Ten years ago, a rusty old SUV would have been called many things at a car show, but “awesome” would rarely have been among them. Popular car culture agreed, as it had for decades, that a finished project should be some immaculate trailer queen with paint that shined like Mr. Clean’s head. And forget modifications – buying an extensively customized vehicle was a sure-fire way to pay less, not more, than you would for a minty-fresh original example.
Oh, how the times have changed.
In recent years, certain classic SUVs are seeing an increase in their value independent of their level of originality. As car culture continues to grow and change, examples that were undesirable just a few years ago are enjoying their time in the spotlight. Less-than-perfect originals, modified daily drivers, and highly customized restorations are quickly becoming investment-grade opportunities, a title formerly reserved for mint-condition originals and part-for-part restorations.
These four trucks have several similarities. You can work on them yourself with a hobbyist’s set of tools. There’s a robust global aftermarket offering any part you could ever desire. And each one carries enough modern amenities that you won’t feel like you’re driving around in black and white. Yet the reasons why these specific classic SUVs are so highly revered are often just as unique as the subcultures that embrace them.
We’re not talking about Jeeps and G-Wagons here. This is about the up-and-comers – vintage SUVs you can buy today for a price that will be considered a steal tomorrow. Some are based on barebones farm implements; others were super-luxe city cruisers from day one. Some are worth more in original condition while others are better off sporting an entire catalog worth of aftermarket parts. Some can only be acquired at the ends of the earth, but every last one is well worth experiencing.
Let’s delve into four vintage off-roaders that are increasing in value, the reasons they started appreciating, why they will continue to do so, and specific variants of each model you should look for if you want to make a solid investment.
While Broncos and Scouts tend to look their age, the SJ generation of Jeep Wagoneer might be the oldest-looking modern SUV of all time. One look at those rectangular headlights and vinyl wood panels sends most people’s minds way back to the 70s, but the folks at Jeep stuck with those swanky vibes right up to the early 1990s when the idea of a luxury SUV was hitting its stride.
The first SJ's were basically gussied-up Jeep Gladiator pickup trucks underneath, but the later models – the 1984 and up Grand Wagoneer's, specifically – were softer, suppler, and more refined. As one of the first luxury off-road SUVs ever mass-produced, the Grand Wagoneer was far from cheap, often costing more than a Lincoln or Cadillac sedan from the factory.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the cabin, where the Grand Wagoneer boasts Cordovan leather, plush pile carpeting, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel protruding from a wood-trimmed dashboard. This isn’t your usual parts bin special from Chrysler or AMC – many of the Grand Wagoneer’s parts are unique to this car. The uniqueness continues under the skin, with a robust four-wheel drive chassis so capable that 21st century off-roading has yet to outpace it.
But with the Grand Wagoneer, the difference between a quirky grocery getter and a highly capable off-roader comes down to a handful of options.
During the SJ’s 28-year production run, a variety of torquey power plants were backed by 3- and 4-speed transmissions in both manual and automatic varieties. Manual transmissions are worth more as is often the case, but with the SJ Wagoneer, automatics don’t lag too far behind. One thing’s for sure: a 4,500-lb Wagoneer with a wheezing 140-horsepower inline six is not an ideal motoring experience. Find one with a big V8 and, most importantly, the optional four-wheel drive system.
In terms of aesthetics, you have a variety of vibrant vintage colorations to choose from both inside and out. Some might prefer the Wagoneer Custom which lacked the wood-grain vinyl exterior trimmings – these models have their own worth from rarity, but why rob the Grand Wagoneer of its most iconic feature?
As far as originality goes, a tidy Wagoneer packs enough poise to draw crowds at any Cars & Coffee. Patina usually goes straight to the wood grain, making it look ratty and unkempt – and replacement kits aren’t cheap. Modifications are acceptable in moderation: functional upgrades like aggressive tires and a lift kit are fine, but boisterous mods like bull bars and over-fenders aren’t the Wagoneer’s cup of tea.
The best years of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer SJ are 1989-1991. With improved exterior wood vinyl backed by an electro coat primer and two-stage clear coat paint, these later models are better equipped to stand the test of time. They boast modern amenities like keyless entry, air conditioning, and a heaving 5.9-liter V8 engine. And best of all, many are still in the hands of their original owners.
View our current selection: Jeep Grand Wagoneer inventory at Exotic Car Trader
The phrase “long wheelbase” has become synonymous with high-end luxury cars and SUVs today, but 30 years ago that moniker was something of a rarity.
Enter the Land Rover Range Rover Classic County Long Wheelbase, shoe-in contestant for the Longest Model Name of Any Car Ever Made and aspirant entry into the Off-Roading Hall of Fame. Sure, it’s unique for its ultra-lux interior, a tall British birdcage, and those seductively boxy body lines. But the County LWB has one important quality that most classic SUVs fall short on: it’s a fantastic off roader.
In contrast to many brands which shall remain unnamed, Land Rovers have always been formidable off-roaders right out of the box. Every year, countless Range Rovers arrive at wheeling events around the world in fully stock form – save for a couple of skid plates – and keep pace with highly modified trail rigs. Some are surprised that a 1990s British SUV can handle the sort of rough-country adventuring that a would have a stock Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Xterra winching itself to freedom. Others already knew.
And just look at its adorable face!
First of all, it’s called the Classic because when Land Rover introduced its successor in the early 1990s, people were still buying these in such high numbers that the decision was made to build both styles at the same time; the two generations were sold concurrently from 1994 to 1996. It’s one of the oddest chapters of modern automotive history, but it’s more understandable when you realize just how different the Classic’s successor looks.
