Home > Car Culture >  

The Evolution of the Convertible SUV

The Convertible SUV Has Survived Mud Runs, Rap Videos, and Everything In Between

In 2015, sport utility vehicles, better known as SUVs, officially became the largest automotive segment in the world. And with modern engines getting more efficient every year (and EVs on the rise), the popularity of SUVs is sure to keep growing. With a customer base ranging from soccer moms to overlanders, perhaps it should come as 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 names 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 various configurations for over 75 years.

Convertible SUV Basics

First thing’s first — let’s define a convertible SUV. It has nothing to do with size or power, and 4WD isn’t required, though a combination of ground clearance and beefiness may allow these vehicles to handle off-road travel.

The main requirement, whether the purpose is utilitarian or aesthetic, is that 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 DIY convertible SUV.

But first, let’s take a trip back in time for a bit of history on how we arrived at the strange convertible SUVs of today. I’d tell you to buckle up, but seatbelts weren’t invented yet.

The Original Convertible SUVs: Born of War

Willys MB

Before officially joining World War II, the U.S. government contacted 135 automobile and machinery companies and asked them to build a light reconnaissance vehicle for the war. When you consider that the automobile had only been around for a few decades, their requirements were a tall order: 4WD, rugged, repairable with basic tools, 85 lb.-ft. of torque, and a total weight under 2,160 pounds. Oh, and no top.

That’s right, the convertible SUV was originally invented for military use — namely so soldiers could fire weapons while on the move. Only two companies answered the call: Bantam and Willys-Overland. Surprisingly, Bantam responded first. The company is credited with designing the first convertible SUV with the basic Jeep shape.

But when speculation that Bantam couldn’t match the required scale of production and the more powerful Willy’s engine proved too formidable to beat, Willys received the final contract. Any features of Bantam’s Blitz Buggy that were an improvement over the Willys model were incorporated into the final product, designated the Willys 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.” Bantam was awarded a contract to build trailers for use in the war, a small consolation.

Willys Jeep with a Bantam trailer.

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, lightweight 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, as many were built around the same time around the globe. Though the Willys Jeep became iconic, it wasn’t the first convertible SUV or even the first one with 4WD.

Kurogane Type 95

Russian soldiers pose with a captured Kurogane after defeating the Japanese Sixth Army at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol sometime in 1939.

The strange-looking Kurogane Type 95 was the world’s first mass-produced 4WD vehicle, and one of the earliest convertible SUVs ever made. Powered by an air-cooled V-twin making 33 hp, the Kurogane had 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 Daimler Dingo (1940), and the Volkswagen Schwimmagen (1942). Less than ten were thought to remain before someone 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 many of Nissan’s current engines. You might be surprised by how many WWII car manufacturing companies still exist in some form today.

Land Rover Series 1

Bantam, Willys, and Kurogane may have birthed the idea of a convertible SUV, but those vehicles were specifically designed to cope with the chaos of war. The Land Rover, on the other hand, was designed in 1947 after the war ended, and its primary target market was British farmers, which earns it our vote for the first convertible SUV designed for civilian use.

With the UK’s economy in disarray following WWII, British steel rations were only awarded to companies that made industrial vehicles or vehicles with international value. So luxury carmaker Rover concocted a light utility convertible SUV to tide them over until they could start selling fancier cars 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 this utilitarian SUV to power farm implements from its 50 hp engine.

A long-abandoned Land Rover Series 1.

It’s no surprise that most of these early convertible SUVs have since become the European equivalent of rusty American farm trucks. Except nowadays, the thought of a Gen 1 Land Rover hauling hay and plowing fields makes car collectors want to scream.

Today Land Rover restores these convertible SUVs to their former glory, though these factory-restored classics aren’t cheap. 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.

Volkswagen Thing

The Volkswagen Thing 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.” Although very few parts were shared, design-wise the Thing was pretty much VW’s WWII Kübelwagen. And somehow, this marketing strategy worked.

Volkwagen WWII Kübelwagen

The Thing has since 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 U.S. for two years, yet somehow you can’t drive through Oregon or California today without seeing plenty of them. Drew Barrymore even drove one in “50 First Dates.”

Convertible SUVs Enter the Modern Era

Admittedly, it’s hard to call any of these WWII-era vehicles a convertible SUV by modern standards. The now-familiar SUV shape came into its own in America in the 1960s.

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.”

But the Willys Jeep was still spartan and militaristic. As Ornas worked to design a suitable competitor for the more everyday-focused Willys/Jeep CJ-5 (1954), he struggled to design a vehicle that sparked the interest of the executive committee.

“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, Ornas 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. Today you’ll find Scouts 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.

Ford Bronco

Released in 1966, the shamelessly-copied-from-the-Scout Bronco would span five generations ending in 1996 — before being resurrected in the 21st century (more on that later).

