(first posted 10/26/2015) Among the many products of the oft-maligned automobile industries of the Soviet bloc of the Cold War era, the 4×4 trucks have garnered a considerable amount of respect worldwide. Whether military vehicles such as the jeep-like UAZ-469 and the 2-ton GAZ-66, or civilian vehicles such as the Lada Niva, their rugged simplicity and practical off-road engineering have struck a chord with 4×4 enthusiasts. Most were designed and made in the Soviet Union, but a little-known model range came from Romania: the ARO 24 Series. At least one of the ARO 24 Series has arrived on our shores in the form of an ARO 244 four door SUV, which I spotted on a residential street in Washington, DC, where no one would have expected to find it.
There is no need to doubt your knowledge of cars if you have never heard of ARO, because although its vehicles have been distributed widely around the world, its production numbers have been not been large. ARO, short for Auto Romania, began in 1957 as a state-owned company producing four wheel drive vehicles, initially for Romanian military use but later emphasizing exports to earn hard currency and for barter between Communist states. ARO’s export markets included Europe, Africa, South America, and the People’s Republic of China. ARO production and Cold War politics within the Communist bloc were highly intertwined, with its first vehicles produced shortly before the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Romania in 1958 and its exports to China being part of Romania’s pursuit of closer relations with China that began in the early 1960s, in order to extract favorable political and economic terms from each of the two leading Communist states.
The Soviet GAZ-69 military jeep was the basis for ARO’s 4x4s in the company’s first decade and a half. ARO’s first model was a direct copy called the IMS-57, of which a total of only 914 were produced from 1957 to 1959. An improved version that came in two door, four door, and pickup variants, the M59, followed from 1959 to 1963. A further developed version, the M461 (shown), lasted from 1964 to 1975 and was widely exported, with over 80,000 produced of which over 46,000 were exported.
The ARO 24 Series of civilian light trucks went into production in 1972 and lasted until 2006. It began with the 240 two door soft top and soon branched out into numerous body styles including the 241 four door soft top, 242 pickup, 243 two door wagon with elevated roof, 244 four door wagon, 246 four door wagon with elevated roof, 320 long wheelbase pickup, 324 long wheelbase double cab pickup, and 330 long wheelbase extended cab pickup. Ambulance, bus, and delivery van variants also existed, along with a military model called the Dragon and a luxury four door wagon called the Hunter. Both 4×4 and 4×2 drivetrains were available.
All versions were boxy and functional, archetypal small trucks with nothing extraneous. The 24x models were also quite compact, riding on a wheelbase of only 2350 mm (92.5 in). The lengthened 32x and 33x models were not especially large either, with wheelbases of 3300 mm (129.9 in) and 3340 mm (131.5 in), respectively, shorter than a full size American pickup truck with an 8 foot cargo bed.
The mechanical specifications of the ARO 24 Series were likewise straightforward and functional. Engines at first were gasoline and diesel fours by ARO displacing 2.5 to 3.0 liters, then later a wide variety of gasoline engines from Toyota, Ford, and Chrysler and diesel engines from Andoria in Poland, Toyota, Peugeot, and VM. With a 244 weighing over 3,600 pounds and all of the ARO engines and later outsourced diesels producing less than 100 horsepower, and even the Toyota and Ford gasoline engines topping out around 140 horsepower, performance on paved roads was gradual at best. The exception was the Hunter luxury model, which had a unique engine, a Cosworth-made Ford Cologne 4.0 liter V6 producing 207 horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque. In both 4x4s and 4x2s, front suspension was independent by control arms with coil springs, rear suspension a solid axle with leaf springs.
The 24 Series 4x4s had the usual two speed transfer case with manual locking hubs, with a rear differential lock an option on all models. Along with the independent coil spring front suspension, the rear differential lock gave the ARO 24 Series fairly advanced specifications by the standards of the early 1970s, when American 4x4s such as the Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Bronco, Jeep Wagoneer, and International Harvester Scout used solid axles front and rear, all but the Bronco with hard-riding longitudinal leaf springs front and rear.
The underpinnings of the 24 Series proved to be quite capable off-road, and the design was highly regarded enough to be both an export success from Romania and produced under license in Portugal and Spain. The Portaro (PORTugal ARO) was produced from 1975 to 1995, and the Hisparo (HISPania ARO) from 1984 to 1992. The Portaro competed successfully in international rallying, with a first place finish in the 1984 Pharaon Rally in Egypt, part of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship. The team was an international collaboration, officially entered under ARO with French and Portuguese drivers driving Portaro 244s powered by Volvo gasoline engines, which along with Daihatsu diesels were the powerplants used by Portaro.
External changes to the 24 Series over the years were minimal. It debuted in 1972 with large rectangular headlights taken from the Dacia 1300, the Romanian Renault 12 copy, and a slatted grille, then switched to large round headlights in 1977. A 1985 restyling brought a new grille and smaller round headlights, either single or double depending on the model. There were further minor restylings during the post-Communist 1990s, in 1995 and 1998.
As a late model with quad headlights, the featured 244 has a plastic dashboard whose shapes, gauges and switchgear suggest a late 1980s or 1990s Japanese car or truck. Earlier years had a simpler painted metal dashboard.
The earliest evidence of this 244 being in the U.S. is these Pennsylvania DOT stickers with June 2006 expiration dates, which happen to coincide with the end of the line for ARO. The beginning of the end was the privatization and sale of ARO to an American investor in 2003. The sale of the company was supposed to be part of the introduction of a luxury version of the ARO 244 called the Cross Lander 244X, intended for sale in the United States starting in 2005. The Cross Lander 244X was supposed to capitalize on the trend for luxury-outfitted military 4x4s such as the Mercedes-Benz Gelaendewagen. The main investor in the Cross Lander project had been involved since 1998 in a venture to import AROs into the U.S. as military surplus vehicles, which had dissolved in questionable circumstances. The sale of ARO to Cross Lander was supposed to be followed by investment in the company, but Cross Lander allegedly instead sold off ARO’s production tooling and equipment, leading to allegations of fraud and a lawsuit by the government of Romania in 2006. Cross Lander dissolved, and ARO went into bankruptcy in June 2006.
The ARO 24 Series story is not quite over, though, because a Czech company named Auto Max Czech has put the design back into production in the Czech Republic. According to its English-language website, it produces a full range of 24 Series and lengthened 32 Series and 33 Series models, in the numerous body configurations offered earlier by ARO.
Since the Cross Lander 244X never materialized and U.S. certification for the new 24 Series made in the Czech Republic probably is unlikely, the featured 244 should always be a rare vehicle in the U.S. It is possibly a private import by an American diplomat formerly stationed in Romania or by an American technical assistance advisor from the USAID mission in Romania during the 1990s-2000s. It may instead be an import from South America, though, a clue being that it rides on four JTR tires marked “Made in Venezuela.”
Regardless of this ARO 244’s backstory, it is both a capable small and simple 4×4 and a fascinating relic of a different era in world history. Production of the 24 Series appears to have been approximately 10,000 per year prior to the fall of Communism in Romania and the other Warsaw Pact states in 1989, with three quarters of production exported from Romania, although trustworthy and exact production figures are difficult to find. Thousands have survived around the world, along with post-1989 examples such as this one. Few will be found in the U.S., so this one should intrigue people who see it for many years. The remnant of an “If you are interested in selling this truck, please contact me …” note under the wiper in the earlier photo of the windshield is no doubt the latest of many, with many more to come in the future.