...At least in my mind
Witing about the best 4x4s ever is really quite easy. Picking them, however, is extremely difficult. Hope-fully you've read the last "Best 4x4" stories in June, July, and August, where each staffer touted his best of the best and why. Of course, none of us totally agree on this subject, just like the wheeling world at large. If that was true, no one would drive brand X, and we would all drive brand Y. Naturally this would lead to a very boring world, and real-world wheeling would come to an end as we know it. So now it's my turn to reveal my picks and why I think these vehicles are truly the best 4x4s of all time. You all won't agree with me, and some of you may say I'm just a crazy old coot who's stuck in the '60s, but nothing could be further from the truth. I'm actually stuck in a wide variety of eras and epochs which give me the insight to analyze correctly what you should be thinking as well. OK, that's a bunch of blarney. I just like the vehicles I am now presenting. And hope you do to.
Any Real Flatfender
You thought I'd pick a Scout as my favorite? Puh Leeeze! No, a Flatfender is to wheeling what dirt is to a potato. You really can't have one without the other. While technically incorrectly called the first 4x4, it truly is the one that made a difference in our wheeling world, starting in WWII. And no, Willys didn't invent the jeep in 1941 as some companies insist. Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, has the honor of that, taken from military designs and input to create the phenomenon we have today. Regardless, there hasn't been a more significant or important 4x4 vehicle in history. Perfectly adept in stock form and modifiable to the limits of your imagination, the Flatfender jeep defines the basis of four-wheeling. The best is probably the M38, with all the military doohickeys and brackets that make it just bitchin'. I could do without the 40-year-old crusty 24-volt electricals, but it's still way cool hands-down.
Oh come on, can anyone really say this wasn't a revolutionary 4x4? Small, light, underpowered, fuel-efficient, and hey, cute as a bug's ear. If the CBS show 60 Minutes hadn't unfairly crucified the rig for flopping over in their rigged tests, I'd bet they would still be around today, instead of the sissified sport-utes the OE's currently market. Easy to modify, cheap to maintain, and an excellent power-to-weight ratio, these rigs are perfectly adept on any trail with the right modifications. No, you can't pull a house with one (although Suzuki Guru Tim Hardy has pulled his motorhome and trailer with his) and you would find it difficult to wheel in with a family of four, the dogs, and the gear needed for a week of camping, but for all-out cheap fun, this rig changed our world. Beep-Beep, Hi!
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Out-of-the-box best 4x4 yet produced by any company, period. There is no way anyone can deny that this vehicle is a crowning achievement in automotive 4x4 vehicles. It sports real tires, selectable lockers, a 4:1 transfer case, a torquey inline 6, a real six-speed tranny, and an auto available for you wimps, and still a convertible-the true 4x4. And don't whine about it being too small; that's what makes it a good 4x4 on the tight trails. Hell, lose some weight yourself if you can't fit into one, or wait till the '07 model year for more interior room. Downside? Almost extremely boring, especially in red. Almost any moron can buy and drive one of these and look good doing it, and with the A/C on.
Any Dodge Power Wagon
New or old, the Dodge Power Wagon simply kicks some off-road tail. Produced since the mid '40s with a few years off here and there, the Power Wagon moniker means big, tough, and capable. That's why the original design lasted into the '70s, at least for export, and the new model carries on the time-honored tradition. True, the old style looked better, but the lack of 4x4 aids (such as lockers, power, and compliant suspension) hampered the earlier breed. The new Power Wagon does have a lot of creature comforts we really couldn't care less about, but the fact that it has good torque and power, a real truck tranny, a stick-shifted 4:1 transfer case, and big burly axles with lockers sets it apart from all others in the new truck arena. Both Ford and GM took a close, hard look at the Power Wagon and have made their own prototype versions, but have thus far failed to market them or push for a release. But the renewed Power Wagon changed the course of the OE 4x4 truck wars, showing that there is a buying public which cares about such important off-road attributes.
'79 Ford F-350
My particular favorite for style, beef, and poor fuel economy is also one tough truck. Fitted with a 460, a four-speed or C6, and an NP205, this truck came with a Dana 60 front and 70 rear-and no need for catalytic converters or extra emissions crap like the lighter GVW Fords. This was the only year of this truck so equipped, which is why they tend to be so desirable and hard to find. It doesn't make the best wheeling machine because of its shear bulk, but anyone who's mudbogged one of these beasts or used one in a tractor pull knows what's going on. Sure, you can scavenge all the parts and slap them in your early Bronco or '78-'79 Bronco, but why? This is the truck for max towing of your trail rig, or anything else you feel like hauling. I've seen diesel engine swaps that increase the fuel economy and towing capability of these rides, and would buy one myself if I could afford one.
