The apparition above was spotted as I headed to the rugby in downtown Houston a couple weeks ago (USA v. Ireland, for the record). Looking a little like a ‘80s VW van that’s undergone weight training, this counts as one of a handful of Pinzgauers I’ve ever seen in the wild. After the match I managed to get some additional shots under nighttime conditions, which we’ll get to presently.
An earlier writeup by the estimable Mr. Niedermeyer can be found here. A product of the venerable Austrian firm of Steyr-Daimler-Puch, and named after a variety of draft horse, after a two-year design process the Pinzgauer went into production in 1971 as a low-maintenance, light military support vehicle adaptable to extreme off-road conditions.
Famed for its spectacular off-road prowess and used by more than 20 military arms, both 4 x 4 and 6 x 6 variants have been produced. First-generation models (through 1985) were powered by an unusual air-cooled in-line 2.5 liter (later 2.7 liter), four-cylinder gasoline engine mounted horizontally on a central structural spine. A ZF five-speed transmission drives the wheels through swing axles with geared (‘portal’) hubs that provide additional ground clearance compared to more conventional designs. The front and rear differentials can be locked individually when needed for extra traction.
Post-’85 versions retain the general layout but sport water-cooled, turbocharged diesel power, and can be identified primarily by an extended snout housing the radiator. Due to import restrictions, however, not many of the second-generation vehicles have made it to the US.
Following the breakup of Steyr-Daimler-Puch around 2000, manufacture of updated second-gen versions eventually fell to BAE Systems, which continues production. Several body styles exist, including command, communications and ambulance variants, but the most common version, and the featured vehicle, has a low-sided cargo box with a canvas top.
With its rugged powertrain, relatively compact size and mountain-goat abilities, the Pinzgauer has developed something of a cult following in the US. Pinzgauer mania may or may not be attributed to a glowing July 1978 article in Car & Driver, which was where I first heard of it. Several companies in the US have taken advantage of relaxed importation rules for vehicles over 25 years old and have established a small but lively business selling mostly first-generation machines. Although many of these seem to be going to private owners with a taste for the exotic, a small market of tour outfits specializing in Pinz-based off-road adventures has sprung up around the availability and relatively low cost of these vehicles.
If I may be allowed to digress for a moment, if one wants to shuttle tourists into the back country on something other than a mule, one’s options remain somewhat limited. Although the vehicle closest in concept and execution that may spring to mind is the AM General HMMWV…
… there are several things that make them less than ideal for this application. Probably most important is that used, non-armored examples are fairly expensive, ranging from about $50-100,000 in the current market. Also, despite being considerably larger than a Pinz, especially in width, their passenger-carrying capacity is actually less.
More typically, commercial tour operations seem to use adapted versions of the Jeep Wrangler…
… or, as a sort of motorized sedan chair, pickup-based 4 x 4s with enclosed, A/C equipped cabins.
Compared to these, depending on configuration a Pinzgauer will seat ten (4 x 4) or 14 (6 x 6) with considerably greater poor-surface and rock-climbing ability. Additional benefits include a relatively low initial investment (unrestored but running vehicles start at as little as $10-12,000) and (apparently) relatively high reliability.
Back to the vehicle spotted in downtown Houston, which may be, er, the Cadillac of Pinzgauers. This is a 1972 710M with the soft top, customized in overall silver-gray with a very subtle flame job and numerous, humorous details (for example, check out the yin/yang symbols on the wheel hubs).
During research for this post, I happened to stumble across an Internet listing showing this exact vehicle for sale in California in September 2012, at an asking price of $40,000. Perhaps some deep-pocketed Texas rugby fan (how many can there be?) has taken the plunge.
There’s a nicely fabricated brush bar in front and a surrounding cage capped with a roof rack seemingly sturdy enough to carry around a small building, and festooned with enough auxiliary lights to illuminate the stadium near where it was parked. Note the various externally-mounted accessories; isn’t it a pain when you have to dig your entrenching tool out of all the crap in your trunk?
While Houston’s mostly concrete streets are notorious for heaves and cracks, I’m not sure you really need something quite this rugged to negotiate them. From that standpoint, I’d say we are looking at a vehicle that is more about making a statement than fulfilling a need.
On the other hand, it’s not entirely unsuitable for the urban environment. The footprint actually is smaller than the typical full-sized extended-cab pickup one tends to find around here, the view from that high-mounted driving position must be superb, and one has to think that the sheer presence of the thing would cause traffic to make way like Moses parting the Red Sea. The one thing the owner might consider changing is to install a hard top – there’s a lot of theft from vehicles around here.