Getting dirty in 3 off-roaders that would never be made today
The Subaru BRAT, emitting a fearsome putter, charged. It scampered up a steep and broken hill in the desert wilderness near Barstow, California, where a type of giant pig is said to have frolicked during the Miocene Epoch. Halfway to the top, the Scooby ran up on a pile of Mesozoic Era plutonic rocks—hey, we don’t name the stuff—and began grunting and shimmying in a way that would have seriously distracted any large pigs still living in the area. My Hagerty coworker, Logan Calkins, stood a deliberate distance off to one side, watching the BRAT ricochet from rock to rock. He finally walked over and leaned into the open window. “If you keep that up,” he warned, “you’re going to break a CV joint. Trust me on this.” About that moment, the right-front tire was slashed by one of those fancy plutonic rocks and started hissing.
A few months earlier, our boss had okayed this story only after we promised to come back with photos of cars jumping. He is perfectly willing to publish 130 pages of leaping cars aloft if we can only find enough vehicles and enough jumps. [Editor’s note: Fake news! I never said that. What I said was, “Secure the area, hire trained stuntmen, keep paramedics standing by, alert the FAA, and tell the readers to please, PUH-LEEZE! not try this at home!”] We murmured a vague promise to look into the whole jumping thing and then quickly left the room.
The original concept for the story was actually this: We take cars that were billed by their creators as being capable of going off-road, cars that would never be made today, and drive them off-road. Why is this interesting? Well, because today’s auto industry is all about volume, about scale, about making mainstream vehicles with the widest possible reach so the highest production numbers (and, thus, the lowest costs) can be realized. With pressing imperatives such as electrification and automation soaking up billions of investment dollars, it’s too expensive and risky nowadays for a car company to take a chance, to grab onto a crazy idea and go with it, and to possibly do something completely profitless and stupid. But that wasn’t always true.
To prove it, we got a BRAT, a small truck that government regulators classified as a car. We found an AMC Eagle, a car the government classified as a truck. And we got a Volkswagen Thing. The government had no idea how to classify that, so the guy in charge of classifications called it a “multipurpose vehicle” and then left early for a 17-year lunch break. With this trio of misfits, we headed for the desert in search of things to jump and to illustrate a time in our automotive history when looniness still had a chance.
For that is what the BRAT is. Or Brat, as we shall henceforth spell it, because repeatedly writing BRAT lends credence to the horribly tormented acronym that is its name: Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter. At the car’s launch in 1979, Harvey Lamm, then Subaru of America’s president, said, “We spent almost nine months coming up with the name.” Imagine the rejects. He might have saved time and called it the Subaru Brumby, which is what the Australians named their version. Brumby is the Aussie term for a wild horse, which is—huzzah!—another type of bi-drive recreational all-terrain transporter.
There’s no gentle way to put this: The Brat was a total cheat. Subaru wanted to sell a small Japanese-made pickup in the U.S. based on its line of wagons and sedans. But the United States has since 1963 levied a crushing 25-percent duty on imported two-door trucks. What’s a truck? Um, something that looks like a Brat, according to the feds, circa 1979. But Subaru figured if it plopped a couple of plastic arcade-game seats plus some carpet into the bed, then the Brat could pass as a car and avoid the tariff. More astounding than this act of brazen chutzpah was the fact that the government bought it, only demanding that the seats be welded in so owners would need to fire up a Sawzall to make the cargo bed at all useful. The autoworkers union and other Big Three protectionists objected strenuously, but Subaru was unfazed. Said a company spokesman: “We are a car, according to us.”
In contrast, the new-for-1980 American Motors Eagle was a truck. At least the government thought so, even though the Eagle initially was two of AMC’s cars, the Concord wagon and coupe, laden with 300 extra pounds of four-wheel-drive hardware plus a couple more inches of ground clearance. Four-wheel drive is definitely truck stuff, decreed the bureaucrats, so the Eagle was labeled a truck. AMC avoided the question and referred to the Eagle as an “automobile.”
In the 1970s, AMC wasn’t considered an underdog because an underdog has some hope of success. Industry analysts instead pegged the maker of the Levi’s Edition Gremlin and Matador Barcelona Brougham as a Dumpster fire save for its reliably profitable Jeep and AM General divisions. Former chairman Roy D. Chapin, Jr., said in 1978, “I will go to my grave trying to figure out why the Pacer doesn’t sell 150,000 cars a year.” No doubt, he did meet the reaper (in 2001) still confused.
However, the Eagle, which was unveiled to the press in a muddy field near its plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, proved to be a savior. Incorporating a pioneering use of the viscous coupling, a type of fluid-filled transfer case that automatically shifts engine torque to the wheels with the best traction, the Eagle offered slip-apportioned, permanent four-wheel drive that was sophisticated for the time. The ad tagline, “the Eagle has landed on all four,” was snappy, and sales soared. AMC quickly strangled the Pacer to free up production capacity for more Eagles. A coupe, a switchable two-wheel-/four-wheel-drive system, and a four-cylinder engine option were added over its eight-year run, which survived AMC’s 1979 merger with Renault.
