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Budget 4x4 Building Tips & Tricks

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on January 8, 2018
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Photographers: Trenton McGee

Maybe it’s just a side effect of getting older and grumpier. Or maybe we were just born cheapskates. One way or another, we sure do love saving cash. We’d like to believe that one of our (not very impressive) superpowers is saving cash when building a 4x4. That doesn’t help when we’re trying to get a hot date, at least not with someone we’d actually like to date (most 4x4 magazine groupies have facial hair and names like Earl or Don), but this power does help with work and our booming 4x4 hobby. When it comes to knowing how to haggle a little bit, or at least knowing how to recognize a deal, we’ve sure got experience.

We also know what’s worth your hard-earned cash and what’s not. For example, that $3,000 color-changing LED curved lightbar that you think you really need? First off, do you drive off-road at night? Do you have working headlights on your 4x4? Are you traveling fast enough off-road to warrant 4 1/2 miles of illuminated visibility? Unless you’re driving a pretty fancy trophy truck at speed, at night, chances are your headlight’s high beam will cut the mustard and you can save your cash for new shocks, better gearing, a locker, or something that you’ll actually use. Follow along as we lay out some of our favorite cash saving tips and tricks.

One Rig at a Time
This advice might be obvious to those of you who can focus on one project at a time. Many of us cannot. Maybe it is a form of adult ADD, but for whatever reason we personally cannot focus on one project. There are too many other cool rigs to be built and too many cool rigs constantly for sale. Still, focusing on one rig at a time means you only have one rig to buy parts for, one gas tank to fill, one vehicle to maintain, and so on. That’s a great way to save money, and that’s nice for everyone.

Tall Skinnies
If you want, nay, need a new set of larger off-road tires without breaking the bank, look into tall, skinny tires that work on your factory wheels. Oftentimes moving from a 255/75R17 to a 33x12.50R17 means you will need a wider aftermarket wheel, but you could run a 285/70R17 on your stock wheels because it’s as tall as a 33 but not quite as wide. Also, don’t be fooled. Sidewalls might have the same numbers on them, but different tires are all slightly different in width and height. If you want to maximize your tire size, research the actual dimensions a little bit. We have run (and love) 33x10.50R15 tires on a few retro rigs instead of 33x12.50R15 tires. These fit our stock retro wheels and look more at home than a wider tire and require less lift and less trimming to fit.

Stock Shocks Are Good
Factory shocks that are in good working order probably shouldn’t be removed for aftermarket shocks. The factory spends a lot of time and energy to engineer shocks that work well in most driving scenarios, probably a lot more time and money than aftermarket shock companies do. Now if your shocks are coated in oil because they have blown a seal or two, are rusted beyond recognition, or are too short for your new suspension, then you should consider replacing. Most aftermarket shocks are going to be pretty similar despite the hype. Only high-end, tunable, and rebuildable shocks will yield vastly different off-road performance—and that’s only when they are valved properly for your vehicle’s specific use and weight.

Coilovers, Links & Bypass Shocks
If you want your 4x4 to ride great in the dirt and you want to spend lots of money on high-zoot coilover or bypass shocks, be forewarned: Buying the parts is only the beginning of your costs. Almost all custom link suspensions with coilover shocks need to be fine-tuned to work properly. That means that those expensive shocks and special-rate coils you just spent a mint on might not make your rig ride better at all without the investment of more work and money. Vehicle corner weights allow the shock companies to estimate valving and spring rates, but chances are neither will be dead-on the first time around. That means testing, revalving, and changing spring rates—and if you thought the parts themselves were expensive just wait till you get the bill for shock/suspension tuning. Our cheapskate solution is to stick with leaf springs, or whatever your 4x4 already has. If you want, you can still add very expensive shocks to your stockish suspension, fine-tune the valving, and go a bit faster in the dirt.

Driveshafts
Driveshafts turn at a high rate of speed, and anyone who has had one come apart at highway speeds can tell you the forces are extreme. Driveshafts on rigs that see high speeds need to be built well and balanced. That said, for a dedicated trial rig that never gets driven on the road you can sometimes get away with a subpar driveshaft. We have dabbled with building our own 1310 driveshafts, cutting welds and tube to make a factory driveshaft shorter and right for our application. For example, an automatic transmission Cherokee with a freshly installed slip-yoke eliminator can run a stock-length factory front driveshaft with double cardan in the rear. We have also cut down stock XJ driveshafts to fit in TJs and YJs when these other Jeeps have gotten an SYE. Just be sure to retain any balance weights on the driveshaft when you cut it down and mark the shaft before cutting so you can reassemble with the U-joints in phase. We have also seen trail rigs with driveshafts made out of square tube and tractor yokes. They’re butch but work at slow speed.

Tire Size vs. Cheap Gears
The temptation of any dirt head is to run to the largest tire possible, or at least as big as what your buddy has, but don’t forget to factor in gear and axle strength. Fact: Larger tires change the gearing of your 4x4 in a bad way by raising your effective gearing, much like trying to start in Second gear instead of First on a hill. That’s bad for off-road slow control. If you’re working with a 1/2-ton, often the cheapest way to add numerically higher gears is to swap in a set of junkyard 3/4- or 1-ton axles. Most 1/2-ton trucks came with 3.23s, 3.55s, or 3.73s, while most 3/4- and 1-tons have 4.10s or 4.56s, which is great for 33- to 37-inch tires. As a bonus you’ll get slightly bigger brakes and (often) stronger axleshafts in the bargain.

