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20th Anniversary: 20 Best Vehicles

Posted in Project Vehicles on March 1, 1998
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Photographers: The 4-Wheel & Off-Road Files

Ken Bolton's '67 Jeep CJ-5 modified for sand drags, Walker Evans' '72 F-100, and R.A. Clay's Marmon-Herrington were the first featured vehicles in 4-Wheel & Off-Road. You could probably tell by issue number one that we dug just about anything with wheels. Through the decades we've continued to bring you an in-depth look at racers' building secrets, what your fellow readers are driving, the functional, weird, and functional and weird trucks, vans, buggies, and conversions we've found at events, shops, and in the mail. Here's a look at some of the best-we skipped 1998 since we've still got nine months of awesome possibilities.

Jeepsters, an Austin-Healy 4x4, and a Land Cruiser with power brakes and an auto tranny were among what was called the best back then. But probably the most notable truck to appear during those years was Bob Chandler's F-250, Bigfoot. What got the staff and readership's undergarments in an uproar were its tall stance (the rocker panels were 8 feet 6 inches above the ground), weight (9,200 pounds), and horsepower (400, thanks to the 460ci Ford mill). Other worthy notes were its 11,000-pound military front axle and the 18-22.5 Firestone Super All-Traction tires wrapped around 22.5x14 wheels.

"In Praise of Older Chevys" was how we presented Fred Chavez's '65 1/2-ton. The Corvette-yellow skin, the Carter/Edelbrock-beefed '69 350 Chevy V-8, and the low-geared T-case and tranny from a '77 Chevy were among the $7,000 mods. Although its stock appearance was retained (OK, other than the rollbar, the in-cab 'cage, the Cepek rubber, and so on), Fred built a strong, sano Bow Tie that no doubt became the inspiration for many more vintage buildups. Another fave (actually, favorite freak) from 1980 was Don Wolfe's Quad Rod, a '33 Chrysler with a shortened body, a '51 Jeep front diff and a '74 Ford passenger car rear, '74 GMC front discs, and a chaindriven transfer case. Hey, it made appearances at both hot rod shows and off-road events, so who's to laugh?

This was a tough year to choose cool vehicles. There were many. There was Terry Dye's Mello Yello '53 Studebaker, Jim Hedrick's 9-foot-tall, 9-foot-wide Beast, featuring a shortened '53 2 1/2-ton military troop carrier frame and a GMC 1/2-ton pickup body (making it a '68 GMC), and Glenn Ehrler's four-wheel-drive '54 Chevy station wagon (thankfully it wasn't considered a freak). But cover truck Gunslinger was considered one of the tops because of owner Marc Beguelin's attention to detail. Or because its western theme brought out the cowboy in each 4-Wheel staff member. The '77 F-150's 40-tip flame paint scheme and "horse-power" mural helped Marc score a bunch of national show trophies, but it didn't stop him from actually pounding the truck off-road. His pickup was one of the first examples of a show-and-go ride. It may have had chrome, a combo of blue and black crushed velour and velvet inside, and painted shocks, but Half-Ton Will Travel also had a 4-inch suspension kit and 35.5-inch Hawgs for hitting the dirt.

OK Jeep fans, 1982 was the year of Raddness-the '78 CJ-5 belonging to Steve Williams. It took to the air for the May cover and proved that making a love connection between a Jeep and a Chevy was the right thing to do. Now, we can't blame you for considering the revolving emergency lamp a tad dated, but the fact that Steve built the Chevy CJ from a pile of destruction allowed us to overlook that. The hybrid had a 450-horses-makin' '69 350ci Chevy V-8, a '69 Muncie four-speed, custom driveshafts, 12-15 Cyclone RV-Trac tires on 10-inch American Racing rims, a Steve-made MIG-welded rollcage, an aluminum dash, and a soft top. But let's not forget that 1982 also brought us Douglas Gibbs' Interbaker (the body of a '51 Studebaker Starlight Coupe mixed with the framework of a '44 International Harvester F2 four-wheel-drive military dump truck), Gilbert Justiss's former field ambulance, a '51 Dodge B3PW (guess Steve and Gilbert thought 1982 had a medical theme), and Ed Arnold's first-one-in-California 6.2L diesel-stuffed '82 GMC.