All of that was way in the future when VW’s main man, Ferdinand Porsche, designed a military scout car, the Type 82 Kübelwagen, for the German Army shortly before the Wehrmacht goose-stepped into Paris. Years and a lot of tears later, with the postwar NATO clamoring for a similar vehicle, the Type 181 appeared in 1969 as a Beetle-based army brat as well as a simple car for developing markets with vestigial roads.
VW wanted to call the America-bound Type 181 the Safari, its name in other markets, but that ended when Pontiac sent over a couple of suits with briefcases. The story goes that the daughter of a VW of America exec saw the 181 for the first time and asked, “Daddy, what is that thing?” And everybody said: Well, what the hell? The Thing only lasted two years in the U.S. market before somebody got to somebody in the government and it was reclassified as a passenger car, subject to much more rigorous crash testing. At that point, the Thing was no longer a thing.
Lucky for us, our own Logan Calkins owns a 1973 Thing for hauling kids and surfboards, its hotted-up flat-four bored to 1835 cc in an effort to extract every last galloping palomino. However, his twice-as-bright candle flamed out only a week before our scheduled adventure, pinging a hole in a piston. Apparently bored, Logan’s dad came over and pulled the motor before breakfast, and for about $250 in new pistons and jugs plus a few hours of labor from his local builder, Logan hastily repaired it, shrinking the cylinder gulp down to a more durable (and patriotic) 1776 cc.
The search for a willing Brat donor took a little longer and eventually ended at Craigslist, where your humble narrator nabbed this 1984 example for six grand mere moments after the seller posted it. Since the 156,000-mile Brat had been repainted somewhere along the line in plain silver, it was given a new $155 stripe kit from Retro Auto Decals. It took about four days to restripe the Brat, using soapy water to float the decals and used-up California Pizza Kitchen gift cards to squeegee them out.
A Hagerty member and serial AMC Eagle owner in San Luis Obispo, California, named Michael Johnson volunteered to trundle over to Barstow in his copper-colored Pride of Kenosha. Johnson runs a vintage-car inspection, appraisal, and sales business called Classic Car Guy (www.ClassicCarGuy.com). When not driving the Eagle, he pilots a 1972 Ford Country Squire woody wagon that has been moved to an F-250 truck frame with dualie rear tires. Clearly, he has issues of the best kind.
So there we were, perched on the hillside in a stuck Brat with a flat. We’d examined several potential jump spots but had yet to go airborne, although we’d startled quite a few butterflies. Film buffs might remember the scene in the 1981 movie The Cannonball Run where the little Subaru gets pinned on a desert hill much like this one, and the “seequit weapon” rocket engine pops out to blast it over the top. That would have made an epic jump shot indeed, but our Sube didn’t have that option, so we had to back the Brat down in disgrace on its galumphing flat tire.
We were near the famous Slash X Ranch Café, a roadside watering hole and “off-roader’s oasis” for 65 years, as well as where the Old Spanish Trail once took a hard left toward the grubby little pueblo of Los Angeles. In 1826, fur trapper Jedediah Smith reputedly became the first white guy ever to lay eyes on the native Mojave people here. Likely they told him about the roasting summer temperatures, the roaring nighttime winds, the prolific rattlesnakes, and the seasonal migration of tarantulas, thus convincing old Jedediah to keep on truckin’ down the road.
The Search for the Jump Spot paused while we changed the Brat’s tire, first removing the spare, a copiously cracked and leathery looking Nankang. This rock-hard doughnut must have been baking in its cradle above the engine through many a new moon, achieving a rating somewhere above tungsten on the Rockwell hardness scale.
Would it hold air? Thankfully, Michael Johnson, our Eagle driver, the only one of us who actually prepared in advance to drive off-road, produced a 12-volt air pump that inflated this ancient Chinese terracotta warrior enough to give us hope.
Logan stripped the canvas roof from the Thing as well as all four doors, which made it look like a Radio Flyer wagon after a conjugal visit from a snow blower. People think it’s a VW Beetle underneath, and it pretty much is, down to the hallmark double-trailing-arm front suspension and assortment of plumbing fixtures or whatever that holds up the back. A single large speedometer as the one and only gauge exudes the institutional, you-don’t-need-to-know look of a military vehicle. But the Thing is more than just a Beetle dressed for Halloween as an industrial freezer. Volkswagen put a lot of extra reinforcement in the floor, meaning it doesn’t shake as much as it should while bounding over the desert hummocks and bouncing through the creosote.
Meanwhile, the Eagle cruised the sand and schist with the blithe indifference of the ancient long-necked Aepycamelus camels that once roamed here, well before Jedediah Smith pulled up. Johnson fitted 31-inch rubber rock crushers to the stock wheels, mounted LED trail lights to the front bumper, and inserted aluminum shims in the suspension to add another couple of inches, making the Eagle the perfect vehicle to drive to meetings of the Utqiagvik PTA.
