The one-percenter parent who needs to ferry the kids to lacrosse practice and, once in a blue moon, tackle a gravel road, is spoilt for choice. Rolls-Royce’s Cullinan, Bentley’s Bentayga, and the Mercedes-Maybach GLS600 challenge top-spec versions of the Range Rover, while those seeking a sportier SUV have the Lamborghini Urus, Aston Martin DBX, or Alpina XB7 to chose from.
But there hasn’t always been such a plethora of opulent off-roaders. In the 1970s, the segment consisted of just the original Range Rover and the Jeep Wagoneer. That is, until Peter Monteverdi decided to give it a shot.
The son of a mechanic, Peter Monteverdi established himself as one of Switzerland’s main importers of luxury marques while briefly trying to enter Formula One with the first Swiss-built F1 car. While that foray failed, Monteverdi had gained a crucial insight from car sales: his customer base, which was mainly elderly men, could easily afford a Ferrari, but they preferred softer cars that were easier to live with, with amenities like an automatic gearbox and power steering.
With this niche in mind, Monteverdi started an eponymous car company, and his first vehicle, the High Speed, was a relative success. The Monteverdi Hai 450 SS, a svelte supercar which I’ll cover in a future installment of Motoring Misfits, further boosted the company’s image, but the 1973 oil crisis caused the market for expensive sports cars to collapse. With the European economy in turmoil, Monteverdi switched gears and decided to cater to his contacts in the Middle East.
Thus, the Monteverdi Safari was born. Although based on the bones of the utilitarian International Harvester Scout, the Safari had been significantly transformed when it went on sale in 1977. The Scout’s friendly face was replaced by a handsome, crisp body built by Carrozzeria Fissore, Monteverdi’s design partner following a nasty split with Pietro Frua in 1969. The interior was swathed in plush leather, and decked out with thick carpets, power windows and locks, and A/C, although some carryover Scout switchgear betrayed the Safari’s underpinnings.
Three engines were available: a 152-bhp 5.2-liter Chrysler V8, the standard 165-bhp 5.7-liter International Harvester V8, and, at the top of the range, a 7.2-liter V8 from Chrysler churning out 305 bhp. The 5.2-liter version lumbered to a top speed of just 103 mph, but the 7.2-liter V8 could best the Range Rover at the time with a top speed of 124 mph. An automatic transmission made driving a breeze, while switchable four-wheel-drive allowed the Safari to live up to its outdoorsy name. However, with more than 4,500 lbs to drag around, the trio of V8s returned dismal fuel economy under 10 mpg.
In Switzerland, the Safari cost CHF 39,000, just CHF 5,000 more than the Range Rover, and it quickly became Monteverdi’s best-seller. The Swiss company also produced a cheaper version, dubbed the Sahara, which retained most of the Scout’s bodywork. While just 30 Saharas were built, a few hundred Safaris found homes before production ended in 1982, although accurate numbers are difficult to pin down and some of the Middle Eastern Safaris are believed to have been destroyed by bombing during the Gulf War. Sadly, this pioneering luxury SUV, with its sharp styling and classy interior, has become a forgotten footnote in automotive history.