Drive through urban, suburban, and rural American areas, and you’ll likely see many people driving off-road capable vehicles. Whether driven on or off paved or gravel surfaces, these vehicles have increased in popularity. These versatile vehicles enable people to drive over trails and rough terrain to access scenic places.
Off-roaders enjoy driving their vehicles during communal off-roading events, camping trips, and extended overlanding journeys. How did this adventurous hobby get its start? Explore the history of off-roading and how it came to be.
The first off-road vehicles used the Kégresse track, which is a rubber or canvas continuous track invented by Adolphe Kégresse. The tracks are placed on either side of a vehicle’s back end to create a half-track vehicle. Since the track covers only the back half, the vehicle still uses conventional front wheels and steering. Another modification was to fit skis over the front wheels.
Kégresse designed the track while he worked for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The Kégresse track made it easier for vehicles to overcome the Russian landscape, so Russian royalty applied the track to several of their vehicles, including Rolls-Royce cars. The Russian army also used the tracks on many of their armored cars.
After the violent Russian revolution, Kégresse returned to his native country of France and placed his tracks on Citroën off-road and military automobiles between 1921 and 1937. Citroën used these modified off-roading vehicles during expeditions through undeveloped regions of Asia, America, and Africa. These ventures showed off the impressive capabilities of vehicles outfitted with Kégresse tracks.
During World War II, both the Allies and the Axis powers used Kégresse tracks on their military vehicles. In the 1920s, the US Army purchased a license to produce Citroën-Kégresse vehicles. In the early 1940s, the Army produced the armored M2 half-track car, which the Army used in the Philippines, North Africa, and Europe during the war. The Army later produced the M3 half-track, an armored personnel carrier the US would use during WWII and the Cold War.
World War II was a pivotal moment in the history of off-roading and how it turned into a popular pastime. This era kicked off many key developments in 4X4 manufacturing. While the Kégresse system saw extensive use during World War II, the war prompted the creation of a new military vehicle now widely used by off-road enthusiasts: the Jeep.
At the start of the US involvement in WWII, the Army contacted over a hundred companies to produce a prototype of a four-wheel drive reconnaissance car. Two companies responded: the American Bantam Car Company and Willys-Overland. The Army gave them a 49-day deadline for completing their cars.
The automotive designer and engineer Karl Probst drafted the Bantam prototype in two days. Manufacturers could assemble the vehicle from off-the-shelf parts and add a custom four-wheel drivetrain. The Army tasked Willys and Ford with enhancing the Bantam design. This resulted in three vehicles: the Bantam BRC-40, Ford GP, and Willys MA.
Along with other modifications, Willy-Overland’s chief engineer Delmar “Barney” included Willys’s “Go Devil” engine, winning the production contract. Thus, the Willys vehicle, called the Model MB, became the standard Jeep. During full production, Willys-Overland continued manufacturing the Model MB, whereas Ford built the Model GPW, which was a Jeep with a slightly different design.
The US military used Jeeps for many activities and purposes, including cable-laying, field ambulances, and tractors. The military also supplied Great Britain and the Soviet Red Army with these impressive vehicles to gain an edge in the war.
Off-Road Vehicle Use in the Private Sector
After World War II, the private sector around the world found many ways to use these innovative off-roading vehicles. For example, in the Philippines, people created a unique vehicle known as a Jeepney from left-behind MBs and GPWs. They lengthened the body of the Jeeps so that the automobile could carry more passengers. Jeepney owners began decorating their taxis with elaborate designs, and today, the Jeepney is a flamboyant symbol of the Philippines.
In the US, automakers designed and manufactured off-road vehicles for use by construction and freight companies. These industries used the vehicles to move large equipment and supplies over unpaved terrain, especially for constructing roads and bridges. Just as WWII pushed for the creation of the Jeep, market needs spurred innovative designs for private sector off-road vehicles.
Lifted trucks and off-road vehicles became an important component of completing New Deal-era construction projects. The vehicles helped people reach undeveloped locations more easily to efficiently build up American infrastructure.
Off-Road Vehicles for Private Consumers
After the war, private civilians, especially Americans, wanted to explore more of the outdoors and had the cash flow to do so. Since most contemporary vehicles could not handle driving over mud, snow, and other natural debris and obstacles, manufacturers had an opportunity to create off-road vehicles for civilians.
Willys produced the Jeep Station Wagon starting in the 1940s. This mass-market station wagon became one of the most successful post-WWII automobile models for Willys. And across the pond, the British Land Rover, first sold in the 1940s, was one of the first off-road vehicles for civilians. WWII off-road vehicles inspired the design of the Land Rover. In the years to follow, manufacturers worldwide developed their own light-duty 4X4s for consumer use.
In the 1960s, Ford debuted the Bronco, a sports utility vehicle built for middle-class families who enjoyed the outdoors. Soon thereafter, more off-road family vehicles hit the market, growing the share of off-road vehicles owned by private citizens.
Comfort and Personalization
Starting in the 1950s, private automobiles became increasingly comfortable and luxurious, and 4WD-equipped vehicles were no exception. In the 60s and 70s, comforts like extra space and better-designed seats became expected features of off-road vehicles. Now, SUVs, crossover SUVs, and other off-road capable vehicles feature the same level of comfort and luxury as their regular car counterparts.
As more people started using these vehicles for everyday transportation, and with the increasing popularity of off-roading as a means of exploring the outdoors, rig owners started personalizing their vehicles. The demand for stylish, high-quality aftermarket parts skyrocketed, and businesses created the supply.
Owners of modern off-road vehicles can customize their rides, making aesthetic and practical improvements. Whether you need tires designed to overcome rocky surfaces, enhanced lighting, a stylish grille, or superior recovery gear, you have plenty of options for equipping your rig.
If you want to personalize your vehicle, choose Jeep accessories and parts from AM Off-Road. Our supply of off-road gear, body parts, and accessories can enhance your Jeep TJ, JK, and JL models. Check out our collection today!