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June 2012 Trail's End

Custom Tube Chassis Jeep
Ken Brubaker
| Senior Editor, Four Wheeler
Posted June 1, 2012

Ten Years Ago We Saw The Future

Ten years ago we ran this feature on Mike Papola’s custom tube-chassis rig, which he called the “Papola Super Flex.” We called it “unusual,” which it probably was in 2002, considering that custom, tube-chassis trail rigs were a relatively new thing. Of course, tube-chassis rigs were destined to make their mark in the off-road world; we just didn’t fully realize to what extent at the time.

Papola spent about a month at the drawing board designing the rig. He then went out, purchased a tube bender, and went to work building the rig’s chassis/rollcage out of 1¾-inch tubing. A four-link suspension was used to locate the Dana 60 axles, and these axles were fitted with Summers Brothers 1½-inch-diameter, 35-spline axleshafts, 5.86:1 ratio cogs, an ARB Air Locker up front, and a Detroit Locker in the rear. The rig was suspended by coil springs and damped by Black Diamond XT shocks. Power came from a Howell-fuel-injected 350ci Chevy V-8 that pumped out 430hp and 385 lb-ft of torque. The power was routed through a NV4500 manual transmission and split to the axles via an Atlas transfer case. A set of 39.5-inch Super Swamper TSL Boggers gripped the terrain. The rig may have looked like a Jeep, but it was in fact all custom. The floor pans were made out of aluminum; it had quick-release side panels, and a one-piece hood/front fender assembly. If you’d like to read the entire feature, go to

Reading about this rig made us think about the remarkable birth and growth of the tube-chassis rig. Consider this: Top Truck Challenge, which consistently reflects what’s hot in the off-road world, had no tube-chassis rigs in the top ten for 2001, the year before we ran Papola’s feature. We had seen a few tube-chassis rigs at Top Truck in the ’90s, but they were rare. In 2002, tube-chassis rigs came on a bit stronger at Top Truck and formed the foundation for three of the competing vehicles. (Incidentally, it was John Reynolds’ tube-chassis rig that won the event by a wide margin.) Now compare those numbers to last year’s 2011 Top Truck, where tube-chassis rigs were found on six of the ten competing rigs. In addition, two more rigs sported extensive tubework mated to a negligible amount of factory frame.

The take-way here is this: In just 10 years we’ve seen some amazing tech become available to us. An example is that tube-chassis rigs are no longer unusual. It’s exciting to speculate on what cool stuff will be available to us wheelers in another 10 years. fw