Have you ever wanted to build a classic 4x4? We certainly have. As a matter of fact, we spend a lot of time daydreaming about it when we should be working.
First, let’s define a classic 4x4, or old iron, or vintage, or whatever you want to call ’em. Most U.S. states consider a vehicle to be a classic when it is over 20 years old. Since we’re knee-deep in 2013, this means a vehicle manufactured in 1993 or prior qualifies.
In this story the Four Wheeler staff weighs in with our top five choices (in order) of classic rigs we’d like to build. Some are no surprise, but some are relatively obscure. Some are large, and some are small. Some are weird (like us), and some are not. Some we’d almost totally rebuild, while others we’d leave almost stock.
So, read on and learn which classic rigs we’d like to build. Hopefully, this info will inspire you to build up your own classic 4x4.
John Cappa, Editor
5. ’67-’72 GM Truck/’69-’72 K5 Blazer/Jimmy
I like the body lines of the early round-fendered GM trucks. There is nothing wrong with the later square-fendered trucks, in fact I own one, and they make better projects because they have more desirable and more common parts on them. It’s just that the round-fendered versions stand out, so much so that these 4x4s fetch a premium today. Personally, I’d look for a shortbed pickup truck or the Blazer/Jimmy. The longbeds are still cool, but they just don’t have the same appealing dimensions to me. Since these trucks enjoy the early GM drivetrain parts that virtually snap together like Legos, pretty much any V-8 and transmission combo is a winner, or can be changed around to be one very easily.
4. ’73-’79 Ford F-series/’78-’79 Bronco
I wanted a version of this series of Ford truck to be my first vehicle. I still think they are great looking trucks with fantastic drivetrain parts. I have had my eye on a white ’78 or possibly a ’79 stepside 4x4 that has been sitting in a guy’s yard for about 15 years. I pass by it nearly every time I go to the desert. It hasn’t moved but once or twice in that time (that I know of), and it has had a “For Sale” sign on it for as long as I can remember. I really need to stop and check it out more closely. Unlike many of my other selections, these trucks are pretty much turnkey with decent engines, great transmissions, great transfer cases, and great axles. Plenty of easy bolt-on upgrades, suspension lift kits, and more are available for these trucks.
3. ’47-’53 Chevy Truck
You have to be a pretty handy welder and fabricator to make use of one of these trucks. They were never offered as a production 4x4, but who cares! The original drivetrain and suspension are pretty much worthless anyway, and in reality so is the frame, but I really like the older rounded and swoopy truck designs. The cab is much smaller than today’s fullsize trucks so you can fit on some pretty tight trails yet still have a roof and steel doors. The huge front fenders and stepside beds lend a hand when fender trimming to keep the truck low and fit big tires. I saw one of these trucks rockcrawling in Arizona in the late ’90s, when everyone else had CJs and YJs. It looked so cool, unusual, and original that I vowed to someday build one for wheeling. I almost always stop and drool when I see a clapped-out version for sale on the side of the road, which is pretty common in the Southwestern states. Hide a fuel-injected small-block V-8, or even a modern LS powerplant under the patina hood along with all of the other common trail-worthy drivetrain accoutrements, and you’ll have a sweet 4x4 that stands out from the sea of overly modified ’07-present Wranglers.
2. ’55-’59 Studebaker E Series Truck
I like them for the same reasons I like the ’47-’53 Chevy truck. They are slightly less common, but basket cases usually congregate in a collector’s yard. All you have to do is talk the guy out of one of them. None of the drivetrain or suspension is useful for trail work, and it’s likely that the frame is worthless too, unless you are willing to reinforce it with a full bumper-to-bumper custom cage or other method. Be prepared to weld and fabricate pretty much everything when you convert it to 4x4 because few were offered with a T-case and driving front axle.
1. ’42-’53 Flatfender Jeep
What can I say—I’m a sucker for early CJs. Not so much in the stock form (although they can be fun), but I really like to see well thought-out, low-slung versions that have not been molested with butch modifications like comp-cut fenders, stereos, and hood scoops. I like to see the factory body lines hiding in clever workmanship that allows the small tub to fit bigger tires and wheels, a modern fuel-injected V-6, a granny-geared manual transmission, and heftier axles, among other things. You can almost build one from scratch using aftermarket parts, so anything from grilles to body tubs and taillights to transmissions are still available. Another plus is that they don’t take up a lot of space and are super easy to work on, so they make great father-son/daughter projects, even in a single-car garage or carport!
