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Flex! Jeff Van Den Hande’s Homebuilt, Cantilevered 1997 Ranger

Posted in Features on April 11, 2019
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Photographers: Ken Brubaker

“I was hell-bent on making this truck a personification of myself—functional, cheap, and odd.” Jeff Van Den Hende delivered on those promises, and then some, when he built his ’97 Ford Ranger. It was 2006 when he discovered the truck in San Diego, California, serving as a utility repair mule, without a single modification on its buildsheet. Jeff quickly succumbed to the bite of the “off-road builder bug,” and he began outfitting the Ranger to suit his needs.

The first combination of a 4-inch lift kit, 33-inch tires, and Jeff’s right foot left a trail of obliterated spider gears in the Ranger’s wake. Staying true to the promises of “functional” and “cheap,” Jeff decided to stave off future axle-related woes by going big early on in the project—with Dana 60 axles front and rear. The front axle came from a damaged Dodge 3500, the remainder of which was sold to finance the rear junkyard-picked Dana 60. The birth of Jeff’s two kids kept the truck project in the garage, gathering dust for five years; however, Shasta, Jeff’s wife, knew her husband’s project would never recover from such a hiatus without her help. She fed him a steady diet of Four Wheeler magazines and off-road videos until his fabrication flame flickered back to life.

When we caught up with Jeff and family in the California desert, we were flabbergasted by what had become of the formerly bland-as-potato-pudding ’97 Ranger. Read on for more details on the suspension sorcery beneath Jeff’s rig and more.

Jeff Van Den Hende’s ’97 Ford Ranger has come quite a way since he bought the truck in 2006, and it still isn’t complete. Future plans include a 5.0L engine, beefier transmission, a rollcage, and cantilever coilover front suspension.
The Ranger’s stock 3.0L V-6 is still under the hood and has kept the truck going for 256,000 miles with a little help from the Volant cold-air intake/snorkel system, Gibson exhaust, custom-screened hood vents, and 16-inch Derale electric fan. Next up for power is the stock 4R55E transmission with a torque convertor from a 4.0L Ranger and a Superior shift kit, before it’s split up at the BW1354E transfer case. Between all the gear reductions, Jeff’s setup affords him a 33:1 crawl ratio.
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It’s come a long way since the days of being an IFS utility work truck, and with the help of a wrecked Dodge 3500, Jeff’s rig now has a Dana 60 filled with 5.38:1 gears. For traction, he employed a never-slip set of welded spider gears. The truck’s original suspension is long gone, and it has been replaced by a set of 54-inch Ford Explorer rear leaf springs connected to the frame with GM lowering shackles. Jeff took the tie rod, bumpstops, and rear shocks from a scrapped ’05 Super Duty and mounted them to the Ranger via a pair of shock towers from another F-Series pickup. The front suspension boasts 10 inches of travel and is kept centered beneath the vehicle with a custom track bar.

Viewed directly from the side, the Ranger might not look too unusual; however, approaching it from the rear reveals how much imaginative modification Jeff put into his rig.
After destroying the Ranger’s stock rear axle, Jeff thought he was future-proofing the rig with a Dana 60. However, it only took a couple trail rides following his build’s five-year hiatus for some heavy throttle to claim yet another rearend. His new strategy was “to go over the top” and drop in a Sterling 10.5-inch and, like the frontend, weld the 5.38 gears. The new axle kept its stock diff covers, but both the front and rear enjoyed Jeff’s yellow paint and custom decal work. Also visible is the custom-fabricated torque arm shackled to the Ranger’s frame.
With the rearend as catastrophe-proof as he could muster, Jeff needed suspension that could really flex. His solution held true to “functional, cheap, and odd,” and it came in the form of 64-inch GM leaf springs and 16-inch F-O-A shocks. The leaf springs were re-arched 8 inches, mounted over the axle, and attached to the frame with flipped Kartek Off-Road drop shackles. The Ranger shows off with 23 inches of rear suspension travel, damped by Jeff’s custom-built cantilever shock setup.
Jeff desperately wanted to maintain his factory bed, but his rear suspension flexed the tires nearly above the tops of the bedsides in their stock placement. It was time to dovetail the bed and work on a new gas tank. He custom-built a fully baffled fuel cell from 0.125-inch mild steel and coated it with Northern Tank Liner. The cell weighs in at 40 pounds and carries 16 gallons of gas. The bed still has space for a fullsize spare tire, and Jeff’s Hi-Lift jack lives adjacent to the fuel cell on a custom-built mount.
The 37x14R16 Interco Super Swamper IROK Bias-Ply tires hug a set of Black Rock wheels and are reined in by the stock Dodge 3500 brakes in the front and Ford Excursion brakes in the rear. Jeff found the set of tires on the blemished rack. They’ve held up quite well, and they helped him stick to his goal of building the truck on the cheap.
Jeff built his front bumper from 1.75-inch-diameter, 0.120-inch-wall DOM tubing, and it protects the Smittybilt XRC 10,000-pound winch, Poison Spyder fairlead, and one of his first modifications to the truck—the T-Rex billet grille with a pair of 6-inch KC Daylighters mounted inside.
The Ranger’s interior is fairly close to stock, with the addition of an NRG Innovations wheel, Cobra CB radio, complete audio system, and a center console donated by a Ford Explorer.
To keep him legal on the highway, Jeff repurposed parts from some powered running boards to allow his bar of KC Daylighters to fold back toward the truck’s bed when he’s driving.
Custom rocksliders were welded to the frame and built with a combination of 1.75-inch-diameter, 0.120-inch-wall DOM tubing; 2-inch, 0.250-inch-wall square tubing; and dimple-died 0.125-inch steel plate.

At a Glance

General
Vehicle: ’97 Ford Ranger
Owner: Jeff Van Den Hende
Stomping grounds: Crestline, California
Build time: 12 slow years

Drivetrain
Engine: Ford 3.0L V-6
Transmission: 4R55E automatic
Transfer case(s): BW1354E
Low range ratio: 2.48:1
Crawl ratio: 33.0:1
Front axle/differential: ’97 Dodge Ram SRW Dana 60, custom-painted stock diff cover, 5.38 gears/welded
Rear axle/differential: ’02 Ford Excursion Sterling 10.5-in, custom-painted stock diff cover, 5.38 gears/welded

Suspension
Front: Ford Explorer 54-in leaf springs; GM lowering shackles; stock Ford Ranger spring and shackle mounts; Ford F-series stamped shock towers; tie rods, bumpstops, and 10-in-travel rear shocks from an ’05 Ford Super Duty; custom track bar w/JK Wrangler ball bushings
Rear: GM 64-in re-arched leaf springs, GM lowering shackles, Kartek Off-Road drop/flip shackles, custom-built cantilever w/16-in F-O-A shocks, custom anti-wrap torque arm, custom leaf-hinged axle mounts, and Paragon brake line
Tires/Wheels
Tires: 37x14R16 Interco Super Swamper IROK Bias-Ply
Wheels: 16x8.5 Black Rock steel

Miscellaneous
Steering: Stock Ranger steering box w/custom-built tie rod and ’05 Ford Super Duty tie-rod ends
Armor: Custom front bumper w/1.75-in-diameter, 0.120-in-wall DOM tubing; custom rock sliders w/1.75-in-diameter, 0.120-in-wall DOM tubing; 2-in, 0.250-in-wall square tubing; and dimple-died 0.125-in steel plate
Cool stuff: Smittybilt XRC 10,000-lb winch, KC roof-mounted lightbar, KC grille-mounted 6-in Daylighters, NRG Innovations steering wheel, Cobra CB radio

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