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1999 Ford F-350 Super Duty Build - Building for Extreme Excursions

Posted in Project Vehicles on April 1, 2007 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Robin Stover

If you were to build a truck for an excursion out of reach of anything you're used to, in an area where AAA wasn't going to come meet you at the roadside, how would you build it? What would you useas a platform? Should it be a gas or diesel truck? Should it even be a truck, or would you use an SUV of some kind? And how will you even get your vehicle to where your expedition begins?

These are all things we had to start asking ourselves as we mapped out a plan that will take us into Central America next month to do some survival-style wheeling in a truck that is totally foreign to the area. We are going to be where roads wash out regularly, cell phone service is nonexistent, and ultimately you have to take care of what is yours because no one else will.

We made an elaborate plan to drive the truck down through Mexico, all the way to Costa Rica, but during the planning we were told the tale of a poor soul who had recently tried to drive through Southern Mexico as we were going to. He was robbed of his truck, and then his life. We asked around and quickly came to the conclusion we would be writing our own death warrants by driving a high-profile, expensive vehicle deep into Central America. It was a better plan to ship the truck (via boat) to the starting point. This ended up being costly, but it was a better guarantee that the truck would arrive at the spot where we will be meeting up with it in just a few days.

The off-roading we'll be doing on our excursion is just a taste of what the locals down there have to go through year round. And no matter how fun it's going to be for us en route to adventure, we're sure that it would get very tiresome and difficult to deal with every day.

With all that in mind, we needed to pick a 4x4 that would be reliable, almost failsafe, and built with simplistic parts that would be simple to fix should disaster strike. It is easier to start with a fairly new vehicle, because you have less chance of parts failing due to age. But many new vehicles are way too complicated to take on a trip like this. The conclusion we finally came to seemed to be unquestionable: We'd use a first-generation Super Duty diesel, for a number of reasons.

First off, we decided that a pickup truck is much easier to take on big trips. The bed can be loaded up, and the cab puts a divider between you and all the heavy gear you'll be carrying. Why the specific truck we chose? The Super Duty has to be the most simplistic, heavy-duty, overkill-built truck made in recent times, and we wanted to stick with a newer vehicle for reliability. We wanted the first generation because it's a leaf-sprung truck. Though it will be a rougher ride, parts are not as likely to wear out as with a coil and link suspension. If something does go wrong in the suspension, leaf springs will be easier to deal with. We needed to be thinking about survivability, not if we would spill our coffee because of a rough ride.

We needed a diesel truck as well. Gas is nice, but a diesel is more of a workhorse that we can count on for nonstop function. And where we were going, it would be much easier to find diesel fuel. Since we were starting with a '99 first-generation Super Duty, we'd be lucky enough to get the 7.3L Power Stroke instead of the newer 6.0L. Though the 7.3 is not the hot-rod diesel motor that the 6.0 is, it has proven itself to be a more reliable, longer-lasting engine. The engine would be left stock as well. This will give us fewer things to go wrong and not overspin the automatic transmission, creating premature failure. Reliability is key and takes precedence over all else.

There is always a good chance you're going to run into something in a remote area. You could slide off the road, hit a downed tree coming around a corner, or a poor creature could sacrifice itself in your grille. If you mess up your radiator and cooling system, you could be stranded for quite a while. We wanted a bumper that we could cut through a forest with, should it be required. Fab Fours had the answer to what we wanted with its Ford 1/4-inch-plate winch bumper. It weighs a Sumo-sized 290 pounds and if we had an issue, this bumper would go through it. Just what we needed.

The crew at Off Road Warehouse finished the suspension so quickly, we were able to coax them into helping us throw on the bumper too. The bumper has a bracket on each side that attaches to the factory Ford frame horns without any drilling or cutting. It's a little difficult to install because of its weight, but at least everything lines up nicely.

It's definitely no featherweight, but well worth it. We can load it up with an enormous winch, and the front prerunner hoop will keep large objects from skipping up over the bumper and into our grille (and through the radiator).

