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1977-2007 Anniversary Best 4x4s Of All Time

Posted in Project Vehicles on February 1, 2008 Comment (0)
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Photographers: The 4-Wheel & Off-Road Archives

It's a topic of hot debate anytime a group with a shared interest gets together: What's the best (fill in the blank) ever? It doesn't matter if you're talking quarterbacks, film noir movies, Kentucky Derby winners, or World War II fighter planes. If you put a bunch of buffs together, they'll eventually discuss-or, more likely, argue over-their favorites.

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Off-roaders are no different, including those of us who are also magazine editors. While researching other 30th anniversary articles, I ran across story after story about what were purportedly the "best ever" 4x4s. In the process I wondered if there was any common ground in the opinions of three decades' worth of staffers. Was it possible that there was one "all-time best" 4x4 that every generation of 4-Wheel & Off-Road editors could agree on?

To find out, I compiled every "best ever," OE-vehicle-related story I could find and tallied the results. The articles stretched as far back as October 1984 and were as recent as September 2006.

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In the first "best" story in 1984, then-Editor Michael Coates summed up the staff's (and some special guest voter's) opinions. Some stories had each staffer choose a vehicle and explain why it was best. In July 1997, then-Editor David Freiburger and then-Feature Editor Rick Pw chose 10 best 4x4s in several categories, including mud runners, rockcrawlers, tough-truck racers, and "just plain coolest." (For scoring purposes, each vehicle in that story received one vote even if it was mentioned in more than one category. One of their categories, tow vehicles, was left out of the final tally because of its pavement orientation.)

The staff took the grand-theft-auto approach in June 2001 by naming the "10 4x4s We'd Steal to 'Wheel." And in 2006, we ran four stories in successive months to give each editor (and Art Director Alan Huber) an entire article to voice his opinion.

And now, the winners, in ascending order.

Not all the Jeeps on this list are Pw's choices, but a lot of them are. Just three of the top 4x4s chosen by Coates in '84 made the bottom of the list. The rest scored higher. Does that mean Coates and company were extra sharp, or that most of the best 4x4s had already been built by 1984?

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* '60-'63 AM General M-422 Mighty Mite (July '97)
* AM General Hummer H1 Alpha (June '06)
* '62-'66 Chevrolet Carryall (July '97)
* '73-'87 Chevrolet K10/20 (July '97)
* '83-'84 Chevrolet S-Blazer/GMC Jimmy (Oct. '84)
* '91 Chevrolet Crew Cab Camper Special (Sept. '06)
* Dodge M37 (Aug. '06)
* '72-'93 Dodge truck (July '97)
* '80-'84 Ford F-150/Bronco (Oct. '84)
* '99-and-up Ford Super Duty (June '01)
* '03 Ford Ranger FX4 (June '06)
* Hummer H3 (June '06)
* '53-'68 International fullsize (July '97)
* '98 Isuzu Trooper (June '06)
* '55-'81 Jeep CJ-5 (July '97)
* '57-'65 Jeep FC-150 (July '97)
* '82-'85 Jeep CJ-10 (July '97)
* '84 Jeep Cherokee (Oct. '84)
* '87-'95 Jeep Wrangler (July '97)
* '67-'71 Kaiser Jeepster Commando (July '97)
* '93 Land Rover Defender 110 (Dec. '92)
* '95-and-up Nissan Frontier Nismo (June '06)
* '86-'93 Toyota pickup (July '97)
* '97 Toyota FJ-80 Land Cruiser (June '06)

There are just two imports on this list. Most everything else is old-school and fullsize. Is a pattern emerging?

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* '69-'72 Chevrolet Blazer/GMC Jimmy (Oct. '84, Dec. '92)
* '73-'91 Chevrolet Blazer (July '97, June '01)
* '77-'87 Chevrolet K30 (July '97, June '01)
* '74-'91 Dodge Ramcharger (Oct. '84, July '97)
* '73-'77 Ford F-250/Highboy (Oct. '84, July '97)
* '78-'79 Ford Bronco (July '97, June '01)
* '78-'79 Ford F-350 (July '97, Sept. '06)
* Jeep Wagoneer (Aug. '06, Sept. '06)
* '76-'86 Jeep CJ-7 (Oct. '84, July '97)
* '94, '97 Land Rover Defender 90 (June '01, June '06)
* '79-'85 Toyota pickup (Oct. '84, July '97)

The old-school preferences get stronger. I'm guessing this section will inspire the most hate mail, as there are some very strong contenders who didn't make it into the top three.

