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25 Products That Changed Off-Roading

Posted in How To on November 1, 2011
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Contributors: JP Staff

Today’s Jeep culture embodies the same principals of freedom that the manufact- urers had in mind when they build the first MB and GPWs that won World War II, but with each passing decade, outside influences have changed the way we think about Jeep vehicles. Consumer demand and technological advancements have transformed the utilitarian stud of yesteryear into the recreational mainstay we know today. Along the way, more and more folks became fans of the seven-slotted grille, embraced it, and took it out on the trail.

Presently, Jeep’s fan base is unrivaled—some might even call the following cultish. During this last decade, evolution of the off-road species has reached warp speed. Technical advancements cleared the way for new enthusiasts to experience the platform’s capability—often times right out of the box. Despite all of the changes, the word Jeep still personifies freedom and the spirit of American ingenuity. Keeping that in mind, we’ve constructed a list of what we consider to be the most significant and influential items of the last decade, along with our reasoning as to why. Check it out.

TJ Rubicon
Hazel: Lockers, armor, a low-range T-case, and a factory warranty? This was the first time an OE manufacturer truly took the enthusiast market into consideration and the result was a homerun. Arguably, there wouldn’t be a Power Wagon, Raptor, RamRunner, or any of these other off-road-friendly factory rides if it were not for the Rubicon Wrangler.
Trasborg: Agreed. This model reaffirmed a long-lost belief for me in Jeep after years of sissification. Stover: True that. Every other vehicle available when the first Rubicon hit showrooms was lacking trail prowess in countless ways.

ProRock Dana 60
Cappa: This axle lead to many others building similar aftermarket assemblies.
Hazel: I’d argue even the pre- ProRock 60 axles were just as important. Before, you mostly had a bunch of smaller shops chopping and modifying junkyard Chevy/Ford/Dodge axle assemblies. The Dynatrac aftermarket axles certainly upped the game, forcing the others to increase quality control and go back to the drawing board to stay in step with revolutionary advances like increased ground clearance, heavier castings, and so forth.
Trasborg: If Dynatrac didn’t step up, someone else would have. The market was primed for this type of product. With his attention to detail and technical know-how Dynatrac’s Jim McGean was the right man at the right time. Stover: I agree with Pete on this one. High-end axle assemblies geared towards the off-road segment were long overdue when this product hit. However, Dynatrac’s ability to survive with so many knock-off products around speaks volumes about McGean’s business sense.

Stak Monster Box T-case
Cappa: The company’s three-speed Monster Box created a real buzz when it came out and forced Advance Adapters to create something to counter it. Hazel: I gotta agree with Cappa. I remember the Monster Box blowing people’s minds when the company debuted it at Moab Easter Jeep Safari back in ’05. I wonder if we wouldn’t have a four-speed Atlas if not for this product.
Trasborg: It was one of those things that made you think: “Why didn’t I think of that?” After it was introduced the need for it was so apparent it just became one of those accepted upgrades that almost sold itself. Stover: True, the idea of three separate ratios in one case was clever, but I have to argue that guys like Marlin Crawler deserve the credit for multiple low range ratios.

BFG Krawler
Hazel: It was the first time a major, mainstream tire manufacturer directly addressed the rock crawling world. It gave credence to the hardcore off-road marketplace and caused other tire companies to look into their bag of tricks to see what weapons they could bring to bear in the fray.
Trasborg: Mainstream is the key here. Interco has been building anvil-reliable tires for years. BFG made them a bit more streetable, a bit more round, and pushed it hard through their already in-place marketing division.
Stover: The phrase “paradigm shift” comes to mind, because BFG is a colossal supplier of tires. The Krawler brought with it a spotlight on an off-road activity (rock crawling) most people didn’t know existed.

