At 26 years old, I was almost certain there were zero vehicle models left in the United States that I couldn’t identify.
Then I saw this generic-looking, light blue SUV pictured above. I had no idea what it was. I thought that maybe the Russians were invading. I sent the picture to a friend, who immediately and casually informed me that it was something called a Laforza. A quick license plate lookup revealed that this one was a 1989 model, early on in the vehicle’s U.S. production run. I was overwhelmed with curiosity, excitement, and — most of all — shame, because somehow, in 26 years of obsessively cataloging automobiles in my brain, I had missed this. From that day on, I was obsessed, even going out of my way to drive down that street again whenever possible just to get another glimpse.
Then one morning, a few months later, I saw another one.
This one was dark blue with tinted windows and was covered in Ferrari logos. What. The. Hell. I had to get to the bottom of this, so I disregarded all responsibilities for the next two hours and pored over old blog postings, newspaper reviews and for-sale ads in order to fully understand the mystique of this soviet-looking, brick-shaped SUV.
If you couldn’t already guess, the vehicle has a colorful history in the U.S. and abroad. Originally conceived in Europe in 1984 by Italian industrial giant Iveco, now part of Fiat Industrial, the Laforza — or the Rayton-Fissore "Magnum" as it was known in Europe — was originally intended to serve as a heavy-duty military and police vehicle for use in the Old World. After a few years of modest sales in Europe, a group of enterprising Americans saw an opportunity, and in 1988 they began importing Magnum bodies to the States and mating them with more powerful Ford V8 engines, along with other luxury-enhancing changes. Targeted at buyers of Range Rovers and Jeep Grand Wagoneers, this new Italian-American amalgamation was given a luxury-level $45,000 price tag and dubbed Laforza, or "The Force."
Despite being praised for its luxurious, Pininfarina-designed interior, the 5,250-pound body-on-frame SUV sold poorly in the U.S. Throughout the 1990s, a number of American companies attempted to market the Laforza, with leftover bodies and drivetrains still being assembled and sold as "new" as recently as 1999. Overall sales figures are difficult to come by, but estimates stand at around 900 units moved over its lifetime. Due to being lightly associated with Fiat, which is lightly associated with Ferrari, a trend among owners was to slather their Laforzas in Ferrari emblems — and the dark blue example I encountered had Ferrari stickers on the tailgate and dashboard, a Ferrari steering wheel and a prancing horse emblem on the center console.
Since it had a for-sale sign in the window, I sent the owner a text, and he informed me that this one was a 1998 model, and he was asking around $9,000 for it. I visualized myself behind the driver’s seat of this wannabe Ferrari SUV, driving through mud and streams while coddled in Italian leather and with the power of a Ford Mustang V8 under my foot. Then I thought about something breaking, and never being able to get a replacement part for it. Then I visualized the whole vehicle slowly crumbling around me, as 20-year-old Italian cars tend to do. I responded to the owner with a quick "thank you" and then went back to my normal hobby of looking for parts and accessories for my trusty, reliable Land Cruiser. Find an SUV for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.