Some of these awesome creations came from the Soviet Union. Da.
Crossovers. Consumers want them and automakers are racing to provide them, even at the expense of traditional sedans. It’s a dramatic market shift that began in earnest 20 years ago when the original Toyota Camry-based Lexus RX debuted. But it wasn’t the first crossover by any means. In fact, the Japanese automaker didn’t even create the segment; it merely took advantage of it when competitors weren’t paying attention. The first crossovers (though the term didn’t exist yet) began to appear not long after World War II. Who built them? The Americans and Soviets. Yes, really. The Cold War involved more than a nuclear arms race and a fight over whose economic model was superior.
Although these early crossovers weren’t direct competitors they previewed a bodystyle that would take the automotive market by storm about a half-century later. There was even a French automaker who launched a crossover (of sorts) in the late 70s. And unlike today’s sadly too often bland crossovers, these crossovers from yesteryear are cool as hell for a variety of reasons.
Matra Rancho. Such a cool name, and one that works brilliantly for this thing. Built by French engineering group Matra and fellow French automaker Simca, the Rancho appeared in 1977 as a direct competitor to the Range Rover. The French saw what the English were doing with its premium off-roader and figured it was worth replicating but with a French twist. The Rancho was described as a leisure activity vehicle that was based on the pickup truck version of the Simca 1100 supermini.
Engineers simply stretched the chassis and added a new body. That body was actually made from a combination of fiberglass and polyester. Although it received an increased ride height, the Rancho wasn't all-wheel drive. The French must have figured domestic buyers would make do just fine with front-wheel drive because going off-road wasn’t exactly leisurely. Power came from a 1.4-liter inline-four with just 80 hp. With plenty of cargo space, this three-door crossover may have looked kind of funky, but it’s basic build formula still exists today.
We know what you’re thinking. Soviet cars were often so terrible they were actually great. Everybody knows that, right? Of course. So it should come as no surprise that the GAZ-M72 was ugly as hell yet ahead of its time. Based on the GAZ-M20, the M72 launched in 1955. It was a four-door passenger car that was also the first mass-produced monocoque all-wheel drive vehicle. Its body was further reinforced from the more traditional M20 car, but those clever Soviets borrowed the chassis and transmission from the off-road GAZ-69 military light truck. It only had a grand total of 55 hp, but it did the job well enough. A total of 4,677 examples were built until production ended in 1958.
It’s good to be back in America. No gulags here. America’s WWII victory created an economic boom, and automakers left and right were finally mass-producing cars again. Following its wartime success with the original Willys Jeep, Willys-Overland figured it was the ideal time to expand on that winning formula. While the civilian version of the Army Jeep, the CJ, was aimed at farmers, the automaker noticed a gap in the market for something a bit more user-friendly. Although it rode on the same platform as the CJ and was built alongside it in Toledo, Ohio, the Jeepster had a simpler and more suburban design. Some thought it was ugly solely because it was different. We say it was decades ahead of its time. Known internally as the VJ, the Jeepster lasted until 1950 with a total of nearly 20,000 were made.
The Soviets are back with something equally terrible, wonderful and awesome. The Lada 4x4, originally called the Niva, was designed and built by AvtoVAZ, a now defunct Soviet automaker. But the Lada 4x4 was quite progressive for its time because it was the first production off-road vehicle to have a unibody architecture and an independent front suspension. It also didn’t stay in the Soviet Union, as it was exported to Iceland, Austria, Uruguay, and even the UK. It’s still in production today, though it debuted back in 1977.
It was and remains basic and affordable transportation that can handle itself in many off-road situations when called upon. Consider the Lada 4x4 as an ancestor to all of today’s compact AWD crossovers.
We’re just bouncing back and forth between America and the Soviet Union, aren’t we? The Jeep Wagoneer arrived in 1963 and is considered to be the first luxury 4x4. Although it later morphed into a fully-fledged SUV, the early Wagoneers really had more of a crossover-ish look. Both two- and four-door versions were available and despite its body-on-frame truck architecture, the Wagoneer had a wagon-like body style. Most Americans viewed it as a station wagon with the guts of a truck.
However, Kaiser, which owned Jeep at the time, rightly understood American suburbanites didn’t want a truck’s rough ride, so the Wagoneer received an independent front suspension for a more car-like ride. One year after its launch air conditioning became an option. Originally, only an inline-six engine was offered but a V8 came in ’65. The Wagoneer was regularly updated to fit the times until it was discontinued in 1991. A triumphant return is heralded for the near future.
Okay, so maybe the AMC Eagle looked kind of weird, but it was a truly brilliant idea back in 1987. While Subaru likes to proclaim its Outback as the ‘World’s First Sport Utility Wagon,’ that title actually belongs to the Eagle. Launched in 1979, the Eagle was based on the Concord compact car but received a four-wheel drive system. Ironically, the Eagle came to be following the oil crisis. AMC was Jeep’s latest owner and SUVs like the Wagoneer were thirsty for gas. The car-based Eagle, however, was more economical and it also drove like a conventional car thanks to its independent front suspension.
While not built for serious off-roading, the Eagle was more than capable of fighting its way through mud, sand, snow and other obstacles that would normally cause problems for sedans. The AMC Eagle remained in production until the 1988 model year.
The first-generation RAV4 appeared in 1994 and, in many ways, was a far cry from today’s RAV4. For starters, the original was offered as a three-door, five-door, or a three-door convertible soft-top. The latter variant didn’t make it past the original generation. But Toyota knew it was clearly on to something a few years before the Lexus RX debuted. Although this RAV4 had a unique platform, it borrowed some elements from the Corolla’s architecture which not only helped cut costs, but made it somewhat more car-like. Front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive were offered as well as a five-speed manual or four-speed slushbox.
Think of the first RAV4 as a far more user-friendly competitor to the Jeep Wrangler. It also wasn’t the near death trap the Suzuki Jimny was sometimes known to be. Unfortunately, the RAV4 has become far more conventional over the years, but we still dig the revolutionary and quirky original.