Bypass Shocks
Stover: Pioneered by King in the mid-’90s, these innovative dampers were born from the desire to go fast over big bumps in desert racing. King was the first to ramp up bypass technology and package it in a way that was somewhat affordable to the masses. Thanks to the pressure-sensitive valving found inside the additional tubes on bypass shocks, an unparalleled level of tune-ability can be achieved.
Hazel: External bypass shocks came into the enthusiast scene around the same time prices for a 1,500 square-foot home in the middle of nowhere hit $500,000. In this period of refi-fueled spendthriftlessness, excess was the norm—and bypass shocks are excessive for most regular enthusiast vehicles. But along with the wow factor, these shocks also gave the average enthusiast a new level of performance that had heretofore been lacking in the regular consumer aftermarket. Nowadays I’ll argue their value for the everyday builds, but there’s no denying they have pushed shock manufacturers to pay more attention to application-specific valving for better rebound control and improved control without loss of comfort.
Trasborg: Before many of us got a taste of the bypass shocks, we accepted shocks for the Jeep that were valved for a big truck. No more. I have no hesitation anymore tossing shocks that make the Jeep ride like a ¾- or 1-ton truck and only recommend to my friends ones that have worked well for me. Bypass shocks opened my eyes to how a Jeep could ride if done right.

Injected Crate Engines Like the RamJet 350
Hazel: The RamJet put relatively affordable, durable, and easy-to-install injected V-8 power in the hands of off-road enthusiasts. The SBC is still the most-commonly swapped-in engine so it’ll hook right up to your existing motor mounts if you’ve already got one. If not, the aftermarket makes anything in the world for ’em. They can be had complete with injection, harness, and computer for under $6,000. Just add a junkyard front accessory system, exhaust, and feed it 12 volts and fuel and you’re in business. It made the aftermarket step up its game.
Trasborg: The sad part is, Chrysler and Ford didn’t really step up their game, making GMPP all that much more formidable. At a time when we were still pouring over FSMs of vehicles and learning just how horrible the wiring diagrams were, GM pops up with this. Why no one followed suit is anyone’s guess. Stover: The brilliant minds at GMPP didn’t stop with the RamJet, just look at the plethora of options showcased in the annual catalog. Everything from the emissions-compliant E-Rod to the venerable 383HT Bowtie Sportsman package, GM has something for everyone and everything all in one place.

“Package Companies” or One-Stop Shops
Hazel: This one is a little hard to explain, but places like Poison Spyder Customs, GenRight, Blue Torch, Poly Performance, and so on. Places that cater to off-roaders and Jeepers in specific. They have pretty much everything you need to outfit your stock vehicle for real off-roading from suspension to body armor. Places like this opened up the door to a larger number of purpose-built off-road Jeeps by making it simple for the enthusiast to find most or all of the components required without running around gathering stuff willy-nilly.
Trasborg: I don’t know that I’d really call this a game changer. But you can’t deny the benefits. These guys did for all Jeeps what the TJ did, but on the next level. Just like the TJ suddenly opened the door to easily fit more than 33s and bigger and badder trails, these shops opened the door to 37s and up. The key being, it isn’t just cobbled-together crap that doesn’t work well.
Stover: People like simple. Off road emporiums such as those mentioned above are like Walmart to the pasty-skin obese, only better because you won’t find grandma showing off her new tribal tattoo at the door.

Affordable Self-Learning Fuel Injection
Hazel: Injection takes your off-road driving capabilities to another level. They’re still kinda new, but I think the new generation of self-learning injection systems coming to market now will open up a new world of performance and power options in the next few years to guys who otherwise would rather stick with a carburetor. No more tuning individual cells on a laptop: just answer a couple simple questions and let the injection tune itself as the engine runs.
Trasborg: I remember the early throttle body kits being touted as “self-learning” so that when this new generation came out I was very much in doubt. Until Hazel put one on his “Evil Truck” M-715 project, I was still in doubt. Hearing it from him, I can’t wait to get my hands on a kit and see just how well a real self-learning system works.
Stover: What could be better? Well, maybe if it installed itself too…I’m a huge fan of anything that simplifies the complex. Home run, indeed.

Rubicrawler Hazel: A 2.72:1 low-range gearbox in your auto-equipped ’03-’10 Wrangler with no driveshaft modifications or adapters to buy? How can you lose? It gives extreme crawling capability to standard 2.72:1 models. And the 4:1 Rubicon models are no longer hampered by lack of tire speed in low-range for sand and mud use.
Trasborg: It is an awesome product, but I wonder if the torque converter was tighter in these vehicles if it would have seen as widespread acceptance.
Stover: I think this one is a win-win. I only wish Advance Adapters would have convinced Jeep to offer it through the dealer network.

