This week we’ll explore three truly unique cars. Unique in the number of years they’ve been built. Unique in being able to take you practically anywhere cars can be imagined to go. They could also be claimed to be uniquely basic, and actually uniquely bad for many quite normal driving conditions. And for two of them, they’re also uniquely cheap. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would claim they’re unique in having a soul and a cult factor that only very few automobiles ever reach, an that really has nothing to do with the budget.
We’ll start by going to Tuscany where we enjoyed a few days off a couple of weeks ago, notably visiting friends that have a house down there. As so many houses in the Chianti region it’s a bit isolated and lies at the end of an unpaved road, that can at best be described as rather rudimentary. Slightly more than 2 metres wide, with a hill on one side and relatively little on the other, and in addition it had been raining quite a lot the days before we came down. Luckily it wasn’t my “new” 650 we had taken for the trip but rather the family XC90, so I was quite relaxed about the whole thing – until I first realized that the car was almost as wide as the road, and then the wheels started spinning. You see, our modern, fancy SUV’s are technically more than capable of mastering far more than a muddy road, but not with the low profile tires they’re typically equipped with. They’re also quite simply too big for many off-road situations, not to speak of all the nicely painted body parts that could be damaged in the process. Eventually we made it both there and back, and no, I’m not going to claim it was very dramatic, but it gave me reason to think about the 4×4-driving aspect of the thrill of driving, and cars really adapted for a bit rougher conditions.
If you look around in Tuscany the car you see more than any other is the good old first generation Fiat Panda, many in the higher-riding 4×4 version. This is obviously not a coincidence. Next to switchable all-wheel drive, some other features that make up a good terrain cars include a short wheel base, short overhangs and good clearance. That’s the Panda 4×4 for you, adding the further advantage of a low weight of only 850 kg, meaning it doesn’t need a massive engine (and that’s good since the power output is around 50 hp). This makes it a perfect car in a hilly region with many narrow roads such as Chianti. Somehow there’s always enough room for a Panda!
The first generation Panda was built for all of 23 years between 1980 and 2003, with two minor facelifts, although emission regulations prevented it from being sold in Europe after 1996. The four-wheel drive version came in 1983 and was built by Puch in Austria. Its interior (very similar to the standard Panda) redefines the word basic, with hard plastic, exposed metal and chairs that look like they’ve been stolen from a camping site. But who cares? Definitely not the people down in Chianti, and not those of us taken aback by the charm of the capable little fellow, something the modern Panda will never get close to. In addition this is really a car on a budget, as EUR 3.000-4.000 will get you plenty of Panda (and no, you don’t need a mint condition car for the usage you should be planning for it), and insurance, tax and fuel consumption will all be so low you’ll hardly notice them. If you can, try to get one with the large canvas sunroof!
Change of scenery: In the early 90’s I spent a couple of years in Moscow, in the transition between the old Soviet Union and the new Russia (that at the time, many hoped would turn out differently than it did…). If you were a real high-flyer in the Soviet era, one of the cool cars to be had was the Lada Niva. The car never really made it in the West, deservedly so as the general quality was extremely poor, but boy was it a capable off-road car. Again, much the same concept: it’s larger than a Panda but still a small car with a short wheel base, low weight, and even more capable, bigger tires. Built since 1976, the Niva (or 4×4 as it’s called today) is still being manufactured and is practically unchanged since the beginning – that’s enough to give it a huge cult factor, and also makes it the car still in production that has been so the longest, since production of the true record holder, the Land Rover Defender, ceased in 2016.
I had a few interesting rides in different Nivas during my time in the wild East, most often with the omnipresent smell of petrol competing with the vodka smell in the driver’s breath. Comfort-wise it’s a catastrophy with uncomfortable seats, terrible suspension, a useless heating system (big problem in the Russian winter!) and the list goes on. But when you turn off the road towards a muddy hill or a forest track, everything changes. Permanent all-wheel drive and switchable differential lock, along with the short wheelbase and low gears make it practically unstoppable. The model year isn’t important since not much has happened anyway, and 3.000-4.000 EUR is plenty of budget in Niva land.
Speaking of the Defender, you can of course not write about long serving cult 4×4’s with true soul without mentioning it, although budget-wise, it puts us in another league. The Defender has a strange appeal across generations: when my son was about five and I took him to the Zurich auto show, the “Africa car” was the only one he was interested in, and when a few years later I borrowed one over a weekend from a friend, pretty much the last thing I was expecting was my wife to say “this is a pretty cool car”. But the Defender is as unique as it is bad in terms of comfort, seating position, noise level etc.
So much has been said and written of it over the many decades it was built (from 1948 to 2016, and I doubt that’s a record the Niva will break!), that not much is left, and there’s not enough room here to go through all the different models. The Defender is a hugely capable terrain car, especially in the 90″ body given the shorter wheelbase, which also looks cooler. They model year is not very important and a car with little terrain usage is obviously to be preferred. Surprisingly enough there’s quite a lot of these, since be it in London or Zurich or elsewhere, for some strange reason this is a car that competes with 911’s as preferred commuting vehicle…
Around EUR 20.000 is where the Defender fun starts, with modern versions or those equipped with high-duty features or camping tents going up to far, far more, making it one of the cars with the least/best depreciation. It’s also been claimed to be the most environmentally-friendly, as no other car averages as many life years as the Defender!
So there you go: a charming Italian, a crude Russian and a posh Englishman. All of them a heap of driving fun in their right element, be it in Chianti, Russia or the Scottish highland, and useless in pretty much all other conditions. Why would you buy one unless your house is at the end of a muddy road? Maybe your dream house will one day be just that, and knowing it can easily be handled with the right vehicle puts yo in a better position for the price negotiation. Or maybe, just for the feeling of knowing that if you had to cross the jungle, you could!