"I don't know anyone who has more fun in their rig than you." That's what a buddy of mine told me right after an especially abusive high-speed doughnut blast over a slick mud-caked lakebed followed by a throttle-stomping, body-damaging run over Outer Limits granite in Johnson Valley, California. If ever there was a Jeep that wouldn't die, this was it. It was about a year ago and I was thinking about getting rid of my '66 Panel Wagon. At the time I had pretty much had it with the general maintenance associated with owning a third hard-core 4x4. The Panel was done, both mechanically and editorially. I had put about 10,000 miles on it, including 4 Wheel & Off-Road's 1,200-mile '02 Ultimate Adventure, Jp's 2,000-mile Mayhem Tour, several trips over the Rubicon, and just about every trail in Moab, Utah, and Johnson Valley. Up until that time, and even today, I've really never heard of or seen a full-bodied FSJ that has been on as many destructive trails as the Panel. If you actually saw the body or me operating the Panel, you could tell there was little regard for the machinery's well being. I was prepared for stuff to break; I had spares and tools to fix it on board. But very rarely was there a broken part that stopped the Panel midtrail. Don't get me wrong -- the editor's rigs ain't magically bulletproof. I've busted all kinds of crap on it, but it's never left me stranded and it's driven off of every trail, and in some cases across several states from the trail to home.
It all started when Alan Huber, 4 Wheel & Off-Road's art director, decided to unload his Panel Jeep. He tried to sell it for nearly a year and a half. Eventually the entry fee came down to $800. At that point I couldn't resist the Chevy-powered 4x4. It came with all kinds of extra parts too. I wheeled it with the pathetic 283 V-8 for a while, but I quickly figured out the tires, engine and axles weren't up for any real fun. So the work began.
Chassis & Driveline
When I got the Panel it had a spring-over done up front, but the stock springs were toast. Simply stomping on the brakes caused enough axlewrap for the driveshaft to hit the transmission and starter. So I replaced the springs with some bolt-on Rancho 3-inch-lift parts. Out back, the rear shackle had been flipped for some lift. I installed an add-a-leaf and left the nearly 40-year-old leaves and bushings in place. It didn't flex very well or ride all that great, but the axlewrap was gone, so I could use the gas pedal instead.
The 350-horse GM Ram Jet found its way under the hood and was a near bolt-in swap for the 283 someone had put in place of the original 327 Vigilante V-8 long before I got my hands on the Panel. The pre-me swapped-in TH350 had a good, firm shift that would bark the tires in every gear, but shifting the monstrous attached NP203 was a mystery to me. It had a part-time kit in it, although it never seemed to shift out of four-wheel drive until after several hundred miles on the road. I eventually swapped it for a much smaller, lighter, and more desirable Dana 300 with twin shifters, a 32-spline rear output, and a clocking ring to get the bottom of the Panel flat. A heavy-wall 1350 U-jointed High Angle Driveline found its way in the rear. Up front a long-slip 1310 shaft found a home; this driveshaft actually came out of my old flatfender and just happened to be the right length.
I pulled a complete '78 Cherokee Chief Dana 44 frontend from a local junkyard for $125 and stuffed it with 5.13 gears, an OX locker and U-joints, Warn axleshafts, and Warn locking hubs. I also converted it to a five-lug using hubs, rotors, and wheel seals from a '79 Ford F150. After moving the axle perches in a spring-over configuration, it bolted right in place of the original Dana 27. I built my own tie rod using 3/4-inch rod ends and 11/2-inch 0.188-wall tubing. The 11/8-inch heavy-wall DOM drag link was attached to a Dynatrac high-steer arm with high-misalignment 5/8-inch rod ends. The pitman arm and power-steering box are from a late-'70s Camaro.