Goodyear 37-inch-and-up MT/R
Hazel: Remember BFGoodrich telling us we’d never see an off-road radial tire larger than a 37? I do. And now the company has 42s. The Goodyear MT/R was first offered in 15, 16, and 17-inch rim sizes on a 37x12.50 carcass. However, when Goodyear brought out the big-gun 40x13.50 for a variety of rim sizes, competing tire companies like Nitto, Toyo, BFG, and others started looking into larger radial tire molds as fast as they could.
Stover: Much can be learned from the risk takers who insisted on building such massive tire sizes. Niche market products typically get the least consideration from advisory panels, so whoever convinced the brass at Goodyear to proceed with this program is a hero in my book.

17-inch Wheels
Hazel: They made it okay in tire manufacturers’ eyes to build tires bigger than 35s. Before 17-inch wheels, we were frequently told by tire companies that we’d never see an off-road radial taller than a 37. Now they have 42s. The 17-inch rim somehow makes the sidewall aspect ratio with bigger-than-37-inch tires acceptable.
Trasborg: Much as I hate them because ipso-facto they are making 15s go away, Hazel is right.
Stover: I think 17s are the way to go. Wrap mine with a set of 37- or 40-inch tires and good times are imminent.

Internet Forums
Hazel: They’ve become the catalyst for a lot of builds. Guys go and read up from “web weenies” and “Internet gurus” to see how they need to build their rigs and then go out and do it. Sometimes these guys know what they’re talking about and sometimes they don’t. Good, bad, or indifferent, there’s no denying their power.
Trasborg: They might have power, but there are so many yahoos on so many forums, often you get more bad advice than good.
Stover: I’m a huge believer in the power of web forums and regularly visit three that share my interests. However, because I’ve been involved in them since their inception, my opinion may be a little skewed. I think Hazel is right about taking some dude’s keyboard stroke fest as the truth. Think critically about information dispensed on Internet forums, no authority exists to police this type of content.

Cappa: I know it came out in 1995, but it didn’t really start making a huge impact until the last decade.
Hazel: Before all the Nigerian scammers hit and everybody got so jittery about what their feedback as a buyer or seller was, I think it was much better. Still, it paved the way for private-party Internet sales and I don’t think places like Crankyape, Craigslist, and other public and private Internet vending forums would be as successful were it not for eBay.
Trasborg: I can remember a few other auction sites back in the late ’90s/early 2000s, but eBay was the go-to for the broadest audience possible. With the recently skyrocketing fees, however, eBay’s days are numbered.
Stover: It gave the little guy a fighting chance at a time when brick and mortar businesses were dropping like flies. It’s not for everyone, but eBay isn’t a household name because of scam artists—it simply works.

Stover: What began in 1995 as an effort to create easy-to-use, affordable 3-D CAD software is now the mainstay of design software for many niche industries. SolidWorks utilizes a parametric feature-based approach to create 3-D models that are easy to manipulate with a desktop computer.
Hazel: What this program did was give small shops the ability to mass-produce. Or at least produce with consistency. Hell, you didn’t even need a shop! Once you drew it up in SolidWorks, you could send it out to a manufacturer to be produced, stick it in boxes, and ship it to consumers. There are lots of cool, innovative suspension, bumper, cage, and other off-road products on the street and trail nowadays ’cause of this program.
Trasborg: I raced through AutoCAD in high school and college, got a job building subwoofer boxes thanks to my AutoCAD skills, and then went on to architectural design on Autodesk’s AutoCAD. Right near the end, I was doing 3-D stuff on CAD and got a chance to check out Solidworks. I was surprised at how much easier 3-D parts production was on it. For parts production and prototyping, Solidworks and a 3D printer are the way to go.

JK Wrangler
Hazel: You can fit big tires with very few suspension mods, it comes with good steering linkage, a much improved suspension geometry, and with just a few components and you’re hitting hardcore trails with much more survivability and comfort than a TJ, YJ, or CJ.
Trasborg: Funny, that the guy who busts on me for running gauges and having A/C is talking about comfort. I like the JK for the four-door platform. I hate the current engine and the tinfoil metal. I wish that Jeep kept a real tub and kept the 60-inch body width.
Stover: Having owned a CJ-7, YJ, TJ and now a four-door JK, I think Jeep’s latest is the hands-down winner of the bunch. You can’t ignore how many new enthusiasts the JK brought to the mix.