The roof was technically removable in all five of these generations, but on later models, it held the center brake light and rear seat belt mounts, so it wasn’t road legal drop the Bronco’s top. So instead of changing the design to make removing the roof 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. 

Like the Scout, the early Bronco can look decidedly modern with a few styling changes. Huge wheels and tires, a shiny coat of paint, and a protective roll cage can transform a vintage convertible SUV into a formidable off-road machine.

Locking hubs and a Dyna transfer case came stock; options included a winch, snowplow, PTO system, and a posthole digger. Clearly, the Bronco was never intended to end up on stage at Barrett-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 U.S. to contain.

Suzuki Jimny / Samurai

After the war, Mitsubishi began producing Willys Jeeps (1953) through a license agreement. The Toyota Land Cruiser (1955) and Nissan Patrol (1951) helped usher in a similar trend across the Pacific. Though it’s definitely 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 4WD kei car, with a top speed of 47 mph. It was so successful that in 1981, Suzuki began selling it in the U.S. as the Samurai. Sometimes branded as a Chevy, the Samurai’s top speed was 68 mph and non-power-assisted drum brakes were standard. Clearly this was not a car designed for any kind of performance driving.

A 1988 Consumer Reports article 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.

The Convertible SUV Goes to Sh*t

Despite increased safety regulations, things were looking great for convertible SUVs all through the 1980s. That is right until the ’90s came along.

Suzuki X-90

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.

Less than 9,000 were made, which is great news because it looks like a blind person tried to describe an MR2 to a three-year-old designer 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 convertible SUVs way before the new Mini was ever a thing.

Toyota RAV4

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 launched 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 its 4-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.

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet

In 2011, Nissan took one look at the utter failure of both the X-90 and the RAV4 and said, “We should take a swing at that.”

Nissan touted this as being the first-ever 4WD convertible SUV, and I’m confident that marketing won’t be fooling you after today. Mandatory CrossCabriolet fashion includes a polo and sunglasses, a Florida license plate, and an unflinching 10-and-2 driving stance.

To its credit, you can seat four people in this thing without chopping their legs off; something most 4-seat convertibles can’t accomplish. But still, a Murano convertible SUV? Why?

Convertible SUVs: Some Take a Turn for the Better

After the likes of the flops and failures, the convertible SUVs took a slight turn for the better. While perhaps not as brilliant as their early predecessors, these models at least tried to get back to their rugged, versatile roots.

Mercedes G350

The honor of the “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. 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 nearly every sizable military on Earth — and in every rap video ever made.

Land Rover Defender

Remember the Series 1? While all those other companies tried to design new convertible SUVs, Land Rover stuck to their 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.

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 U.S. and Euro NCAP safety requirements.

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 5.0L 400-hp V8, this $200,000+ beast was the mac daddy of convertible SUVs.

Perhaps to exert their dominance over the niche, Land Rover even decided to offer a new convertible SUV.

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.”

The Evoque Convertible came equipped with a turbo 4-cylinder with 237 ponies, along with off-road capability supposedly equal to that of a regular Evoque, and a silly little trunk at the back. Range Rover touted it as being the world’s first luxury compact convertible SUV, but we trust you won’t believe them.

Convertible SUVs: Modern Offerings

Luckily, these days there are only a few mass-produced convertible SUVs. Consider this a respite from the terrible convertible SUVs of the past 20 years and brace yourself for what’s coming next.

Ford Bronco

Back by popular demand, the 6th generation of the Ford Bronco took this convertible SUV’s time-honored legacy and honed it into something worthy of the 21st century.

The updated Bronco, which is offered in both 2-door and 4-door configurations, is a super off-road capable 4×4 SUV. It comes with a removable roof, removable doors, and a rugged interior that can hold up to the elements. Ford also offers a ton of options so you can personalize this convertible SUV to your liking.

And while the new Ford Bronco has some impressive specs and sports a suave re-design with just enough design DNA to make a subtle nod to the elder generations, the real draw, at least for convertible SUV aficionados, just might be the open-air feel when the roof is off.

Jeep Wrangler

It should come as no surprise that Jeep still offers a convertible SUV and one that has become iconic in its own right. If you look closely, you can see that the Jeep Wrangler still has some DNA from the original Willys convertible SUV. Sure, it’s been modernized (and in some cases electrified) but this rugged drop-top still maintains its go-anywhere spirit.

The modern-day Wrangler is perhaps less of a topless SUV and more of a modular one. Depending on your model, you can pop the top and lose the doors, a great option for any technical off-roading.

Jeep offers 11 models of the Wrangler for you to choose from. You can even build out a proper modern-day Willys Jeep  — compete with 32-inch mud terrains and some Willys’ badging to throw it back to this convertible SUV’s old-school role model.

About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them, but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. I founded GearHeads.org and then built and ran AutoWise.com until selling it to Lola Digital Media in 2020. I look forward to watching AutoWise grow as part of the AllGear group.