From Jeep bakkie to Golf on stilts: Remembering 4WD’s forgotten past
The late '80s and early 90's led to the creation of some of the burliest and oddest 4x4's ever made.
The badge that holds the key to possibilities away from the black stuff led to the creation of now forgotten models some 40 years ago.
Sports-Utility Vehicles (SUVs), as known by now, have become the default choice for buyers worldwide regardless of the segment or price. Rewind the clock four decades though, the term SUV was something that didn’t exist. Instead, anything that didn’t resemble a car in the traditional sense, or a bakkie, was known as a 4x4 regardless if it had an all-paw gripping system or not. The segment’s boom in the late 1980s and 1990s, together with the coining of the SUV moniker, resulted in a mad flurry of activity as every automaker wanted to cash in on what had become an…
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Sports-Utility Vehicles (SUVs), as known by now, have become the default choice for buyers worldwide regardless of the segment or price.
Rewind the clock four decades though, the term SUV was something that didn’t exist. Instead, anything that didn’t resemble a car in the traditional sense, or a bakkie, was known as a 4×4 regardless if it had an all-paw gripping system or not.
The segment’s boom in the late 1980s and 1990s, together with the coining of the SUV moniker, resulted in a mad flurry of activity as every automaker wanted to cash in on what had become an automotive revolution.
Unsurprisingly, this decade led to the creation of some outlandish and not so successful models many had either forgotten about or didn’t know existed.
As such, The Citizen looks back at twelve forgotten models of the four-wheel-drive’s past.
When Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), now Stellantis, introduced the Jeep Gladiator in 2018, it officially revived a bodystyle not offered on any model bearing the seven-slot grille since the Comanche.
Introduced in 1985 as one of the final projects funded by Jeep’s then-parent company, American Motors Corporation (AMC), the Comanche departed from the usual bakkie norm by utilising a unibody rather than a body-on form construction, while retaining leaf springs for the rear suspension plus a part-time or full-time four-wheel-drive system.
In stark contrast to the model on which it was based, the XJ Cherokee, which went on to become a cult icon, the single cab only Comanche never achieved the same level of success with sales peaking at 43 718 units in 1988.
Initially powered by an AMC 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, a short-lived 2.1-litre Renault turbodiesel and bizarrely, a 2.8-litre V6 made by Chevrolet, the Comanche departed after seven years powered by AMC’s 4.0-litre straight-six that went on to survive until 2006 in TJ Wrangler.
Toyota Mega Cruiser
Stretching back to 1951, the lineage of the Toyota Land Cruiser involved a number of offshoots, the most famous being the Prado, but nothing like the Mega Cruiser.
In the same mould as the Hummer H1, the massive Mega Cruiser was designed as a military vehicle for the Japanese army that had to be tough, reliable and capable of going anywhere.
Still the biggest SUV Toyota has ever made, the almost 5.1-metre long Mega Cruiser weighed nearly three tons, had a rated ground clearance of 420 mm thanks to its portal axles and offered seating for six in what appeared to be lounge in civilian form.
Unlike the H1, it didn’t have V8 engine, making do instead with a truck derived 4.1-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel that produced produced 115 kW. According to a report by drive.com in 2019, only 133 of the 3 000 Mega Cruisers made were adapted for civilian use.
Renault Scenic RX4
Amidst the ‘90s SUV boom, Renault opted to go against the grain by introducing a downsized version of the ground-breaking Espace MPV based on the Megane.
The result was the Megane Scenic that created a revolution of its own and led to other manufacturers following suit. Not content with the model achieving massive success in Europe, four years after its launch in 1996, Renault introduced a four-wheel-drive version that could be seen in modern terms as the true predecessor of the crossover.
Developed in conjunction with Austria’s Steyr Daimler Puch that had helped Mercedes-Benz with the original G-Class, the Scenic RX4 sported an electronic viscous centre differential, a redesigned rear suspension, revised front suspension, spare wheel mounted on the tailgate and an impressive, even by today, ground clearance of 210 mm.
Discontinued in 2003, and powered by either a 75 kW 1.9 dCi turbodiesel or a 102 kW 2.0-litre petrol engine, a limited number were sold in South Africa powered by the latter and offered in Expression and Privilege trim forms. Incidentally, an example of the latter ended-up being this writer’s first car in around 2010.
Mazda Proceed Marvie
SUV market entry in the 1980s largely involved extending the roof and replacing the loaded with a large boot section and seats while at the same time adding more plush materials for it to feel less workhorse-like.
A method adopted by nearly every manufacturer at the time, Mazda’s version, the Proceed Marvie, never became part of the boom in the same way its contemporary rivals due to sales being limited to some Asian markets.
Based on the B-series bakkie, it provided seating for seven, a first for a Japanese vehicle at the time, rode on a body-on-frame platform and offered a part-time four-wheel-drive system with motivation coming from either 2.6-litre petrol or a 2.5-litre turbodiesel engine.
At one stage exported to Australia as the Ford Raider, the Proceed Marvie lasted for a further two years after a facelift in 1996, before bowing out with no replacement. It remains the last bakkie-based SUV Mazda has made until this day.
Very much a mainstay brand today, by the early 1990s, Hyundai was still finding its feet in the automotive word despite having achieved some success with the rear-wheel-drive Pony and Excel towards the end of the 80s.
At the time, it relied heavily on Mitsubishi technology after an initial tie-up with Ford in the 1970s resulted in licence-built versions of the Cortina and Granada.
For its first attempt at a luxury SUV, Hyundai got the green light from Mitsubishi to use the first and second-generation Pajero. Dubbed Galloper, the original differed comparatively little from the Pajero, while the second, introduced in 1997 as the Galloper II, sported a restyled exterior and a Hyundai-made 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine offered alongside the Mitsubishi made 2.8-litre turbodiesel.
Available in either short or long-wheelbase body styles like the Pajero, the Galloper, which never made it to right-hand-drive markets, trotted its final steps in 2004, three years after the debut of its eventual successor, the Terracan.
Volkswagen Golf Country
During its nine year production run, the Mk II Volkswagen Golf spawned an assortment of derivatives still fondly remembered.
Aside from the 16v GTI and the World Rally Championship homologation special that was the supercharged and four-wheel-drive Golf Rallye, the most quirky was the Golf Country that could well be viewed as the ancestor of the Tiguan.
Predating the Renault Scenic RX4, the Country was the result of Volkswagen teaming up with Steyr Daimler Puch that involved the suspension of the donor Golf Syncro being modified, tubular steel skidplates added, the spare wheel moved to the tailgate and a bulbar fitted as standard.
Powered by a 73 kW version of the 1.8-litre eight-valve engine, only 7 735 Countries were made between 1990 and 1991, with its cult status being additionally solidified after appearing in the 1990 sports movie, Fire, Ice and Dynamite, that starred Roger Moore and included cameos by Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda, Walter Röhrl, Buzz Aldrin and Jennifer Rush.