Tire shops with 37s are not plentiful outside the U.S., so we needed to make sure we'd be running a heavy-duty tire and not one so big it would break axles. Pro Comp's 37-inch X-Terrain is a three-ply sidewall tire, with side lugs that will provide protection from popping. We went with ones that would fit on a 17-inch wheel and also threw two spares in the bed, just in case. We didn't want to go with any ridiculous rim size like 20s, because if we did have to end up buying a tire on our trip, chances are that our selection will be very limited, and we're not sure they'd even know that people are crazy enough to drive around on 20-inch rims. As for the wheel, we wanted a simple, non-bead-lock wheel like the Xtreme Alloy 1079s we chose. Bead locks are nice, but they require more maintenance and give another variable to go wrong. Normal aluminum wheels will work well for us, and if we knock more than two tires off of the wheels, we'll be carrying spare air to reseat them.

When looking for reliability, simple is oftentimes better. You do not need anything fancy. Technically, you could get most places you need to with some lockers and the axles welded to the frame and no suspension at all, but you could only drive a few miles per hour. This is what made our leaf-sprung choice so easy when compared to a link and coil suspension.

Though we wanted simple, we wanted good quality components as well. There are some really cheap products available, and you want to make sure that you don't skimp on some part trying to save yourself 20 bucks, only to regret it on the trip when it could cost you dearly. Do it right the first time!

We decided on using a Pro Comp 6 1/2-inch full leaf-spring kit while upgrading to remote-reservoir MX6 adjustable shocks. The Pro Comp leaf springs are heavy-duty complete replacements front and rear, and will still take a full load in the bed without sagging. We had the team at Off Road Warehouse in San Diego finish installing the kit in half a day.

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Before you just pop off on an international off-roading trip, you need to do the most that you can to make sure your drivetrain will survive the trip. This means upgrading what you think you need to, and replacing anything that could possibly wear out, even if it is still good. Our truck had only 80,000 miles on it at the time of shipment, but we still replaced every potentially worn drivetrain piece we could. The automatic tranny was still functioning fine, but we certainly didn't want to take any chances and had it reworked by Orange County Transmissions. The folks there added a few hop-ups and firmed up the shifts, while they rebuilt the entire unit. It's a good thing too, because they told us the tranny was hanging on by a thread and would've busted in just another couple hundred miles. That would not have been a pleasant surprise thousands of miles away from the nearest Super Duty tranny service center.

Once the tranny was in, we headed to South Bay Truck & 4x4 to finish off the rest of the drivetrain. We pulled every U-joint in the truck and replaced it with a new one. The driveshafts were sent out to be completely rebuilt, and the axleshafts were checked to make sure they were in perfect condition. We even added new ball joints just to be safe. When we pulled the front differential cover off, we found that we had the Dana 50 axle. The Dana 50 is a sad axle that has the housing and looks just like a Dana 60, but carries a Dana 44-sized differential. Because of this, we made sure to leave it open so as to take as much stress as possible off the little diff and 30-spline axles.

We pulled the front Dana 50 and rear 10 1/2-inch Visteon differentials to match the gears to the tires. We chose 4.56 gears in each for the best match of gear strength. When you start dropping to lower gear ratios (numerically higher) than 4.56, the pinion gear head starts to become smaller and therefore weaker, according to some experts. For the ultimate in no-fuss traction, we dropped a Detroit Locker into the rear axle. The automatic Detroit Locker has fewer potential failure points than a selectable locker, and has proven itself strong and reliable on countless trips for us.

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You want to make sure you can see everything well during the entire trip. Of course, you need some good lights to see at night, but this goes for more than just lighting, as you need to have an excellent pair (not the $5 ones) of windshield wipers which won't harden up and crack and to be able to move mud off your windshield. Wipers don't seem like a big deal, but if you can't see clearly, your chances of mishaps increase dramatically.

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Don't fool yourself into thinking nothing major will happen. You have to be prepared to rescue your vehicle out of a river, should it be necessary. Therefore, a winch and recovery equipment were necessities to pack.

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One of the smartest things you can do when you get a spur in your ass to do some crazy trip like this is to plan well in advance. If you can finish the truck up early, you can take time to drive it around, test it off-road, and make sure that everything you did to the truck is working well. Once our truck was finished, we immediately took it off-roading and put 500 miles on it before we put it on the boat. If something was going to happen, we wanted it to happen within U.S. borders. If you rush to finish a project just before your deadline, you leave yourself open to disaster.

Hopefully, we won't be eating our own words in two days when we arrive to meet the truck. We'll report back to you next month with how the Super Duty performed during the trip.


Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Off Road Warehouse
San Diego, CA 92111
Fab Fours
Pineville, NC 28134
Eaton/Detroit Locker
Pro Comp Tires
Daystar Products
T-Max Winches
Explorer Competition Products (Pro Comp)


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