How the hell did we go from Waylon Jennings singing “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” to pretty-boy country poseurs in bedazzled designer jeans up on the CMA awards stage? I blame technology. I’ve always felt technological advancements, while great, make us softer as a society. Go back 900 years and many of my ancestors wore itchy woolen tunics, lived in mud-floored, thatched-roof huts, sat around waiting to see whether or not they’d die of the plague, and dealt with vicious man-eating bunnies who could bite the head clean off an armored knight of the round table. At least that’s what I’ve been able to piece together from documentaries of the period. Only the strong survived. Now the London tube looks like a page out of an Abercrombie catalog, everybody is vaccinated, and the most dangerous animal prowling the Cotswolds is a seagull. Weak.
As an automotive journalist for the past 20 years, I can’t help but notice some parallels to the automotive world. All but gone is the affordable family SUV with a dedicated two-speed transfer case. You want high ground clearance? Better plan on lifting your car-chassis-based “SUV” 11 inches just to be able to slide under it on a creeper to change the transmission fluid. Oh, that’s right—the tranny is sealed, so you can’t change the fluid at home. You gotta make a service appointment to suck out the old synthetic at your 100,000-mile maintenance interval while you sip a latte in the dealership waiting room. And that’s if you’re even primitive enough get an engine in lieu of an electric motor powered by a sophisticated array of li-po batteries. The vehicle manufacturers aren’t to blame. They’re just catering to the cries of desire from the masses, who have turned into jelly from staring at a smartphone for 90 percent of their waking life.
But fear not, fellow hardcore off-roader. Despite a few exceptions, the OE as a whole may be trending lower, silent, sleeker, and weaker, but the aftermarket has never been more exciting. We’ve got turnkey diesel and gasoline crate engines with more power than anything ever offered in the muscle car heyday, bolt-in and builder axle offerings with metallurgy that makes the burliest military axles from the 1970s look like homespun cheesecloth, killer shocks, durable suspensions, excellent braking systems, and an insane array of gearbox options.
Best of all, if the 2017 SEMA Show is any indication of what’s in store for our sport, then a deep pool of enthusiasts and builders are embracing vintage-vibe builds that blend all this crazy-cool technology from today into the timeless chassis of yesterday. This was the year of the vintage-modern 4x4. The SEMA show was awash with early Broncos, Toyota Land Cruisers, Jeeps, Chevy square bodies, Ford pickups, and more. And all this early iron from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s was done up to the nines underneath with the most modern components and amenities available. For me, it was the most exciting SEMA Show in recent memory, and I hope it’s just the beginning of an expanding trend of saving, updating, and cherishing these old 4x4s. Just so long as the prices of my favorites don’t start getting overly inflated. If that starts happening, then everybody should go buy an electric car. Because old 4x4s have itchy, woolen seat fabric and carry the plague, and the warm engine bays attract killer bunnies looking for warmth on cold winter nights.