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4x4 Swaps And Modification Evolution - Then & Now

Posted in How To on October 1, 2005
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Staff

Remember the old days when you could saunter into a nearby AMC dealer and pick up a brand-new Jeep for $1,146? If you were lucky, the salesman might even have thrown in a PTO option for a whopping 96 bucks. The year was 1947, and back then you'd be hard-pressed to find a 4x-friendly service station, let alone a glossy magazine packed with information about improving your new Willys. In fact, it wasn't until our first issue in February 1962 that any printed information existed about modifying or improving 4x4 vehicles. Now, 43 years later, a meticulous look back reveals a few interesting trends that haven't changed much throughout the decades, and some others that have. Allow us to demonstrate.

In the old days before electronics dominated every single function of an engine, you had to build power mechanically. For instance, this piece from August 1966 (right) on souping up the venerable Buick V-6, which featured modifications like boring the cylinders 0.030 inch over stock effectively, making a 248ci engine from the stock 225ci block. The article also talked about the idea of snagging a set of high-compression pistons from a different Buick V-8 and fitting them to the V-6, thereby raising the compression ratio from 9:1 to 11:1. The article goes on to feature power-adding parts such as an Offenhauser intake manifold, a Rochester carburetor, and a set of headers, which at the time resulted in noticeable power gains. We think this quote from Carl Offenhauser summed it up best. "It's a great little engine. Balanced, beefed, and honed, it will turn eight grand. Mark it up right, and you can increase the horsepower and add two miles per gallon in economy."

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Back in the early '50s, aftermarket bumpers were pretty scarce. A winch mounted to a common 4x4 vehicle was a rather advanced idea. In most cases, mounting a winch required considerable fabrication. However, as exposure increased, so did the demand. And in the case of electric winches in the early '60s, it was a period of exposition. Ads for electronic winches, never before seen by the public, graced Four Wheeler's pages. By 1966, winches were widely popular and several companies had mounting kits available for most 4x4 vehicles. The ad shown at right was taken from our June 1967 issue.

Inevitably, everyone who goes four-wheeling is going to get stuck. It's a fact of four-wheeling life as it was 40 years ago. Today, winches are fairly common on trail rigs. Subsequently, the days of home-brew fabrication have moved to other venues, like suspension and rollcages. As a result, thousands of options exist for consumers who want to install winches on their 4x4s. Everything from winch-ready bumpers to simplistic mounting hardware kits can adapt just about any electric winch on the market to practically any 4x4 built. Heck, even some of the OEMs are including winches on brand-new vehicles now. The Warn M12000 under the '05 Dodge Power Wagon is perhaps the slickest setup yet.

One consistent swap topic we discovered while looking back through the last 499 issues of Four Wheeler was that having to do with traction aids. In the early days, the No-Spin from Detroit was the industry standard. However, over the decades a number of new devices have been invented to improve traction in the dirt. Four Wheeler has always been there to test them, from instructional stories on welding spider gears to create a spool, to full-on locker installation and reviews; our advice on this subject has all but dominated these pages. This article from the May 1979 issue, by Cliff Burch, spoke specifically about the Truetrac from Detroit, and the benefits of a clutchless limited-slip. The Truetrac is still widely popular today, and for most daily drivers it's the best traction aid money can buy. Competitively priced, a Truetrac will out-value and, in most cases, outlast any clutch-style limited-slip (LSD) on the market. Period. Another benefit to this type of LSD is that by simplicity of design, they have fewer parts to foul up, making them more reliable than some locking diffs.

We've seen some big changes with traction aids throughout the years. Perhaps the biggest has been the introduction of the selectable locker. With traction at your fingertips, this new breed of locker offers characteristics favorable for street and trail use. All, however, require driver input to operate, which may or may not be advantageous, depending on who's in the driver seat. Typically twice the price of a conventional limited-slip, these ultimate traction-adders are well suited for daily drivers and extreme purpose-built trail machines. The one shown here is an exploded view of the newest selectable locker on the market, the Electrac from Detroit Locker.

Back in Four Wheeler's first issue, a common problem associated with gearing (or lack thereof) was addressed. The article covered the subject of overdrives. Back then, the same problem existed that exists today. A 4x4 needs low gearing for the trail, and high-enough gears for reasonable highway travel. The problem back then was that very few options existed to actually change gearing. However, that all changed in the '60s when gear manufacturers began building optional ratios for most common axles. This was a good thing because it gave people the ability to run higher gears in the axles for highway driving, and allowed the low-range gearing in the transfer case to handle going slow.

It seems that no matter how often we've covered the subject, a reader will write in questioning us about a gearing issue. "Does my axle ratio need to be lower or higher?" "Will bigger tires prevent me from going slow on the trail?" "How low should I go?" In most cases, we try to find a happy medium that will work for both street and trail. However, the list of variables is long and the perfect combo isn't always black and white. That is why we have project vehicles. When Four Wheeler editors set up project vehicles, they figure out the best gearing combination for the particular scenario. We take into account the drivetrain, power output, favored terrain, and overall use intended for the project. With all the data at our fingertips, we choose whether or not to run-for instance-4.56:1 gears, an Atlas 6.0 transfer case, or both. Usually, editors pick vehicles that are popular at the time in hopes that the information provided in the article is indeed usable. Thanks to the wide range of gearing products available today, the perfect gearing is sometimes a matter of how much money you want to spend. Lower gearsets for the transfer case always seem to work well for those on a budget. Considerably pricey though still very popular, overdrive/underdrive units are sometimes the best way to handle gearing issues. Even more expensive yet are complete bolt-in transfer-case setups that in some cases can be doubled and tripled to squeeze a crawl ratio to a turtle's pace.

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