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Top Five Favorite Four Wheeler Projects - Cinco De Besto

Posted in Features on July 7, 2014 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Archives

Since Four Wheeler’s first issue way back in 1962, dozens and dozens of official magazine project vehicles have graced its pages. Some were groundbreaking, some were forgettable, some were timeless, and some were embarrassingly bad. But only a select few can be considered the best. Editor-in-Chief Hazel and Art Director Smith flipped through each and every issue of Four Wheeler ever printed to identify, select, and rate ‘em into one list of the good, the bad, and the noteworthy. So let’s start it off with the best five Four Wheeler project rigs of all time.

The Baja 1000 FJ40
Back in 1974, Four Wheeler decided to take its propane-powered Clean Air Land Cruiser project to race the Baja 1000. Just hoping to cross the line under its own power and maybe secure a modest Eighth or Ninth Place, the FJ40 wound up winning its class (Class 3, Four-Wheel-Drive Stock Production) with only minor modifications from stock.

Piloted by Bill Sanders and Pete Springer and wearing Number 169, it was converted back to run on gasoline and then loaded with such hardcore off-road fare as six rear and four front Gabriel shocks, heavy-duty springs, Dick Cepek Tru-Trac tires on Superior wheels, a Smittybilt rollbar, a 35-gallon foam-filled fuel cell, and a Man-A-Fre fiberglass hood. Ultimately, the little Toyota served for more exotic articles like a turbo install, but in its day, it showed what could be done with a basically stock vehicle and a handful of bolt-on modifications, as long as you had a dedicated support crew and some hardcore drivers.

Project IFS No More
Definitely one of the coolest vehicles to grace the pages of Four Wheeler, Ned Bacon’s 1-ton axle upgrade for his 1989 1⁄2-ton was heady stuff in its day. Already equipped with serious off-road upgrades to support Ned’s backcountry wanderlust like a custom utility/camping bed, auxiliary fuel tank, onboard welder, Warn 8274 winch, onboard air, an NV4500 five-speed tranny swap, and a Ranger Underdrive gearbox, the GM lost its IFS front suspension for some simple and affordable leaf springs.

The front used 52-inch-long, 8-inch-lift Skyjacker packs designed for the rear of a 1969-1987 GM truck. Out back, Ned used Skyjacker 63-inch-long, 51⁄2-inch-lift packs. Rancho RS9000s -- four in front and two in rear -- damped the movement of the 1979 Ford F-350 Dana 60 front and 14-bolt rear. Ned used an ARB in the front and Detroit Locker in the back, while 4.56 gears helped the 205,000-mile TBI 350 spin the 36-inch tires on heavy steel wheels.

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Project Solid Swap
Running alongside Ned Bacon’s low-buck conversion in the same issues in 1997 was Ben Stewart’s higher-zoot, higher-dollar IFS delete on his GM truck. For the time, it was a pretty exotic setup capable of delivering performance that could far outpace the driving ability of most novice off-roaders -- or experienced magazine editors, as Ben found out on his shakedown run. Intoxicated with the 1990 1500’s new capability, Ben stuffed the front end straight into a three-foot-tall wall of a dry wash, bending the panhard bar and damaging numerous other components in the process.

Regardless of the operator error, the truck was a beacon of cutting-edge tech for its day. Where Ned used cheap and inexpensive leaf springs, Ben went for swoopy 60-series Bilstein remote-reservoir coilovers and a custom four-link up front, with long-travel National Spring race packs and a quartet of Bilsteins in the rear. The 1979 Ford Dana 44 front axle was completely retubed with 0.500-wall DOM material and stuffed with an ARB and 4.56s at Dirt Trix, the Phoenix-based shop that did the buildup. Out back, a 35-spline semi-float Dynatrac 60 rear with 4.56s and an ARB eschewed other heavyweight options. Even the 35x12.50R15 Big O M/T tires were (for its day) large and high-tech. It’s a buildup that would still catch a second look in the dunes.

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Project Teal-J
Project Teal-J kind of makes both the best and worst list, but we’ll be nice and focus on the first buildup series from 1997 done by Ben Stewart. When the 1997 TJ hit the showroom floors in 1996, it was welcomed with open arms by the off-road community, unlike the YJ which preceded it. One of the first magazine TJ projects, Teal-J highlighted just how capable these little monsters could be with only a handful of carefully selected parts. Upgrades like a 4:1 T-case for the NP231, a TeraFlex slinky-coil suspension, drop-in lockers and 4.10 gears, and even 15x10 Stockton beadlocks all seem commonplace nowadays. However, back then, they were cutting edge and helped make hardcore parts mainstream, if not mundane.

The second buildup series in 2003-04 saw further upgrades, but not always for the better. And by the time the third iteration of this vehicle’s life came around, it was rife with compromises. Some project rigs are like a painting: You need to know when to put down the brush. But in its early stages, Teal-J was a showcase of the best parts of its day that served equally well on the street or the trail and that could be replicated by virtually any off-road enthusiast.

Project Tug Boat
The somewhat hokey project name aside, Greg Whale’s multi-part buildup series of the 1992 Cummins-powered Dodge W250 was one of the first times any magazine highlighted the massive potential of the mighty 5.9L Cummins engine in a Dodge pickup. Although many installments dealt with common off-roading elements like 33x12.50R16.5 BFG A-T tires and custom National Spring leaf packs, eventually they got to the meat of the matter: turning the screws on the 5.9L. With some easy mods, such as a new intercooler and a high-flow muffler and air filter, the Tug Boat saw a roughly 50 lb-ft improvement at the rear tires.

A subsequent follow-up netted the project a new turbo and some other select parts from Banks (as well as some fueling mods we imagine) that allowed the Cummins to spin the dyno rollers to the tune of 235 hp and 643 lb-ft at the tires. That’s plenty of torque to frag the axleshafts of the Dana 60 front and Dana 70 rear, if the tires could ever get enough grip. Nowadays, those are the factory torque numbers of any 3⁄4- or 1-ton pickup, but back then, 400 lb-ft was mind-blowing. And anything over 600 lb-ft was just unreal.

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