Ali Mansour, Technical Editor
5. Willys Pickup
If we are basing our picks strictly on looks, the ’40s-’60s-era Willys pickups are some of my favorites. I’m actually not all that crazy about the stock powertrain, frame, or axles, so if you ditched all of that, it wouldn’t upset me a bit. I simply love the lines and cab on the old Willys pickups. There have been numerous Willys truck build variations over the years (some even featured here). I would love to outfit one with a modern 5.3L V-8, TH400, NP241 transfer case, and a set of full-float 1-ton axles. Slide on some 40-inch cleats and you have a truck that not only looks great, but performs awesome.
Sure, when wheeling a classic, you always run the risk of destroying a panel or the entire hard-to-replace rig. Wheeling a well-built piece of history is sometimes worth the risk. Besides, with a little know-how and time you can have a fully-built Willys pickup for far less than the price of a brand new, optioned-out Wrangler.
The ’60s-’70s-era M35A2 (also known as the Deuce-and-a-Half) is one of the cheapest and most rugged trucks you can purchase. It ranks as one of my all-time favorite classic American-military machines (just behind the Willys flatfender). The 13,000-pound Deuce has a loyal enthusiast following—and for good reason. The Deuce’s immense size and weight keep them from being ideal trail rigs, but they are excellent platforms for someone looking to create a custom camper and tow rig. Would I want to drive a Deuce cross-country with my Jeep in tow? Heck no! But a day’s drive out of state is not out of the question.
Three 2½-ton Rockwell axles and twelve tires mean you have traction for days and stability for towing an extra-heavy rig. The turbocharged, multi-fuel rigs offer pep and oil burning versatility, so you can be green and badass at the same time! If you want to give yours a more modern edge, you can upgrade the tires with some 44-inch military take-offs and plumb in air-assist steering to make driving duties easier. If you have the room (which you will need lots of), a Deuce is a great and inexpensive addition to the 4x4 enthusiast fleet.
3. Mercedes-Benz Unimog
Another war-era favorite is the Mercedes-Benz Unimog. With tremendous ground clearance courtesy of portal axles, the Unimog is more farm tractor than daily driver. Replacement parts aren’t the easiest to come by, but the early gas-powered 404 models keep popping up on the web for less than $5,000. I would ditch the stock Mercedes engine in the 404 and upgrade it with a later-model V-8 that has more readily available parts.
Since the axles are already fitted with selectable lockers and you have a host of low gear options, I would focus on upgrading the tires and possibly adding hydro-assist steering. Like the M35A2, there is a variety of bed options. I’ve owned a troop carrier and ambulance version of the 404. The ambulance box was a cool novelty and great storage bin, but the troop carrier was less of a chore to drive. The drum brakes are less than desirable, so a custom disc conversion would be nice as well. Still not sure how well a modified Unimog would work off-road? Spend a little time on YouTube looking at the ’Mogs work, and you will quickly become a believer.
2. ’66 -’77 Ford Bronco
It came with a V-8, Dana 44 front, 9-inch rear, and a removable top. What more could you want? The ’66-’77 Ford Bronco is an icon in its own right, and something we wish was still around today to give the Wrangler a run for its money. What we now refer to as the early Bronco has the DNA of what makes a great wheeling machine. Unlike modern rigs where you have to ditch the factory axles, engine, and most of the suspension, the early Bronco just needs a few aftermarket goodies and it’s raring to go.
I prefer the ’71½-’77 models, since those year ranges were fitted with the stronger Dana 44 front axle. With a coil-sprung front and leaf-sprung rear, the Bronco’s suspension is easy to mod, though you don’t need much lift to run a large tire. Most early Bronco purists wince at the idea of trimming fenders on the classic horse, but it’s the best way to keep them low and usable off-road. Add fuel injection to the 302ci V-8, a set of lockers, 37s, and some rocker protection, and you have the makings of one wild horse. No matter if you are just looking for a cool rig to see the back country or hit the rocks, the early Bronco is a great choice.
1. ’85 Toyota Pickup
I have a hard time looking at anything from the ’80s and calling it a classic, but considering a truck built in 1983 is now 30 years old, I guess I can start lumping them in. The late ’70s to mid ’80s were some of the best years for Toyota pickups. Sure, the Tacoma is a great modern-day machine, but the Toyota mini-trucks of old had everything you need. If I had to narrow my classic truck pick down to one for the Toyota brand, it would be the highly sought-after ’85 pickup.
The ’85 Toyota pickup marks a few important milestones for Toyota. One of the more notable was the shift away from carburetors to fuel injection. Another turning point that we were sad to see was ’85 would be the last year of the solid-front axle. Today, the aftermarket support for these trucks is as strong as ever. While the inline-four 22R-E isn’t the most powerful powerplant, gearing upgrades to the transfer case and differentials make it very livable on- and off-road.
It doesn’t take much to make the classic mini-trucks competent wheelers. In fact, a mild lift, 35s, lockers, and a gearing upgrade is more than enough to get you going on some challenging terrain. For added flare, I’m a fan of bobbing the bed to increase the departure angle. Overall, you can’t really go wrong with the ’85 Toyota truck, even if it is a little slow.
Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
5. ’60-’66 Chevy Pickup/Suburban
There’s just something about the lines of these vehicles that appeal to me in a big way. These trucks have a brawny look and scream rugged. In a perfect world I’d find either a ¾-ton stepside 4x4 pickup or a ¾-ton Suburban 4x4 (though I’d be happy with a ½-ton Suburban 4x4 like the one pictured here). If I could find one with the optional 327ci V-8 engine I’d just add fuel injection, headers, dual exhaust, and call it a day under the hood. A pair of Dana 60s and an ARB Air Locker in each diff would help it wheel reliably and elegantly. It doesn’t really need it due to its good ground clearance and approach angle, but I’d add a set of 35-inch tires and a few inches of lift. Just enough lift so the tires wouldn’t hit the body, but no more (it’s a boxy body style, so a lot of lift would just make it look weird). I definitely wouldn’t want to carve up the body because it’s a crime to hack up a classic rig like this.
4. ’86-’92 Jeep Comanche MJ
The Comanche is my choice for a compact pickup used for daily commuting and weekend wheeling. The pickup bed offers the functionality I need and the smaller overall exterior size makes it a great trail rig. There are so many things to like about the Comanche, including the flexy, coil-spring four-link front suspension (similar versions of this suspension appeared under the Grand Cherokee WJ, Cherokee XJ, and Wrangler TJ), which was bolted to a good ‘ol solid front axle. If I were to build a Comanche (preferably a ’92 model) I’d acquire one with the awesome 4.0L six-cylinder engine and I’d massage it with some mild mods. I may be old school, but I like my Jeep engines with the cylinders in single file, standing at attention. I would ditch the factory axles and install Dana 44 axles with an Eaton E-Locker in each. I’m not one to focus on aesthetics, but I’d swap on the front end of a ’97-’01 Cherokee XJ and I’d paint the entire rig matte tan.
3. ’67-’72 GM Pickup/ ’69-’72 K5 Blazer/Jimmy
These trucks are the definition of a classic vehicle. The stunning exterior design is simple and uncluttered and they’re fitted with a solid front axle. I’d like to find a longbed pickup with the 396ci or 402ci engine and a manual transmission. I believe this combo would make a good weekend wheeler and work truck. I’d like to find a K5 with a 350ci engine and manual transmission. I’m a classic vehicle purist to a degree, but I’d go wild with modifications on one of these given the opportunity (and the winning lottery ticket.) I’d re-power it with a 6.6L Duramax turbodiesel LML engine and use the Allison 1000 six-speed automatic transmission. I’d install a limited-slip differential in each Dynatrac ProRock 60 axle and swap the front leaf springs to a four-link coilover setup.
2. ’76-’80 International Scout II Terra
I’ve owned two International Scout II SUVs, but I really want to build a Scout II Terra pickup. They’re basically a Scout Traveler made into a truck. The Traveler was a longer version of the Scout II and it had a wheelbase of 118 inches as opposed to the Scout II’s 100-inch wheelbase. One of the things that made the Terra so unique was that it came with a removable fiberglass hardtop. The Terra pictured here belonged to my brother-in-law. The majority of these trucks had the IH 345ci V-8 engine and all had a simple leaf-spring suspension. I have a lot of respect for bone-stock Terra pickups, and if one was in my driveway I’d be happy for the rest of my life. However, I’ve always wanted to go nuts modifying a Terra. I’d fit it with an International/Navistar 4.5L Power Stroke V-6 turbodiesel engine (gotta keep it IH-powered!), which is basically a 6.0L Power Stroke engine with two cylinders removed. Butted up to that would be a TorqShift 5R110W transmission. Dana 60s would be mated to a four-link coilover suspension up front and longer-than-stock leaf-spring suspension out back. No body mods would be allowed, and I’d recreate the Rallye package visual look, just because.
1. ’89-’93 Dodge Ram W250
Before Dodge decided to make the Ram pickup look like a semi-truck, there was the first-generation Ram, and it was produced from 1981 through 1993. Some may think this generation of Ram is blah, but I like its bones and there’s a good foundation to work with. I’d most like to build an ’89-’93 Cummins-powered rig, preferably an extended cab model with a manual transmission. The 12-valve, direct-injection, turbocharged engine is refreshingly simple, reliable and capable in stock form, and there’s a ton of mods available for it in the aftermarket. I’d add just enough lift to clear a set of 33-inch tires, limited-slip differentials to the factory axles, a fifth-wheel trailer hitch, winches front and rear, gobs of full perimeter LED lighting, and black wheels. Oh, and I’d de-chrome it, especially that glaring front grille. I love the honest simplicity of these trucks.