When it comes to choosing an adventure vehicle, there are a lot of variables to consider. Thankfully, we are living in an age with the most diverse and capable cars and trucks ever to crawl the planet. From Earthroamers to Outbacks, there's something for everyone. Over the next few weeks the Overlander Notebook will be exploring which type of overland rig might be best for you. This time around: traditional overland vehicles.
Did you know that an ambitious British overlander named Ben Coombs drove a Porsche 944 the entire length of Africa? On the face of it, that seems like a wild vehicle choice for a long overland expedition. But as long as it's got wheels, it will get you somewhere.
How you want to get there is another matter. A German sports car from the 1980s is probably not the best fit for most of us, but humanity's determined adventure seekers have made do with far less. From camels to Caravels, and Land Rovers to bicycles, we have found a way to find the out the way places. We are fundamentally a mobile species, after all.
Whether you're looking to get started in overlanding, or you're a seasoned traveler, your vehicle will be the foundation for all your adventures. And, besides the costs of travel itself, it will be your biggest investment. Thinking carefully about which vehicle you choose is important because it lays the ground work for the entire experience.
Traditional Overland Vehicles
To get this discussion started about vehicle choice, let's take a brief look at what we might call "traditional" overland rigs. What do we mean by "traditional"?
Modern overlanding as we know it today kicked off after the Second World War when four wheel drives started to find their way into the hands of the regular civilian. The Land Rover and the Jeep had their roots in military applications, so they were a bit rough around the edges in terms of refinement and comfort. But their capabilities in rough terrain, and simplicity of design for easy repair and maintenance in remote places made them perfect for long distance self-supported overland travel. A famous example of early overland travel in a traditional vehicle is the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. In 1955 a small group of university students drove two Land Rovers alone from London to Singapore. This pioneering trip is considered by many to be the very first overland adventure, and it showcases what these primitive four wheel drives were capable of.
Some early overlanders also looked to large commercial trucks as well as motorcycles to scratch that traveling itch. There are many contemporary adventure travelers who continue to carry those multi-wheel and two-wheel torches today. European overlanders in particular have a love for big, luxurious overland platforms, like MAN, Iveco, and Fuso trucks. And motorbikes are the most widely available form of self-propelled transport in the world. The accessibility and freedom they offer is unparalleled. Ted Simon was one of the first people to ride a motorcycle around the world in the early 1970s. His book, Jupiter's Travels is a classic in overland travel literature and deeply inspiring.
The video below is a long one, but it's one of my very favorite documentaries of early overland travel in a large truck. It offers some of the flavor of what overland adventures were like sixty years ago when the world began to open up for the kinds of travel we love.
Today's Traditional Overland Vehicles
What kinds of vehicles are the successors to these ur-overlanders? As time and technology marched on, the basic underpinning of the best overland rigs remained consistent, but manufacturers added increased refinement, reliability, and capability. The formula stayed the same: four wheel drive with selectable low range and rugged axles. Suspension that offered good ground clearance, a fair degree of articulation, and useful breakover, departure, and approach angles. Engines that favored reliability and fuel economy over brute force. A utilitarian cabin that offered plenty of storage and shelter from the storm. Engineering that was simple and robust - eschewing complexity and emphasizing serviceability by the vehicle's owner.
Is the Land Cruiser the GOAT overlander?
For those of us in North America, Land Rover and Jeep carried on these principles over the decades in most of their products. From the venerable Land Rover Series III trucks and Defenders to the early Discovery, as well as the Jeep CJ, Wrangler, and the first generation Jeep Cherokees, all these vehicles continue to be immensely popular overland platforms.
Of course, no discussion of traditional overland vehicles is complete without acknowledging what may be (and I say this as a dyed-in-the-wool Land Rover stan) the GOAT overlander: the Toyota Land Cruiser. First turning a wheel in the 1950s, the various iterations of the Land Cruiser - from the venerable FJ40 to the current 300 Series - have been and will be far into the future the world's most popular, reliable, and capable overland vehicle. Its smaller and no less robust cousins, the Prado (in markets outside of North America), the 4Runner, and the FJ Cruiser are also among the most common overland vehicles you'll see on and off the road today. Lexus has its own luxury versions of the Land Cruiser in the guise of the GX and the LX.
Traditional Overland Vehicles For The Future
Where is the traditional overland vehicle headed? In a lot of ways the technology that makes these rigs what they are at their core is very old. It's overtly and proudly mechanical in an increasingly computerized and electronic world. And, many of the nameplates that we recognize historically as "traditional" - think Defender, Cherokee, and, yes, even Land Cruiser - have moved well into the 21st century. Emissions and safety requirements, as well as consumer demand for more convenience, comfort, and advanced tech have all conspired to push the old engineering aside.
That said, a brand new 2022 Toyota 4Runner will blow its third-generation progenitor out of the water by every possible measure. But it still retains the traditional overlander formula: four wheel drive with low range, a functional shape, rugged suspension. And, the modern versions of the traditional overlander have spun off a whole new category of adventure vehicle that's poised to become the most popular - the softroader. We'll look at that platform in depth next time on the Overlander Notebook.
You can conveniently shop for gear and accessories for your traditional overland platform right here on Overlander.
What's your traditional overlander of choice? Let us know down in the comments!