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4 Best 4x4 Trail & Off-Road Rigs - 4x4s That Rocked Our World

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 2005 Comment (0)
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4 Best 4x4 Trail & Off-Road Rigs - 4x4s That Rocked Our World
Photographers: The 4-Wheel & Off-Road Staff

This was a really hard story to write, as there are a ton of cool 4x4s out there and I pretty much change my mind every four or five hours when it comes to my favorite. I want a Suzuki, then I want a 211/42-ton mud bogger. So I was really hard pressed to pick the four here that look cool, made me jealous that they aren't mine, and had me dreaming of crawling over rocks, peeling out through mud and sand, or just trolling down wooded trails. They are not all perfect for driving to work every day, but if I am dreaming, then going to work would require me to have a rig like these

There are quite a few runners-up. I dig all the vehicles I own, especially my crew cab Forward Control Jeep, which I often imagine camping in along some deserted Baja beach. I also like the Ultimate Tacoma and Avalanche, but those rigs are magazine rigs so they have certain restrictions. Then there are the stock vehicles that I think are great right out of the box: '85 Toyota trucks, early 90's Dodge Cummins 1-tons, and Jeep CJ-7s. The 4x4s that belong to my boss (Pw) and his buddies were always favorites of mine as well-Rick's big-block Flatfender, Ned Bacon's "Bee' Jeep, and Tim Hardy's Samurai were some of the first serious wheelers I remember reading about, and Mike Palmer's Flatfender was really cool even before I knew what coilovers and four-links were. I'm a big buggy fan, and Avalanche Engineering's Sniper, Assassin, and Karnivore rank up there along with Poison Spyder Customs' Bruiser chassis'. However, I also dig the buggies that compete like Jason Paule's Twisted Customs creations, the mid/rear engine moon buggies, the Diablo chassis built by Schaeffer's Off Road, and the Hurst Baja Boot driven by Steve McQueen in the 1967 Baja 1000, but they all seemed like afterthoughts after these four.

Fat City BroncoMy buddy John Reynolds (JR) once let me drive his Bronco and it quickly made an impression on me that I couldn't forget. Big tires, big motor, and a tube chassis are hella fun, and add to that the ground clearance of portal axles and you have an amazing machine. JR worked with Eric and Ryan Filar from the now-dormant Fat City Off Road to build this big Blue Oval, and though I would never call myself a Ford man, I really like this rig. Eric Filar is one of those tube-bending artists and after years of experience building such rigs as the Sniper and Assassin at Avalanche Engineering, he broke loose to start Fat City. JR came in with a Bronco project and a plan for some crazy envelope-pushing component ideas. What resulted not only won the 2002 Four Wheeler Top Truck Challenge, it also is one of the coolest trail rigs on the planet.

The story goes that JR started with an early Bronco and planned to rehash the whole thing, but after some discussions, the original rig was reduced to just the 42-inch Super Swamper tires and built up from there. The axles are the kings of ground clearance built by CTM racing with Ford 9-inch centers and Unimog portal boxes, 2.50 ring-and-pinion, and 2.13 portal gears equal a 5.32 final axle gear, just enough to spin big 42s if you have some motor. JR definitely has motor; a Ford 426 spits nearly 430 horses, and more than 500 lb-ft of torque. Let's just say that JR has enough motor to scare his wife when blasting across the desert. Behind that sit a C6 tranny and an Atlas transfer case, beefy enough to survive JR's right foot. In fact, watching JR wheel is half the reason I like this rig so much. His right foot is so heavy he practically walks with a limp.

Fred's 4 Favorite 4X4SPinkyAbout six or seven years ago I went to Phoenix, for some dumb job I used to have, and decided to look up Don and Shannon Campbell, the father and son team of tube-bending 4x4 builders. I had read about their pink tube chassis Jeeps (Feb. '97), had heard stories of their trail escapades, and hoped to meet these guys in person. Imagine my surprise when they invited me over to the shop to have a few brews and talk 4x4s till almost midnight. Little did I know just how cool these guys would be, or how a pink Jeep would stick with me.