'91 Chevy Crew Cab Camper Special
Just like the '79 F-350 but not as attractive, this big Chevy dualie rules the roost. Start with an injected 454; mate it to the electronic version of the venerable TH400, back it with an NP205 transfer case, then add a Dana 60 front and 70 rear. Wow, built like a truck we'd spec out and with all the room you'd ever need! Too bad it's way to friggin' big for trail use, but a hunting/camping/towing 4x4 is what this truck is all about. It was the last of the real Chevy trucks, bar none. While few were made with this combo, the later years received Inferior Front Suspension, aluminum transfer cases, and auto trannies that require way too many wires to be reliable. This truck also marked the end of the GM real-truck building era, which is why Ford stepped in with the Super Duty to steal the crown away from Chevy in the true-truck-towing department.
Scorpion MK I
Yes, it's been said before, after, and during any conversation about wheeling: Tube buggies either suck or rule, and often do both at the same time. Soni Honneger's visionary Scorpion helped fuel the rage of tube buggy building, if not starting it outright. While my other picks are from major OEMs, I picked the Scorpion as a (semi) regular production vehicle, at least that's the theory so I'm sticking with it. Built from standard components and being a true multifunctional on- and off-road vehicle, the Scorpion directly influenced the wheeling world as we know it today. And don't think that the Big 3 (or whatever the number is today) hasn't looked at the rig and analyzed many of its performance and design characteristics. So have plenty of tube buggy aficionados who copy, steal, reinvent, and improve around Soni's basic design and concept.
How can one vehicle spawn an entire category of 4x4s, yet waste away to nothing? You have to look at the Jeep Wagoneer series for nearly everything available on current rigs, sans the government-mandated safety crap and focus-group convenience blather. That's right, the lowly fullsize Wagoneer had a production run from '62 to '91, and started the true SUV market we have today. In nearly 30 years of production the Wagoneer had everything from IFS to solid axles, autos, sticks, 232 six-cylinder to 401 V-8s, a variety of power options equal to what's available today, and most importantly, they could wheel the crap out of most production SUVs on a new-car lot. Sure, they had a lot of the AMC quirkiness designed in, but that's what's lovable about them, and the fact that you can now buy a used one for 600 bucks, wheel the tar out of it then part 'em out. Its only drawback was the unremovable top, if you don't count the poor fuel mileage.
I once posed the question to myself, "What would I choose to drive from L.A. to New York after a nuclear war?" The answer at the time (the '60s, yet again) was of course, a Toyota FJ-40. Simply put, the rig in stock form is simply bulletproof and reliable and would make the trip slowly, but would conquer any obstacles. Sure, it's heavy and overbuilt like a Scout, but the reliability of beefy components is its saving grace. Of course the FJ is easy to modify and adapt, and many a small-block Chevy has found its way into the engine bay. That engine is actually lighter and more fuel-efficient, but lacks the stump-pulling torque of the Toyota 6. Long before the Japanese car revolution broke out in America, the sturdy FJ was making inroads on the 4x4 community.
Didn't know I was a closet Scout fan, did you? Of course, I hack on them worse than any other 4x4, but that's because I've owned and worked on way too many of them. Even at that, the Scout 800 started the movement away from Jeep in the early '60s, offering a 4x4 that, while called "All-Wheel Drive," had the heart and soul of a Jeep without the hype, and proven time-honored components that are reliable to this day. Naturally the rig evolved into the Scout II which was a vast improvement in mechanicals and style, even though it became as bloated as the Jeep lineup-which still continues. The last Scout II came with a turbodiesel, a T-19 (syncro First!) truck four-speed, a Dana 300 transfer case, and Dana 44s front and rear with disc brakes. While heavy (never lift the hardtop or doors off by yourself), the Scout II was ahead of its time, and makes for some great wheeling machinery today. And yes, the aftermarket barely supports these rigs, but virtually anything is available for them: You just can't walk into the local white box mega-retailer and expect to find much for them. Be patient, and all can be yours.