The off-road world has changed notably over the decades that humans have pursued motorized adventure off the beaten path and the paved expanses. New innovations have allowed us to go faster over rougher terrain, jump higher, crawl slower, and tackle bigger boulders. Along with that, we can travel into the backcountry to explore in greater comfort and with the assurance of greater reliability in our vehicle gear.
While there are many great inventions, innovations, and improvements that have propelled our off-road world forward, there are a few that stand out to us as real game-changers. All of the things on our list came out of the 20th century. Off-road vehicles have undoubtedly excelled over the last 13 years, and the parts we use have seen countless revisions, improvements, and refinements. But most of the technology is still based on prior designs that arrived in the 20th century.
If you think we missed one or are just plain wrong about an entry, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish yours in an upcoming issue.
Electronic Fuel Injection
During the mid ’50s, Bendix developed their Electrojector system, one of the first electronic fuel injection (EFI) systems to come to market. It was inspired by fuel injection systems used on aircraft during the Korean War, but the system got off to a rocky start. Bosch later acquired the patent rights and introduced their D-Jetronic systems that took root in production cars. With increasingly rigid emissions regulations and the demand for higher fuel economy and better engine performance, EFI has sustained and evolved. Today’s systems are microprocessor-controlled and married to sophisticated ignition systems that enable full electronic control of the combustion process. The boon for the off-roader is getting away from traditional carburetors with their troublesome float bowls and jet systems that can be unreliable in a rough, dusty environment. EFI brings improved horsepower and drivability to the modern dirt machine.
Dana/Spicer Model 60
Beefy axles that can take abuse are vital to off-roaders, and the Dana 60 is a staple of hardware in our world. First introduced in 1955, this Dana/Spicer axle has been used by domestic manufacturers who have built heavy-duty pickup trucks. Steering and non-steering versions are available. The center chunk houses a beefy 9.75-inch ring gear. Inner shaft spline counts have included 16, 23, 30, 32, 33 and 35. Outer spline counts are typically 30- or 35-spline. Rear axles come in both semi-float and full-float flavors. These days you can find yourself a junkyard 60 from a wrecked 3/4- or 1-ton truck, or order a custom-built crate axle to your specs from any number of aftermarket axle builders. Gear ratios run from 3.31 to 7.17 to satisfy a wide range of applications. High-strength replacements are available for each axle component, making the Dana 60 extremely customizable. When running high horsepower and big tires, they’re not just for lead-footed hillbillies anymore.
4WD Locking Hubs
Arthur Warn founded Warn Industries in 1948 and saw a need to provide locking front hubs for surplus WWII Jeeps. The use of selectable front hubs allowed these surplus service vehicles to be converted for more practical on-road use. Locking hubs have allowed off-roaders to easily enjoy the best of both worlds in a single vehicle. Lock in the front axle to tackle the dirt, then unlock when you’re ready to hit the highway. Selectable hubs save wear and tear on the front drivelines, increase fuel economy, and make sharp steering easier.
Gas-Charged Monotube Shocks
Fast engines are great, but you can only drive safely as fast as your suspension can keep your vehicle in control. Shocks play a huge part in that handling equation. One innovation that truly changed how an off-road rig could move quickly across rough terrain was the creation of the gas-charged monotube shock. Bilstein developed the idea in the late ’50s, with Mercedes-Benz as their first customer. When some desert guys started driving and racing fast down the Baja Peninsula, some driver tried a set of OEM Mercedes shocks on a race car and won. This began the importation of more Bilstein shocks to satisfy competitors and spurred Bilstein to take notice of the trend. They created Bilstein of America in San Diego, and Bilstein was the number one brand of shock absorbers in off-road racing in the ’70s and ’80s. Modern shocks are critical to our needs, with newer designs offering superior fade resistance due to gas charging.