To match the 651/2-inch-wide front axle, I headed back to the junkyard and yanked a bare '76 Ford F150 9-inch housing for $30. I installed a Strange aluminum third member filled with an aluminum pinion support, a chromoly spool, and 5.14 gears. Off-the-shelf 31-spline Superior axleshafts and some new drum brakes completed the rear axle that measured 65 inches from wheel mounting surface to wheel mounting surface. It weighed in at less than 200 pounds and had the 5-on-51/2 pattern I needed to match the front. I cut off and relocated the spring perches and shock mounts to finish off the installation.
Body & Interior
To fit the 38-inch tires with such a small lift, plenty of reportedly sacrilegious fender trimming was needed. I also removed the tailgate for weight savings, and to the mortification of many FSJ collector types, I eventually whacked off the top. Using 11/2- and 13/4-inch DOM tubing, I built a winch mount for the front and installed a Warn 9.5Ti winch. In the rear I bent and welded together a high-clearance tubular rear bumper. The rockers were protected with fabbed-together round tube as well.
The midship stock fuel tank was re-placed with a rear-mounted 22-gallon fuel cell. A pair of Tuffy Security boxes protected my junk, and I built a floor-mounted spare-tire carrier just behind the Beard seats. I also fabricated a partial rollbar that was mounted to the frame in several locations. This was incorporated into the seat mounts as well. I never needed it, but I built a trick mount using some tubing and an old housing end to hold a spare Ford 9-inch axleshaft.
Wheels & Tires
The Panel saw many sets of test wheels and tires. The majority of its life was spent on a set of Dick Cepek FC Kevlar 38x15.50-15s mounted on 15x10 American Racing 0589 wheels with Champion bead locks. Early on I ran the Cepeks without bead locks and had a problem slipping beads at tire pressures in the single digits. The Cepeks weren't all that attractive, but neither was the Panel. The real advantage was the hefty sidewall and how well they worked overall in many different terrains. They really shined in the sand though.
Good, Bad & What's it for?
Even with 5.14 gears the Panel had a rather pathetic crawl ratio of 34:1. It didn't flex well, but it sat low and stable with just enough clearance. The Panel was fun to drive because it was different. It really wasn't a great rockcrawler, but it was a great all-around Jeep and could climb just about anything with the right amount of throttle input.
The TH350 might not have been enough tranny. It would get hot on occasion even though I had installed a large cooler with its own electric fan. A manual tranny would have been nice, but it probably would've led to more front axle problems. I think the auto cushioned the blows to the rest of the drivetrain.
The Warn front shafts and OX U-joints put up with way more abuse than they should have. After about two years of beating on them, I eventually wore the joints out and broke a Warn shaft at the spline inside the OX carrier.
On a particularly abusive Glamis, California, dune trip, the front suspension and Dana 44 axle succumbed to a witch's eye at speed. The housing and springs were bent, and there was a crack in the center casting. I welded it up as best I could and installed a 11/2-inch, 0.120-wall chromoly axle truss from knuckle to knuckle to try and keep the axle in one piece. It worked, but the housing is bent enough that it's difficult to get the axleshafts out now. The front springs and bumpstops are wasted.
What We Think
I got some hate mail for cutting up a rare 1-of-445 Jeep when I started building the rig. Heck, I still do, and it's been three years since I took the Sawzall to it. The complaints were and still are unfounded; there was plenty of rust and body filler. The original V-8, tranny, and transfer case were long gone too. The fact that the previous owner tried to sell it for over a year leads me to believe it wasn't all that collectable anyway. I almost wish it were. To tell you the truth, I would have cut it up and beat on it exactly the same way if it had been totally pristine.
'66 Jeep Panel Wagon
Fuel-injected GM Ram Jet 350
'81 CJ-7 Dana 300
Spring-over, Rancho 3-inch leaves (front); stock leaves, shackle flip (rear)
'78 FSJ Dana 44 (front), '76 Ford F150 Ford 9-inch (rear)
15x10 American Racing 0589 with Champion bead locks
Dick Cepek FC Kevlar 38.5x15.50-15
General 4x4 abuse