Tech Editor Hazel's Four Faves
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.