BEFORE WORLD WAR II
Off-roading became a serious hobby in the 1960s, but the roots of its history begin in the early 20th century. The first four wheel drive vehicles were created by the Four Wheel Drive Company (FWD) of Wisconsin. These were used in World War I. And then in 1931, the Marmon-Herrington Company got its start by converting Ford trucks to four wheel drive for the U.S. military. It recognized the potential value of a light weight, low profile four-wheel drive vehicle for reconnaissance and light duty. A bidding process among potential manufacturers ultimately yielded the Jeep.
1940S - WORLD WAR II AND THE JEEP
There is much history on the Internet about the Jeep, so it won't be repeated here. However, there were about 643,000 Jeeps produced for World War II by Willys and Ford. Although both manufacturers made interchangeable parts, Willys ultimately got the trademark in June, 1950. These vehicles are the ancestors of the small 4X4 vehicle world. After the war, thousands were sold to the public as surplus equipment. Ex-service men loved the little go-anywhere vehicles. Immediately, markets sprang up for the use of these off-road vehicles for hunting, back country exploring, camping and other recreational activities.
1950S - MORE MANUFACTURERS CREATE OFF-ROAD VEHICLES
After the war, firms began producing civilian derivatives. Jeep had a runaway success with the CJ model and the wagon. British Land Rover built the first vehicles in 1947, followed by the Toyota Land Cruiser (1955) and the International Travelall (1953).
Besides the early interest in back country exploring and camping with four wheel drive vehicles, hot rod innovators on the West Coast were building early dune buggies or "sand bugs" for the deserts or beaches. Rod & Custom featured one of the first articles on this craze in the October, 1954 issue. Cars were built using Model T and Model A components with short, 75 inch wheelbases and V8 power. These were run near the Salton Sea in California and in areas around Yuma, Arizona. And on the California beaches, guys were also building and running homemade sand bugs. It was common to weld two wheels together to get more of a tire footprint on the sand. Many were experimenting with Volkswagon Beetles with the body removed, as the trailing arm suspension worked very well in the sand.
1960S - OFF-ROADING EXPLODES
As the war-time jeeps began to wear out, more firms produced civilian derivatives. Jeep and British Land Rover were well established, but now new manufacturers entered this space and produced more comfortable and dependable vehicles, including the International Scout 80 (1960), Jeep Wagoneer (1963) and Ford Bronco (1966).
The first off-road oriented magazine was Four Wheeler. It started in early 1962 and covered four wheel drive road tests, engine upgrades, and information on back country adventures. Even with a few stops and starts in the early years, the magazine continues to be published as of January, 2019.
The next big trend was the dune buggy craze. In the early 1960s, Bruce Meyer observed guys running VWs with the body removed. He created a unique body to bolt to a shortened VW chassis in late 1963 and early 1964. As he demonstrated his creation, motorcycle racers mentioned the 832 mile road race from Tijuana to La Paz Mexico. The best time for motorcycle riders was 40 hours. When the racers laid down a challenge, Bruce accepted it and beat the motorcycle guys by five hours. When this news hit the media, Bruce was inundated with orders for his body. And people wanted to participate in this race which led to the formation of the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) and the Baja 1000.
Immediately, magazine publishers jumped on the new trend and began publishing dedicated dune buggy magazines such as Dune Buggies and Hot VWs (1967), Sport Buggies (1968), and Road Test Dune Buggy (1969). Sport Buggies was folded into Four Wheeler in 1970, and Road Test Dune Buggy only lasted three years. But both Dune Buggies and Hot VWs and Four Wheeler continue to exist after fifty years!
It was estimated in 1970 that there were 30,000 members in 1,000 off-road oriented clubs, and another 30,000 off-roaders that were not club affiliated.
The images of off-road and dune buggy magazine covers are accessed by the links to the left. Simply click on each magazine title to see the covers.