4X4’s, Off-roaders, Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV’s), call them what you will there’s no denying that in the last few years they have grown in popularity. Once the preserve of a few special companies such as Land Rover and bought for practical reasons, off-road cars are now built by the likes of BMW and even Porsche and can often be seen on the school run and in Sainsbury’s car park.
But is off-road the right name for such vehicles? Given that plenty come with two-wheel drive only and would struggle on a slight grass incline, somebody somewhere came up with the phrase soft-roader – it looks like you should be able to drive it up a mountain but in reality you’ll only ever drive it up a steep road.
With this sector of the car market becoming dominated by such vehicles it got me wondering what the legendary off-road vehicles are. You know, the ‘proper’ 4X4’s. I decided to stick to non-military vehicles because otherwise this article would be about caterpillar tracks and the Aton-Impulse VIKING-2992. I want to talk about cars you can take to the shops but also declare loudly “Roads! Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”
Land Rover Defender
If you’re going to talk about 4×4’s how can you not talk about Land Rover? The first one went on sale in 1948 and, according to Land Rover, an estimated two thirds of those first vehicles are still working.
I picked the Defender over the other Land Rover models because it’s the closest to the Land Rovers of the past and is completely and utterly dependable and adaptable to whatever people demand of it. It’s not the most comfortable of cars, but you don’t buy it for comfort, you buy it to get you to wherever you damn well want, be it through the jungle, up the mountain, across the desert or just from one side of the farm to the other.
They have been turned into military personnel transports, ambulances, airport vehicles, safari explorers. You name it, it can do it. Don’t be surprised if Nasa employs a Defender to transport astronauts across the surface when they finally do a Mars mission.
I’ve picked the Jeep Wrangler for much the same reason as the Land Rover Defender – it is the closest you can buy now to the original Jeep, which was one of the first 4X4’s in the world, albeit on the other side of the pond.
In the same way that the core of the Defender has been proven to be dependable and versatile, the core of the Jeep has also been adapted for military and civilian use in a range of ways. Not for nothing is the Jeep slogan Go Anywhere, Do Anything.
OK, I confess: I’m a Top Gear fan and that’s why the Hilux is in this list. But come on, look what they did to it! The car has been burnt, crushed, dropped, sunk and more – and all to the same car – and it still worked afterwards. It is the first, and as far as I am aware only, car to be driven to the North Pole and it’s been driven up an active volcano. The Hilux has even been converted into an amphibious vehicle and ‘driven’ across the English Channel to France. What’s next, making it fly?
In 1970 Land Rover unveiled the Range Rover – the posh off-roader. With a truly luxurious interior and built using Land Rover’s famous engineering and quality the Range Rover is the car the gentry can use to get to wherever they want on their land. Packed with technology to help get you where you want in comfort, the Range Rover is, to many, the ultimate car. So much so that they are used by Royalty and diplomats the world over.
OK, you wouldn’t buy a Bowler Wildcat for ‘normal’ off-roading or getting the kids to school but any off-road vehicle this insane has to be mentioned. Besides, it is road legal so you could take the kids to school if you wanted, and you’d get them there pretty quick because it can do 0-60mph in 4.8s. That’s because it is built for racing and rallying.
Initially built in Derbyshire by Bowler, and using Land Rover Defender components, it’s now built by QT Services. And it’s strong. In a desert race a Wildcat fell 40ft onto its nose and nothing happened. You could even stand a 10 tonne weight on its roof and it wouldn’t dent or buckle.
Oh, and what I said about a Land Rover going to Mars? Well maybe a Wildcat will get there first. BAE Systems are using one for an all-terrain Autonomous Ground Vehicle.