Bronco Mania! Gael Morgan's monster Bronc was front and center on the June cover. Yep, people were building monsters but not always for show. Some were built to be-dare we say it-functional, such as Gael's '81 XLT. You may not see the function of 48x25.00-20NHS Goodyear Terra tires, but for a mud whumper, big rubber was where it was at. But spinning 'em was gonna take some effort, so among the needs was a blown '64 Ford 427ci V-8 and 3-inch dual exhaust-rumor had it the Ford could do 100 mph in 15 seconds. Obviously the stock axles wouldn't cut it, so Gael bolted in 2 1/2-ton military axles front and rear (which got him 6.72 gearing) and a transfer case from a 5-ton military vehicle. Toss in a tractor-size steering system, custom-made leaf springs (the rears were arched 14 inches) and traction bars, and an 8-foot-tall measurement, and what's not to like? Well, maybe the $45,000 price tag and the four miles to the gallon (aviation fuel, no less). Others to hate to love or love to hate in 1983 were Ron Witter's '79 Toyota with a 14-inch lift, Carolyn Nelson's Chevy 400ci V-8-powered '79 Chevy Luv, and Jeff Wall's '78 Dodge W150 with hydraulic tilt front end and gold-anodized rollbar, grille, bumpers, and mirrors.

In August '97's "Hot 4x4 Trends," we gave you a peek at one-offs we'd like to see more of, as well as some ideas for what we'd like to just plain see. But it was 13 years earlier that Jim Nichols' unique '76 Ramcharger caught our eyeballs. It had been converted to a pickup. He removed the stock roof and added a truck cab that had been sectioned at the windshield posts and the floor. And it had power to boot-a '70 Dodge 360ci V-8 with Holley parts, aftermarket heads, a camshaft, and an onboard air compressor. But Jim's Dodge was definitely not alone in the memorable department of 1984. These were also the 12 months in which we brought you Fabulous Fords, Freaky 4x4s!, Bigfoot III, Bear Foot, and Rod Hall's '80 Dodge W150.

This was the year of monster trucks. No less than seven covers featured 'em (in 1987 we wondered if these types of trucks were "fun or foolish?"), showcasing everyone from Ms. Bigfoot and Godzilla to Samson I and this King Krunch duo owned by Scott Stephens. The original King Krunch had earned a reputation as one of the southern car-crush champions when it was called The Eliminator. The King was an '84 Chevy Blazer, and its brother was an '85 Chevy longbed. Krunch I had a boxed and reinforced '77 Blazer frame, a custom floorpan, 10 leaves on each side of the suspension front and rear (can you say 22 inches of lift?), and a Chevy 350 V-8 bored to 377 ci that made 400 hp. Krunch II had a custom frame, 10-ton springs and driveshafts from a Mack 18-wheeler, and a 454ci V-8 bored to 468 ci for 500 hp. Both rolled on 66-inch Goodyear Super Terra-Grip tires.

Boogie nights were alive and well this year, and Dave Sales proved his '77 Ford could do anything the so-called "real" off-road vehicles could. He converted his van to a 4x4 and used '79 Bronco parts (see, there's good news) to make it capable, including a tight-fitting Dana 44 (the van had leaf springs versus the Bronco's coils), a C6 tranny, and a transfer case. He also added a limited slip to the rear, 4.56 gears front and rear, and 38.5-inch Gateway Gumbo Monster Mudders for 12 inches of ground clearance at the diffs. In case you're young enough to think a van featured in 4-Wheel could only be due to serious socksniffing by the staff, you should know that this magazine debuted with a Chevy K van-on the cover, no less-and offered multiple van tech articles every year.