Now years later I work for this big 4x4 magazine and I see cool rigs every week, but that little pink Jeep is still one of my top four. Shannon had been wheeling for a while with his buddies, and decided to build a Jeep of his own. But then his dad, an experienced stock car and desert racer, convinced him to start from scratch and build a square tube chassis since most of the Jeeps they found were rusted junk. This way they could build the suspension just the way they wanted it. Before long Pops decided to follow suit and built his own version with a complete 131/44-inch DOM round tube chassis, and along with the Scorpion, these Jeeps started the whole tube chassis trend of vehicles built specifically for wheelin'. The axles they used seem pretty lame from a current extreme wheeler's point of view, but at the time a front 10-bolt and rear 12-bolt with 3.73 gears worked just fine. In fact, Shannon won many competitions including Four Wheeler's Top Truck Challenge 1996 with these gears. Everything in these Jeeps was super simple: small-block Chevy power, TH350 automatic, Dana 300 transfer case, leaf springs all around with quarter-elliptic suspension in the rear of Don's, 31/44-elliptic in Shannon's, and giant (for the time) 35-inch Boggers. Lightweight, no extra junk, full width axles for rockcrawling and to keep them stable during desert races, these Jeeps were all about peelin' out. Let me state that though Shannon and his dad may claim the color was coral, it sure looked like pink to me, but when your Jeep works this good, I guess you can paint it pink. Eventually the Campbells moved on to the more exotic rigs that they now build with their brother/son Nick at Campbell Enterprise, but I'm sure they sometimes wish they still had ol' Pinky. I know I wish I did.

Ugly FlattyI can still remember that day in 1989 when I came home with the September issue of Four Wheeler magazine, the same issue that sits ragged and dog-eared on my desk today. On the cover was a big olive drab Ramcharger, but inside was the Jeep that helped form my aesthetic for cool. The owner came to the U.S. from Sweden in the early '80s with this '51 CJ-3A, which he had built from a rusty pile in a small Swedish garage barely bigger than the Jeep and eventually drove across the entire U.S. On one of his first wheeling trips along the East Coast, he chugged some back trails and kept getting dirty looks from folks hiking along the same narrow path. Only later did he realize that the little gates his Jeep could just barely squeeze through were there to designate the Appalachian Trail. Needless to say, that was just the start of this Jeep's adventures.

As a young man with a brand-new driver's license I so wanted a Jeep, and this ugly version had it all. An aluminum Range Rover 215 V-8 (similar to the '60s Buick, Olds, Pontiac) was a light and torquey powerplant yet still a V-8, the stock T-90 three-speed and model 18 transfer case with a Warn/Saturn overdrive seemed like a perfect choice for an off-road machine at the time, and the many electrical upgrades like shutting off brake lights and secret power switches were all logical. The axles back then were a Dana 25 front and Dana 44 full-float rear. Both have been replaced with newer Dana 44s but still run 5.38 gears and Detroit Lockers. Wheels and tires have changed often over the years, but the favorites are still 15x10 Center Lines with 36-inch Dick Cepek rubber. One of the things that was so cool and new back then was the spring-over suspension with Rancho leaves, giving the Jeep the amazing (for 1989) ability to lift one tire 30 inches while keeping the other three on the ground. But what really enticed me about this Flatty was the idea of a Jeep with tons of time and thought put into it, but no chrome. This Jeep was built for wheeling, painted brown so it wouldn't stick out or be noticed in the woods, and was ugly from trail use, so dirt, dents and scratches were never an issue-and that is so cool to me.

The ScorpionIf I found a genie in a bottle and he granted me only one vehicle, it would be the Scorpion MKI rock buggy built by Soni Honegger for Heath Biggs. This was one of the first tube buggies I ever saw, and still my favorite. No other buggy has such a unique look, and came from so far outside the box that to this day few rigs have copied its suspension design. Soni wasn't new to the 4x4 scene, what with his Hemi-powered Ramcharger and coil-sprung flatfender, but when this tube car hit the scene (Aug. '97), jaws dropped and the sale of tube benders started to rise.

The original Scorpion had a simple drivetrain: throttle-body-injected GM 350 V-8, TH400 automatic, Dana 20 transfer case, and front and rear Scout II Dana 44s with 5.89 gears and Detroit Lockers. However, it was the tube chassis and custom airbagged suspension that really set this rig apart. Built almost entirely from 2-inch 0.120-wall DOM tubing and all bent with a hand-powered tubing bender, this rig had little if any body panels to dent, and what it did have was tough aluminum diamond plate.

The really trick part of the design was the forced articulation suspension, which forced each axle to articulate in the opposite direction of the other. Simple explanation? Imagine links coming vertically up from each axle attaching to the ends of chassis-mounted links that act like see-saws forcing the opposite axle in the opposite direction, meanwhile airbags act as springs and allow raising and lowering the suspension to clear trail obstacles.

Confused? That's probably why few have ever copied the design. Over the years many changes were made to the design, and new versions were built, such as the Cummins diesel-powered version shown (Aug. '00), with doors and complete top that now uses Dana 60 axles, an Atlas transfer case, and a few upgrades to the suspension for a better ride during high-speed jaunts. Of course, the military look with pintle hitches, drab paint, and Hummer wheels just fuels my envy. If you want to get one built for yourself, Preferred Chassis Fabrication (www.scorpion4x4.com) is still making chassis in both two- and four-seat versions. The original is in the garage of a collector whom I've met. It will be there at least until I can raise the money and convince him to sell it to the Crazy Uncle Freddy Ranch.

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