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Three Door Thunder - 1971 Chevy Suburban with 6.0L Engine

Posted in Features on February 15, 2016
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“It kind of got out of hand…” Blake van Brouwer explains when describing his ’71 three door Suburban. Originally he just wanted a 4x4 that he and his family could use to explore the mountains around their home in Reno, Nevada. Not just any 4x4 would do though, it had to be a vintage Chevy. So when Blake found three door Suburban that was someone else’s half-done project he snatched it up for cheap. It took a diehard Bow Tie fan to see the potential in the ‘Burb, given the hacked interior and purple metal flake paint job. “It wasn’t just ugly, it was a poor paint job,” Blake recalls. That made it easy for Blake and his friend Tony Faraco to start over though.

Rather than cutting and hacking the Suburban to mount a cage or 44-inch tall tires, Blake spent his time making the Suburban more reliable and comfortable. “I actually used a lot of stock parts from various applications,” he confessed. “This saved a lot of money compared to using aftermarket parts for everything.” Of course you can’t just slap a Pontiac Aztec grille on the front of a Suburban and call it “custom”. Blake sourced a 6.0L Gen III engine from a late-model 3/4-ton Chevy pickup to repower his Suburban. The 4L80E overdrive transmission and NP261HD chain driven transfer case were also sourced from the same truck so no expensive adapters or additional electronic control modules were necessary.

The front axle is an eight-lug Dana 44 out of a Ford F-250. This axle is a driver drop, which matches up with the output of the NP261 transfer case and also as a bonus uses a high pinion design that was never offered in a Chevy. The high pinion is both stronger (when used in the front) and also decreases the angle of the front drive shaft, thus limiting vibrations. The same axle was used in F-150 pickups as well, but with coil springs, radius arms, and a five-lug bolt pattern that would not work with Blake’s leaf springs and eight-lug rear axle. That axle is the mighty Corporate 14 Bolt, with a huge ring gear and three pinion bearings to eliminate any chance of gear deflection. Plus, the 14 Bolt fits the theme of “more bang for your buck”.

The interior was completely restored, right down to the powdercoated door strikers and seat brackets. The exterior received similar attention, something rarely seen on a wheeling rig. In fact, that is what Blake means when he says that things “got out of hand”. Now the Suburban is almost too nice to wheel! Blake’s solution for that though was to purchase a ’72 K5 Blazer. With the same great vintage looks as the Suburban but with old faded paint, Blake’s plan is to add one ton axles and just head for the hills, dents and scratches be damned.

A modern 6.0L V8 powers the Suburban. The engine has been enhanced with a Comp Cams RV camshaft, Spectre intake, Doug Thorley headers, and injectors and MAF from an 8.1L truck. A Painless wiring harness was used to ease the heart transplant.

Even with a huge cabin and lots of glass, the Vintage Air unit keeps the Suburban cool on toasty days. The A/C is cleanly routed and the controls do not look out of place at all on the dash. The compressor runs off the same serpentine belt as the rest of the accessories.

Blake retrofit hydroboost brakes onto the Suburban with a custom bracket that he built himself. Otherwise the brakes use all factory, off-the-shelf parts. “This kept the cost down compared to custom one-off parts,” he explained. “Plus parts are easier to find in the middle of nowhere should you ever need them.”

The aluminum crossflow radiator is from Summit Racing. Even without a fan shroud, the dual 1350 cfm electric fans have no problem keeping the engine cool. Blake has another truck with a 6.0L in it and was able to use that to help mock up the wiring and hose routing.

An Optima Red Top battery powers the Suburban and allows Blake to cover rough terrain without concern about battery acid ruining his paint thanks to Optima’s sealed design.

The interior was more appropriately restored than modified, with a recovered stock seat and new marine carpet by Economy Upholstery in San Diego. Dolphin gauges monitor the engine’s vital signs and the 4L80E transmission is shifted via a column shifter on the rebuilt factory column. The Kenwood stereo, Infinity speakers, and Vintage Air A/C add modern conveniences without looking out of place.

