Rare Rides: The 1991 BMW Bertone Freeclimber, or BMW’s First Actual SUV

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberWe’ve been on a bit of a continental streak lately here at Rare Rides. First, the Cadillac Allanté showed us American engineering with Italian design. Then, the Gordon-Keeble coupe from 1965 mixed British creativity and funding with Italian and American components.

Today we’ve got a different trifecta: A Japanese design, rebodied by the Italians, then powered by a German engine. Open up some shampanya, and let’s learn about the Freeclimber.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberThis box on wheels with a BMW badge at the front (and signature quad-headlamp arrangement) started out in life as a Daihatsu Rugger, which you might know (in short wheelbase format) as the Rocky — the short-lived Daihatsu North America sales experiment in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberThe Rugger debuted in 1984, with its first generation running through the 1992 model year. Intended as a spartan off-road vehicle, standard equipment was light and engines were small. Starting out with an inline-four of under 2.0 liters, the largest offering was an inline-four turbodiesel.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberAll was well in the simple world of the Rugger. But Bertone and BMW had their sights on Rugger’s square little body, and in 1989 things got a lot more complicated. The bare bones trucklet opened an invitation to the Ferrero Rocher party.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberJapanese construction wouldn’t do in a luxury German SUV, so the Rugger and related components were shipped to the Bertone factory in Italy. Bertone made very minimal styling changes to comply with BMW’s wishes, assembled the body, re-trimmed the interior, and finished it off with a Bertone manufacturer’s label.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberOne did not often come across a Bertone dealership in those days (or ever), so having BMW as an interested partner was convenient. The German brand wanted entry into the burgeoning luxury SUV market in Europe. (Was any other compact luxury branded SUV for sale in Europe in 1989?)

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberUnder hood, a trio of BMW engines replaced Daihatsu mills: a 2.4-liter inline-six turbodiesel, 1.9-liter inline-four, or 2.7-liter straight-six from a 5 Series. In use on today’s Freeclimber (and evidenced by the many exterior badges) is the 2.4 TDI engine.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberInterior upgrades included Bertone badges on the wheel and dash, and some nice light grey leather seating. The manual transmission and low-range gearbox remain, indicators this mini-luxe vehicle can head right off-road with the best of them.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberThe two companies (well, three) found enough success with the Freeclimber in the European market to warrant a second generation, dubbed Freeclimber II. Wearing Bertone badges on the front, this model bowed in 1993 alongside the new generation Daihatsu Rugger. Production ended after 1995, when Bertone got a more lucrative mass-market contract to build Fiat Punto and Opel Astra cabriolet models. Production of the first generation Freeclimber totalled to 2,795, and Gen II 2,860.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberBy then, BMW’s second luxury SUV would’ve been in development. But things didn’t end up quite so continental in the X5. Shame, really.

Image: 1991 Bertone BMW FreeclimberThis one has been imported to the United States and is for sale on eBay via a dealer in Florida. There’s about 39,000 miles on the trucklet, and the current bid is $6,800 with an unknown reserve price.

And hey, your BMW dealer can probably service it.

[Images via seller]