My wife and I were eating at Fork on Market the other night and as we were walking in, it was hard to not notice a lovely sight. No, it was not a bag of money. No, it was not the French supermodel Laetitia Casta. It was a Land Rover Defender. The first SUV on my list of enticing SUVs that time forgot.
It is decent timing, as we look at all of the amazing new incarnations of Sport Utility Vehicles on display at the Philadelphia Auto Show, just concluded. Whether it is the new Dodge Durango or the latest hybrid from any of a number of car companies, there will be plenty to discuss, plenty to analyze and plenty to drive. So, as the Philly Auto Show helps us look into the future, it only seems right to remember and celebrate some inspired moments of SUVs past. So, on to it:
The Land Rover Defender is the vehicle that you drive to Wegmans to make sure everyone knows who owns the parking lot. That’s the cache and the chic feel that the Defender gives you that no other SUV can, even today. The Land Rover Defender was launched from England into North America in 1983 and now, for a myriad of reasons it is essentially non existent in the States. Yet, it is still sold new in Europe where it can be had for around 20,000 pounds or about $32,000 dollars.
The Defender has had many issues over the life of it’s existence in the US and is now, sadly relegated to collector status. It’s a heavy vehicle and it’s a clunky vehicle. The Defender is not known for for being very aerodynamic or particularly fleet of foot. The Defender, however, can be trusted to to pound the pavement, but it looks like it is ready to pound the pond with the ‘snorkel’ exhaust line placed above the roof line on some models. Best have the snorkel affixed or it’s lights out, friend. That’s serious SUV business.
And, this is the one SUV that really makes you believe that you can go from Market Street to the hills of the African desert easily. Those that are passionate about this vehicle understand that the Defender was not created with the environment in mind. 12/13 economy says it all. The Defender is a cult classic because it can’t be purchased here and because it is the ultimate accessorizer. Get some post factory installed roof racks, the snorkel, some well placed spotlights and you are in business, even if your business is in a parking garage, not in a rain forest. This cult like status has kept the price of used North American outfitted Defenders up over the years. There is a 1994 model listed on Ebay for over 30K with 50K miles, which puts it in contention with other classic, consistent SUVs of years past.
Originally built to outfit various military campaigns in Japan, the Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser has a rich and strong history. This has to be one of the most unique, most appealing, and most revered SUVs off all time. It is a working SUV. Meaning that it was built to work and work hard. Take a look at a typical 1970s era Land Cruiser. From the front grill to the steel reinforced roof, this car was a steel horse on wheels. There was little if any fluff to this vehicle. Vinyl seats, manual transmitions, steel floor boards. It is not uncommon to see an FJ with a winch placed on it. A winch! Can you imagine a winch on the front of the Audi Q7? Not a chance in Hell.
This is not luxury, this is not a smooth car like ride around town. This vehicle does not fit pulling up to the Opera Company of Philadelphia like so many pristine SUVs. Rather, the Land Cruiser is a triumph of painful, striking utilitarianism. There is no GPS or surround sound with Boston Acoustics. Steel floor boards, little or no roof or door fabrics to speak of. On the original vehicles you were lucky if you got an AM Radio and a speaker. The luxury is having this vehicle in your possession.The FJ40 is the vehicle most at home in tough spots. The long driveways, the muddy back roads of Montgomery county.
Didn’t the great Marlin Perkins drive this around in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom? Perhaps, but if he didn’t, this vehicle makes you believe that he did. If you are on safari in the FJ and you pop out of this, you are probably going to wrestle an alligator or spoon with a bear. These days you can find some on Ebay Motors or with private refurbishers like Rocky Mountain Cruisers. A nice used one will set you back at least 35K, same as many newmid range SUVs. But you are buying an era, a piece of history, not an SUV.
This is the luxury SUV that was created before anyone knew what a luxury SUV was. The Jeep Wagoneer defined a position no one knew existed until it rolled off the line. Produced by Jeep, AMC and Chrysler between the 60s and early 90s, this was a game changer in many ways. Big and roomy, the Grand Wagoneer flaunted it’s comfort next to more truck-like vehicles. A smoother less noisy ride made it popular, while the awe inspiring wood trim made it unabashedly American. This was the Jeep you drove in your dress slacks and mom wore the nice pearls. The Wagoneer Limited was well appointed, plush and pimped out. This was the top of the line Jeep. You bought it after the promotion at the accounting firm, and borrowed it for your first date to Longwood Gardens.
In the late ’70s this was the Jeep to own. By 1984 it got smashed down into what would later become the Cherokee, but the popularity of the Grand Wagoneer kept the larger version cruising for years to come. You can still find a decent amount of these vehicles used, so they have never seemed to completely fade away. It’s common to see them in beach communities, with a roof rack full of surf boards, thirsting to get onto the beach to live it up with the surfers. An enduring throwback to the GMC Woody of the 1940s to be sure. Always willing to go back to the future to squeeze more life out of a nameplate, according to Automotive News, Chrysler will debut a new version of the Grand Wagoneer in 2013. Let’s hope there is an available wood trim in there somewhere.