Doug Merz's exhibition '83 Chevy not only had the good fortune to be one of our 17 totally-faked covers, it kicked off our Creating the Ultimate Truck theme in April. And what was considered the be all and end all of trucks? Doug's Tasmanian, a People's Choice winner, a top points winner in the off-road division for the National Rod and Custom Association, and a leader in the International Show Car Association circuit. At the time we featured the "baby monster truck," engine and transmission changes were in the works, but it did have rear steering, a Dana 44 with a Trac-Lok in front, a Dana 14-bolt Corporate rear, and chrome-plated 1-ton driveshafts. The suspension had 10 leaves in front arched for a 20-inch lift (the Dana 44 was turned 30 degrees to reduce angle), and the rear had six leaves, 4-inch shackles, and 4-inch blocks.

You may not consider this the best vehicle of 1988, but it was certainly the most talked-about unseen truck for nearly two years. Here's the deal: The magazine led a nationwide search for a person named Robert who owned a red Ford. Get it? Robert Red Ford? Say it fast and think Sundance Kid and you'll understand how demented we were. It was Robert Miller's '77 that ended the contest and nailed the February cover. Among the customizing was the addition of a stepside bed, new Ford axles, a 4-inch lift, and an early-'70s Galaxie 400M engine. Robert also repaired the badly rusted body. This was also the year of low-buck buildups, including el cheapo but well-built trucks such as Mike Gierten's '76 High-Boy, and at the other end, the high-dollar am/pm Boss monster truck, which is now attached to the side of the Petersen museum in Los Angeles (The Boss also made totally-faked-cover history).

This marked the year of necessity-making a show truck compatible with daily-driving requirements. Readers wanted to build noticeable and competitive trucks, but they also needed to drive them home from a show, use them for work such as plow duty, and keep them legal (enough) for getting to and from work. One of the best examples was Half Pint, Stephen and Anthony Verderame's '79 Power Wagon. Under the hood was a '69 eight-cylinder Chrysler 340 riddled with power-making products and double alternators. It was lifted 6 1/2 inches and given an aluminum bed, chromed undercarriage components, and a television in the cab. Also featured this year was Ron Witters' '79 Toyota with a Chevy engine and velocity stacks in the tilt front end. There was also a special section of 100 of the readers' rides.

We introduced you to Charlie Barnett's Suds Bucket (an '85 Ford that won such awards as Best Undercarriage, Best Supercharged Engine, and Best Overall). But "cosmetic perfection" was how we described Keith Crutchfield's '85 GMC when we plastered it across the February cover. We also predicted the '90s would be the Flash-Bang decade-Bang for performance and Flash for engineering and color. Keith's Skyscraper definitely met the Flash criteria. Bright, candied colors like green neon and deep metallic blue, 18 inches of lift, and a tilt bed and front end helped it become a favorite of both readers and staff.

In December, we picked what we considered the best-built vehicles in six categories: Best Engine, Best Interior, Best Show, Best Trail, Best Paint, and Best Suspension. Best Engine was Robert Katsaris' 350 Chevy in his '85 Silverado. It had no problem handling 42-inch tires, thanks to a supercharger, headers, aftermarket pistons, crankshaft, and a high-volume oil pump. We named Jack Johnson's Jeep Motorsports Cherokee Best Suspension-it was a desert racer with a tweaked Dana 60 rear (it swings on two large trailing arms), double A-arms at the front, coilover shocks front and rear, and tons of wheel travel. Best Interior went to Eickhoff Industries for building a '90 F-150 with such items as bucket seats, carpet, and a hi-po stereo system. Best Trail rig went to Ed Fisher's '51 Willys with a slight lift, a V-6, and lots of ability. Best Paint went to Ron Spooner's flawless '78 Ford F-150, and Best Show went to our May cover truck, John Domingues' '88 GMC, for its 39.5-inch Swampers, 6-inch suspension and 3-inch body lifts, yellow dampers, and dump-style bed with wood and a mural.

