Evolution Of The Convertible SUV
The convertible SUV has survived mud runs, rap videos, and everything in between.
Updated November 14, 2018
In 2015, sport utility vehicles officially became the largest automotive segment in the world. Over 35% of all passenger cars produced today are SUVs, and with modern engines getting more efficient every year, the popularity of SUVs is sure to keep rising. With a customer base ranging from soccer moms to overland travelers, it’s no surprise that there’s such a thing as a convertible SUV.
This strange blend of open air and sport utility got its start long before anyone ever thought of words like Evoque and CrossCabriolet. Those were preceded by numerous other convertible SUVs – some iconic, others complete wastes of space – and while today’s buyers usually prefer four doors over two, convertible SUVs have been in production in one form or another for over 75 straight years.
First thing’s first: let’s define a convertible SUV. It has nothing to do with size or power, and four-wheel drive isn’t required. A combination of ground clearance and beefiness allows them to handle off-road travel, and whether the purpose is utilitarian or aesthetic, the roof is removable. Also, we’re only going to talk about production vehicles here – not some guy-with-a-sawzall’s Frankenstein version of a convertible SUV.
To find out how we arrived at the strange convertible SUVs of today, we need to take a trip back to a time when Civil War cannons were being melted down and turned into tanks. I’d tell you to buckle up, but seatbelts weren’t invented yet.
Convertible SUVs Were Born of War
Before it officially joined World War II, the US government contacted 135 automobile and machinery companies and asked them to build a light reconnaissance vehicle for the war. When you consider the automobile had only been around for a few decades, their requirements were a tall order: four-wheel drive, rugged, fixable with basic tools, with 85 lb-ft of torque and a total weight under 2160 pounds. Oh, and no top.
That’s right, the convertible SUV was originally thought up so people could stick guns out of it. Only two companies answered the call. One was Willys-Overland and, well, the rest is history.
Surprisingly, Bantam actually responded first – they’re credited with designing the first convertible SUV with the basic Jeep shape. But amid speculation that they couldn’t match the production scale that was required, and because the more powerful engine of the Willys proved too formidable to beat, it was Willys that received the final contract.
Any features of Bantam’s Blitz Buggy that were an improvement over the Willys were incorporated into the final Willys model, designated the MB.
That’s sort of like saying, “Congratulations Ferrari, your car is better. You may now steal all of Lamborghini’s innovations and use them for yourself.” After that, Bantam was awarded a contract to build the trailers. Gee, thanks.
Bantam no longer exists, but their design has been in civilian production by Willys and Jeep since the CJ-2A of 1945. When the war was over, soldiers and civilians alike wanted a rugged light vehicle to use every day, so marques across the world began to adapt their war machines for public sale.
It’s difficult to determine which of these wartime models was truly the first convertible SUV ever made, because they were all built around the same time and there are plenty of them to choose from. One thing is certain: the Willys Jeep wasn’t the first convertible SUV, or even the first one with four-wheel drive.
Kurogane Type 95
Those men are Russian soldiers, posing with a captured Kurogane after defeating the Japanese Sixth Army at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol sometime in 1939. This strange-looking thing was the world’s first mass-produced four-wheel drive vehicle, and it’s safely one of the earliest convertible SUVs ever made. Powered by an air-cooled V-twin making 33 horsepower, the Kurogane found an advantage in the colder conditions of China and Russia over its water-cooled counterparts.
This Japanese convertible SUV was released well before the Willys MB (1941), the not-racist-but-sure-sounds-bad Daimler Dingo (1940), and the Volkswagen Schwimmagen (1942). Less than ten were thought to remain before some guy randomly found one in a repair shop in Japan in 2013. Talk about a rare find!
Fun fact: what remained of Tokyu Kurogane Industries became part of Nissan in 1962; they went on to develop most of Nissan’s current engines. You’d be surprised how many WWII companies still exist in some form today.
