Four off‑road heroes that are older than the Range Rover – Axon's Automotive Anorak
Motoring history and folklore are riddled with many misbeliefs and inaccuracies, as frequently regurgitated by too many ‘experts’ in boring bar room-based conversations.
As a sobering reminder that not everything we read, see and hear should always be taken as gospel, through decades of mistaken motoring myths and misleading marketing flim-flam, today many enthusiasts now incorrectly believe, for example, that Mercedes invented the internal combustion engine. It didn’t, it was Benz in 1886, a separate vehicle maker that didn’t merge with Daimler until 1926 to form Mercedes-Benz, with Mercedes itself not founded until 1901.
Mercedes-Benz is also frequently (but wrongly) credited with introducing a number of other innovative automotive firsts. It is often quoted as launching the world’s first direct fuel injection system (in its 1954 300 SL gullwing coupe), but with this technology already first used by the smaller German marque Goliath over two years earlier in its long-forgotten 1952 GP700 saloon (with the injected Gutbrod Superior 600 launched just weeks later). Mercedes is also incorrectly claimed to have invented the car passenger safety cell (Saab actually being the first in 1947), as well as introducing supplementary safety restraint airbags (in truth this being Oldsmobile in 1973).
Motoring misconceptions don’t just apply to Mercedes-Benz though. Many assume BMC’S legendary Issigonis Austin-Morris Mini to be the first front-wheel-drive (FWD) car to be fitted with a transversely mounted engine. Contrary to popular belief however, not only was the Mini not the world’s first small FWD car (Coventry’s BSA beating BMC to this by a full 30 years with its economy 1929 FWD three- and four-wheelers, with Citroën, DKW, Adler, Amilcar and various other manufacturers also getting in on the FWD act far sooner) but, as if you needing reminding, the Mini was also not the first front-drive car with a transversely-mounted engine configuration either, the New York-based Christie of 1909 being introduced 50 years earlier!
Other commonplace motoring inaccuracies include Porsche introducing the first removeable roof panel for its 1966 911 Targa (the low-volume Vignale Fiat 1200 Wonderful of 1957 accurately claiming this one, ahead of the production 1961 Triumph TR4, 1965 Toyota Sports 800 and eventual Porsche 911 Targa), plus Volkswagen ‘inventing’ the first hot hatch with its 1976 production Golf GTI (behind the 1971 Autobianchi, A112 Abarth, 1974 Simca 1100 Ti and 1975 Renault 5 Alpine/Gordini).
One of the most commonly-held (but incorrect) motoring beliefs though has to be that Rover introduced the world’s first ‘civilised’ on-road/off-road ‘SUV’ 50 years ago with the 1970 Range Rover.
Although a very significant and important sector-defining off-roader, the original Range Rover of 1970 did not single-handedly invent the 4x4 ‘SUV’, with this now-popular Sports Utility Vehicle tag being an American invention, not appearing in popular parlance in the USA until the late 1990s.
Before the original Range Rover first stunned the motoring world half a century ago, other versatile 4x4 tin-topped estate cars/station wagons already existed, most being presented by North American producers, with Jeep (first through Willys, then Kaiser-Jeep and AMC) stacking a fair claim to be the true ancestor to the more civilised/less utilitarian 4x4 SUVs that now dominant today’s new car market. Here are four other early 4x4 SUVs that helped to shape the Range Rover and its existence.
1947 Willys Jeep Station Wagon
The very first Jeep-branded SUV was the Willys Jeep Station Wagon, a roomy three- and five-door shooting break, often fitting with part-fake wood timbered. The 4x4 Wagon was first introduced in 1948, and continuously built in various configurations by Kaiser and Ford (in Brazil) as late as 1977.
For the USA, this original Willys Jeep Station Wagon ‘SUV’ – styled by leading American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens – was superseded for 1964 by the more modern, square-cut (Kaiser) Jeep Wagoneer, the separate chassis off-roader considered by many to be the true Godfather of the SUV genre as we now know it.
1962 Kaiser-Jeep Wagoneer
First introduced a clear eight years ahead of the first Range Rover in 1962, the influential Jeep Wagoneer was a large, luxury template-setting 4x4 estate, conceptually similar to the sizeable five-door SUVs that so many seem to admire and drive today.
In comparison to its rugged but rough utilitarian-orientated four-wheel-drive rivals, produced by Land Rover, Chevrolet, International Harvester, Ford, Datsun and others, the Jeep Wagoneer’s luxury and every-day usability set it apart from its more agricultural contemporary competitors, with no direct adversaries, until the Range Rover came along in 1970 (with frustrated USA customers having to wait 24 years, until 1994, before the Solihull 4x4 was officially made available!).
As the ownership of the Jeep brand passed from Kaiser to AMC (in 1970), the car-like Wagoneer slowly evolved, the model spawning a more youthful three-door Cherokee sporting derivative in 1974, with the ‘daddy’ being renamed the Grand Wagoneer in 1984 to better reflect its growing opulence, with production continuing (largely unchanged, and by then under Chrysler’s ownership) for an impressive 29 years, until 1991.
1967 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55 (J50)
Originally introduced in 1951 as Toyota’s crude and basic answer to the American Willys Jeep (plus Rover’s Series 1 Land Rover), for local domestic agricultural use, in 1967 the Japanese motoring giant launched its first ‘comfort orientated’ five-door, long wheelbase J50-series Land Cruiser.
Officially known as the FJ55, and colloquially nicknamed ‘the Moose’ or ‘Pig,’ this new ‘luxury’ Land Cruiser was the first to feature station wagon coachwork with an integral steel roof and enclosed box frame members.
Briefly sold in the UK and Europe (from 1975) as a five-door competitor to the (then) three-door-only Range Rover, this ungainly Toyota was a capable off-roader, but it lacked the prestige and grace of the Solihull 4x4, with export sales always marginal (excluding Australia) until the more stylish and car-like Mark 2 model appeared in 1980.
1969 Chevrolet Blazer (K5)
General Motors’ (GM) first full-sized Chevrolet three-door 4x4, the Blazer (plus its badge-engineered GMC Jimmy sibling) was a ‘quick-to-market’ off-roader, built on the popular C/K pick-up truck commercial vehicle platform, with a tough ‘cowboy’ go-anywhere style.
A strong seller in North America, but less successful elsewhere, the K5-series Blazer had a bigger brother, the extended five-door Suburban, created for adventurous drivers needing more space, but the model proving to be far too big for more crowded European roads.
The Blazer/Jimmy duo enjoyed a long career, the 1969 original receiving a welcome refresh for 1972, but then lasting mostly unchanged until 1991, with the three-door models equipped with a removable (and leak-prone) hardtop.
The Range Rover might not have been the first SUV, but it was certainly the best, so Happy 50th Range Rover; often copied, but never bettered!