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Build the Ultimate 4x4 Trucks - Stock Trucks Stink

Posted in Project Vehicles on July 1, 2006
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Photographers: David FreiburgerCourtesy of Ford

Last month Feature Editor Jerrod Jones laid out his picks for the greatest 4x4s of all time from each individual manufacturer (page 112, June '06). Some readers loved his picks and some hated his picks. This month the boss wanted me to do the same type of story, but as far as I'm concerned stock trucks just suck. I could bore you all with my favorite stock 4x4s of all time, but I'd rather spend these valuable pages covering exactly how I would build a vehicle from each OEM. I feel certain companies are really good at certain things, and if it were up to me I would grab onto that best attribute of each company and make it into the best 4x4 it can be. You may agree or you may think I'm dumb, but either way I hope you leave these pages of bench wheeling with some new ideas for your next buildup.

How would I build a Toyota different from Clampy, my super rustmobile? I think I would start with an FJ-40 Land Cruiser and then modify it into the Toyota that Toyota should have built. I would start with the cab and stretch it out to a wheelbase of about 109 inches, give or take a few. Then I would find a Toyota FJ-80 frame and shorten it down to the same 109 inches. This would give me a more modern frame, with a little bit more legroom and rear storage and allow me to keep the coil-sprung FJ-80 suspension. Under that frame I would keep a set of FJ-80 Land Cruiser axles with front and rear selectable lockers and stuff them with some lower gears. Then since this is an all-Toyota Toyota, I would source a 4.7L V-8 from a Tundra or late-model 4Runner and stuff it under the hood. Here is where it gets tricky-this truck just needs to have a manual to be right, and overseas Toyota offered a five-speed manual transmission known as the H150F that should survive behind the 4.7 V-8. It offers a lowish First gear and overdrive Fifth, but it would have to be sourced through some Land Cruiser supplier such as Spector Off Road. Behind that I would bolt the Advance Adapters Orion transfer case with a 4:1 low range for ultimate creepy crawl, while still keeping it Toyota. Of course the computer work to make the 4.7L happy with this montage of a drivetrain will be a bit tricky, and that's probably why it hasn't been attempted here in the U.S. Then to go that extra step I would source some seats out of a Toyota forklift for just the look I need. What would I end up with? A good working trail rig that would be all Toyota (save a few AA bits) and something the purists would go crazy over.

When I think of the best thing Dodge has done for the truck market, I look back to 1989 when the company first started putting the Cummins diesel in its 1-ton trucks. This engine had previously been offered only in medium-duty trucks and tractors, but now you, me, and anyone else with $13,000 or $14,000 could bring one home. In my view diesel is good for a few things-towing, long distance travel, and hard work-so I'd build a solid tow rig and I'd build it as an expedition vehicle. I would start with an extra-cab longbed with a manual transmission and solid 1-ton axles from any year after 1989. This truck would get a standard contractor's truck shell such as those from ARE Industries with rear barn doors, side toolboxes and internal lighting and insulation. Then I'd outfit it with stuff like Coleman camping gear, an ARB fridge/freezer, and the best GPS, communications, and stereo system money can buy, since the long miles exploring dirt trails from Alaska to Africa to Australia just might require some mental entertainment every now and then. It would come with at least a 15,000-pound winch, and above that a set of HID off-road lights to help light the way across Siberia. Suspension duties would be done to keep the truck nimble, with just enough lift to clear some 36- to 38-inch Michelin Military tires designed for long miles of abuse. Then I would spray the whole thing down in a simple brown or forest green and tell the boss he'll be getting my next story via e-mail while I'm exploring the beaches of Brazil.

Suzukis make great little trail rigs, but my ultimate Suzuki would follow one of two themes. It would be either a miniature Camel Trophy truck or the ultimate urban off-roader. The Camel Trophy truck idea would be easy: Pull the 1.3L out of any year Samurai, drop in a VW diesel using the kit from Acme Adapters, build a cage that mimics that of a Land Rover Defender 90 with tubes outside of the cab. But the tubes wouldn't be all over the place la exocage style so common these days, just from the hood up over the windshield and around the door, but don't forget a little ladder to get up to the top. Tires would stay small, 31s most likely, but super knobby, and selectable lockers would be needed so that means ARBs. Spray the whole thing mustard yellow, slap on some stickers and shovels, and start dressing like the Camel cigarette guy from years past and I'd be living the jungle dream. The ultimate Urban off-roader would be very different. The idea here is building a very capable rig that no one takes much interest in, plus it has to be very quiet for late-night urban wheeling trips. I would start with either a Samurai or a Sidekick (Geo Tracker). Either would do for after-dark adventures where small and skinny gets you in. The bumpers would stay stock, but in the bed of the truck would be a winch mounted for rearward extrication in case you get stuck while sneaking into the local golf course, so a 6,000-pound rating should do. No fancy paint, just whatever it came with stock, but preferably a muted color, and all the chrome needs to be matted out so it doesn't reflect light. The idea here is "out of sight, out of mind." It definitely needs lockers, but again selectable since you don't want tire chirping when cruising on the street looking for unlocked gates or deserted dirt lots. Add a manual brake-light shut off, as small a lift as possible to clear some 29-inch mud tires with the white letters in, and change all the dash lights to red to protect your night vision. Then drive it like you are the security watchman at the construction site, city park, railway tracks, drainage ditch, and so on, and hopefully no one catches on that you're trespassing.

