Whenever auto enthusiasts get together, the talk often gets around to ‘the good old days’. And it would be reasonable to bet that – when discussing early makes and models - somebody will pipe up with, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
A few years ago, when that comment surfaced in a television interview, a champion racing driver gave a classic reply, “Thank God they don’t.”
He’s right. Most of us tend to have rosy memories of years gone by. Today’s tensions and problems seem to have an amazing ability to ‘block’ out similar stresses we had long ago.
Take 4WDs. There are thousands of people who have fond memories of the earliest mass-produced 4WD vehicles. The original wartime ‘jeep’ (plus early civilian versions) and the first Land Rovers are two that have attained legendary status in the minds of enthusiasts – and in those of the marketing gurus at the current-day manufacturers.
However, while the 4WDs of half a century ago did play important military and civilian roles, by comparison to modern vehicles they were crude, impotent and very unsafe.
Take a ride in a fully restored Jeep of that era and you will soon agree.
The wartime jeep achieved ‘hero’ status with many serving men and women. But the catastrophic events of the time probably hid the fact that the jeep would have been responsible for the death, or injury, of hundreds of its drivers and passengers. The occupants were surrounded by numerous steel edges and projections. There were no seat belts. And there was nothing to support the vehicle in the (highly likely) chance of a rollover. A sudden stop, or even a swerve, could be enough to injure or kill the passengers. A roll would guarantee similar results. Those, who were not involved in an accident, often suffered painful spinal problems after the war – the stiff suspension, short wheelbase, and the lack of any proper cushioning on the seats resulting in long-term damage to the vertebrae.
Land Rover produced a jeep-like design after the war. It was a lighter vehicle (thanks to alloy panels) and had slightly better seats. Yet, as was customary for commercial vehicle production of the period, there were no safety features. In an accident, you could only rely on sheet glass and/or unrelenting metal to keep you in the vehicle. The basic Land Rovers changed little over the following decades. Even by the turn of the century, Land Rover’s workhorse Defender models lagged behind modern thinking when it came to safety features – especially, when compared to their own Discovery and Range Rover models.
Of course, there were other makes that had models to match the bare-basics and lack of safety of the first Jeeps and Land Rovers. From India, Mahindra’s version of the CJ3 Jeep would take first prize; followed (in no particular order) by China’s ‘Beijing Jeep’, Australia’s AFI Imp, New Zealand’s Trekka, and (possibly) Russia’s Lada Niva.
The Lada Niva did have some safety features – disc brakes, seat belts, laminated glass etc – but its build quality was abysmal. In a crash, you would be relying on the strength of the seatbelts, rather than the bolts in the floor, to hold the seat assemblies in place!
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