Additional Photography by John Mears
There's a special feeling about heading out into the backcountry in an untested rig. Call it scary, exciting, exhilarating, interesting, or downright foolish, but you know the feeling. It flows through our veins like 90-weight in a transfer case. Our favorite adventures like these are known as DED tours, for Dirt Every Day, even though sadly they only come along every few years now. The concept came 20 years ago when former Hot Rod Editor David Freiburger and I bought a forlorn and neglected Jeep in a faraway location, rebuilt it on site, and nursed it back home by backroads and byways. Of course, cheap is the rule. Anyone can dump cash on pile and say they succeeded, but our idea is to use what's available, and make it if it isn't. But first, you have to start with the right vehicle. And it has to be cheap!
This time it was special when I found it. Fred Williams clued me in, and when I saw it, I had to have it. It was so damn weird and ugly that it cried out to me to save it and do a DED. It was a CJ-3B Jeep. Sort of. Of course the 3B has been the butt of most Jeep jokes, as it has a high hood for a flatfender, which ruins the classic flatty panache. But this one was even weirder. It was a hardtop long-wheelbase model, which was never made here in the U.S. of A. It didn't even look right—the standard visual Jeep cues were all there but decidedly odd. Yes, I had to have it. Of course it was of unknown vintage, history, and running condition, but the owner said it was all there and rolled. So I bought it off the web from a guy I'd never met, and he graciously left it in his yard in Spokane for four years before the Washington DED Tour was ever hatched.
Our last DED was in 2010, in the CJ-3A ("Supersonic DED," Oct. '10), and finding this 3B was only a year past that. But then life got in the way and every plan to fix and drive the beast the 1,400 miles home fell through. But I did research it and found it to be made by Mahindra under license in India, then shipped to Turkey as an ambulance. This was a real production (sort of) Jeep, but just way too weird for words. If you had to own a 3B, this was it. Finally this summer I convince ex-owner John Mears to be my copilot instead of Freiburger. John offered his garage since the Jeep hadn't moved in five years anyway, much less run in about 15. I convinced him we could resurrect it and have fun—and the adventure began.
Our stock 134ci F-head four-cylinder had been sitting unmolested for 14 years, except for a dollop of fuel and fire when I bought it. It fired then, so we figured a good cleaning and oil change would be all it needed. We traded the battery and four other cores in for a rebuilt one, and came out money ahead! Sadly, all of the red hornets had to be blasted out, and there were a ton of them.
Ultimate Adventure alumni Rocky Dorame helped us scour pawn shops for road tools and supplies. He also sold us a set of used tires and wheels off his Jeep that were only 10 years old, not 20.
Since the 3B rolled, we simply cleaned and packed the wheel bearings and topped off the gearboxes and axles with fresh 90-weight. The driveshafts, steering linkage, and clutch links all got fresh grease as well.
All four brake wheel cylinders and the master were frozen semisolid, but the brake shoes and drums were fine. Mahindra used slightly different brake components, so we couldn't use standard 3B parts. After soaking in PB Blaster, we pried the cups out, pounded the pistons out, and sandblasted everything. We salvaged a used master cylinder from Hazzard Fabworks, but had to get new used piston and cups. Once finished, we had brakes and they only leaked a little.
A giant steel gas tank had been installed in the bed and was full of rust. Rocky and former owner John Mears (yes, he's the big guy) removed the 40-pound unit. They found a used plastic Jeep YJ tank from Performance Off Road Products' backyard that could be strapped down in the back with plumber's tape. We are trained professionals in search of adventure; sometimes our fixes are less than OSHA approved.
Three days of wrenching later, we hopped in for the 1,400-mile jaunt at 11 p.m. Actually John didn't hop. Being taller than Paul Bunyan, he had to crawl over the driver side and past the shifters to the passenger side, and this made an entertaining show every time he needed in or out of the 3B. Since it was an ambulance, the Jeep never had a right side door! However, the carb was plugged, so we went back to the shop and rebuilt it in an hour, then hit the road at midnight.
The dash gauges are different on this beast, and only the temp gauge worked. It sat around 90 degrees most of the time, which in Farsi means "good to go."
Our first real dilemma acted like vaporlock about 60 miles south of Spokane. Except for the fact that that it was quite chilly, the diagnosis seemed logical as we waited a half-hour then the 'B ran fine. We decided to make it another 60 miles and camp out rather than pushing on through.
Another 200 miles south the next morning got us to the Buford Grade—and another flameout. This time we had fuel, and it was still chilly outside, but we were climbing a big grade under load, like the last time. The thought of a bad capacitor got the gears turning—in our head. One lone truck stopped and offered to call us a tow truck when he got cell service in an hour, and then another guy stopped to truly help.
And help he did. Doug Coombes towed us on our snatch strap for 60 miles up a twisty canyon and through the mountains. He tows mobile homes up and down this grade for a living so we weren't worried about his skill (professional driver on what should have been a closed course).
Doug Coombes pulled us all the way to the NAPA in Enterprise, Oregon, where we bought a new capacitor for the distributer, which fixed the problem. We also enjoyed a hot dog from the local charity trying to make a buck.
We hightailed it through the rain and sleet of twisty backwoods to Hell's Canyon, Oregon, and enjoyed a quick dip in the not-too-warm water. It had been a long three days without a shower or bath.
Camping in a Mahindra ambulance is easy. It can hold two guys' gear for a year and still carry more. The springs and worn-out shocks gave it a limolike ride once loaded down, and beating along backroads actually lulled the passenger to sleep, and sometimes the driver.
Luckily our in-cab mounted YJ fuel tank was around 20 gallons, giving us a minimum range of 200 miles. We ended up backtracking from Denio Junction, Nevada, to Oregon for fuel—the Department of Environmental Quality had shut the station down, and it was the only gas stop for hundreds of miles.
Black Rock desert is famous for the Burning Man celebration. We were a week early and it was still plenty weird and desolate, allowing us to hit the top speed of 64 mph. Not bad with 5.38 gears, two guys with all their gear, bricklike aerodynamics, and no overdrive!
Every dirt road we saw called out to us, and a few like this led us across uncharted (at least for Google) territory. We ended up at a lake on some Indian reservation and decided to just keep on going.
While the 3B went through plenty of petrol, the original (to us) antifreeze stayed clean and level and we only blew through 2 quarts of oil in 1,400 miles. It probably would have been less, but hitting anything over 60 blew a bit of oil out the breather—and was exciting.
Did you know there are some huge sand dunes in Nevada? I didn't, but John had worked the area as a geologist, so we blasted around the base of them anyway.
Whenever we are on a DED, we look for our brethren, our comrades in arms, our fallen soldiers. Luckily we found two in Goldfield, Nevada.
We took the back way into Death Valley National Park, and yes, it's legal.
We had started at 1,800 feet high in Spokane, crawled all the way up to 8,000 feet at Hell's Canyon, and finally made it to below sea level in Death Valley. Now we had to crawl out of the 3,000-foot depression without overheating—and it was 104 degrees in the shade.
Back in Southern California, we took as many dirt roads and desert byways as we could find. 1,400 miles ticked by while wheeling, which is a good thing.
Not the prettiest sight in the world, but it does mean we were back in the rat race. "If I can just get off of that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught..." (apologies to Jerry Jeff Walker). Another DED end, with 1,579 miles. Now what do we do for the next adventure? Wanted: your ugly old Jeep that deserves a good Pewe-vacation.