Luxury SUV Avant la Lettre
Swiss motorsport specialist and car manufacturer Peter Monteverdi never reached the ranks of Enzo Ferrari or Ferruccio Lamborghini, but his boutique workshop deserves maybe more respect than these two famous Italian manufacturers. The small Binningen – near Basel – based company started in the late fifties under the name Monteverdi Basel Motoren (MBM), designing and racing single-seaters with the ambition to reach Formula 1. After an early retirement in a non-championship Formula 1 race in 1961 and a total write-off shortly after, Monteverdi shifted his attention from racing back to his Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and Bentley import company.
The ambitious Swiss native thought there might be a market for people who wanted the exclusivity, power and looks of a Ferrari, but with additional comfort like an automatic transmission, power steering and other amenities. His first attempt to enter this new segment was the Monteverdi High Speed 375 S in 1967. This elegant GT was designed by the Italian company Carrozzeria Fissore and after a positive reception a 2+2 followed it became the standard model. More variants were added, like a convertible called the 375/C and a large sedan carrying the name 375/4.
By the mid-seventies, Monteverdi made a radical decision after the oil crisis in 1973 and 74. The very exclusive High Speed models were abandoned and the company entered the relatively new and upcoming segment of luxury off-roaders. In 1976 the Safari was shown to the public in Geneva, marketed as an exclusive alternative to models like the successful Range Rover and Jeep Wagoneer. Just like the Range Rover, the Safari was only available as a three door with a split tailgate. A few years later though, Monteverdi would cleverly secure a slice of the Range Rover cake for himself, by developing and building a Fissore designed 5-door Range Rover and selling it with permission of the Land Rover company.
The Safari was based on the American underpinnings of the Scout from International Harvester, with a body designed by long-time partner Fissore. Monteverdi offered three engines, starting with a Chrysler 318 ci V8 (5,210 cc), followed by a standard International Harvester 345 ci V8 (5,654 cc) with the 440 ci V8 (7,206 cc) from Chrysler being the largest. Does this make the Safari a cheeseburger with a dab of pesto and a slice of Swiss cheese? We prefer to see it as a blend of carefully chosen international ingredients, resulting in one of the most desirable SUVs from the seventies and eighties.
The sound of the large V8 is obviously American, with a deep and dark rumble at tick over, turning into a nice background burble at speed. With two tons to haul around and only 165 horsepower, the Safari is far from swift and agility has never been part of its vocabulary. A clear result of the rigid axles and leaf springs inherited from the Scout, to ensure optimum off-road performance. The automatic 3-speed adds a typical American character, almost forcing the driver to take it easy and let the 396 Nm (292 lb ft) of torque do the work at its own pace. The ride is smooth and comfortable but potholes and ridges occasionally send a shiver through the ladder chassis because of the heavy unsprung weight. Adding to the level of comfort are the large and soft seats and the generous amounts of space. This vehicle was clearly targeted at people with an individual taste, looking for something exclusive without worrying too much about family life. So, more of a third or fourth car than a grocery trolley.
Peugeot 504 Break
With Monteverdi being famous for highly exclusive GTs and sports cars, a 4×4 was not necessarily a step down. The fact that is was more expensive than a Range Rover gives an impression of the level the Swiss company was operating at. This makes it even more surprising that some parts look very much out of place on a hand-built exotic like this. Some of the switch gear in the interior came straight from International Harvester shelves and the rear lights are from the Peugeot 504 Break. Another less positive aspect are the rattles and squeaks when driving on bad surfaces. It is hard to tell if this is typical for the Safari in general or just an issue with this specific example. With an extensive service history and a recent restoration we have strong doubts about the latter though.
Onyx Formula 1
In contrast to what some sources claim, the Monteverdi Safari is not the first luxury SUV. It is up to the Chevrolet Suburban and Jeep Wagoneer to settle that ancient argument. This Swiss luxury off-roader was the first hand-built exotic in this segment though, only to be followed by the Lamborghini LM002 in the mid-eighties, a few years after production of the Safari had ended in 1982. With the acquisition of a fifty percent share in the Onyx Formula 1 team in 1989, Peter Monteverdi took a second chance to pursue his racing dreams in 1990. This time he managed to attend ten races and claimed a seventh place at the Monaco Grand Prix. Once again, financial problems kept him from staying in Formula 1 and the team withdrew after only ten of the sixteen races that season. As a racer and a manufacturer of hand-built exotics, Peter Monteverdi is one of the true heroes in the post WWII automotive history and the fact that he never acquired true stardom makes his heritage even more interesting. Like a rough diamond that can only be appreciated by true connoisseurs.