Beadlock Wheels
Hazel: Whether it’s street-legal rims such as Hutchinson or AEV or “old school” Champion, OMF, TrailReady, and so on, beadlock wheels made single-digit trail pressures possible and increased off-road safety in the bargain. No more blowing a bead and rolling.
Trasborg: No matter what, beadlocks are better than glue and sheetmetal screws that we used when I started messing around with Jeeps. Even do-it-yourself kits have their place, but I wouldn’t put ’em on a street-driven Jeep due to the lack of a centering ridge.
Stover: Total game changer for sure. I prefer the kind that are designed to be a beadlock right from the start, rather than an afterthought like the weld-together models. Nothing beats the confidence that good beadlock wheels provide to the traction equation.

RCV Shafts
Hazel: Finally, a bind-free CV design that combines high-strength with longevity. As long as the ring and pinion hold it makes it acceptable to run a much heavier wheel/tire combo.
Trasborg: No loss of angularity, and way stronger than a U-joint at angles? No brainer.
Stover: Back in ’05, I was in charge of Four Wheeler magazine’s project, Mega Titan. Back then, RCV shafts were new and un-tested. Having failed multiple prototype RCV joints on the Titan, I know what kind of abuse they can take. As long as you don’t let them get too hot, they are unrivalled in strength.

Advance Air Systems Power Tank
Hazel: It was the original CO2 inflation system and offered pretty much the only regulator that wouldn’t freeze solid as you aired up your tires. Even if you don’t pop for the whole system, you can buy just the regulator and run it with a cheap cylinder for a good, reliable source of onboard air without hard-mounting a bulky electric compressor. Putting a source of on-board air in the hands of more Jeep users helped make airing down for trail use common practice and not just the stuff of the upper-echelon wheeler.
Trasborg: For someone like me with too many Jeeps, a CO2 tank is the way to go. No matter what Jeep I take out, I can have air on- board. Sure, it is another thing to pack, but it’s better than not having air at all. I’ve used the cheapo tanks and the Power Tank regulator. There is no comparison. From speed to lack of freezing up, the Power Tank unit is the unit to own.
Stover: I love the portability of Power Tanks, but I’m still confused as to why filling locations can be so difficult to find. Maybe they need to create a Power Tank fill station locator app. Otherwise, two enthusiastic thumbs up from me.

Synthetic Winch Line
Originally developed for marine use, rope comprised of synthetic fibers wasn’t adopted for landlubbers until MasterPull tested the concept in 1998. At first, the new rope was a tough sell over traditional steel cables, however consistent marketing and the material’s inherent lack of mass make it the safest way to winch.
Hazel: Back when I was working at 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine we were finishing up a long day on the trail during the magazine’s third Ultimate Adventure event. One of the rigs pulled the winch line for the umpteenth time. I was so fatigued I didn’t even realize he was winching and when the winch line broke it hit me square in the face. The synthetic winch rope felt like getting slapped in the face by a baby. If it were a steel cable they would’ve been picking pieces of my head out of the surrounding bushes. But then I wonder if the steel cable would’ve broken.
Trasborg: I’m still somewhat distrustful of synthetic winch ropes due to my early mud-encased experiences. I always ran steel cable because I’d seen too many synthetic ropes pop. Looking back 10 to15 years later, I suspect the culprit was UV damage or owner’s cheapness. A good synthetic rope should be able to do anything its steel counterpart can.

Hazel: Seemingly overnight, Craigslist single-handedly relegated swap meets from the place to buy and sell used parts and vehicles to an archaic novelty. Craigslist users put millions of parts in the hands of guys who would put them to use: parts that may otherwise have been consigned to the trash or recycling bin. It also gave anybody with Internet access the opportunity to buy or sell rusty Jeep vehicles rather than let them rot into obscurity.
Trasborg: It was far from overnight. I remember trolling Craigslist just to get an idea of what a part I was selling should go for. Back before every town had a listing, it was only good as a research tool unless the part was really hard to find. It wasn’t until the last 5 years or so that it has grown like Hazel is talking about.
Stover: The online flee market that changed the world—yeah, I’d say Mr. Craig and his little list are among the most prolific game changers of the computerized era.

