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November 2012 Trail Head Editorial

Posted in Features on November 1, 2012
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Man, I’ve asked myself that very question hundreds of times. Usually it’s just before breaking ground on a project vehicle, but sometimes it’s purely academic. Just a hypothetical daydream spurred by those online ads I can’t seem to keep away from. But unlike the advice I offer readers asking about their vehicle builds, I don’t always factor real-world needs, wants, budget, and intended use into my own formulas.

Normally I get some wild, unattainable idea and then change plans mid-stream a hundred times before I spin the first bolt. And once I begin, there’s no such thing as a committed build plan. Case in point: My ’53 flattie had literally four different engines slung between the framerails before I ever filled the tank and turned the key. I was like a puppy distracted by shiny, spinning things. “Oooh, look at this!”—and then off I went in a different direction. And the other vehicles I’ve owned, heck, I couldn’t possibly keep track of how many engine swaps I’ve done. For axle buildups, the number is probably more than 10. Transmission or T-case swaps, probably north of a baker’s dozen. But in all those builds over all those years, I’ve never felt like I was treading on stale ground. Although not all of my buildups were completely original, I always felt each had a special something that gave them their own individual identity.

Take some of my favorites. My orange ’53 DJ-3A is just an oddball any way you look at it. A prototype DJ with doors running a DOHC 3.5L Shortstar, a manual tranny, and twin Ford 9-inch axles? Weird in the best way possible. My ’68 M-715 was admittedly inspired by our former publisher Jeff Nasi’s M-715. Mine had a budget-built 400hp injected small-block, a Ranger Overdrive, and a home-built cage housing seating for eight (Jeff’s had seating for six). And finally, the one that was probably nearest and dearest to my heart: my former Border Patrol ’71 CJ-6, aka Project Hatari!. It sported the factory mint-green Border Patrol paint with the perfect amount of patina showing through. I got a Buick 225 and Spicer 18 out of a totaled ’70½ CJ-5 Renegade, installed an NV3550 five-speed with parts from Advance Adapters, rebuilt the T-case, and left the 4.88-geared axles alone. It rode on cheap 31-inch retread tires, barked through fenderwell headers, and was my daily driver for over a year.

And now here I am about to step back into the ring with another former Border Patrol ’71 CJ-6. It, too, has mint-green factory paint and more than its fair share of patina. The stock Buick 225, T-14, Spicer 18, and flanged Dana 44 rear are there. The front axle is bent, the engine has issues, the springs are shot, the brakes are gone, and the fuel system is rotten, so I find myself asking that old familiar question: How to build it?

I’m sure if I opened it up to a committee vote, most would clamor for a Project Hatari! II buildup. Maybe this time with a fresh paintjob and a full Border Patrol-spec restoration. And while “Project La Migra” strikes a chord with me, I think ultimately it’ll be a little too close to the original Project Hatari! for comfort. Like I said, I don’t really like to cover the same ground twice. Besides, right now I’m in the wild, unattainable idea phase of my madness.

Maybe I’ll ditch the stock drivetrain for a 500-inch Caddy V-8, TH400, and a Stak three-speed T-case and grab some CUCV one-ton axles. I’d remove enough metal to clear 40s with no lift and run bypass shocks. Or how about a 6-71 blown 460 Ford with zoomie headers poking through the hood, coilovers, and front and rear duallie 38-inch tires? Or maybe a farm-implement “Project PTO” build with every auxiliary shaft-driven contraption ever available for an agricultural CJ?

So, how to build it? I’m not really worried. Inspiration will hit me in the middle of the night as it always does, and all the other build dreams will fall to the wayside. Until then, I’ll just enjoy daydreaming about what it could be. I think after all is said and done, that’s one of my favorite parts of building a Jeep.

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