When Blake purchased the Suburban, it had a horrible purple metal flake paint job and the dash had been hacked to fit a touch screen. Fortunately he saw past all of these issues and was able to tastefully restore the interior.

The rear of the Suburban fits a fullsize spare tire and Hi-Lift jack, with plenty of room for camping gear, ice chests, or whatever Blake wants to haul along. The back seat is a rare 70/30 split from a ‘74 Suburban. It folds flat to provide even more cargo space.

Details like the gas struts on the rear doors are items most fourwheelers would overlook, but they really set this Suburban apart. Blake also retrofit power windows from a 70s Suburban into the three door and made his own wiring harness for the windows, but you would be hard pressed to tell that they are not original.

The front axle is an eight lug Dana 44 with 3/4-ton brakes and dual Rancho steering stabilizers. It is a high pinion, driver’s drop axle out of a Ford F-250 that matches the diff location to the NP261HD transfer case. The entire axle was rebuilt with new bearings and seals, along Mile Marker hubs and deeper 5.13 gears to work in conjunction with the 38-inch tall tires and overdrive transmission.

The front suspension uses F-250 leaf springs on custom outboarded hangers with greasable shackles and Rancho RS9000 adjustable shocks. While not as fancy as coil springs or coilovers, these leaf springs aren’t exactly archaic. They use several thin leaves to provide a very progressive spring rate that rides quite nicely.

The factory push-pull steering box was replaced with a 2WD steering box that allows for crossover steering from the box to a billet steel steering arm on the passenger side knuckle. The custom drag link and tie rod were constructed from 1 1/4-inch 0.250-wall DOM tubing and use standard GM tie rod ends.

The rear suspension uses F-250 leaf springs and greasable shackles that combine with Rancho RS9000 adjustable shocks to provide approximately five inches of lift. Note how the brake lines are neatly routed and the u-bolts face upward to keep from getting caught on obstacles. Between the springs the cross linked polyethylene gas tank holds 20 gallons fuel.

The rear axle is a Corporate 14 Bolt with 5.13 Yukon gears and disc brakes that use Ford E-350 van calipers. With a 10.5-inch ring gear, third pinion bearing, and 1 1/2-inch axle shafts these axles need few upgrades to withstand big power. The huge 4-inch aluminum driveline was sourced from a ’98 GM K3500.

There are 20,000 lbs. I bolts mounted directly to the frame front and rear for a solid lift point or assistance on the trail. These are one of the items that you don’t see on the average 4x4 but look perfectly at home on the Suburban.

Chevy emblems use a blue bowtie, but Blake felt that red complimented the WHAT paint better. This is just one of the myriad of little details that would go unnoticed by most people, but combine to create a vehicle that is so appealing, even if you cannot quite put your finger on why.

Rolling stock consists of 13/38-16LT Super Swamper TLSs mounted of factory Ford 3/4-ton rims that have been powdercoated gloss black by Marq Powdercoating. The narrow tire and wheel combination look perfect under the vintage Suburban and tuck nicely into the fenders during articulation.

At A Glance
General
Vehicle: ’71 Chevrolet Suburban
Owner: Blake van Brouwer
Stomping grounds: Reno, Nevada
Built time: Six months
Drivetrain
Engine: 6.0L V8
Transmission: 4L80E four speed automatic
Transfer case(s): NP261HD
Low range ratio: 2.72:1
Crawl ratio: 34.6:1
Front axle/differential: Dana 44 w/ 5.13 Yukon gears and Mile Marker hubs
Rear axle/differential: Corporate 14 Bolt w/ 5.13 Yukon gears and disc brakes
Suspension
Front: Custom leaf springs with Rancho RS9000 shocks
Rear: Custom leaf springs with Rancho RS9000 shocks
Steering: Crossover steering with 2WD power steering box and drop pitman arm
Tires/Wheels
Tires: 13/38-16LT Super Swamper TSLs
Wheels: 16x7 Ford factory steel wheels
Miscellaneous
Armor: Rechromed factory bumpers, 10 ton eye bolts
Cool stuff: Restored interior, Gen III power, air conditioning… all of the little details!

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