General Motors didn’t invent the V-8 engine, but they did push it into mainstream America. What’s notable about the ’55 small-block V-8 debuted by Chevrolet is that it ushered in a period of high-performance engine availability on a large scale. Previously, most domestic engines were inline six-cylinder models. That first V-8 was 50 pounds lighter and more powerful than the GM Stovebolt six. Over nearly six decades, it’s worked its way to being one of the most popular engines in the world. GM still sells Generation I design engines for use in marine and industrial applications. Today, the company continues to manufacture a variety of high-tech small-blocks, including the Generation IV 638hp supercharged LS9 in the Corvette. The move from cast-iron to aluminum heads and blocks has meant ever-lighter powerplants for off-roaders. These engines have long been popular in GM trucks and SUVs but have also been a top choice for engine swaps into everything from CJs to mini trucks. Aftermarket support is through the roof and parts are very affordable.
Selectable Locking Differentials
Locking and limited-slip differentials have been around for many decades. However, each type requires some compromise between highway and off-road performance. In 1987, ARB introduced the first selectable locker to try to attain the best of both worlds. They chose to design a pneumatic actuating differential that can be fully locked or completely unlocked (open differential) with the push of a button inside the cab. Other manufacturers have followed over the years, and now other electric and mechanical selectable lockers are available on the market. Toyota is one OEM vehicle manufacturer that offers electrically actuated lockers on some of their trucks.
Traditional automotive leaf springs have been in use for well over a century and have their place as an economical means of supporting vehicle weight and controlling solid live axle movement. However, linked suspensions in use in the off-road world offer decided advantages. While in use on road cars for decades, they probably emerged more in the 4WD arena in the mid ’80s and ’90s. Now multi-link systems are common on factory suspensions, as well as the choice for many performance off-road suspensions. These suspensions allow the links to perform the sole purpose of locating the axle and governing its range of movement. Springs (typically coils) are used only to support vehicle weight and shocks used to dampen the suspension movement. These setups provide far more adjustability of all performance factors, and issues such as axle wrap can be practically eliminated.
The early days of desert racing were rough and tumble. Often, the method used to set up a suspension to survive grueling terrain at speed was to build it overly stiff and live with the jarring ride. Long-travel IFS has resulted in a big jump in high-speed performance. With a wider stance and huge travel numbers, this style of suspension is capable of gobbling up severe terrain to the benefit of driver comfort and vehicle stability. This suspension has been the result of numerous hardware advances and ingenious design. Rod ends taken from the aircraft industry have allowed for strong pivot points with large rotating angles. High-tech coilover and bypass shocks, and associated tuning expertise, have allowed racers and weekend warriors to capitalize on all that travel with controlled damping. Today, there are quality kits available for the general public to turn their street-driven trucks into go-fast prerunners.
Dual and Low-Geared Transfer Cases
Many modern innovations have increased our ability to go fast over off-road terrain. However, Marlin Czajkowski brought us the means to maximize our ability to crawl over insane obstacles with control. Czajkowski, an ingenious gearhead, was intrigued by the first crawler box he saw from Benny’s Auto Service in Iceland. He worked with the concept and was soon building dual Toyota crawler sets. From there, he has continued to refine Toyota-based dual-case transfer cases and introduced low-range gear kits to the Toyota market. Others have produced similar products for other vehicle makes. Off-Road Design offers a conversion kit that mates the reduction portion of a NP203 to a NP205 case to give you more low-gear options. In 1995, Advance Adapters started experimenting with building a rugged aftermarket transfer case. They eventually succeeded and the Atlas was born. Today they build the Atlas II with low-range ratios up to 5:1 and a four-speed version with ratios up to 11.70:1. T-case innovations have greatly improved our ability to tackle tough obstacles with far superior traction and control abilities.
In 1959, Warn decided to diversify their product line with the introduction of an electric winch for recreational use. They were initially made by Belleview Manufacturing of Portland, Oregon. However, Warn ended up buying Belleview in 1966. A winch served as a vital recovery tool for backcountry explorers and desert racers. Solo wheelers now had a reliable means of self-recovery or could use it to move trail obstacles, such as large boulders or fallen trees. Warn has branched off and now makes many types of specialized winches for off-road applications. Models range from compact, lightened competition winches to hefty workhorses with added air compressor capability. The further use of synthetic winch rope means that winch weights have decreased even more and winches can be used more safely in competition and congested trail situations. Today, there are many winch brands that offer us a variety of choices.