GRR

Six SUVs that lived under the Range Rover’s shadow – Axon’s Automotive Anorak

20th August 2020
Gary Axon

In last week’s Anorak I highlighted a handful of versatile ‘luxury’ 4x4 ‘station wagons,’ by Jeep and others, that pre-dated Rover’s all-conquering Range Rover of 1970; this off-road vehicle considered by many (arguably incorrectly) to be the grandaddy of the modern-era SUVs that multiple motorists now admire and drive today.

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In a second part of this celebration of the original 1970 Range Rover on its 50th anniversary, I now move forwards, rather than reverse, to briefly examine a small selection of other closed 4x4 SUVs that followed in the Range Rover’s muddy tyre tracks, and consider how this world-beating Solihull machine helped to influence and shape the other off-road ‘estate cars’ that were launched over the subsequent decade, between 1970-1980.

When the Rover-developed Range Rover first appeared half-a-century ago under the British Leyland corporate banner, as I mentioned last week, one of the commonly-spouted motoring beliefs was that this British 4x4 was the world’s first ‘civilised’ on-road/off-roader, conveniently ignoring Jeep’s earlier Station Wagon of 1947, plus its pioneering replacement Wagoneer of 1962.

The first Range Rover did prove to be a very significant and important sector-defining off-roader though, with its influence and success not going unnoticed by a series of other vehicle producers the world over, both large and small.

So, here are a half-a-dozen other 4x4 ‘SUVs’ that were launched during the 1970s; the decade that kicked-off with the all-important game-changing original Range Rover.

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International Harvester Scout II – 1971

Largely unknown outside of its native USA, truck maker International Harvester first launched its rustic Scout 4x4 in 1961 as a stripped bare, basic agricultural competitor to the down-to-earth military-derived Jeep CJ models, it being more Land Rover-like with a soft-top and little concession to luxury and on-road refinement.

In 1971, the more car-like Scout II came along to challenge its more refined American 4x4 competitors, the Jeep Wagoneer, Ford Bronco and Chevrolet Blazer rivals, with the larger (but aged and unsophisticated) five-door Traveller tackling GM’s huge Chevy/GMC Suburban long-wheelbase off-roaders.

Although the Scout II and Range Rover very rarely met as direct competitors on the same market (Switzerland being a possible exception), the International Harvester made a convincing fist of mixing a degree of comfort and rural style with strong off-road capabilities. Production ended in 1980 as International Harvester struggled to compete with its larger ‘Big Three’ American SUV rivals.

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Fiat Nuova Campagnola Station Wagon – 1974

As Italy’s post-war response to the Allies go-anywhere Jeep, developed in the USA in the early 1940s, in 1951 Fiat introduced its first Campagnola as a basic off-road workhorse for military and agricultural use. Heavily inspired by the American war-time Jeep, the Campagnola was simple but effective, endearing itself to many soldiers and farmers over its 22-year production run, but too rough and unrefined to appeal to ‘regular’ civilian customers.

Fiat addressed this in 1974 when it introduced its second-generation 1107-series Nuova Campagnola, available in a more sophisticated and comfortable Range Rover-esque three-door tin-topped station wagon form for the first time, as well as a more basic open top ‘working tool’ 4x4 derivative.   

Like the Range Rover some years later, the Fiat 132-powered Nuova Campagnola was also modified as a Popemobile for use by Pope Jean Paul II around the Vatican. Production finally ended in 1987, with a Renault branded version used by the French army.

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ARO 24/240-Series – 1974

Gradually revealed in ‘almost but not quite ready yet’ form from the early 1970s, the Romanian ARO 24 (a.k.a. 240-Series) finally entered its 32-year production run around 1974, with some late changes made to the three- and five-door 4x4 wagons once a Range Rover had become available for close scrutiny in this former socialist state.

Reasonably modern and attractive by contemporary communist standards, the ARO 24 was a capable and likeable off-roader, with pricing in western export markets so affordable that this Range Rover-sized 4x4 actually cost less than the most basic entry-level Land Rover 88. ARO production under license soon expanded to Portugal (as the Portaro), Spain, and even Southern Ireland, with late examples of the 4x4 also eventually assembled (briefly) in the USA and Brazil.

