Looking for a classic car but want to venture onto roads less travelled? We drive three collectable options…
If we think about classic cars, often images of fast, elegant coupés and cabriolets pop into our heads. However, many folks consider the 4x4s of the 20th century works of art. These three classic 4x4s are a case in point.
“Around two years ago, I bought the Land Cruiser from its previous owner who had imported it from Australia. The only major work required was the electrical system which had to be entirely redone. Non-original components had been added over the years and I’ve had some work performed on the engine. I installed the rear seats, which is ideal when friends want to join on drives,” the owner explains.
“The Willys CJ received a complete rebuild to look like an MB (military specification) with all the relevant parts. It took a few years but it was all worth it,” he muses.
“The Series I is surely the most iconic vehicle in Africa; when you see it, you think of a safari. I discovered it on a farm in Limpopo around 2010. It had stood outside and was in a terrible condition. I sent it to the restorers and found a guy to make the canopy exactly like the original,” he adds.
Another element binds all three vehicles: they may have been produced on different continents but all have been used by different military forces and their successors are still in service in militaries to this day.
The years 1948 and 1951 saw the birth of the Land Rover Series I and Toyota’s Land Cruiser, respectively. However, the Willys MB – built in large numbers during World War Two for the Allied forces – predates both. Their paths since differ, too. The Willys continued to be developed and built as a civilian version and, today, the Jeep Wrangler is its spiritual successor. The Series I and Land Cruiser continued production and both are available in their modern interpretations. Today, they are sought after and adored by enthusiasts and collectors.
Parked next to each other, they evoke a sense of adventure. I open the Series I’s flat-metal door and am greeted by a basic interior. The car’s spare wheel on the engine is a distinguishing feature and the angular design elements continue inside. Two dials are sited to the left of the three-spoke steering wheel while the bent main gearlever protrudes from the transmission tunnel. I twist the key to the left of the wheel and prod the starter button below the dashboard. The engine catches with a rough idle and I press the clutch to engage first gear. The feel through the gearbox is extremely stiff and mechanical.
The owner admits the 2,0-litre, four-cylinder engine must still be fine-tuned but, with enough throttle input, the Series I pulls away and bounds along. Second gear is a straightforward move downwards and I take a look around the cabin. The sliding windows and canvas top are reminders of the car’s age but the compact size would be perfect for navigating narrow English country lanes. Next to the Willys, the Series I looks more suited to a country market than a warzone.
By comparison, the Willys is dainty. The seat is so close to the steering wheel, I have to splay my right leg to slide in. Once seated, you feel exposed due to an absence of doors and canvas roof but it imparts a sense of being ready to tackle the next adventure. To the left of my leg, a spade is attached to the body and within easy reach … if required. The solid nature of the Willys impresses after just a few moments at the wheel, especially when you compare it to the Land Rover. The Willys has fewer moving parts – like doors and windows – and it rides well for such a basic car on truck-sourced tyres.
The steering wheel with its thin spokes feels ideally sized as it is easy to turn and manoeuvre the vehicle. The gearbox needs some fiddling to engage first gear. As with other cars from this era, you mustn’t hesitate; simply push it firmly into gear. Swapping cogs through the three-speed BorgWarner transmission is just as easy as in the Series I. Don’t expect too much from the modest 2,2-litre four-cylinder; yet, with less than a tonne to haul about, the Willys is nippy at low speeds.
The cabin is purely functional and ideal for military use. The bare metal is durable and the canvas top easy to remove. The rear lights and single light in the cabin are so small, the enemy would have struggled to see them at night. It is these little details which really elevate the car. Although the base of this Willys is a CJ (civilian Jeep) which was manufactured after World War Two, it stayed as true as possible to the army version. It is inspiring to see an example so close to the original as this.
In the 4×4 fraternity, vintage Land Cruisers are royalty. There were numerous models over the decades, including station wagons, three-doors, soft tops and long-wheelbase versions. This 1976 FJ40 has a short wheelbase with a 3,8-litre, six-cylinder engine.
The owner acquired it around two years ago after it was imported from Australia. He had some work done to the electrical system and a few non-OEM parts and equipment had to be removed. He decided against fully restoring it. There are some signs of its age but they’re minor and it’s taken on an appealing patina.
Although the interior is basic, the two to three decades separating it from the Series I and Willys are immediately evident. It boasts creature comforts such as vinyl flooring and a transmission tunnel cover, and more comprehensive instrumentation.
The six-cylinder is smooth when you start it. That additional torque and power translate into a more modern drive compared with the other two. The gearshift action is mechanical but far less effort is needed between shifts.
There are strong similarities between the Toyota and the other two from the driver’s seat, though, with its view over the chunky bonnet. The air vents on the engine lid are a perfect touch. As with the Willys, the Cruiser rides better than expected. It has the largest tyres here; 7,5×16 versus 6,0×16 on the Willys and the Jeep.
You need a basic understanding of the different off-road systems on these 4x4s but any enthusiast will be able to exploit these vehicles with their eyes closed; they truly are unstoppable off the beaten track and possess a definite allure. It’s not just their boxy designs, knobbly tyres, jerry cans or bench-type rear seats, but the thought of tackling those exhilarating routes where other classics can’t go.