Old Is Awesome
I am about to go to the bank and discuss buying a new truck, and what will I come home with? A fancy new truck, with A/C, a gazillion-channel radio, ’lectric butt-adjusting seats and window upper-downers, and a reliable engine that I can’t afford to drive because I have to pay some outlandish bill each month to purchase and insure my new truck. Sounds great! And what if I should take said pretty new 4x4 off-road and dent or ding it up. How is that going to make me look and feel? Like an idiot.
Now my ’79 Ford may require a bit of investment to keep it running each month, but not as much as a new truck payment, I can assure you, and not for as many months in a row. Plus I’ll have a little cash left over to upgrade the old beater and make it reliable for daily driving and off-road prowess.
New trucks aren’t all bad. Fuel injection seems to have come around to being pretty reliable, as have ignition systems and power windows that don’t jam up from playing with them like they did when introduced (not that there’s anything wrong with a crank window). However, there are other aspects of new cars that I could do without, such as electronic brake-based traction control, tire pressure monitors, and cross-polluting computers that get very mad should I swap in a solid-axle or geardriven transfer case. And don’t forget the hidden government vehicle tracking and disabling devices that allow Big Brother to know how fast I’m going, where I’m going, and if I’m driving without pants (that last part may or may not be true depending on who you ask).
The next issue is maintenance and repair. Have you looked under the hood of a new 4x4 recently? First, the engine bay is usually covered with a big plastic cover to hide … what? The unsightly engine? Or all the wires and sensors and hoses and stuff that monitor, calculate, recalculate, adjust, and re-monitor what is going on under there? High-tech and neat, sure, but what do you do when you nose it into a mud hole? “Does not compute! Does not compute!”
I appreciate the handheld scan tools to tell me what is wrong with my new 4x4, but isn’t that just devolving us into idiot slugs who can’t figure out what is wrong with our 4x4s? “So the scan tool is telling me that the sensor that monitors what is wrong with my 4x4 isn’t working and I need a new sensor?!?” Yeah, no thanks. Everything breaks down, so how are you going to fix it when it does?
Few new 4x4s have the robust parts that we all drool over—solid axles, geardriven transfer cases, removable tops—three things I enjoy having in my trail rig. Less important for trail duty is the alphabet soup—IFS, GPS, ABS, SCABs (side curtain airbag)—that seems to get more common with each passing year.
What about the style and adventure of driving an old truck? In the past year I drove a 1-year-old truck and a 38-year-old Jeep across America and back. No one cared about the truck, but the Jeep got people talking at every stop.
“You drove that with no doors?”
“It’s so rusty!”
“How many times did it break down?”
Many couldn’t believe it, but it really wasn’t that hard. After all, it is only a 38-year-old rig, and people have been driving trans-America for over 100 years. Our forefathers managed to get around just fine without a bunch of electronic nannies. Only recently have we felt we need to be encapsulated in a cocoon while we drive so we can hear all the channels on our radio. Just give me a steering wheel, manual transmission, and three pedals on the floor and I’ll figure out the rest.
Out With the Old, in With the New!
When you see someone broken down on the side of the road, are they usually driving a new vehicle? No, they are driving some clapped-out old deathtrap. In the rare instance they are driving a newer rig, typically they have the option to just take their 4WD to the nearest dealer and have it fixed under warranty. Try doing that with your ’79 Ford F-150.
Reliability isn’t the only reason to spend your money on a newer 4x4. There are plenty of other compelling factors.
Modern multiport fuel injection or even direct injection on engines like Ford’s EcoBoost offer benefits that a Holley Double Pumper could never dream of—better fuel mileage, more power, and improved drivability just to name a few. And while Fred is changing the jets in his carb when we go wheeling at high elevations in Colorado or sputtering through off-camber trails, EFI never skips a beat. Fouled plugs and setting points are great if you like to tinker with your vehicle in the middle of the trail, but I would rather be looking over the hood than under it.
Beyond the engine, modern vehicles have galvanized body panels and quiet, comfortable interiors so you can use your wheeling rig for your daily driver without arriving at work feeling like you just got punched in the kidneys by Mike Tyson or having to register, insure, and maintain multiple vehicles. Sure, you don’t need satellite radio, 12 cup holders, and well-padded and ergonomic seats, but they certainly don’t hurt anything.
You never hear of someone swapping drum brakes and an F-head engine into their wheeler. Chevy LS engines and disc brakes are just two examples of modern parts that nearly everyone covets for their 4WD. Who wants to mess with heavy, poor-performing drum brakes that clog up with mud and wheel cylinders that leak when you look at them funny? You can spend an arm and a leg on an “unmolested” early Bronco or FJ40 Land Cruiser and you will be so worn out you will need to take a nap after a drive across town thanks to the drum brakes, sloppy steering, and low horsepower. And that is assuming you actually make it to your destination!
Modern manufacturing practices have opened the way for hydro-formed frames that are stronger and stiffer than previous designs without adding any weight, fluid-filled body mounts to isolate noise, and compacted graphite iron engine blocks that are lighter and stronger than iron.
Crazy Uncle Freddy might try to convince you that older vehicles are more capable, but not everything manufactured these days is a crossover weenie-mobile. Have you driven a JK Rubicon, a Ram Power Wagon, or a Ford Raptor? They didn’t build anything in the ’70s or ’80s that can even come close to the capabilities of these modern vehicles. And the modern TJ and JK Wranglers have more aftermarket support than any other 4WD ever made, so the trail prowess from the factory is just the tip of the iceberg. —Harry Wagner
Beginning this month we’ll be running a recurring story called Bench Wheeling, where we pick a topic and debate the pros and cons like a couple old guys arguing in the local garage, diner, or front porch. Topics will run the full spectrum, and we chose new-versus-old 4x4s to start with.
Harry Wagner is a freelance writer who makes his living detecting unexploded ordnance in defunct bombing ranges. He has been into four-wheeling since crossing the Rubicon and other Sierra Nevada trails as a small boy in his father’s big-block–powered FJ40 Land Cruiser. Harry currently drives a Toyota rock-truck, a daily driver late-model 4Runner, and a big-block Chevy tow rig.
Fred Williams is the tech editor here. He eats, sleeps, and breathes 4x4s. In fact, he once lived in his truck for an extended period, before moving into a shop with his trucks, before moving out to the country with even more of his piles—er, trucks.