The Iltis has had a controversial history in Canada from the moment Bombardier Inc. acquired the rights to the jeep from Volkswagen in 1981.
At the time, the German automaker considered building a $100-million plant in Canada. Quebec and Ontario were locked in a battle with the federal government over where the plant should be located.
Volkswagen picked Barrie, Ont., but at the urging of the federal government the company agreed to hand over all rights to the Iltis to Montreal-based Bombardier, which planned to manufacture the jeep at its operations in Valcourt, Que. The Department of Defence also promised to buy hundreds of the jeeps. Volkswagen had been making the Iltis since 1977 mainly for the German army, but the market was drying up and the company wanted to focus on cars. Bombardier, known more for making snowmobiles and trains at the time, saw a bright future in military vehicles, especially given government's commitment to buy them. Bombardier billed the Iltis as a "robust, cross-country vehicle" that was "unique in its class."
In 1983, the federal government announced plans to buy 1,900 jeeps from Bombardier for $68-million. The government also gave Bombardier a $1.3-million grant to help expand its Iltis assembly plant, and another $700,000 grant to help the company develop a civilian model of the jeep.
A year later, Bombardier announced a deal to sell 2,500 jeeps to the Belgian military for $50-million. As part of the sale, Bombardier, backed largely by the Canadian government, was obliged to buy $150-million worth of goods and services in Belgium.
When asked at the time why Canada paid around $32,000 per jeep while Belgium paid just $20,000, a Bombardier official said: "I guess you could say the Belgians are very good negotiators."
In 1985, the Canadian government bought 600 more jeeps for $15-million, or $25,000 a piece.
Throughout the late 1980s, Bombardier tried to find new markets for the Iltis in Africa and Europe, but had little success. Finally, in 1989, the company stopped making the jeep and blamed "changes in [Canadian]government policies" for its abandoning the market. Yesterday, a Bombardier spokeswoman referred all questions about the Iltis to the military.
As for the Volkswagen plant in Barrie, the company sold it in 1996 and the new owners went bankrupt five years later.
The Iltis is still available in Canada, through dealers such as Fast Forward Automotive Inc. in Quesnel, B.C. David Marshall, who owns Fast Forward, said he sells about four a year in Canada for around $10,000 each.
"We can get the ones in from the German army that are street legal for Canada," said Mr. Marshall who has owned a couple of the jeeps. "They are just an interesting little vehicle. A lot of people seem to find them pretty cute, I know I do."
Mr. Marshall said he has sold the jeeps to collectors and "18-year-old kids who want to take them rock-climbing and modify the hell out of them."
But he said he couldn't imagine driving an Iltis anywhere near land mines. "It has a sheet-metal bottom," he said. "Picture yourself driving over a land mine with a Volkswagen Golf, for example. You are going to have about the same success rate."