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40 Year Evolution Of Four Wheeling - Willies Workbench

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on June 1, 2002
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The fact that this issue celebrates Four Wheeler's 40th birthday got me thinking: This anniversary marks, I believe, about the 30th year I've been writing for Four Wheeler. For several of the early years I wrote under a host of aliases because I was also writing and racing under the banner of a long-defunct rag called Travelin' 4x4s. I've managed to survive seven different owners, and at least that many different editors. I've had titles that called me technical editor, contributing editor, consulting editor, editor-at-large, and as former editor Mark Williams referred to me out of jealousy when I moved to Montana, "editor in exile."

I've made some good friends (and hopefully no enemies because I just didn't have time to answer every one's tech questions) during this time. I've owned, coincidentally, 40 four-wheelers and spent what most people (including my wife) would consider a small fortune in modifying them.

I had owned my first Jeep for about a year when I bought the second issue of Four Wheeler (which, by the way, I still have). Little did I think that I would be someday writing for the magazine. In lots of ways, the sport of four-wheeling has changed, generally for the better, with the emphasis being on environmental concerns. In fact, you might call today the golden age of four-wheeling. Specialized 4x4 rock buggies are going places (in controlled areas) today that one can hardly walk up hand-over-foot, while a slightly modified SUV takes the complete family, in air-conditioned comfort, places where just 30 years ago I would have struggled to get to in my open-topped CJ-5. In the '60s, a tall tire for my Jeep was 31 inches. Now 31-inchers will be coming stock on the Wrangler Rubicon. But in other ways things haven't changed. I was answering questions 30 years ago about an adapter to hook a small-block Chevy V-8 to a Jeep T-90 transmission. Guess what? Just the other day I got a letter asking me the same question.

When it comes to the equipment we want to add to our rigs, we now have a multitude of choices. You can have your vehicle with that "go anywhere, take no prisoners" look and never intend to take it anywhere rougher than the ski-lift parking lot. And the best part is that no one is going to criticize you for it.

As an example of the golden age we're now in, consider the huge variety of wheels that now are available for our rigs. Used to be, if I wanted wider rims, I cut a couple of Lincoln rims apart and welded the two wide halves together, or cut a Chrysler Imperial rim in two and then welded in a band rolled by a local blacksmith shop.

And what about all the tires available to us now? Used to be, tire choices were pretty much limited to 8.20x15 passenger-car tires or Armstrong's "flotations," an agriculture farm tire that originally wasn't highway-rated, and at speed on a hot day would roll off little balls of rubber. I can't begin to count all the new tires that have been introduced in just this last couple of years. And what about gear ratios? Used to be that 5.38 gears were the norm and we went down the highway with four-cylinder engines screaming at 55 mph. That was until Basil Smith and Clarence Shook found a way to adapt a BorgWarner overdrive from a Studebaker to the back of our Jeep transfer cases. Now we have five- and even six-speed transmissions, with the top gear being an overdrive. But guess what? Those 5.38s are back, and are especially desirable with very large tires.

The old model 18 transfer case from the WWII jeep-yep, the "j" was always lower-case until after the war-is alive and well, with several companies making 4:1 low-range gears, and Advance Adapters providing a reincarnated Warn, now labeled Saturn, overdrive for it. A locking differential used to mean welding the spider gears together. And while that's a practice that I don't endorse, it's still being done. Clutch-driven Trac Loks and the much better four-pinion Power-Locks were the hot setup for traction. Guess what again? You can still buy them new, along with, at last count, at least 10 other styles of limited-slip diffs. If you wanted a V-8 swap, you and a buddy did it yourselves. You used a Novak or Bushard adapter to mate the engine to the stock transmission, as there were no kits or shops that would do it for you.

Tubular headers? You found a local muffler shop that maybe would weld up a set for you. Now we have factory-installed ones made of no less than stainless steel. Lift kit? What was that? The first suspension lift I did involved laying each spring leaf between two pieces of railroad track and beating its length into a new tighter arch with a 4-pound hammer. Now it's hard to name a vehicle that you can't find a lift for. There were a few 4x4 pickups around, but the ones that weren't made by Jeep were scarce, and mostly were used by utility companies. One didn't go "four-wheeling." One went "jeeping" with a Jeep Club, even if some of the members of that club did drive Land Cruisers and Scouts.

Something I've tried to do in this column over the years is offer an insight to the practical side of vehicle modifications and repairs, and to not only increase your (and my) knowledge on a subject, but to stimulate your interest to dig further. As I've done so, I have been asked many times where my knowledge comes from. Well, part of it comes from fixing, repairing, rebuilding, and modifying all of those 40 vehicles I mentioned earlier. Lots of it comes as the result of a team effort, with my best friend and partner in life, my wife, being one of the principal players. For 33 years she has supported this habit that I have-my drug of choice, of course, being gasoline and anything that runs on it. Other members of my support team are the good friends that I can go to when I don't have the answer to a tech question or need help on a story. I don't need to mention names, because you guys know who you are, but I will say thanks to all of you, and to that long line of editors and staff members who have done their part in making my columns readable.

While I'm sure I won't be writing this column in another 30 years, I, along with some editorial help, sure hope to write a 50th year of Four Wheeler's Willie's Workbench. So I am now asking you readers for some help. I am running out of things to write about. Give me some help! If you have a subject that you're not quite sure about, or would like to know a bit more about how something works, drop me a line. While I just can't answer every question or expand on every subject, I sure would like to try. I am sure if the question has come up in your mind, it has also been in someone else's. There is a commonly used saying in the magazine business and it goes something like this: "It's your magazine, let us know what you want to see in it." Well, don't just sit there, send us an e-mail ( or a letter (6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048) and let us know now. And if you should happen to run across me on a trail, don't hesitate to say "hi," show me your rig, ask a question, or give me a better answer to a past Techline question.

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