I'm not really a Ford guy, since there were never any uncles or cousins running the Blue Oval when I grew up so it never really stuck on me. However, if I was going to build a Ford I would have to build an early Bronco of the '66-'77 era, and I would make it a clone of the classic Big Oly and hope to drive it as well as Rufus Parnelli Jones. Back in the early '70s Parnelli Jones came to desert racing from Indy car competition and with the fabrication and design skills of Bill Stroppe they took Ford's off-road racing program to the front of the pack. I wouldn't go so far as to build a fully TIG-welded chassis with independent front suspension like the original Big Oly, but I would stuff a 351 followed by a C6 automatic under the hood. After that would come an Atlas transfer case from Advance Adapters, but one with the 2:1 low-range ratios since most of this truck's time will be spent at high speed. The rear 9-inch will be sent to Currie industries for all the beefy parts and an always-on spool, while the front Dana 44 will be retained and gusseted for strength during high-speed beatings. A set of black vinyl Corbeaus and five-point harnesses will keep me strapped in while some Firestones tear up the desert floor. For suspension I'd go find some old-school skills like those of Walker Evans Racing or Curt Leduc's fabrication shop and work with their years of experience to make a linked coiled setup that can get me through the whoops as fast as my goggled eyes can see, since there won't be any windshield in this old-school race truck. One last thing: I'd definitely have the wing on the lid, but since I'm a Pabst Blue Ribbon aficionado and not an Olympia beer drinker, my Bronco would be the Big Pabby.

I have two Chevys and I like what they have to offer: super common engine parts, good transmission and transfer case options, and bulletproof 1-ton axles. But I think if it was anything goes I would build a super Chevy cab truck. Cab trucks are an East Coast phenomena where guys take a fullsize Chevy 3/4- or preferably 1-ton and toss the body off the frame, then they drop on some mini-truck cab (S-10s are popular candidates) and giant tires. I like that recipe, but instead of a mini-truck cab I would scour the western deserts for a late '30s or '40s Chevy or GMC pickup cab. I wouldn't use the giant fenders since they'll just get in the way, but I would keep the cool grille and hood. I'd put all this on a '70s or '80s 3/4- or 1-ton regular cab longbed chassis with a front 60 (locked, of course, and 5.38s) and rear 14-bolt or Eaton (welded up tight), or some 2 1/2-ton Rockwells. Engine duty would go to a small-block Chevy V-8 with propane injection (the poor man's fuel injection) and loud as heck straight pipes, either a TH400 or SM465 transmission (whichever I can find in the chassis) and an NP205 transfer case. Tires would be 44-inch Boggers in the rear, 44-inch Swampers up front. This truck would be built for full-throttle assaults on steep hillclimbs and deep mud bogs. The early cab would have a bench seat so I could stuff as many passengers in as are brave enough to go, and the rear flatbed will be stocked with three or four propane tanks and a cooler filled with campfire beverages. Suspension would be tried-and-true leaf springs with traction bars and full hydraulic steering since this will likely never see the street.

It seems almost every recipe for a Jeep has been tried, some successfully and some not. It really is pretty tricky to build something unique and capable, especially when you can drive off the dealer floor with probably the most capable 4x4 on the market-a Rubicon or Rubicon Unlimited. So how could they possibly be improved? First I would go with bigger tires; the Rubicon would need at least 35s and the R.U. would get 40s or 42s. The I-6 is great, but I'd rather have a V-8. Give me that late-model GM 6.0 truck engine, as it has gobs of power and torque, and it will bolt right up to an NV4500 five-speed manual transmission (you thought automatic? What real Jeep didn't come with a manual, you ninny?). Behind that, call the boys at Stak 4x4 and order up one of their three-speed transfer cases with all the low range of a Rubicon, plus more. Suspension would need to be changed to some high-buck coilover shocks to outdo the factory coils, and then add a long-arm suspension. When it comes to the axles, I would take a giant wad of cash out of my imaginary wallet and have a set of custom Ford 9-inch/Unimog portal axles made. This would outdo the ground clearance of the stock 44s but would also require some customization to the long-arm suspension links. And since I'm spending imaginary money on imaginary parts for my imaginary Jeep, I would also go off the deep end and make both the front and the rear axle steer, especially under the Unlimited. After that it would be the normal medley of bumpers, sliders, and corner protection, and of course this Jeep will require a few thick coats of olive drab paint before it rolls out into the wilderness. On the other hand I could just find an all-original military flatfender and go wheelin'. I'd probably be happy as a clam, but then what would I bench wheel about?

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