Our Land Rover Defender, perched on the edge of the precipice, groaned as the weight settled onto its front tires. It was a disquieting sound. My passenger, an instructor for the Land Rover Driving School, calmly asked if I could back up. We were on an off-road driving course in Vermont, and heavy snow and low temperatures had left the trail particularly icy and ugly. The nose of the vehicle pointed down a 55-degree slope into a 30-foot-deep pit. It was a dangerous descent in good conditions—ideal for rolling over—but now the mud was frozen into a chute of ice. I shifted into reverse, and the tires spun. There was no going back.
“Keep your foot off the brake and steer through any skidding,” the instructor advised.I let the Defender roll forward, hoping it wouldn’t tumble side over side. But the truck was surefooted; the engine whined, its low range slowing our descent. We slid once, I corrected, and we reached the bottom. I whooped in triumph. The instructor let out a deep breath.
That day, I became a true believer in the beauty of old-school 4x4s. Unlike the current gentle generation of SUVs, the all-time 4WD Defender was designed to rule mud and snow, not asphalt. There are just a few other vehicles—namely the Jeep CJ-7s and the FJ-series Toyota Land Cruisers—that were similarly made for the country, not the country club. They are notoriously short on creature comforts but long on off-road performance. And no matter what manufacturers claim, anything that runs well on asphalt just can’t handle the ugly stuff off-road. The answer? Use your Escalade or Suburban to tool around town. Then spend a fraction of what you’d pay for one of those to pick up a usedCJ-7 or a pre-’83 Land Cruiser—and leave it at the ski cabin. They’re meant to get dirty, and no matter how intense the blizzard, they’ll get you back to town.
Land Rover Defender
Of the off-roaders listed here, the Defender is not only the most mechanically complex; it’s also the most expensive. But its powertrain offers a great spread of torque over a wide range of engine speeds, all-time 4WD, center differential lock, and a choice of 10 forward and two reverse gears. Translation: serious off-roading.
The Defender, first introduced in 1983 as a design that combined the Series 3 and the Range Rover, came in two versions: the original five-door 110 and, later, a short three-door model, the 90, which was introduced in 1990. Sadly, the company chose to stop importing Defenders in 1997, when the U.S. government mandated that all new vehicles come equipped with airbags. Among enthusiasts, this has only heightened the Defender’s appeal. It’s great looking, highly modifiable and just plain cool. Probable price $20,000—$25,000
Toyota Land Cruiser FJ Series
The heart of adventure lives in the old Cruisers. Warlords, guerrilla fighters, United Nations relief workers and safari guides have all relied on the “Iron Pig,” as the FJ 55 model was known, to get them around the most forbidding places on Earth. I once found myself racing across the northern Sahara, driven bya grinning madman—a member of the Tuareg “Blue Men” tribe of Morocco. He was my guide, and he tore through the desert in a hearty Land Cruiser as if born to it. (I asked: He was.) He trusted that truck with his life, daily.
The Cruiser was conceived in 1951 as a Japanese imitation of the Jeep. In 1953, it showed its worth by ascending Mt. Fuji, at that time the highest point ever reached by a wheeled vehicle. The boxy FJ 25 and FJ 40 models were sold in the United States from 1957 to 1983. All had six-cylinder engines, high underbody clearance and solid axles. Most SUVs today use independent front suspensions for improved on-road performance, but only solid axles prevent the underbody from snagging on rocks and logs in tough terrain. You’ll still see vintage Cruisers all over the world—sturdy and retro-hip, with or without bullet holes.
Probable price $10,000
I cut my off-roading teeth driving in the hills of New Mexico in a 1950s Willys Jeep. It had no brakes or headlights, tended to pop out of second gear at inopportune times and was generally considered a deathtrap by everyone but my father. He drove it into the thickest wilds and over the highest hills. Naturally, I was enthralled.In fact, it was the mule-like Jeep that started the whole 4WD craze. In 1940, with war in Europe appearing more inevitable every day, the Army asked American auto manufacturers to designa lightweight, all-wheel-drive vehicle—and gave them just 49 days to do it. Three companies responded, including Ford, but it was the Willys Overland company’s design, with its flathead, four-cylinder “Go Devil” engine, that won. The army called it a GP, or “general-purpose” vehicle. GIs are said to have shortened that to “Jeep.” Gen. George C. Marshall called it “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare,” and Italian car designer Enzo Ferrari branded it “America’s only real sports car.” With a short wheelbase and a simple, tough design, it crawled up everything. After the war, it spawned the civilian C series, starting with the CJ-2A in 1945 and evolving into the Wrangler in 1987. But the CJ-7, the Wrangler’s predecessor (then under American Motors Corp.), was the apex—retaining all the heart of the Willys and none of the complications. Manufactured from 1976 to 1986, it is still one of the best (and least expensive) 4WDs in the world.
Probable price $8,000
Nuts & Bolts
One of the best bets for specialty vintage 4WDs is Hemmings Motor News (hemmings.com or on newsstands monthly). It’s required reading among obsessive car folk. You’ll find that most sellers are specialized and professional. Richard Lentinello, an editor at Hemmings, also recommends looking on the Internet for clubs dedicated to the 4WD of your choice. They often post for-sale ads. “Most are specialists dealing in those vehicles,” says Lentinello. “They often know their customers, can appraise a vehicle for you and sometimes even offer a limited warranty.” As 4WD systems are more mechanically complicated than other vehicles, and older models do sometimes break down, Lentinello suggests commissioning a pre-purchase inspection. It will cost $100 to $200, but it can save thousands. “The specialist will find things that the average person won’t know to look for. Either way, check for breaks in the frame, and check the transfer cases for leaks.”
In this eBay world, you might purchase a vehicle located several states away. Before deciding, get a video from the owner, and follow it with an appraisal. Hemmings offers a transport service. An open carrier transport from coast to coast runs about $1,000.