Land Rover Series 1
Bantam and Kurogane may have birthed the idea of a convertible SUV, but those were designed to cope with the chaos of war. The Land Rover, on the other hand, was designed in 1947 after the war had already ended, and its primary target market was British farmers. That earns it my vote for the first convertible SUV ever designed for civilian use.
Because their economy was down after the war, British steel rations were only being awarded to companies that made industrial vehicles or ones with international value. So luxury carmaker Rover concocted this light utility convertible SUV to hold them over until they could start selling fancier things again.
Featuring a durable galvanized chassis and a thick aluminum body, the Series 1 also had a power take-off (PTO) system like the kind found on a tractor, allowing farm implements to be powered by its 50 horsepower engine.
It’s no surprise that most of these early convertible SUVs became the European equivalent of rusty American farm trucks, except today the thought of a Gen 1 Land Rover hauling hay and plowing fields makes car collectors want to scream.
Today Land Rover themselves restores these convertible SUVs to their former glory, and though they aren’t cheap, $100,000 seems pretty fair for a factory-restored classic. If you prefer to find your collector cars the old-fashioned way, the holy grail of Series 1 Land Rovers – the sole prototype with its centered steering wheel – is still undiscovered. Time to start looking in barns.
This was originally designed as a combat vehicle with the internal designation of Type 181, but those plans fell through. In the late 1960s, amid the rising popularity of Beetle-based dune buggies, Volkswagen had an interesting thought: “What the heck, let’s sell it as a convertible SUV.” The 181 was called the Safari, Pescaccia, and Trekker in other markets, but for the United States VW had another novel idea: “Let’s just call it the Thing.”
And it worked.
Although very few parts were shared, design-wise the Thing is pretty much the WWII Kübelwagen, seen here flying through a Russian field.
The Thing has developed a huge cult following for quite possibly being the weirdest convertible SUV (or car in general) ever produced. It was only sold in the US for two years, yet somehow you can’t drive through Oregon or California today without seeing plenty of them. And Drew Barrymore drove one in 50 First Dates, a movie you just realized you forgot everything about except the main idea.
Admittedly, it’s hard to call any of those vehicles a convertible SUV by modern standards. The now-familiar SUV shape came into its own in America in the 1960s.
Convertible SUVs Enter the Modern Era
International Harvester Scout
A rugged American-made off-roader, this beast inspired all convertible SUVs that followed it. First sold in 1961, the Scout proved to be an instant classic. At the time, though, it was plowing headfirst into uncharted territory. As its lead designer, Ted Ornas, explains:
“The market potential for a four-wheel drive recreational vehicle was an unknown quantity in the early 1950s. The only such vehicle offered in the post-war period was the Willys Jeep” which was still spartan and militaristic. As he worked to design a suitable competitor for the more everyday-focused Willys/Jeep CJ-5 (1954), “no contour look ever excited the executive committee [and] the program began to die.”
“One night while I was sitting at our kitchen table full of frustration and desperation, I dashed off this rough sketch on a piece of scrap mat board,” said Ornas. “The next morning it was shown to a committee member [who] reviewed it with controlled enthusiasm […] we were off and running.”
Little did he know, Ted had just started the convertible SUV revolution.
The earliest Scout model, dubbed the 80, could be purchased as either a convertible truck or convertible SUV. They all sold incredibly well, even the strange special editions like the factory RV and the conventional ragtop. Find them today at California beaches, in Missouri mud runs, and starring in every country music video.
The Scout is classically designed and wildly modernizable – as such, prices are on the rise. It’s a proper convertible SUV for the ages, and once it began selling like hotcakes another American company wanted a slice of the pie.
Released in 1966, the shamelessly-copied-from-the-Scout Bronco would span five generations ending in 1996. The roof was removable to the very end, but since on later models it held the center brake light and rear seat belt mounts, it wasn’t legal to do so. Instead of making it impossible, Ford deleted the instructions from the manual and secured the top with security Torx bolts.