In April, the cover promised the latest winches, easy bolt-ons, and a truck-care buyer's guide. It also had Howard Schmidt's '88 Chevy, which is no doubt why it was the best-selling issue of 1992. Howard's Sportside had a 4-inch suspension lift, a 3-inch body lift, and 35-inch BFGs. Fairly common upgrades, but what helped his stand out from the other offerings in 1992 was the custom bed-it tilted and had oak panels and mirrored side panels, and his tools rested in perches built into the oak floor. There was also a TV in the center console and a wagon train mural on the tailgate. Obviously newsstand buyers dug it. In September, we featured David Shoap's Ford F-250 in our Ultimate Engine special for its supercharged Ford 351ci Windsor V-8-oh yeah, and because the entire body could tilt as one unit.

We were thinking bolt-on bonanza, and then Jason and Missy Curry made our thoughts reality. Their '91 Chevy wore a 17-light bedbar, stainless rocker panels, chromed wheelwells, five steering stabilizers, three shocks at each Alcoa wheel, 39-inch Mickey Thompsons, a chromed traction lift, and Deltron hues. Add-on lights were the flavor of the year for our cover trucks: Tim and Helen Walker's '92 Chevy Sportside had 16, and Alan Carmichael's Ford F-250 had 14. This was also the year we showed you Tom and Michele Rininger's big-block-equipped '79 Ford F-150 and Lew Hallock's $150,000-modified '76 Dodge.

You know something's good if you go back for seconds, and that's exactly what we did with Steve Gismondi's '88 GMC. In January 1993, it made the cover as a result of its 7-plus lift, simple graphics, aftermarket bumper, Lexan grille cover, hoodscoop, bugshield, and bedbar. In September 1994, it made the book of records by appearing on the cover again, this time with a new paint scheme, a Dana 44 solid axle instead of IFS, 45x21.5/16.1 Firestone Turf & Field tires, a tilt bed, and rear steering. Steve even said he drove it daily. And how can we talk about 1994 without talking about your rides-the oogly ones, that is. In September 1993 we first brought you the sickening photos, and then in March they were back, all-new but just as revolting. Actually, many consider those 12 trucks the best we featured this year. Another talked-about feature was Project Cheap Thrills-a $600 '73 Chevy that would eventually become a low-buck "brawler."

This year we learned that many of our readers lived to drive beaters-the better to bash with, my pretty. But we also learned that innovation was still alive and well and living in the form of Stump Jumper, a beloved feature among readers. The homebuilt thing had a custom ladder-style frame, 4-inch-lift leaf springs, and a Dana 44 front and a GM 12-bolt rear, both with 4.11s, 44/18.5-16.5 Monster Mudders, and tons of steel screen on the body for protection. Another hot homebuilt vehicle for 1995 was December's cover, Quagmire. Michael Niebuhr began with a plan: a 4x4 with 48-inch tires. He'd figure out the rest later. When all was said and done, he'd added 25x48-20 Firestones, 20x20 wheels (for running tubeless at 47 psi), airbags in the suspension, Dana 60s, and driveshafts with Peterbilt and Caterpiller components to a '75 Chevy body.

Envy was what made this '62 Chevy a well-liked rig. One, it made it onto the cover. Two, it cost owner Maxine Sloan $200. And C, the final bill after adding a shortbed Stepside body, 5-ton leaf-spring segments and blocks for lift, a lightbar, diamond-plate, power seats, and a propane-fired 454 was $3,200. And it worked well in mud. Dirt-cheap was obviously a way of building that hit home with readers-Maxine's Chevy helped make the March issue the best seller in six years. Real-world rigs dominated many of the pages during the rest of the year, including Doug Tilp's solid-axle-converted '87 Toyota in April, Shane Farstveet's rock-crawling '83 CJ-7, and David Pullen's four-wheel-drive-converted 1-ton GMC flatbed.

