These days, European SUVs are omnipresent, but are they interesting? Not often, but that wasn’t always the case. Long before the days of ubiquitous BMW X5s, volume-selling Mercedes-Benz GLEs, and parking lot warrior Audi Q5s, European manufacturers brought several utility vehicles of interest to the U.S. market, perhaps before we were truly ready for them. Here are five of Europe’s most interesting vintage SUVs to grace our shores, even if they didn’t necessarily sell in big numbers at the time.
Rayton-Fissiore Magnum “La Forza”
What do you get when you cross all-terrain capability with Italian engineering, and styling by the late American designer abroad, Tom Tjaarda? You get the Rayton-Fissore Magnum, known on U.S. shores as the Laforza.
This now-vintage SUV was intended as something of an Italian Range Rover competitor, the idea was to build a luxurious SUV that didn’t skimp on off-road prowess. Based on a modified Iveco military vehicle chassis, the Laforza had a beefy BorgWarner transfer case and a sumptuous Italian leather and wood interior. Powertrains in Europe varied from turbodiesel options to an Alfa Romeo V-6, while American-spec Laforzas received Ford V-8s, mostly 5.0-liter units that were occasionally fitted with an optional supercharger.
The Laforza went on sale in the U.S. in 1988 and was treated to a quick restyle by Pininfarina shortly thereafter, with the Italian designer also doing final assembly work. While something like 6,000 of these rigs were sold globally, only about 1,000 Laforzas made it to the U.S. before the model was discontinued in 2003. Certainly, this must be one of the most interesting classic European SUVS ever built, despite its sales sloth.
Volkswagen Type 181 “Thing”
Perhaps the most lovable of all vintage SUVs. When development of a communal European-built military off-roader (dubbed the Europa Jeep) was taking longer than expected in the 1960s, Volkswagen decided it might be a good time to market an off-roader of its own—both as a stopgap military vehicle and as a consumer production vehicle in markets with demand for such things. After all, vehicles like the early Ford Bronco were already gaining popularity in the U.S.
Based on the Volkswagen Type 1 and using knowledge gained with the World War II-era Type 82, Volkswagen hung an air-cooled flat-four engine out back paired with a four-speed manual gearbox. The bodywork was slab-sided and purely functional, with all four doors identical and removeable, while the interior was sparsely appointed with rubber floor mats and drain holes in the Karmann-Ghia floor pans to allow water to drain easily. In the U.S., where the Type 181 was marketed as the “Thing,” sales were strong until it would no longer meet crash-test safety requirements in the mid-1970s. Volkswagen made some 90,000 Type 181s, with some 20,000 of them assembled in Mexico, another popular market due to the country’s large number of unimproved roads.
At first glance, the Citroën Méhari looks an awful lot like the Volkswagen Thing. In reality, it’s fairly different having been developed by a French plastics supplier to Citroën with a front-engine, front-wheel-drive chassis. Utilizing the Citroen 2CV platform and powered by a 0.6-liter flat-twin engine, the Méhari’s bodywork was made of reinforced plastic, giving it a curb weight of just over 1,200 pounds, compared with the VW Thing’s 2,000-pound heft. Launched in 1968, the Méhari was given 4×4 capability in 1979, but the model ended production entirely in 1988. Méharis are a rare sight in the U.S., though they were briefly imported starting in 1969. Méharis were also built for the South American market in Uruguay with fiberglass bodies.
If the VW Thing is the most lovable, this might just be the coolest of all European vintage SUVs. In the late 1970s, though Lamborghini had already brought the Miura and the Countach—both legendary cars today—to market, the company was in a dire financial position, and bankruptcy loomed. It produced a concept named the Lamborghini Cheetah, with a Chrysler V-8 engine hung out the back, and the Italian marque thought it could sell it to adventurous Americans or even in a military capacity.
A second prototype with a rear-mounted AMC V-8 was also drummed up, but neither made it past prototype stages. In a final attempt, Lamborghini mounted the 5.2-liter V-12 from its Countach supercar in a new front-engine utility vehicle chassis, and the LM002 was born. Dubbed the “Rambo Lambo” after its 1986 debut, the LM002 was not terribly quick by virtue of its near 6,000-pound curb weight, but it was a functional off-roader that looked wild and was luxuriously trimmed. Lamborghini built approximately 328 LM002s between 1986 and 1993, and you’ll need a spare couple-hundred thousand dollars to buy one today.
Range Rover Classic
Up until the late 1960s, the Land Rover, a division of U.K. automaker Rover, was known for building utilitarian off-road rigs; they were highly functional but weren’t known for their on-road prowess or luxury features. That all changed in 1970 with the original Range Rover.
While Range Rover has a whole quiver full of products in its model-range today, the original Range Rover was a two-door utility vehicle that strived to be as good to drive on asphalt as it was on just about every other surface. A steel chassis was chosen for strength and rigidity, while body panels were of aluminum for lighter weight and corrosion resistance. While these early Range Rovers weren’t chock full of creature comforts, they were certainly better equipped and more luxurious to ride in than their hard-working Land Rover counterparts. It took 11 years before the Range Rover was offered in a four-door variant for the first time in 1981, which is difficult to imagine when looking at today’s Range Rover product lineup. Today, these early Range Rovers are highly collectible, and many have been given proper and expensive restorations.
Best European Vintage SUVs Sold in the U.S:
- Rayton-Fissiore Magnum “La Forza”
- Volkswagen Type 181 “Thing”
- Citroën Méhari
- Lamborghini LM002