I have to admit that I didn't love Jeeps for a long time. In fact, I actually disliked them. To me, a Jeep took the hardest part of driving a trail out of the equation -- fitting a square peg through a round hole. In my mind, if you could easily fit your 4x4 through a trail, then why bother? It was only with some years of maturity and several dozen dents to the sheetmetal of my fullsize that I came to see the wisdom and enjoyment in wheeling a smaller, more nimble vehicle.
That's why my list will probably be the only one of the staff's not cluttered with Jeeps. When the die was being cast in my subconscious about what was cool for 4x4s and what wasn't, a Jeep hardly entered the picture. I also didn't dwell too much on the feature vehicles that appeared in the magazines. Some were cooler than others, but none left as lasting an impression on me as the project vehicles owned and thrashed by the staff.
As a long-time reader of 4Wheel & Off-Road Magazine, I became intimately familiar with the writings of then-Tech Editor Trenton McGee. Trent's stories offered good, no-nonsense approaches to gain performance using bread-and-butter parts -- from Muncie truck transmissions to Q-Jet carburetors to everything in between. The benefactor of most of these stories was Trent's horribly orange '72 Chevy Blazer. It was ugly, it was functional, and it always seemed to require some sort of mechanical attention. I loved the damn thing. And Trent took it places only a mountain goat or small Jeep should be.
The warmed 350 engine went for a ride on Westech Performance Group's engine dyno to test different camshaft grinds. I pored over the findings, later using the information to choose my own camshafts. Although the stock four-speed and NP205 transmission leaked a whole lot, they didn't come apart on the trail and proved that some factory parts work without the need for major modifications (which is more than can be said for the Dana 44 front and Chevy 12-bolt rear). But seeing Trent swap out axleshafts like he was resetting a circuit breaker, both in the magazine and later in person, made it seem less dramatic when I was popping Dana 44 axleshafts to the tune of one per trail. In the end, Trent's faded orange fullsize made it OK in my mind to drive a ragged beater as long as it walked the walk when the time came.
As a self-admitted Mopar whacko, I just about blew a gasket when former 4Wheel & Off-Road Editor David Freiburger pulled the cover off his '75 Ramcharger. The rig was unveiled to install a 6-inch Sykjacker leaf spring lift and some 36-inch Denman tires. Tame stuff by today's standards, but back then it was big news. Especially when the relatively big tires and small lift went on a non-Chevy vehicle. Later, when I stuffed 42s under the fenders of my '85 Ramcharger with the same lift, thoughts of Dave's Mopar skittered through my brain.
The Dodge also served as fodder for some weird swaps back then, like putting 1-ton axles under a fullsize. Crazy. Freiburger had to make a Chevy front Dana 60 work even though the spring-pad width on the axle was about an inch too narrow. Today we'd just cut the perches and make it work, but back then they used a ratchet strap to suck the springs closer together.
This rig made me appreciate down-and-dirty building. Black steel rims and cut fenders replaced my dreams of swoopy aluminum hoops and 10-inch lifts. Sometimes close enough is good enough, and everything doesn't always need to be perfect.
For a long time after joining the fold here in magazine land, I hit the trails with Cappa and his flattie, either running shortly behind him in my fullsize or riding shotgun while my trail rig was down for the count. When following, I quickly became jealous of the places he could go. I was also getting sick of the sound of scraping and tearing metal as my fullsize was compacted by rocks. In short, his Jeep made me appreciate Jeeps.
There's really no way of adequately describing the experience of riding shotgun in that vehicle, but the personal experience of wheeing in it influenced me more than any magazine article could. The 350 Chevy engine always ran rich, even below sea level. The body contorted and bent with the terrain like it was made out of Jello. It only had a Dana 44 front axle and a Spicer 18 T-case, but that didn't seem to matter. It was more the way Cappa drove it than the way it was set up that did it for me.
While lots of people just close their eyes, hold on, and hammer down until parts fly, Cappa would just put the engine rpms to a certain level and let the ragged 35-inch Boggers or 36-inch Swampers chew and claw until things worked. It was a marvel of understatement and, as it turned out, necessary because of the relative frailty of the driveline. In lots of ways, it was such a pile of crap that you had to drive it well. Being around that rig and watching it wheel taught me to wheel smarter, not harder.
It's not always about how much power you have or how big your tires are, but it's about how well you know your rig and how much finesse you can muster behind the wheel.
Few project vehicles created as much of a buzz in the industry as 4Wheel & Off-Road's Project 4xQuad Dakota pickup and, later that year, the 14-Day Flattie. Although I helped build the '46 CJ-2A in Cole's driveway, I was both enamored and horrified with certain elements of it's completed form. The old axiom is that form follows function. The problem with the 14-Day Flattie is that the form came first, with function a close second.
Cole's vision was for a Jeep that looked as though it was just pulled from a field after 40-years abandonment. That included the bare dash with no gauges of any kind, full uncut fenders that didn't let the 380hp small block cool enough to keep from frequently overheating, low-back uncomfortable seats, and a fairly tall stance for 35- and 37-inch tires. To engage the ARB switch you had to awkwardly reach down between the seats next to the tool compartment. There were no switches in the dashboard, and you had to lift the ammo-can cover between the seats every time the Jeep stalled to reach the starter toggle switch. The Jeep was built without a tubing bender, so the T-case crossmember was built of miter-cut tubing and hung gloriously far below the framerails.
It was ungainly to drive and sort of uncomfortable to ride in, but I'll be damned if it didn't have character. The completely drab olive coloring, the temperature and oil pressure gauges mounted in the grille where the stock running lamps should be, and the cumbersome and huge stock steering wheel were right on. When building my Jeeps later in my career, I've tried to take lessons from both the good and the bad of this build. My project vehicles have to have a good amount of character -- a hook that draws you into caring about it and think that it's cool -- but they also have to remain functional, easy to drive, easy to live with, and they need to work well on the trail.