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Historic Jeep Safety Techniques - Old School

Posted in How To: Body Chassis on October 31, 2006 Comment (0)
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Note the height of the rollbars on these Jeeps during a competition in '68. I guess these guys figured that they could duck down.

Safety is important to me. I raced on a professional level for about 20 years off and on during the infancy of off-road racing and had my share of crashes. Some years back, my daughters were on their way home from a college class, hit a patch of icy highway and rolled their Jeepster numerous times end over end and sideways. They crawled out and called me on the cell phone to tell me that they were OK and just had some bruises. They survived due to a very well-built rollcage, seat belts, and high-back seats. But it wasn't always that way. Let's go back a few years to the early '60s.

There were no seatbelts at first. You either learned to hang on or you fell out. Heck, it was safer to jump out during a rollover, or so we thought. Without a rollbar, maybe it was. One of the first off-road races that ever took place was in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and the passengers didn't even have seatbelts. They hung onto the Jeep from several different grab handles, shifting weight as a counterbalance. According to my dad, if I put a rollbar in my Jeep, I would be tempted to try things I shouldn't. I went ahead and built one anyway and, believe it or not, it was welded to the frame. Well, through the body to the top of the framerails anyway, right directly behind the center of the seats. It had squared-off corners and no bracing, so in a rollover it probably would have wrapped around my head. While it was made of black pipe, at least it didn't use threaded pipe elbows as a lot of others were made of at that time. Yep, some bars were made of water pipe with threaded elbows. Some of the joints were welded together and some were, well, threaded together. I am sure you can imagine just how strong they were.

Hardly anyone had tubing benders, especially in the home garage. Only manufacturing plants had benders, and they were huge pieces of equipment. It was hard to find a company that was willing to stop production to make a few custom bends. Muffler shops were the exception, and they had tube benders for exhaust systems. Yes, they made bends, but with funny kinks that made for a weakness in the tubing. "Muffler moly" was a common name for thin exhaust tubing when used as a rollbar. A shop I was racing out of in the '70s had a tube bender that I often used. I finally broke down in '80 and bought the tube bender that I am still using today. A company called Greenlee made it, and it was originally designed for electrical conduit. The dies were made stronger to handle the heavy-wall tubing. It worked perfect for building rollbars; however, the bend radius was large, as per electrical codes. Today, there are numerous benders that work faster and have a much tighter radius.

At first, for those smooth mandrel bends, we would scrounge second-hand stores and junkyards for those old-fashioned metal bed-frame ends. The better beds actually had 11/48-inch wall and sometimes even heavier tubing. Once in a while, they had to be widened and lengthened, but they were a better substitute than those done on a tailpipe bender.

I remember there was a place up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, I believe the name was Mercury Tubing, and it did custom bending with a mandrel bender. I built an all-tube frame, off-road race car in '69-'70 and had the company do the bending. The late Jim Hicks, of Hicks Jeep Shop in Pomona, California, originally got his rollbar bends from Mercury Tubing as well. He eventually got tired of the trip up and back to have tubing bent and asked to watch the bender work. Smart guy Jim was, he took a lot of mental notes, came back to his shop, and built his own bender, which actually worked better than Mercury's. While it was a lot smaller than the one he copied, it was nowhere near as small and compact as the benders available today.

Rockette Products offered rollbars for $29.50 made from pipe in a '65 ad in Four Wheeler. Rockette later went on to become what we now know today as Smittybilt.

Basil Smith, who owned a little company by the name of Rockette Products (which later became Smittybilt), was originally building rollbars out of 131/44-inch black pipe, and in the mid-'60s was selling them for $29.95. Later on, he and just about everyone else switched to tubing.

Standard construction for a rollbar in the mid-'60s to the '70s, and even later, was a hoop bar and down braces, which were welded to a length of 2-inch angle iron that was then bolted to the fenderwell. Now keep in mind that the Jeep fenderwell is only spot-welded to the side of the body, so in a hard rollover there was the chance that it would tear away the spot-welds and push all the way down to the tires. No, not just a chance but something I have actually seen happen on several occasions. A full-width plate on top of the fender that had formed lips that went down the inside of the fenderwell and up against the inside of the outer body panel and bolting through them generally solved this problem. Around '65, Con-Ferr came out with what was referred to as a sandbar. This was a double-hoop rollbar with the two hoops separated by about a foot and sheetmetal covering the gap. This offered better protection and kept the bar from sinking into the sand on a rollover.