Shortly after full production of the ARO 24 got underway, sales of the more refined and car-like Lada Niva began in Eastern Bloc countries, the Russian 4x4 proving to be a surprisingly worthy off-road adversary, though a clear size smaller than Solihull’s finest, placing the Lada in a different (and more affordable) market sector. The model quickly gained a ‘poor man’s Range Rover’ tag in many west European markets, just like the two-wheel-drive-only but influential Matra Rancho of 1976 (of which prototypes actually used Range Rover wheels!).

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Ford Bronco – 1977

With an iconic name and look, the Bronco was very recently re-introduced to wild anticipation and acclaim in the USA, with the first American Ford Bronco originally appearing as a tough and honest short-wheelbase workhorse 4x4 soft-top in 1966.

Closer in concept to a Land Rover, it took until the introduction of the larger second-generation Bronco in 1978 for Ford to reposition the popular Bronco nameplate as a more upmarket, lifestyle-focused off-roader ‘SUV’.

The remaining third to fifth-generation Bronco models essentially retained much of the bodywork of the new 1977 model for 1978, from the windscreen A-pillar backwards, with the 4X4 gaining in both weight and opulence, but at the expense of the Ford’s off-road agility.

The Bronco remained one of the USA’s top-selling SUVs, until the high-profile O.J. Simpson low-speed car chase down Los Angeles’ Interstate 405 in 1994 – the former American football and acting star behind the wheel of a Bronco, and watched by 95million TV viewers – helped to tarnish the Ford SUV’s image, with the Bronco name retired in favour of the new Excursion tag.

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Monteverdi Safari – 1977

Exclusive and expensive Swiss sports car maker Peter Monteverdi began selling his elegant GT coupes from his Basel showroom in 1967; these ‘High Speed’ berlinettes finding a small but steady band of admirers for the first decade of Monteverdi’s low-key production.   

As a response to the mid-1970s fuel crisis for more frugal luxury cars, plus the phenomenal local Swiss market demand for new Range Rovers, in 1976 Monteverdi switched the production of his thirsty V8-powered High Speed GTs over to smaller ‘S-Series’ models, the Plymouth Volare-based Sierra luxury saloon, plus a pair of sumptuous hand-crafted 4x4s; the Sahara, and more distinctive Safari, both based on the modified coachwork and mechanicals of the American International Harvester Scout II. The three-door Safari was clearly aimed an wowing would-be Range Rover buyers away from the British 4x4, with more luxury and greater exclusivity on offer.

In addition, Monteverdi shared in the Range Rover’s success by creating the first approved four-door conversion of the 4x4, the modification being so well conceived that Rover/Leyland actually gave its blessing to the model and even sold it though its own UK and Continental dealer network, ahead of launching its own four/five-door model in 1981, this derivative ultimately outselling the original three-door body by a sizeable margin.  

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Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen – 1979

Originally introduced as the G-Wagen (for Gelandewagen) in 1979, Mercedes-Benz’s 4x4 response to the Range Rover enjoyed a long career both off-road and in Chelsea, latterly being more widely known as the G-Class (G-Klasse in Germany).

Developed and built in co-operation with Steyr in Graz, Austria, the G-Wagen was initially developed as a strong off-road military vehicle, first shown in 1972! A long seven years later, the G was finally presented in its production form, available for civilian clients as well as military use, with a choice of two wheelbases, plus a wide selection of open and enclosed three- and five-door body styles.

Conceived as a basic Land Rover-style off-roader, but eventually launched as an expensive ‘lifestyle’ 4x4, the G-Wagen became more opulent, and costly the older it got, with the 1972/79 original model not being extensively modified and replaced until 2018!

Although it did become a legend in its own lifetime, the Mercedes G-Wagen never quite rivalled the style, kudos and prestige of the original 1970-1996 Range Rover.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the original 1970 Range Rover might not have been the first SUV, but it was certainly the best, so Happy 50th again Range Rover; often copied, but never bettered!

  • Range Rover

  • Monteverdi

  • Ford

  • Bronco

  • Fiat

  • ARO

  • International Harvester

  • Mercedes

  • G-Class

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