4 sweet civilian-spec military vehicles not named Jeep
Those looking for a rugged vehicle with military roots need look no further than the venerable Jeep. With nearly 80 years of faithful service, the Jeep is the shovel of the off-road world, simple, durable, dependable, common. However, a Jeep is a pretty obvious choice; what if you want something with a little more élan, a little more character? What if what you’re really looking for is a sort of shovel with a corkscrew attachment?
Not to worry, as the Jeep is hardly the only general-purpose vehicle to break military ranks and appear in the civilian market. There’s the venerable Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, for instance, an incredibly capable all-terrain machine used mostly by one-percenters to drive to the club while texting. Then there’s the rugged Lamborghini LM002, which is a far cry from the brand’s new Urus SUV. The latter is an extremely expensive Audi crossover with a horrendous body kit pretending it’s being faithful to brand heritage.
Let’s leave those expensive baubles aside for the moment, and take a good look at some less obvious choices in the collector market. You can still find stout, honest, hard-working vehicles here if you know where to look. They aren’t Jeeps, but they are veterans of a sort. From the Mehari to the Moke, here’s a look at the Foreign Legion.
1968-88 Citroën Mehari
A Mehari is a breed of speedy single-humped camel, and what better way to introduce this delightful little front-wheel-drive French car than by comparing it to a racing dromedary? Designed by a French WWII flying ace, the Mehari is based on a Citroën Dyane 6 and features long-travel suspension, a shortened first and fourth gear, a 602-cc flat-two engine making 32 horsepower, and an ABS plastic body that looks like someone fitted wheels to a kids wading pool.
Like all the best Citroën products, the Mehari is weird, charming, and surprisingly effective. The gear shift sticks out of the dashboard and is operated in a horizontal fashion, like a cross between a bolt-action rifle and an umbrella. The suspension is soft, and the power is modest, but with the lower first gear and a feathery 1179-pound curb weight, the Mehari scoots along willingly.
Then you take it off-road and it’s like a tactical accordion. Capable of clambering over any curb you could point it at, the Mehari bounces over varied terrain with roly-poly tenacity. The original 2CV design brief was to carry a basket of eggs across a plowed field without breaking any of them; the Mehari’s suspension is soft enough to safely haul around a bucket of hand grenades.
Just 1000 Meharis were brought to the U.S. in 1969 and ’70, and only about 800 of those sold initially. Finding parts is a near impossibility, but that rarity adds value. European models are far more common, with some 140,000+ sold over two decades of production. Any Mehari is about the most fun you can have with 32 hp.
1978-88 Volkswagen Type 183 (Iltis)
Sure, you could restore a Volkswagen Thing like your surfer-dude neighbor, but what if you actually want to go off-road? A Type 183’s your best bet then—think of it as a Jeep with a German accent.
Designed by Audi to replace the two-stroke Munga, the so-called Iltis was badged as a VW and fitted with a blend of components. The 1.7-liter low-compression inline-four was a Volkswagen product, too, while the four-wheel-drive system was built around the Audi 100.
The Iltis and its four-wheel-drive system would inadvertently become the unlikely ancestor to cars like the high-performance RS3 and R8. When one accompanied front-wheel-drive Audis during winter testing, the Iltis’ four-wheel-drive made it much quicker in poor conditions than the Audis. (Despite the nasty chill seeping through the soft top, of course.) A chassis engineer named Joerg Bensinger monitored the performance and came up with the idea for the first all-wheel-drive Audi: the Quattro.
Even without that important contribution to automotive history in its dossier, the Iltis is a capable little machine, made nimble by a short wheelbase, and with a narrow enough track to get down tight tracks that would frustrate some gargantuan lifted pickup truck. The ride is somewhat agricultural, but the design is relatively simple. Some parts are shared between the front and rear suspension, making carrying spares less of a logistics problem.
Also built under license by Bombardier for the Canadian army, the Iltis isn’t common, but it’s available. One, painted in UN livery, even made it out to Hagerty’s manual Driving Experience tour in Western Canada, and delighted young students were soon bouncing across the landscape, flags waving and blue lights flashing.
1959-75 Steyr Puch Haflinger
Named for a sturdy Austrian mountain pony, the diminutive Haflinger is small enough to be lifted by four people, yet can carry nearly its own weight in cargo. Built between 1959 and 1975, it was intended as a replacement for the Jeeps left behind by the occupying Allied Forces after WWII.
The Haflinger was designed by Erich Ledwinka, the son of Hans Ledwinka, the noted genius behind highly advanced machinery like the Tatra T87. Lewdinka junior cut his teeth working as a mechanical engineer at Tatra, and in the post-war period joined Steyr-Puch, a company that could trace its history back to rifle manufacturing in the early 19th century. The Haflinger is sometimes referred to as a little Tatra.
Like the Mehari, the Haflinger has a tiny two-cylinder engine, displacing just 643 cc. However, it only weighs 1300 pounds and is capable of hitting 45 mph. It also has the type of features you’d expect to see on a much burlier off-road machine, such as front and rear differential locks, portal axles, and independent suspension at all four corners.
At Northwest Mogfest, an annual gathering for Unimog owners in Sheridan, Oregon, all sorts of European ex-military vehicles splash through mud and traverse obstacles. Despite being dwarfed by hulking Pinzgauer 6x6s and Volvo C303s, the little Haflingers scamper along, undeterred by even the most challenging terrain.
1964-93 Mini Moke
As a military machine, the Moke was something of a failure. Originally intended as a vehicle that could be dropped by parachute, the idea was to take the lightweight mechanicals from a Mini and fit a more rugged body for a fighting application. Unfortunately, the Moke had no more ground clearance than the standard Mini, so prototypes were forever getting stuck. Eventually British Leyland gave up and decided to sell the Moke to civilians.
In its second life, which began in 1964, the Moke was a surprising success. Used as a beach car and fun runabout by the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Hunter S. Thompson, the Moke enjoyed a surge in popularity, and while only about 100 cars were imported to the U.S. in the initial run, the Moke continued to be built in Australia until 1981 and Portugal until 1993.
“Moke” literally means “donkey,” but the original 848-cc cars were relatively peppy. However, because it’s all Mini underneath, owners often add Cooper S bits to their cars, resulting in a vehicle that’s like a moped engine strapped to a skateboard: lots of fun, combined with the near-certainty (and thrill) of serious injury.
This one is a 1967 British-made model, fitted with a bored-out 1275-cc inline-four, Cooper S brakes, and grippy tires. It makes about 90 hp and weighs less than 1000 pounds.
Hunching forward in the posture of an Ed Roth caricature, the driver grips steering wheel and shifter in the manner of a trained chimpanzee and stomps on the throttle. Acceleration is sudden and violent, and you shoot forward with a grin on your face and internal screaming in your brain. It’s absolutely wonderful.
Best of all, despite being unreasonably quick, the Moke is such a ridiculous, friendly-faced thing that everyone loves it. You can basically rip around town all day like a deranged, topless Paddy Hopkirk, and no-one will be annoyed.