And while the LWB might not have the spotlight like other Range Rover Classic models – varieties of which go all the way back to 1970 – those models have been appreciating for some time. It’s the long wheelbase models made during the last few production years that are currently skyrocketing in value for the first time. And since LWB was an option on its own, these are even rarer than their standard-length counterparts.
Driveline choices are limited for the LWB, with just one engine on offer – a 4.2-liter V8, up from the 3.9 of the standard-length County – and full-time four-wheel drive is non-negotiable as well. The best years to buy are 1995 and 1996: these feature driver’s and passenger’s airbags, ABS-integrated traction control, the “soft dash” style dashboard, and exclusive LWB-only exterior color options like Brooklands Green (shown above) and Biarritz Blue Metallic.
Modified examples are usually a hard sell unless they’re over-the-top, but well-maintained originals – even with telltale signs of use – are a welcome sight in the modern sea of poseur luxury SUVs that couldn’t claw their way through a slightly damp prairie.
Read more: GQ
View our current selection: Land Rover inventory at Exotic Car Trader
While we’re on the subject of Land Rover, we have to talk about the Defender.
The Defender is to England what the Tahoe is to America – it’s the most British off-roader there is. Even people who know nothing about cars know there’s something special about a Defender. Yet unlike the first two classic SUVs on our list, you’re free to customize a Defender to your heart’s content without losing your investment on the other side. And since it was only offered in the United States in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997, even the rattiest North American Spec Defender is worth its weight in gold.
But for such a well-known car, the Defender model line actually covers an unimaginable number of variants. There wasn’t even a proper name for this SUV until the early 1990s; before then, it was simply called the Land Rover 90 or 110 based on its wheelbase in millimeters. But the 90 and 110 are just the tip of the iceberg – the BMW-powered South African 90, the 127 chassis cab, the 110 pickup… there are so many Defenders that even bona fide car enthusiasts might not know about some of them.
Your standard wagon-bodied Defender is somewhat ho-hum in today’s off-roading communities. It’s still exceedingly cool, but if you want a rapidly appreciating asset we suggest veering into the realm of obscurity. It would take an entire article to explore the myriad of rare body styles like the 130 pickup pictured above; in short, find a 6-speed manual transmission, a Td5 turbodiesel, or a modified Defender of nearly any derivation and you’ll have a recession-proof recipe for off-roading euphoria.
In terms of condition, you really can’t go wrong. Original? Great. Modified? Bring it on. United States spec? Ooh, that’s rare. Imported Euro spec? That’s awesome, too! And when it comes to customization, the Land Rover Defender is often worth more in modified form – and going all-out is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. Whether that’s wrapping a barebones truck in the trimmings of luxury or outfitting it for off-road challenges of any degree, the Defender is a great platform on which to build a unique identity.
Because there isn’t a single Land Rover Defender that isn’t appreciating these days, we would bet that even a brand-new one is unlikely to plummet in value if you’re in it for the long haul – an automotive anomaly rarely seen in the modern day.
Read more: Doug DeMuro
View our current selection: Land Rover Defender inventory at Exotic Car Trader
Few young timer SUVs have ascended to the same heights as the Land Cruiser. Maybe that’s because almost every Toyota ever made can hold its value better than a bar of gold. But as the market for classic SUVs expands, so too does the American market’s appreciation for these robust Japanese off-roaders, and examples of the 60 Series are seeing unprecedented growth in their value regardless of condition.
The 60 Series combines modern creature comforts and classic good looks with a rugged chassis that’s highly capable right out of the box. The 60’s successors whittled away at the tall windows and graceful body lines, and while the 80 Series should see its time come before long, the generation that grew up in the backseat of a 60 Series is currently taking the reins.
And because rare factory options like direct-injection turbo diesels and 5-speed manual transmissions can be shoehorned in without harming value, it’s hard to go wrong with investing in a 60 Series whether it’s original or not.
Today’s classic SUV buyers would much prefer some patina or a couple scratches over a slap-bang paint job or hasty bondo work. The telltale signs of trail use won’t bother anyone but the person wanting to look pretty in a parking lot – lucky for them, there’s a huge market for fully restored Land Cruisers like the one pictured above.
For collectors and investors alike, the most desirable 60 Series Land Cruiser packs a diesel engine, manual transmission, or both. Choose between round and rectangular headlights – the switch happened in 1988 with the introduction of the FJ62. The most common North American driveline was a fuel-injected 4.0-liter 3FE backed by a 4-speed automatic transmission, and while this pairing offers plenty of punch for a pavement dweller, it won’t offer the collectability of a diesel or manual driveline.
If you’re going the off-road route, we suggest finding a 1986-1987 model. In addition to some critical parts being more easily interchangeable with those of other years, these two model years came with 38mm transfer cases and a foam-based headliner that holds up better over time.
Read more: Hagerty
View our current selection: Toyota Land Cruiser inventory at Exotic Car Trader
In this list, even the ultra-lux urban cruisers pack off-road suspension and locking differentials. A few of these off roaders are better in stock condition, while others are worth far more than the sum of their countless aftermarket parts. Originality is great but looks are subjective – it’s what these trucks are capable of that matters the most to their future owners.
As car culture continues to grow, these vintage off-roaders will keep climbing in value thanks to their inherent uniqueness, their welcoming charm, and what they can accomplish when the going gets tough.
Let us know your pick in the comments below.
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Image credits: Exotic Car Trader
Words by Justin Dake
We are not attorneys. This article does not contain legal advice.