What’s so strange about SUVs, you might wonder? They represent the most mainstream vehicle genre right now, but SUVs have decades of history and were decidedly outside of the mainstream for much of that time. Even within the now common vehicle format, there were plenty of strange offshoots. Think you’ve seen them all? Not a chance, so we dredged up some of our absolute favorite oddball sport-utility vehicles, many older and less-remembered today but still awfully niche when they were new.
There is a bit of something for everyone, from aftermarket conversions that had important implications for future vehicles like the Toyota 4Runner to evolutionary dead ends, branches of the SUV family tree that died out. For some, that’s a shame, for others probably a good thing. But most of these weirdo SUVs just had the bad luck to launch during a recession or without proper marketing, falling flat in a competitive marketplace and thus slipping into obscurity.
Some should be remembered. Perhaps some should be forgotten. You decide.
While never available in North America, the Matra-Simca Rancho is too bizarre (and too awesome) not to share. Despite its rough-and-tumble looks, the Rancho was what we’d now consider to be a lifestyle vehicle, front-wheel drive only and with limited ground clearance, based on an equally obscure (to Americans) car platform from Simca. It was developed by Chrysler‘s European operations, an alphabet soup of strange companies all short on cash. A 4×4 model was considered, but there wasn’t enough budget to develop it. If they had, it might have helped save the entire enterprise. Remember, Subaru was busy producing and building a reputation around its early car-based 4x4s. Pairing the Rancho’s proto-Outback looks with AWD could have been the magic bullet. The Rancho was produced from 1977 to 1984—from 1980 to 1984 it was known as the Talbot-Matra Rancho—and examples are rare now thanks to rust and abuse.
Toyota Trekker by Winnebago
The Toyota 4Runner wouldn’t exist if this particular aftermarket conversion of the company’s pickup truck hadn’t happened. Seriously. While SUVs with removable tops had existed for a long, long time before the Trekker was born (think International Harvester Scout 80, Chevrolet K5 Blazer, and the early Ford Broncos, among others), Toyota was being cautious and allowed the aftermarket to dip a toe in first. Winnebago built the Trekker, a well-finished capped truck that was well-received by the public and press. The positive reaction gave Toyota the green light to develop the in-house 4Runner, based on the next-generation pickup and wearing a more elaborate fiberglass shell. The rest is history: The 4Runner lost its fiberglass top in the next generation, but continues to this day to be a popular offroad-capable (fixed-roof) SUV.
After decades out of production, the International Harvester Scout is already rather obscure. The 1977 to 1982 Monteverdi Safari is even more so. It was a coachbuilt Swiss SUV based on the Scout from a company that mainly built grand tourers, sporty-looking luxury cars built for high-speed travel. In fact, the most well-known Monteverdi model was called the High Speed 375. But unlike today, luxurious SUVs were rare in Europe. The company took the chassis and most of the running gear from the Scout and hid it under angular, somewhat handsome bodywork by the Italian firm Fissore. A 440 Chrysler V-8 was an option. Rare, expensive, and terribly thirsty for fuel, it did not give the Range Rover a run for its money. Now possible to import from Europe, they occasionally turn up for sale, along with the similar Sahara (which didn’t have a custom body).
The Lada Niva is an off-road icon from a place you might initially think unlikely: Russia. But that country’s vast expanses, primitive roads, and attraction to simple and robust vehicles was actually the perfect place to develop something like the Niva. There’s no direct analog in America, so think of it a bit like a 1970s-era Subaru Crosstrek, except with a real four-wheel-drive system. The rear sits on a live axle, and it sports a transfer case with low and high range, just like in a Jeep Wrangler. Designed to be more civilized than the tractor-like competition of its time, the Niva was affordable enough for regular people in rural areas, and the formula proved so successful that the trucklet was even sold in Canada from the 1980s until 1998. That means bringing one into the U.S. doesn’t even involve a cross-oceanic journey, if you’re lucky. A poor dealer network and an (undeserved) reputation as a disposable car mean few Nivas originally sold in Canada survive. The Niva is still in production in Russia, one of the longest-running models in history.
OK, so this wasn’t ever sold directly to the public, but surplus Volkswagen Iltises (Ilti?) are available in Canada, and this strange all-wheel drive military vehicle is incredibly important in the history of a famous rally car and a whole range of road cars. First, Canada: Bombardier bought the license to build the Iltis from Volkswagen, and produced a few thousand for local and foreign military use. After its replacement was announced, many were surplused, and so they occasionally pop up on classifieds sites. As for its historical importance, the all-wheel-drive system the Iltis used led directly to the famous Quattro system and namesake race car, and therefore the entire Audi family of AWD vehicles owes its existence to this vehicle. Small diesel of gas engines were offered, but forget about hard doors or a top. This capable but homely little SUV can go places the famous VW Thing can only dream about.
Saleen XP8 Ford Explorer
You probably know about the GMC Syclone and Typhoon twins, General Motors’ absolutely bonkers factory performance variants of the S-15 and S-15 Jimmy. While Ford had the excellent full-size SVT Lightning pickup, the smaller Ranger and ultra-common Explorer SUV never got an SVT treatment from the factory. Steve Saleen stepped in and built the Explorer XP8, wearing revised bodywork that looked a lot like his contemporary modified Mustangs. The XP8 was supercharged, lowered, and generally beefed up for performance duty. We tested one back in the day, and it improved upon the normal Explorer significantly—although the bar was pretty low. It did 0.76 G on our skidpad, and the blown 5.0 gained about 80 horsepower overall. It wasn’t a factory build, but it was among the most obscure Explorers ever.
Owned by Toyota, Daihatsu is mainly a small-car specialist. The Rocky was a capable small SUV, similar to but more robust than the popular Suzuki Samurai, built to a level of quality comparable to mainline Toyotas. It also had a name that was easily confused with Hyundai, at the time struggling with a reputation for poor quality, and a recession that deeply cut into sales. The Rocky, and Daihatsu itself, disappeared from our shores in 1992. It’s a shame, because the Rocky was a legit off-roader and had lift-off panels over the front and rear passenger compartments. A manual was the only transmission, and 4WD was standard. Daihatsu sold about 50,000 cars in total, and the Rocky and its Charade subcompact stablemate sometimes pop up for sale.
Isuzu Trooper RS
The obscure Isuzu SUV you probably know about is the VehiCROSS, which was absolutely bonkers when new—an alternate-universe four-wheeler with alien DNA. The Trooper RS is probably rarer and definitely less well-known—a three-door version of the somewhat popular second-generation Trooper you’ve definitely seen before. The RS had a short wheelbase (91.7 inches versus the four-door’s 108.7 inches) and a body style that was rapidly falling out of favor with buyers. (Remember the Mazda Navajo? Or the Ford Explorer Sport? Exactly.) Sold for just a couple model years, it’s both rare and not very special, making it the ultimate obscure SUV for anyone other than the most diehard Isuzu fanatic. Even rarer is its previous-gen RS cousin, imported only in 1989 in even more limited numbers.