Optima Battery
Stover: Gel-cell automotive batteries were developed as an alternative to traditional lead-acid batteries that once monopolized the industry. When Optima first introduced its first spiral gel-cell battery, it gave mainstream consumers an option that didn’t leak, was maintenance free, and could be mounted upside down.
Hazel: Drive down a washboard road for any length of time or roll your rig with a maintenance-type wet-cell battery and you’ll be rewarded with gooey acidy sconge coating the underside of your hood and probably a damaged battery that will leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. The Optima gel-cell batteries take a pounding and keep working. Furthermore, Optima opened up a new world of chassis building options by allowing the battery to be mounted down low, sideways, upside-down, or in any weird number of ways that unfettered Jeep builders.
Trasborg: When I discovered Optima batteries I was hooked. Ok, I wasn’t hooked. I wasn’t even a little bit sold. It took me a few Jeeps before I let go of my DieHard battery and switched over. Once I switched over I was hooked. Mount on side? No leakage? Less frequent cleaning of terminals? Still decent CCA? Yeah, sold. I’ve not gone back to a wet-cell battery in the 10 years since.

Smart Phones/Tablets/ GPS Systems
Stover: In recent years, hand-held digital devices have become a mainstay. From Google Earth to advanced topographic mapping applications for backcountry exploration, these devices allow end-users to find a route and travel with many of the comforts found at home.
Hazel: Personally, I never use GPS or electronic gizmos off-road, but if it opens up the sport to more individuals or makes it safer, easier, or more productive, then I’m all for it. You’ll still never see me mounting a Lowrance GPS in a vintage Jeep, but I’m sure at some point I’ll start playing with the MotionX program on my iPhone to see how much elevation change there is on some of my favorite trails.
Trasborg: I spend so much time in places I’ve never been that a GPS is almost required. Sure, I could go the map and compass method in a pinch, but quality topographical maps aren’t cheap and they are bulky. I’ve been a GPS geek for years, but I normally always have a topo map and compass on hand, just in case.

Hand-Held Programmers
Stover: Giving people the power to modify an OE tune or diagnose electronic issues is a great thing. These easy-to-use hand-held jobs ushered in a new era of do-it-yourselfers and gave birth to clans of shade tree mechanics.
Hazel: Thankfully we’re still wheeling computer-controlled vehicles that allow modifications. Hopefully we’ll never see the day that a vehicle goes into limp mode if a lift and larger tires are added. Or worse yet, shuts down and alerts the fuzz if you venture off paved roads. For now, if you own one of these fancy computer-controlled gizmo-laden vehicles, fixing your speedometer for larger tires, adding power, and even diagnosing engine problems is a button push away.
Trasborg: There is something to be said for not having to drop $10, $20, or $30 bucks every time you change gears, axles, or tires just to keep the law off your back. Often $100 will get the job done once, and you can often take that same gadget and use it on any computer-controlled Jeep you will ever own.

LED Automotive Lighting
Stover: Light Emitting diodes is technology that has been around since the ’60s. It wasn’t until the last decade, however, that aftermarket and OEM manufacturers began adopting these robust, energy-saving light sources for everything from instrument clusters to headlamps. Truck-Lite was first to market with a DOT legal, 7-inch LED headlamp that fit in Jeeps.
Hazel: I don’t see how it’s a game-changer, but I’ll defer to the other guys on this one. I’m still a sealed-beam dinosaur. But if you tell me I can have fancy off-road lighting for better nighttime visibility without needing to wire in a Trasborgesque amount of relays, diodes, and doohickies, I’m down.
Trasborg: Hazel’s fear of electronics is legendary. That said, I’ve been harping on LEDs for decades now. I’ve been saying it was just a matter of time until the optics and durability of the diode got to where we needed. They are here.

Off-Road Advocacy Groups
Stover: Organizations such as Tread Lightly!, Blue Ribbon Coalition, and SEMA do a great service for us. From spreading the word about land closures to assisting industry businesses overcome issues, these advocacy groups are our unified front in the battle to continue off-roading.
Hazel: Friggin’ hippies. I’m convinced the only reason they don’t want us out on the trail is so we don’t run over their pot plant farms with our 33s. You’ve got to hand it to organizations like SEMA, Blue Ribbon, Tread Lightly!, and others who go head-to-head with these freaky greenies hell-bent on shutting down access to open land and who would impose the harshest limitations on our motorsports hobbies.
Trasborg: I gotta say, I love SEMA and Blue Ribbon. We all obviously owe them a lot for all they do to keep our trails open. I also gotta say, free love and what-not can’t be that bad. It just annoys me that we need SEMA and Blue Ribbon to keep our trails open because of some people who don’t have anywhere near the camping hours we do have decided we shouldn’t be allowed access anymore.

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