“It’s a convertible SUV, but don’t remove the top. Wink wink, nudge nudge.”
Like the Scout, the early Bronco can look decidedly modern after only a few styling changes. Huge wheels and tires, delicious paint, and a protective roll cage transform a vintage convertible SUV into a formidable off-road machine. Considering a stock example would be hard-pressed to reach 70 MPH, dropping in a V8 is a huge change in itself.
Locking hubs and a Dyna transfer case came stock; options included a winch, a snowplow, a PTO system, and a posthole digger. Clearly, the Bronco was never intended to end up onstage at Barret-Jackson, yet early models are astronomically expensive today.
The K5 Chevy Blazer (1969), Dodge Ramcharger (1974), and rebranded Jeep CJ-5 (1964) all followed the Scout’s lead as well, and together these convertible SUVs dominated the American car culture of the 70s and 80s. But this revolution was too big for the US to contain.
Suzuki Jimny / Samurai
After the war, Mitsubishi began producing Willys Jeeps (1953) through a license agreement, and the Toyota Land Cruiser (1955) and Nissan Patrol (1951) helped usher in a similar trend across the Pacific. Fun fact: it’s weird to see a Jeep with a Mitsubishi badge.
In 1970 Suzuki began production of the Jimny convertible SUV (yes, that’s spelled correctly), the first four-wheel drive kei car, with a top speed of 47 MPH. It was so successful that in 1981, Suzuki began selling it in the US as the Samurai. Sometimes branded as a Chevy, the Samurai’s top speed was 68 MPH and non-power-assisted drum brakes were standard. So, not a car designed for any kind of performance driving.
In the above Top Gear USA clip, the boys play on the findings of a 1988 Consumer Reports article which blasted the convertible SUV for being prone to rollovers when driven aggressively. It’s clear to me that if you’re driving a Samurai aggressively you’re in the wrong car, but in 1988 that apparently had to be explained to people. Turns out the laws of physics weren’t invented until the 90s… which explains a lot, actually.
Because it’s light, cheap, and easy to tow, the Samurai has become the darling of RV owners who love driving around with those gaudy front towbars sticking straight up in the air. Jimny Christmas.
Despite increased safety regulations, things were looking great for convertible SUVs all through the 1980s. That is, until the 90s happened.
The Convertible SUV Goes to Shit
In 1995, the X-90 convertible SUV was born from the success of the Samurai and the subsequent Suzuki Sidekick / Chevy Tracker / Geo Tracker. Available in four-wheel or rear-wheel drive, it was basically a re-bodied Sidekick and less than 9000 were made, which is great news, because it looks like a blind person tried to describe an MR2 to a three-year-old over the phone. By 1997 the gig was up, and there was no successor to the X-90.
Top Gear Magazine rated it #4 of the worst cars of the last 20 years. It surpassed Hummer H2s and Dodge Calibers, and was eclipsed only by the G-Whiz, Maybach 57/62, and the PT Cruiser Cabriolet, a convertible SUV we try not to even talk about.
Fun fact: Red Bull put cans on the back of these way before the new Mini was ever a thing.
In 1998, Toyota took one look at the abject failure of the X-90 and said, “We should take a swing at that.”
To be fair, like the Scout before it, the RAV4 was launching into uncharted waters in 1996.
Besides the now-ubiquitous Jeep Wrangler (1986), American convertible SUVs had all grown massive by that time – the RAV4 was comparably small even in four-door guise. Its only real competitor besides the Tracker was the Kia Sportage, which featured a one-star crash safety rating and was recalled twice due to the rear wheels randomly falling off.
In other words, the RAV4 had no competition.
From the complete lack of a trunk to the plastic-clad side strikes, the RAV4 convertible SUV was as 90s as they come.
Sidebar: I love the phrasing on that recall. “Separation of the rear wheel/axleshaft from the vehicle, resulting in an increased potential for a vehicle accident.” Yup, a drive wheel falling off sure increases the potential for an accident. That writer deserves a medal.
Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
In 2011, Nissan took one look at the abject failure of the X-90 and the RAV4 and said, “We should take a swing at that.”
I’m repeating myself to emphasize how I really can’t explain why Nissan thought this was a good idea. That image is deliberately off-center, too – notice how more than half of the car is behind the driver. It is 100% impossible to operate a Murano CrossCabriolet without looking like a complete wad.
Mandatory CrossCabriolet fashion includes a polo and sunglasses, a Florida license plate, and an unflinching 10-and-2 driving stance. Nissan touted this as being the first ever four-wheel drive convertible SUV, and I’m confident that marketing won’t be fooling you after today.
To its credit you can seat four people in this thing without chopping their legs off; something most “four-seat convertibles” can’t even accomplish. But still, a Murano convertible SUV? Why?
The Convertible SUVs That Plague Us Today
Luckily, these days there are only a few mass-produced convertible SUVs. Consider this a respite from the terrible cars of the past 20 years and brace yourself for whatever is coming next. Jeep is still doing their thing, but besides that, we’re down to just a few today.
The honor of “world’s first luxury convertible SUV” rightfully belongs to Mercedes-Benz. Since 1979 they have intermittently sold a convertible SUV in the G-class family, and it’s hard to find a good picture of one. That’s a great sign – with any luck, not many of these exist. It looks like a Jeep Wrangler took a bunch of German steroids.
The Geländewagen started life as a military vehicle at the suggestion of the Shah of Iran, a significant Mercedes shareholder at the time. Today they appear in the fleet of damn near every sizable military on Earth and in every rap video ever made.
Still, the idea of a Mercedes convertible SUV is just silly.
Land Rover Defender
Remember the Series 1? While all those other companies tried to design new convertible SUVs, Land Rover stuck to the same old tried and true design. It became the Series 2, the Series 3, and eventually the Defender, incorporating new technologies while keeping the same basic style. It’s the one that stayed most true to its roots, with iconic styling that inspired so many others on this list.
The most significant convertible SUV in history ceased production in 2016, after 67 consecutive production years. That run ended because the Defender’s aging design failed to meet US and Euro NCAP safety requirements, just shy of the Beetle’s lauded 68 model years.
Fun fact, the Chevrolet Suburban holds that record. It’s been going for 84 years and has no plans to stop.
Like the G-Wagon, the Defender slowly morphed into a luxury status symbol. In January 2018 Land Rover announced the refined Defender Works V8 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the nameplate. Packing a five-liter 400-horsepower V8, this $200,000+ beast is the mac daddy of convertible SUVs.
Perhaps to exert their dominance over the niche, Land Rover now offers a new convertible SUV – and it looks amazing.
Range Rover Evoque
In 2017, Land Rover took one look at the abject failure of the X-90, RAV4, and Murano CrossCabriolet and said, “We should take a swing at that.”
Except this time, it might actually work.
The Evoque Convertible is drop-dead gorgeous, especially in HSE guise. From $57,800 you get a turbo four-cylinder with 237 horsepower, along with off-road capability supposedly equal to that of a regular Evoque, and a silly little trunk at the back. I wouldn’t want to flip one of these, but I can’t wait for the first Grand Tour / Top Gear / YouTube series to put one of these through some proper off-roading.
Range Rover touts it as being the world’s first luxury compact convertible SUV, but after all we’ve been through together I trust you won’t believe them. Oh, and don’t get confused by the lack of scale – it’s as big as a standard Evoque, which makes the people driving it look really small.
Congratulations! You now know the history of convertible SUVs. Some of them were iconic, others seemed pointless, but they all contributed to getting us where we are headed tomorrow. Production of a new Bronco has been confirmed for 2019, and just this month a German firm has been selected to design a successor to the Defender. Official details are scarce for both.
Ford and Land Rover, listen to me. The fate of the convertible SUV is in your hands! You know what to do.
Did I miss one? Let me know in the comments!
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