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* '46-'68 Dodge Power Wagon (July '97, Aug. '06, Sept. '06)
* '04-and-up Dodge Power Wagon (June '06, Aug. '06, Sept. '06)
* '70-'80 International Scout II (July '97, June '06, Sept. '06)
* '67-'69 Kaiser/Jeep M-715 (July '97, June '01, Aug. '06)
* '85-'95 Suzuki Samurai (July '97, June '06, Sept. '06)
* '63-'83 Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruiser (July '97, June '01, Sept. '06)

Each of the four staffs that voted for the early Bronco (Oct. '84, Dec. '92, July '97, June '01) mentioned different model years; but as a whole, the votes pretty much included the first Bronc's entire '66-'77 production run. "The '74 Ford Bronco was the best production 4x4 ever made, and if you think otherwise, you and that other horse you rode in on can get out of town!" wrote Stuart Bourdon in Dec. '92.

Said David Kennedy in June '01, "We'd take any of the '66-'77 Broncos, but we'd want the Dana 44 up front with disc brakes and the crossover steering that the later-model trucks came with. We can leave the hardtop at home and hit the trails just like our Jeep buddies-except we don't have to swap out the entire drivetrain to play in the rough stuff." While digging through the photo archives we found this publicity shot of a '77 Bronco modified to chase a transcontinental hot air balloon trip. Bill Stroppe, father of the Baja Bronco and Parnelli Jones' codriver in many Baja races, helped prep the truck.

The TJ version of the Jeep Wrangler landed on every "best" article since its introduction (July '97, June '01, June '06, Aug. '06, Sept. '06). The '97 and '01 stories mentioned TJ in general, while later stories singled out the Rubicon as the pinnacle of the line. Pw probably summed it up best in September 2006: "Out-of-the-box best 4x4 yet produced by any company,period."

"There is no way anyone can deny that [the Wrangler Rubicon] is a crowning achievement in automotive 4x4 vehicles. It sports real tires, selectable lockers, a 4:1 transfer case, a torquey inline 6, a real six-speed tranny, and an auto available for you wimps, and still a convertible-the true 4x4," wrote Pw. Said then-staffer Christian Hazel in June '01, "It sucks that weenies can go buy these, throw on a lift and tires, and totally spank most trail rigs, but that's the case." Digging through Jeep's photo archives we came across this special "x-ray" view of the '97 Wrangler.

Some called out specific versions-MB, '45-'49 CJ-2A, GPW-while other votes were more generic-pre-'53 Willys, or "any real flatfender"-but the vote was clear: The rugged little WWII-era Willys Jeep and its postwar brothers were the all-time favorites of staffers from every decade (Oct. '84, Dec. '92, July '97, June '01, Aug. '06, Sept. '06).

"This is really it," said Coates in '84. "Without the CJ-2A, who knows how long it would have taken some entrepreneur to develop a 4x4." Current Art Director Huber, in his "Best 4x4s Ever (for Old Guys)" story in Aug. '06, said, "Even though an MB or GPW (or any flatfender) is too small for my family, the original little off-roaders, which proved so much during WWII (especially to our enemies), are just too cool to pass up." Pw, our Jeepmeister, said in Sept. '06: "A Flatfender is to wheeling what dirt is to a potato. You really can't have one without the other."

WINNING VOTES
BY BRAND
Willys/Jeep 11
Chevy/{{{GMC}}} 7
{{{Ford}}} 7
Dodge 5
Toyota 4
{{{AM General}}}/{{{Hummer}}} 3
International 2
{{{Land Rover}}} 2
{{{Isuzu}}} 1
{{{Nissan}}} 1

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