BMW fans around the world were shocked at the launch of the X5. A BMW SUV? Sacrilege! What few people knew is that a BMW engine powered a luxury ute long before the X5: does the name Laforza ring a bell? It looked like a Fiat Uno on steroids and was sold in the US with a Ford V8 but the precious few sold in Europe had BMW engines starting in 1989. There was also another, lesser-known, luxury ute with “BMW” written on its valve cover.
The story starts in Italy in the early 1980s. Bertone was building Ritmo convertibles and picked up X1/9 production after Fiat axed the model from its lineup. All was well for a few years but by the late 1980s Americans had declared the X1/9s outdated and Europeans preferred the Golf Cabriolet over the Ritmo, leaving Bertone out of work. In need of a new project, they decided to enter the growing luxury 4×4 market.
Developing a new car from scratch would have been too expensive so they started with a Daihatsu Rocky, a small, boxy and rather basic 4×4 that was virtually unknown outside of Japan.
How does one turn a relatively plain Japanese SUV into a luxury 4×4 fit for the European market? The first step was to give it a more upscale look. Since this is Bertone we’re talking about one would expect a sleek new body but with the exception of a new grille, the exterior was pretty much identical to when it left the Daihatsu factory.
The interior was spruced up with new instrumentation, leather seats and a Bertone logo proudly featured on the leather steering wheel. It was better equipped than the Daihatsu: power door locks came standard and air conditioning was offered as an option. Buyers could order it with a hard top and/or a soft top.
Under the hood came the big surprise: the Freeclimber was available with one of three straight six engines, all sourced from BMW. First on the menu was the M20, displacing either 2.0 or 2.7, and those who wanted a set of glowplugs could choose the M21 2.4. All three engines were mated to the stock Daihatsu transmission. To increase off road capacity the rear suspension was modified and it had a limited slip differential. They finished the transformation with specific wheels.
The whole package had a base price of 167,937 francs in 1990. That same year a two-door Range Rover started at 197,200 francs, and a Jeep Wrangler could be had for 115,517 francs.
Assembled in Italy, the Freeclimber was imported in a small handful of European countries including France and Germany. France’s importer was André Chardonnet, who also imported Autobianchis and Lancias until 1988 and Maseratis until a little later. In Germany they were sold through the Daihatsu network. Only 2,795 Freeclimbers found a home from 1989 to 1992.
Daihatsu redesigned the Rocky for 1993 and logically, Bertone redesigned the Freeclimber. They also renamed it, calling it simply the Freeclimber II. It used the same chassis as its predecessor but looked different aesthetically thanks to bigger fender flares, standard OZ alloys and a body-colored grille. The straight-six engines were dropped, replaced by BMW’s 1.6 M40. By the time it was launched official imports had stopped in France and Germany so most were sold in Italy, where a few even went to the Carabinieri.
In 1995 Bertone landed a contract to build Fiat Punto convertibles and Opel Astra convertibles. Since the Freeclimber II hadn’t been a huge success they dropped the model at that time after building 2,860 of them. The Daihatsu Rocky soldiered on until 1998.