An Exhausting Trick
When we were younger we had a Jeep Cherokee that we wanted to build. In hindsight we should have saved our cash and left the exhaust alone, but for some reason we wanted a bit more rumble coming out of the tailpipe. Also, the factory exhaust needed to be changed. It wasn’t all rusted out or damaged, but it was, well, factory and thus smallish and inferior in our young minds. So at the time it made sense that our Jeep would be way cooler with a loud muffler and at least 2 1/4-inch inch exhaust (instead of whatever the factory engineered for it). Now we could have paid for a custom exhaust, but our cheapskate superpowers were starting to emerge. Our budget trick was to order the exhaust portion of an aftermarket cat-back exhaust without the expensive muffler. Then we found a cheap cherry bomb muffler that would fit in the space intended for the muffler the cat-back exhaust was designed around. Bam! We had a custom exhaust for cheap, and it was loud—annoyingly loud.

Master a Carburetor
Fuel injection is expensive. It’s the best way to keep your engine running at all angles, but a properly set up carburetor can work really well. For four- and six-cylinder engines and small V-8 engines, the Motorcraft 2100/2150 carburetor is a great place to start. They are pretty straightforward, common, and easy to work on, and they work pretty darn well off-road. For larger engines, a Quadrajet can be purchased for under $40 from most junkyards or websites, treated to a cheap parts store gasket kit, and bolted onto pretty much any two- or four-barrel manifold with an inexpensive adapter plate.

Don’t Forget to Remember to Get Everything You Need
Getting all the parts you need from the get-go can save you lots of time and cash. Engine swaps are a great project to improve power and performance, but they can literally nickel and dime you to death when you realize that all the little parts you lack are going to cost you $10-$50. In the past we have bought entire wrecked vehicles to pull parts off of, and also talked the junkyard into selling us an engine with all the engine accessories, sensors, wiring harness, computer, underhood fuse block, and more. It may cost a little more at the junkyard, but it will save you cash in the long run when you don’t have to buy all the parts piecemeal.

Mounting Motors
“Cruisin’ down the street in my six-fo…” Swapping a Chevy 350 V-8 into anything is basically a cliché. It’s been done in everything at least twice. Part of the reason is that the Chevy platform has been around for a long time and many different parts easily interchange. One quick and cheap tip we learned for small-block Chevy engines (pre Gen III) is to use motor mounts from a 1964 Chevy Impala. The mounts are cheap, available at just about any parts store, and make for an easy start to building sturdy and easy frame-side motor mounts in just about anything. Start with a piece of heavy-wall tubing that fits inside the motor mount, and build a triangle that spans the distance from the tube to the framerails on both sides of the engine. Then you can box the sides of the triangle and you should be well on your way to a stout mount.

Chop vs. Lift
We all want big tires, but big tires need clearance so they won’t rub and potentially damage themselves on sheetmetal or bumpers. We also like rigs that sit low to the ground. Of course this love of lowrider 4x4s must be within reason. You cannot constantly be dragging bellies over rocks, but at the same time a stable low rig that drags is way better than one that feels like it’s going to roll over all the time. The best solution to building a rig with big tires that sits low is to get over your love of stock lines and get to trimming sheetmetal. We have used body saws, sabre saws, torches, and plasma cutters to trim sheetmetal for bigger tires, and we once fit 38-inch tires on a truck with no lift. The best part is if you need more clearance all you have to do is trim a little bit more metal.

TJ Removable Windshield
This is not our original idea for sure (we stole it from someone on the internet), but it was a great upgrade for our trail-abused TJ that has a rollcage. We cut the pins out of the windshield hinges and replaced them with a bolt. Now if we want to pull the windshield completely off the Jeep to run a dumb obstacle (that we suspect we will probably flop on) all we have to do is remove the bolt and the windshield will come off the Jeep. The result is our windshield, while abused and ugly, still has uncracked glass in it. Oh man, did we just jinx ourselves or what?!

Traction Jackson
No matter how vital they are, there is no getting around the fact that lockers and traction devices are expensive. We never advocate it for the front, but if your factory carrier is strong enough, welding the spider gears together to create a spool is a great way to gain some free traction. You can do it in the vehicle, but it’s way smarter to remove the differential from the vehicle, pop off the ring gear, thoroughly clean it with solvent, let dry, and then fully weld the spider gears. Make sure to cover the carrier bearings to prevent weld splatter from fouling the rollers. It’s also good practice to pop the diff cover about once a year and inspect the welds for any cracking.

Gold Member
Drivetrain component swaps often require the fabrication of a new crossmember. But when designing, it is important to allow for chassis flexing. This will help prevent the cracking of expensive transmission, T-case, bellhousing, and adapter housings. The best method is to incorporate poly or rubber isolators not only at the transmission and/or T-case but also at the crossmember-to-frame mounting points. A good trick to remember is that poly YJ Wrangler spring eye bushings will fit perfectly inside 1.75x0.120-wall tubing and their flex will allow an extra cushion of drivetrain safety.

Heated Window
If you wheel a fullsize off-road then you’re familiar with the expression “driving by braille.” A cool trick for the hardcore fullsize guy is to remove the heater assembly from the passenger-side of the firewall and replace it with a sheet of clear Lexan or plexi, allowing a clear and unobstructed view of what’s in front of the passenger-front tire. We prefer the Lexan because it will not shatter like plexi from small rocks kicked up off the front tire.

You CAD
Many Jeep and Dodge vehicles from the 1980s onward may be found with a central axle disconnect system (CAD). Such systems employ a vacuum-operated fork to engage or disengage a sliding collar, which locks or unlocks the long-side axleshaft together. The factory did this to prevent the front ring-and-pinion from spinning when disengaged, thus reducing parasitic drag. The downside is that over time the vacuum motor fails. A cheap, easy fix is to remove the motor assembly, drill a hole through the sliding collar, and run a small bolt through that locks the collar in the engaged position.

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