-positioned rotary engine that made the whole thing drive like a Heinkel fighter plane. Most of what you hit offroad is in front of you, and a lot of Bug freewheelers came back from their trips with dented-in trunks, but engines that were basically fine.
Second, the Beetle was extremely lightweight, which not only meant it could float across narrow streams, it also made the work of pushing it out of ruts a lot easier for stoned teenagers to do without calling their dads.
Finally, after the first million or so units rolled out, the Beetle got cheap enough that a stoned teenager actually could afford one in the ‘60s, which encouraged a lot of experimentation and good times.
The Baja Bug was sort of the culmination of all that fun. Fitted with a shortened fiberglass front body panel and sometimes an extended exhaust port in back to keep out the dust and the water, the first Baja Bugs turned up in Southern California around the time Beach Blanket Bingo was in theaters. The engines usually stayed stock, though they were frequently ported out and bored for more power down low, where it counts. The later Bugs had ridiculously overdone suspensions that would practically flip the cars back upright when they tipped over, and more than a few had lots of extra foam padding and roll bars and such installed to keep the driver’s brains in his skull on the way over a dune. The transmissions all stayed manual, however. There’s something uncouth about a VW Bug with an automatic, almost like blowing your nose in church, and all the really cool Bug owners will laugh at you if they find out you have one that’s easy to drive.
Speaking of People’s Cars, what do you get when a German communist goes to engineering school, then gets a job with the government, then he’s told he has to design a car for the masses or else? The Trabant. Now, what happens when people who aren’t on starvation rations get hold of Trabants and go hog wild customizing them for off-road craziness in the wild expanses of the Polish frontier? The 601. Trabant is one of the most hilariously misguided attempts at motorized transportation since the velocipede. Built from a type of cardboard called Duraplast, you could literally tear one of these East German cars apart with your bare hands. They were small and cramped, took years to deliver even to faithful party members, and they practically ran on unburnt oil to deliver almost 25 hp flat out. The 601, however, took those lightweight chassis and did something with them. Dropping a solid P6 engine into them gave them as much oomph as a Beetle, and their breakable design made them less dangerous than a whiffle ball if they crashed. To this day, Trabants are still showing up in off-road races all over Europe, even where the people have a choice.
By the middle of the 1950s, Toyota had emerged as a player in the cheap car market. In an effort to shake off its early reputation as a producer of disposable diapers with four wheels, the company decided to get into the off-roading business with its first Land Cruisers. The Land Cruiser was loosely modeled on the Willys Jeep that Americans were using to tear up and down the sacred and traditional footpaths of Mt. Fuji at the time. Like the Jeep, the early Land Cruisers – called “Yon-Shiki Kogata Kamotsu-Sha,” or “type 4 compact cargo-truck” by the Toyota engineers – were built with a high wheelbase and a hard frame that could take a beating over the roughest roads. The 50s models had an inline-4 engine that displaced 4.0 liters and got a solid-for-the-decade 15 mpg. There was even a “comfort” model that featured an early attempt at air conditioning. It didn’t work, but A for effort.
The Willys Jeep was the grandad of today’s off-road fun mobiles. All of the elements that make an off-road vehicle what it is are present. The lightweight, versatile, and frankly overpowered vehicle the Army originally designated “Truck, 1⁄4 ton, 4×4, Command Reconnaissance,” or just “General Purpose (GP, or “jeep”),” had a long wheelbase and light chassis. Its 134 cu in (2.2 l) Inline 4 Willys L134 engine was nicknamed the "Go Devil," and it delivered 80 hp in most configurations. This was enough to give the vehicle an 800-pound hauling capacity, which was perfect for work as a field ambulance, cargo mule or machine gun mount. Troops loved the Jeep for its seeming ability to do anything, anywhere, anytime. Need a lift? There’s a Jeep passing by. Need a Howitzer hauled uphill? Here’s a Jeep. Buddy got shot, he’s stuck in the mud, the enemy is nearby, it’s raining, and you’re 40 miles away from a field hospital? He’ll be fine as soon as the Jeep goes and gets him out. Even broken Jeeps worked great – when the coolant ran out, the oversized radiator could be casually filled with anything. From its initial run during WWII to the final buyout of Jeep by Chrysler, something like 10 million Jeeps and Jeep-derivatives were made. Over 600,000 just during the war. Many of them are still on the road today.
The Avtoros Wamah Shaman 8x8 is not the biggest or most powerful off-road vehicle in the world. It’s not super rad-looking like other Russian designs, nor does it have the distinguished lineage of the Land Cruiser or the Jeep. What sets this four-cylinder diesel engine 8x8 all-terrain vehicle apart is more a total aesthetic. It is, in its way, the ultimate off-road vehicle for its balance and capabilities. The Shaman has a captain’s chair for the driver, which is appropriate considering that you don’t so much drive the Shaman as command it. That’s literally true since one option is to run the eight tires vastly under pressure so they act like oars in the water and give the watertight Shaman some amphibious capability. According to the company, there’s room inside for eight sitting passengers. Avtoros must have been using linebackers as models when they did this calculation though since some configurations seat 12. Speaking of settings, every Shaman is as unique as a thumbprint, since they’re all handmade and take over two months to construct. When the Haitian military ordered four of them, it consumed 100 percent of the shop floor in Russia for eight months to fill the order. And for just €150,000 – denominated strictly in Euros until U.S. sanctions get lifted – you can have one too.