It wasn't until the late '60s that full-on rollcages started showing up, being first mandated in racing. At that time, most racers were dual-purpose machines that also did trail duty and, even like today, also worked as a daily commuter. At first, the front hoop bar was just welded to a 4x4-inch flat plate and bolted to the floor. After viewing a few crashes, I saw how these plates sometimes punched through the floor or ripped out completely. I figured the more surface area on the floor, the better. So I started building mine with some large plates that followed up onto the bend in the floor and onto the sides of the body where they were bolted through. Several of these were tested with no problems. By the '80s, however, the only way to go for competition and to ensure safety was to mount the bars directly to the frame with poly bushings. A lot of people still bolted the bar to the body for recreational four-wheeling, and this offers pretty good protection if done properly.

In '70, the Jeep factory people added an optional rollbar and even called it a rollbar, not a sportbar. While it was also set on the fenderwell, it was initially bolted through the side of the body in the recess that was carried over from the M38A1 top bow bracket mount. The next year they added two more bolts per side and made the bar standard equipment mid-year. At least it seemed like every Jeep built after that came with one.

Jeep seats were killers. The lack of padding was rough on your butt, and you stayed in the seat by hanging on. Early seats didn't come up much higher than the small of the back. However, the seat-back height did progressively move upward over the years. While suspension ride quality stayed about the same for some 40-plus years, the seat cushions went from a canvas pad to deep springs in an attempt to offer a bit of comfort. Seatbelts weren't factory installed until the mid-'60s, even though my '62 CJ had factory mounting holes for the belts.

Those low-back seats did finally get up-to-neck support in the mid-'70s, along with combination lap and the over-the-shoulder seatbelts. This was, most likely, more government-mandated than Jeep-inspired. Then, as it is now, the belts often locked up at inappropriate times.

Companies like Solar Plastics, owned by Steve McQueen (yes, the actor and off-road racer), built the original and much-copied Baja Bucket fiberglass seat out of necessity. Off-road speeds were increasing dramatically and there was a need to stay inside the seat. But they were still made of hard plastic with very little cushion.

One of the early leaders in seat design was Jack Miller and Allen Taylor. They started Mastercraft seats in '70 and began building the famed suspension seats. Their idea came from the lightweight seats used in small aircrafts, and they decided to adapt the design to racecar usage. These seats and others like it are now becoming the standard seating for those that are serious about their four-wheeling or just want a comfortable and stable seat. My first race seats were a set of Solar Plastic genuine Baja Buckets, but by the late '70s my butt was in a set of Mastercraft seats. And while I'm no longer racing, I still use them today.

Everyone who has ever fought with either trying to latch or get out of an across-the-chest, factory-type seatbelt when parked on a steep hill has cursed them to no end. They'd also constantly tighten up and not want to release when driving over rough terrain. Sometimes these high-tech safety belts would be replaced with a pair of dirt-simple lap belts. One, naturally going over the lap in standard fashion, and the second lapbelt went from the rollbar, to the floor, and across the chest, which offered adjustability instead of being dependent on a pendulum to do it for you. A variety of race car four- and five-point harnesses (and modified forms of such) started seeing their way into trail vehicles. In '65, Chute Metal Company was advertising its four-point, center-point, quick-release harness at the then-pricy sum of $49.65. Yes, for years people were using $5 military-surplus seatbelts, but due to age deterioration their strength was marginal. Today, you can buy new belts in a variety of colors, in the standard 3-inch width or in 2-inch versions. There are even sewn-in shoulder harnesses that eliminate the bulky hardware.

Safety has come a long way over the years with better factory bars that support the windshield frame and safer and more comfortable seating. Numerous off-road shops now have full rollcage kits ready to bolt or weld in. Perhaps a half-dozen companies are making full suspension seats that bolt to the factory mounting brackets. Grab handles are strategically placed so that no one has to grab the outside of the rollbar as a hand hold. And best of all, it's all way-cool stuff to have because to some people it screams "I'm hard-core!"

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