It was loved, it was hated, it was called the "most capable 4x4 ever." It was controversial, it was the Scorpion MK 1. And now it's olive drab. Yes, we received more could-be letter bombs because of it than for any other vehicle featured-ever. But it also made people talk and think. No matter what you thought of it (and mixed emotions even filled the staff), there was no arguing the Scorpion's four-wheeling ability. Soni Honegger and Heath Biggs took a '78 CJ-7 and gave it airbag suspension for front articulation of nearly a 30/70 ratio, Scout II Dana 44s with 5.89 gears, 35x15.50-15 Super Swampers, a Chevy 350 TBI engine, and too many other "upgrades" to name here. It had the appearance of a buggy but the craftsmanship, experimentation, and off-road ability we've been passing along for 20 years.

1980-Part-Time Is Back!
-Cover blurb, Oct. '79

Look, Ma, a V-6!
-"Dodge Dakota Preview," May '86

One of the most startling aspects of GM's fullsize re-design was the use of an A-arm/ torsion-bar independent front suspension for the whole line.
-Drive Lines, Sept. '90

We'll rave for days about the Big Gulp-friendly cup holder.
-"RAMifications," Dec. '95

On the morning of March 16, 1988, Mickey and Trudy Thompson were murdered in front of their home.
-4xForward, June '88

After 31 years of racing history and 16 SCORE Off-Road World Championships, Riverside International Raceway in Southern California will soon become the site of a shopping mall.
-4xForward, Nov. '88

I have AIDS.... AIDS is everywhere, even at 4-Wheel & Off-Road.
-4xForward, Feb. '95

Moaning over the death of the CJ should soon stop.
-"The '86 Wrangler," June '86

The Big News
For years four-wheelers have been wondering why they can't get radial tires taller than 33 inches.... Now you can! BFGoodrich is introducing a 35x12.50R15LT Radial Mud-Terrain T/A.
-Tailgate, Feb. '85

The Datsun-to-Nissan nomenclature switch is the largest in automotive history.
-Tailgate, Sept. '85

Suzuki may begin selling its four-wheel-drive SJ413 model, aka the the end of this year in California and Florida.
-Tailgate, Oct. '85

The best-selling car in America this year is a truck.
-4xForward, Mar. '86

Chevy has stopped its five-year-old "Heartbeat of America" ad campaign. Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" is the new musical tag line.
-Drive Lines, Jan. '92 swank, are still trucks.
-"Sport/Utility Shakedown," Aug. '86

UK's Range Rover-Legal At Last!
-Cover blurb, Apr. '80

Trends The concept for 4-Wheel & Off-Road had first seen the light of day when the editors of Hot Rod magazine decided to put out a specialty publication that dealt with four-wheel-drive performance vehicles.
-4xForward, Mar. '91

High-riding comfort is provided by a pair of high-back swivel seats. Even the headliner is done in blue shag.
-"High-Rolling Blazer," Apr. '78

From the rear, you can see just how extensive the use of the gold and white crushed velvet really is.
-"Lady's Jeep," Mar. '79

Dare to Be Different.
-4xForward, June '95

Best new trend: real-world, functional, true four-wheeling rigs are where it's at.
-4xForward, Dec. '95

Those who have been complaining that we don't write enough about Mopar products are about to change [their] tune.
-4xForward, Apr. '92

The sicko 4-Wheel mentality attaches itself like trench foot.
-"The Top 10," Dec. '97

Ugly Is In!
-Cover blurb, Jan. '95

The Staff The writing and editing staff of 4-Wheel & Off-Road doesn't hold any illusions that it is turning out a lasting contribution to the body of Great American Literature.
-4xForward, Sept. '83

Each of this magazine's editors [had] his own style of doing things, his individual quirks, both pleasant and otherwise.
-4xForward, Oct. '86

I should have a hobby like bowling or something. Maybe then I wouldn't care about this stuff so much.
-4xForward, Aug. '96

"Todius"-we made up the word a few years ago. It means "big" or "enlarged," as in, "44-inch Swampers are todius meats."
-"Wheelers' Dictionary," Jan. '95

(1)I love monster trucks; (2) I hate monster trucks.
-4xForward, Nov. '85

Sometimes it seems the only people who think the magazine is OK are my folks.
-4xForward, Oct. '97

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