Top 12 Military Vehicles Adapted for Civilian Life


Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle)
Top 12 Military Vehicles Adapted for Civilian Life

As we were rounding up vehicles for our toughest of tough off-roaders piece last year, we noticed that quite a few of them had their roots in military service, and that got us thinking, how many vehicles have made the transition from active duty to civilian life, sometimes barely changed, sometimes evolving over the years, and sometimes simply a distant inspiration. Here is our round-up of another dirty dozen vehicles that made the leap between active service and civilian life, although some were more curiosities on public roads rather than long-running nameplates.

Willys MB Jeep

© Wikimedia Commons (Ramon FVelasquez)

Willys MB Jeep

Of course, no story about current vehicles derived from military action should start with anything but the Jeep Wrangler. As Brendan McAleer noted in his collection of Gamechangers – cars that changed the face of the automotive landscape – the original Willys Overland was a superior general purpose vehicle to prototypes from Ford and others thanks to its strong engine, so “the scrappy little Willys became a symbol of the Allied Forces, and soon spread to all corners of the globe.” The name Jeep was an affectionate bastardization of G.P. for General Purpose vehicle, and it spawned an entire brand that has banked on its reputation for go anywhere capability.

Jeep Wrangler

© (Brendan McAleer)

Jeep Wrangler

While the Jeep brand has diversified its lineup with a variety of more civilized offerings, the Wrangler that can trace its roots right back to the original military Willys Jeep (though its platform for several generations has been a completely new branch in the family tree) is still a mainstay on the sales charts and the heart and soul of the brand. It remains the most popular hard-core off-roader in North America for good reason, evolving into an ever more capable adventurer while adding amenities and technology that would have been unimaginable to those that drove the original.

Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle)

© Wikimedia Commons (US Navy SEAL)

Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle)

While nowhere near the commercial success of the Jeep, the Hummer is perhaps no less iconic as a military vehicle. The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), soon shortened to Humvee by efficient soldiers, was produced by AM General as a replacement for the Jeep and other light trucks in the early 80s, and after proving itself for many years in combat zones, was offered to the North American public as the Hummer H1 starting in 1992. Like the Jeep, it took off-road capability and all-terrain dominance to another level, and it rose to fame as a favourite of movie star and later California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hummer H1© Hummer

Hummer H1

Its cachet was great enough that it caught the interest of another General, General Motors, who launched a Hummer brand that sold, along with the H1, fortified versions of their pickup trucks as H2s and H3s for a brief time.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class© Wikimedia Commons (Darkone)

Mercedes-Benz G-Class

The Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, “cross country vehicle” was developed from the get-go for both military and civilian life, and has seen service in dozens of armed forces around the globe, including our own Canadian military. While military versions have stuck with mostly efficient and durable diesels, the arms race on the civilian models has reached an alarming level.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class.© (Peter Bleakney)

Mercedes-Benz G-Class

Aside from novelty six-wheel models, super-off-road versions, convertibles and gold plated editions, you can currently get a G 65 AMG with a twin-turbo 6.0L V12 making 604 hp and 738 lb-ft in what amounts to a flying shoebox. Because everyone needs a 600-hp V12 in their mall-curb-hopper.

Land Rover© Wikimedia Commons (Defence Images)

Land Rover

Also inspired by the simple effectiveness of the Willys Jeep, British manufacturer Rover developed the original Land Rover prototypes in 1947 from a variety of spare parts soon after World War II. The Land Rover also aimed to simplify manufacturing and make do with limited, rationed raw materials. Although intended for farm and light industrial use, and only as a stopgap until Rover could get its car-building operations back up to speed, with immediate demand for the Series I from the British Army, other Commonwealth forces and from civilian quarters, it soon became a mainstay.

Land Rover Defender 110© (Brendan McAleer)

Land Rover Defender 110

After evolving through the Series I, II and III versions over several decades, the 1980s saw a significant reboot and a new name, Defender (with Ninety and One Ten variants indicating wheelbase length). With decades of success in military service with the Series models, the Defender was developed with customized and reinforced military vehicles, and on the civilian side with such frivolous models as the Tomb Raider 90 to commemorate its role in the movie edition of the popular video game series. Because Lara Croft.

Harley-Davidson Model 17F-J© Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J

From building 200 motorcycles in 1906-1907, Harley-Davidson blossomed into a significant motorcycle manufacturer of about 16,000 units in 1914. However, in 1917, after successful experiments in small operations, the US military became Harley-Davidson’s biggest customer upon entering world War I in 1917, ordering over 15,000 motorcycles (up to 20,000 according to some sources), which helped it become the largest motorcycle builder in the world by the 1920s.

Harley Davidson S Series, WLA (Inset)© Harley-Davidson

Harley Davidson S Series, WLA (Inset)

Although started as a civilian vehicle, there is no question that the 17F/J that served in World War I and the WWII WLA helped cement the company as a major manufacturer and a leader in the motorcycle world. This year, Harley-Davidson commemorates its military history with a special edition of the Softail S in army green with the US Army star proudly emblazoned on its fuel tank.

BMW R12© Wikimedia Commons (AlfvanBeem)


BMW’s iconic sidecars are a key character in just about every WWII movie ever made, and for good reason. The R12 and its successor, the R75 were combination motorcycle-sidecars built strong enough to carry three soldiers. Not only that, but the R75 sidecar carried a spare tire and all three wheels were interchangeable, greatly improving their utility on the front. Machinery on the battlefield ran the constant risk of sand, snow and debris entering the major components, which is why BMW motorbikes had shaft drive and telescoping forks right from the outset – major engineering feats for the time.

