Considering how ubiquitous the sport-utility vehicle has become on our streets in the last 20 years, it’s easy to forget that the basic idea started out with the military. Trace the lineage of today’s Escapes and Macans back far enough and you’ll get to the original jeeps and small off-roaders that shuttled soldiers around on battlefields and bases during World War 2.
But here’s the thing: Those mil-spec SUV progenitors didn’t arise in a vacuum. Most of them, at least in their initial iterations, were based on civilian vehicles that the military drafted and whipped into fighting shape—and even many of those that weren’t still came from the companies who spend their days designing cars and trucks for the civilian market.
Because whether you call them SUVs, jeeps, light support vehicles, or any other ridiculous name automakers come up with, these capable rigs fill the same needs for military and nonmilitary users alike: transporting humans and cargo across roads and rough terrain. Sure, the civilian versions usually come laden with comfortable seats and insulation while the military ones are outfitted with machine guns and armor, but those are adaptations made to better suit these vehicles to their particular environments. The basic task—moving people from A to B, come hell or high water—is the same for both armed forces and American families alike.
Sometimes civilian models are thrown into boot camp and transformed into war machines; sometimes military vehicles are gussied up and transformed into road-going mom-mobiles. But as you’ll see in this list, civilian and military off-roaders have been bound together in a tangled web for as long as they’ve existed.
One of the first successful four-wheel-drive vehicles, the Jeffery Quad—also known as the Nash Quad—boasted a four-wheel steering system that made it easier for the truck to navigate the deeply rutted roads of its era. The U.S. military put it to work chasing down Pancho Villa in 1916, but it proved even more valuable in Europe once America entered the first World War.
Ford Model T
In addition to playing every role from family car to farm equipment, the venerable Model T was also one of the originators of the role later played by jeeps and Humvees. In spite of Henry Ford’s fierce opposition to the war, the U.S. Army bought up thousands of Tin Lizzies; many were used as staff cars and ambulances, but some armed patrol cars proved their combat mettle during battles in the Middle Eastern theater.
Bantam BRC 40
In 1940, the U.S. Army wasn’t involved in World War 2 yet, but they knew they likely would be soon—and they needed a new light support vehicle ASAP. American Bantam was the only company able to produce a prototype within the Army’s 49-day time span, creating the “Blitz Buggy.” With a few tweaks, it became the production-ready BRC 40, and began rolling off the production line on March 31, 1941.
Bantam was the first out out of the gate with a prototype for the Army, but Ford wasn’t far behind; its prototype, the Pygmy, landed in the Army’s hands two months later. While it never entered production itself, it pioneered several features, such as its folding windshield, that would make their way into the production model and its successors.
Willys MB, a.k.a. Ford GPW
By mid-1941, American Bantam, Ford, and Willys-Overland were each cranking out similar mobility machines for the armed forces, but the Army decided it was logical to consolidate down to a single model. The Willys MA was tapped as the best choice, but a few improvements were incorporated from Ford’s GP—and both manufacturers were tasked with cranking them out as fast as possible. By war’s end, more than 640,000 examples had been cranked out—and the original “jeep,” as soldiers nicknamed it, was on its way to becoming legend.
Nazi Germany’s answer to the jeep, the Kübelwagen was designed by Ferdinand Porsche as a lightweight, compact runabout for the Third Reich’s armed forces. Unlike many similar military vehicles, it lacked four-wheel drive; that said, it proved surprisingly capable at crawling through soft surfaces, thanks to its ZF-sourced locking diff, low weight (it weighed about 1,200 pounds), and a smooth underbelly that enabled the Kübelwagen to slide along in mud and snow.
Developed as a way for Soviet troops to zip around during WW2, the GAZ-67 was a bare-bones knock-off of the jeep, cranked out by the Gorky Automobile Plant—a joint venture between the U.S.S.R. and Ford. With an inline-four generating 50 to 54 horsepower, the GAZ-67 couldn’t hit 60 mph on its best day—but it was practical enough for the Soviets to churn out more than 90,000 examples during its decade in production.
Dodge WC Series
If the Willys MB was the most famous automotive face to emerge from WW2, the Dodge WC was the war’s unsung hero. Heroes, really; Dodge turned out 38 different versions of it for the Army’s use, ranging from command cars to ambulances to dump trucks.
The M38 came about through a circuitous path: After the war, Willys-Overland quickly developed a civilian version of the MB, which they dubbed the CJ-2A. A few years later, they updated it into the CJ-3A...at which point the Army asked for a military version, and the M38 was born. The Army’s new jeep was beefed-up for military use, but one glance was all it took to realize how much it shared with its brother wearing civvies.
Land Rover Series I
Boxy, brutish and bold, the first Land Rover was designed as an agricultural vehicle in 1947–48, but its simplicity and ruggedness meant the British Army was immediately interested. Initial versions were almost identical to the ones for the civilian market, down to the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine—except instead of working the farm fields of Scotland, they were serving in conflicts from the Suez to Korea.
Larger and more heavily armored than jeeps, Land Rovers, and other such vehicles of its day, the Soviet BTR-152, in many ways, presaged the Humvee that would come decades later. Initially designed as an armored personnel carrier, it was soon replaced in that role by the bigger, bulkier BTC-60—but it continued to serve in command car and ambulance roles into the post-Soviet era.
Ford’s M151 may look similar to the jeeps that preceded it, but beneath the surface, it was an entirely new truck. Unlike past models, it was built on a unibody frame, giving it additional ground clearance while cutting weight; it ditched the old solid axles for independent suspension, making it more compliant on the road. It suffered from a few hiccups—early models were prone to rollover—but it proved popular enough to serve the U.S. armed forces from 1959 all the way through the war in Kosovo.
With its development dating back to 1972, this status symbol of Real Housewives everywhere is probably older than many of its drivers—and it’s had just as many facelifts. Long before AMG began stuffing V12s into it, though, the Geländewagen had a career as a military transport. Still does, in fact; it serves with armed forces around the globe, including a gig as a fast-attack vehicle for U.S. Marines Force Recon units in Afghanistan.
Better known as the Humvee among soldiers and as the Hummer amongst the Hollywood set, the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle was designed in the early 1980s to replace the U.S. Army’s whole range of light trucks. These days, more than 160,000 of these AM General-built machines are still in service with U.S. armed forces. Variants ranging from wagon-like ambulances to heavily armored versions suitable for front-line combat.
Land Rover Wolf
If the Wolf looks familiar, well, congrats, you don’t need to see your eye doctor this year. A modified version of the recently departed Defender 90 created in the mid-90s for the British Army, the Wolf is far different than that familiar front fascia would have you believe. The chassis and rear axle were strengthened considerably; the roof was switched from aluminum to fiberglass; and the spare tire was moved from the rear to the side, because, oddly enough, it kept breaking off when mounted anywhere else.
Originally designed to replace the Army’s entire fleet of HMMWVs, the L-ATV (which, awkwardly, stands for Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle) has since been scaled back to an estimated 55,000 units—still a hefty order, considering they run around $500,000 a pop. Designed to combine the agility of a Humvee with the durability of the bulky MRAP armored trucks the Oshkosh L-ATV was adopted by the Army in response to IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. It should be able to outrun and outgun pretty much any similar vehicle. And in a sign of the times, it’s available as a hybrid.