Although it’s slathered in unfashionably unmodern “wood,” the cockpit shows the imprint of Richard Teague, AMC’s legendarily trippy, forward-looking chief designer: those weird knee-level air ducts, for one thing, and the floating pod of the center console. Indeed, the whole car is a trailblazer, presaging the Subaru Outback, Audi Allroad, and other family-friendly four-wheelers that are common today. No doubt the citizens of 30 years hence will be happily loading their jet packs and orgasmatrons through the liftgates of the many spiritual descendants of the Eagle.
We soldiered on, the groveling wimps among us passing up promising jump spots that would have required the car to achieve only 80 mph for flight. The photographer paced in tight, frustrated circles. We found an old earthen bunker that once likely held a well and did some sandy burnouts around its graffitied walls. The Brat proved rather bad at this, offering as it does just 72 horsepower, all of which is directed to the front wheels unless you pull up on the T-bar handle between the seats that engages the four-wheel drive, in which case the Brat is even less able to spin its wheels.
The handle actually has four positions: two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, neutral, and four low, meaning that, as in any double-throwdown Jeep Rubicon trail basher, there is a crawl gear. Which is why when you tell people you bought an old Subaru Brat, the typical response is, “Bro! I knew a dude in high school who had one of those. We beat the @#$% out of it!” People thought a Brat could go off-road, largely because of that T-bar handle and the “4WD” logos on the body, but it was a lie. The Brat was merely a lightweight little Japanese trolley made out of, basically, riveted rice paper.
The VW Thing gave the burnout run a go, too, but so much fuel sloshed out of the carburetors that it drowned the engine and nearly set the machine on fire. It was the Eagle that proved the dust-cloud champ, achieving photo-documented drift as its sand-grabber tires slung up a khaki-colored fog. However, as our photographer enthusiastically waved Johnson on, thrilled to finally be shooting real action, the Eagle’s body was heeling over so far that you could clearly hear the tires chewing the inside of the fenders, so we decided to call “cut” before another flat occurred.
We rolled on, looking in all directions for a place where a jump might happen without summoning a medevac helicopter. Of the three cars in our convoy, the Thing proved the best suited to running in the desert. It vamoosed down the trail like an unleashed Labrador, skipping in and out of the bushes and snarling playfully at the big rocks. Desert off-roading was born in the 1960s to the clatter of a Volkswagen flat-four as Bruce Meyers and other early godfathers employed their wits and ingenuity to turn VW’s plebeian people’s car into the king of gritty fun and glory, and may it live long and VAAARRRROOOOOOOOMMMMMM!!
We looked up as a churning 30-foot-high roostertail of dust rose above us. At the pointy end of the speeding cloud was a plastic and tube-frame mortar shell with two helmeted heads bobbing around in it. It was a “Razor,” or RZR, made by Polaris and one of the many new off-road buggies cranked out by the all-terrain-vehicle industry. These super-quads pretty much rule the desert now. Look up the Polaris RZR XP Turbo S. It drops a 168-hp turbocharged and fuel-injected engine into an 1800-pound two-seater that hits 75 mph in sand in a couple of heartbeats and looks like the Terminator’s pet crab. It has touchscreen displays, power steering, and an automatic transmission, and it costs 26 grand.
Besides the fact that car companies don’t have the time or money for them anymore, one of the many reasons cars like the Brat and the Thing no longer exist is because the world has become so specialized. In the old days, just as there were a couple types of skis and a couple types of bicycles and surfboards, there were a few cars that kinda, sorta did everything. Nowadays, you can buy one of many hyper-efficient pavement boxes for your daily chores and a 75-mph RZR for eating dirt. Come out here in a new Subaru Forester or Volkswagen Atlas only if you want to be sneered at by the pros in their pro equipment.
Returning to where we started, a parking area near the highway, we examined a low bluff that would probably put a car in the air at relatively modest speed. Wilting under the desperate gaze of the photographer, Logan agreed to try it. The Thing burbled off into the brush and then came zipping out. One wheel left the ground before the car flopped down again. Not fast enough. A couple more tentative tries produced no great altitude gains, either.
Finally, Logan nailed it. Unfortunately, he had not done a good job of securing stuff to the floor, so when he hit the mound, many things besides the Thing went airborne, including the car’s battery, a toolbox, what looked like a set of steak knives, and a heavily bookmarked copy of Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience. Mercifully, most of the car plus the driver reintegrated into a whole at the landing spot. The photographer called for another go, but Logan had ascended to a mystical state of consciousness. The Eagle and Brat owners were looking up and sideways, intently studying the native juniper titmice, so the day was pretty much over at that point.
Even though our three cars proved to be only modestly successful as off-roaders, they were evidence that the faceless corporate behemoths behind them once had a sense of humor. If there’s one thing lacking in today’s portfolio of sophisticated, multimicrochipped commuter capsules, it’s a vehicle unashamed to be called a Bidrive Recreational All-terrain Transporter. And that is a tragedy, according to us.
[This article originally ran in Hagerty magazine, the exclusive publication of the Hagerty Drivers Club. For the full, in-the-flesh experience of our world-class magazine—as well other great benefits like roadside assistance and automotive discounts—join HDC today.]