BMW R1200R© (Jacob Black)

BMW R1200R

Despite their technical expertise, BMW was sent back to the drawing board at the end of the war, literally – its facilities were in ruins and its key engineers scattered to work on other projects, such that when operations were restored in 1947, they had to reverse-engineer surviving pre-war bikes. Despite the rough reboot, certain traditions remained: the modern R series are still shaft-driven, with some models going back to telescopic forks for the 2015 model year.

Volkswagen Type 181© Wikimedia Commons (Piotr VaGla Waglowski)

Volkswagen Type 181

Although nowhere near as popular or influential as the Beetle on which it is based, the Type 181, known in these parts as the Volkswagen Thing, was something of an earlier retro experiment by the company that brought us the New Beetle. The original Kübelwagen (literally, “bucket car”) was built by Volkswagen during WWII as a simple general purpose vehicle much like the Willys Jeep, but on the other side of the lines

Volkswagen Thing © (Bill Vance)

Volkswagen Thing

Unlike its American counterpart, the Kübelwagen made do without four-wheel drive, but enough ground clearance and solid mechanicals ensured it performed in the field. In 1968, Volkswagen resurrected the look and design based on newer versions of the Type 1 Beetle and other Volkswagen products to fill a void for the West German Army, and its reliability and low costs kept it in production for various militaries and civilian markets into the 80s.

Toyota Land Cruiser© Toyota

Toyota Land Cruiser

The Land Cruiser started life as Compact Cargo Truck Type 4, a copy of a Jeep the Imperial Japanese Army found in the Philippines during the Second World War. The Korean War saw the US government commissioning Toyota to build Jeeps based on updated Willys specs. In 1951, Toyota built the BJ prototype – a larger vehicle based on those American specs. It was later named the Land Cruiser to position it as competition to the Land Rover.

Lexus LX © Lexus

Lexus LX570

The Land Cruiser found success in the civilian market where the Humvee-copy Mega Cruiser did not, offering today’s passengers such amenities as heated and ventilated seats and rear-seat entertainment as standard features, all while retaining its off-road prowess. The Land Cruiser isn’t available in Canada, however – you can instead get behind the wheel of its upscale cousin, the Lexus LX 570.

Toyota Tacoma© (Benjamin Hunting)

Toyota Tacoma

While the Tacoma plays second fiddle to the domestic pickups in the North American market; elsewhere in the world, its cousin Hilux has a well-earned reputation as an ubiquitous, reliable workhorse.

Toyota Tacoma. © John H.

Toyota Tacoma

Is it any wonder then, that civilian Tacomas and Hiluxes are often modified for military use? They’re cheap to source, easy to repair, and – as was demonstrated on Top Gear – are practically indestructible.

Nissan Patrol© Wikimedia Commons (Sicnag)

Nissan Patrol

Like the Land Cruiser, the Nissan Patrol owes its initial design to the Willys Jeep. In fact, the two are direct rivals, vying for military contracts and consumer purchases alike.

Infiniti QX80© (Jacob Black)

Infiniti QX80

Also like the Land Cruiser, the Nissan Patrol has evolved over the years into a behemoth of unusual curvaceousness. Despite its sales success elsewhere, the last time we saw it in North America was in the ’60s. These days, however, you can find it cruising the streets in the form of the Infiniti QX80 – the bitter rivalry extends even to their luxury divisions.

Chevrolet Suburban CCUV© Bill Crittenden

Chevrolet Suburban CCUV

Originally designed for the US National Guard, and built exclusively for the Allied forces during the Second World War as a troop transport, the Suburban has always carried a big load. While various other companies used the Suburban nameplate as something of a generic term for a, well, SUV (windowed, wagon-type body on a commercial frame, according to Wikipedia), they gradually dropped off until only Chevrolet was using the name by the late 70s.

Chevrolet Suburban© (Paul Williams)

Chevrolet Suburban

Also the longest-running continuously used nameplate, today’s Suburban is an all-purpose vehicle that can still seat up to eight, go most anywhere and tow your toys along for the ride. The Suburban and its Yukon twin from GMC are also typecast as the G-Man ride of choice for its use by government enforcement agencies and its starring role as the Secret Service’s alternate shuttle for POTUS when not riding in The Beast.

Rolls-Royce Armoured Car© San Diego Air and Space Museum

Rolls-Royce Armoured Car

We’re not referring to the fact that Rolls-Royce powered much of the British Royal Air Force during WWII, but rather its earlier contribution in WWI. After proving itself in the Scottish reliability trials of 1907 with a special edition of the 40/50 hp known as the Silver Ghost (which later usurped 40/50 hp as that model’s name), Rolls-Royce was co-opted for military production for the Great War. Rolls-Royce chassis and engines were outfitted with armoured bodies for use on various fronts, most heroically and successfully in Lawrence of Arabia’s campaigns in the Arab Revolt.

Rolls-Royce Phantom© Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce Phantom

Of course, while there is nothing shared with today’s Rolls-Royce Phantom except a legacy, Rolls-Royce continues to be popular in the Middle East, and what weight has been lost in armour plating has been made up for in extravagant luxury features and a titanic 6.75L V12 engine making 453 hp and 531 lb-ft of torque.

Bonus-Unimog© Flickr (mick)

Bonus: Unimog

Okay, we’re not sure if you can really consider the Unimog much of a ‘civilian’ vehicle, but its military credentials are impeccable, serving as troop transportation vehicles, ambulances and mobile command centres (and other more specialized derivatives) by over a dozen different armed forces around the globe. Although it’s as tough as any marines, the Unimog was actually developed more as agricultural equipment, but the ground clearance and incredible wheel articulation as well as reasonable road driving speeds proved of equal value in uncertain conditions faced by armies.