Overlanding has existed about as long as the automobile itself. Long before the interstate highway system, motorists traveling to and from towns and destinations across the country had no choice but to take unpaved, untraveled roads. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone are some of the most famous forefathers of the pastime, taking Model T’s into the wilderness to go camping as early as 1914. Today, overlanding is synonymous with rugged body-on-frame behemoths stomping through bogs, side-stepping toppled tree trunks and competently carrying passengers through otherwise unsurpassable terrain.
Though most off-roaders today shelter passengers in a protective steel cage, that’s not how overlanding began. Henry Ford and his overlanding party, the “Vagabonds” had most of their adventures in a Model T soft top, essentially a pup tent with wheels and a 20 horsepower engine. Thanks to the soft top, overlanding was done in the open air, the way it was intended. The Vagabonds and their Model T’s set a precedent for the next century. Some of the most iconic overlanders in history have gone topless and it’s no coincidence that they’re some of our favorites.
Battle hardened and time tested, today’s Jeep Wrangler keeps strong ties to its forefather. The original Willys Jeep went into production in 1941 and ran until the end of WWII, in 1945. Though when the war ended, Willys started production of the CJ (Civilian Jeep), essentially a road going version of the iconic 4×4 nine Ally countries put to use against Axis Powers. The Model T may have been the open-top off-roading forefather, but the original Willys MB set the standard every overlander should aspire to.
The Volkswagen Thing may look like one of the more nonsensical choices on the list, but its bare-bones simplicity and ruggedness made it great for light off-roading. When Volkswagen was approached to build a multinational, light-weight military transport, the thought it would be too expensive and was a waste of time, bringing the project close to cancellation. But a large market in Mexico was begging for something better on rural roads than the Type-1 Beetle, and the US market wanted something light and fun. So by using parts from the Type-1 Beetle, Micro Bus and Kübelwagen, Volkswagen kept costs down while still creating a competent off-roader.
1969 Ford Bronco
The first generation of Ford Bronco was designed from the ground up to be an off-roader. It wasn’t based on any other truck or SUV in Ford’s lineup, and featured a complex yet effective front suspension and a short wheelbase maximizing maneuverability. Almost immediately after its release, desert racer Bill Stroppe took a handful of Broncos and prepped them for the Mint 400, Baja 500 and 1000, eventually winning the ’71 Baja 1000. Ford then released limited edition ‘Baja Broncos’ to celebrate those successes (think the forefather to the SVT Raptor). The biggest question is: why hasn’t Ford produced a new Bronco?
Land Rover Defender 90
Developed after WWII and launched in 1948, the Defender was directly inspired by the wartime competence of the Willys. It proved to be such an exercise in timeless design and engineering that Land Rover have been producing them, almost unchanged, for 67 years. Although the last Defender rolled off the line on January 29, 2016, Land Rover has promised a replacement but said it won’t be out for another year or two.
Toyota Land Cruiser FJ
Toyota FJ Series, produced from 1955 to 1984, was Japan’s rebuttal to America’s Jeep and Britain’s Defender. And despite being initially reverse-engineered from the Jeep, the FJ’s iconic character, fortitude and silhouette only solidify its place in overlanding history. It wasn’t completely legal in most countries, but the roof and doors could be removed while the windshield could be folded down for maximum nature-intake in the places it was allowed. Like most of the vehicles on this list, the FJ’s cult following is well deserved.
Like the Defender, there has been little need to change the Jeep recipe over the decades. The Wrangler is a successor to the Willys CJ’s spirit and has been in constant production since ’86; its aim is to be just as capable off-road as the name ‘Jeep’ suggests. Every year Jeep enthusiasts put stock Wranglers and concepts to the test out in Moab, proving even Wranglers in basic trims are dependable off-road. That’s not to say a few modifications would hurt, though.
Introduced in 1970, the Suzuki Jimny (later named Samurai) was Suzuki’s first big commercial success and the first 4×4 kei car (small Japanese vehicle) Suzuki made — it put put the company on the map. The small (only three meters-long) Japanese car filled an important gap as a compact off-roader. Today Suzuki Samurais can be found at bargain prices (and when your off-roader’s asking price doesn’t break $10,000, you can afford to thrash the dirt roads a little harder with a clearer conscience).
The Evoque Convertible may be the glamping version of an overlander, but no one is going to complain about the luxurious ride while getting a clear view of the French Alps overhead.