Hot Rodders and Jeep Guys Seeing R.E.D.
"Track him down and shoot this," was all the email from Cappa said. Attached was a photo of Randy Ellis' recently finished hot rod Willys. Shooting features is part of my job, but sometimes it's easier said than done, especially when you're talking about a couple of dudes with hectic schedules trying to sync a meeting. I missed Randy at the 2010 Long Beach Ink-N-Iron Festival and then again at a Lake Havasu hot rod show, but a month later I found myself about to make an impromptu trip to Phoenix. I called Randy and gave him 12 hours notice to clear his schedule for the next afternoon. The following morning I stood inside the Randy Ellis Design shop in Phoenix, Arizona, with my camera bag slung over my shoulder, gazing at one of the cooler Jeeps I've come across.
To quote Randy, "This is what an off-road Jeep guy does when he wants a hot rod." That probably explains the mud-terrain tires and absurdly overkill suspension. But I'm all about overkill, and this little Willys has it in spades. For some reason, hot-rodded Jeeps seem to fall into an automotive no-man's-land: shunned by traditional hot rodders as unworthy of the name, and seen as wasteful by purist Jeep 4x4 types. Here's the Jp-take on the subject: a ride like Randy's is more traditional hot rod than all those billet-wearing, tarted-up whores built with catalog-ordered components and assembled by a team of $150/hour shop monkeys. And for the off-road purist, it can be argued it's just as wasteful to cut a body tub to squeeze huge tires and smash vintage tin into rocks. In answer to the hot rod crowd, this rig features plenty of owner-fabricated custom parts and cool tricks as well as ample use of recycled components for cost-cutting: two key elements of original hot rods of the '40s. In answer to the utilitarian Jeep enthusiast, this Willys is a reliable driver capable of covering hundreds of miles and carries camping, recreational gear, and luggage for the occupants. So, with that settled, let's check it out.
Randy found himself wanting a hot rod and had a couple of slow weeks coming up in his calendar. As the owner of Randy Ellis Design, he wasn't without skills or in want of tools or equipment to build a complete vehicle in five weeks. He took stock of what he had on hand and got busy. Starting from the ground up, he built a custom frame from 2x3, 0.120-wall rectangular tubing. A '77 2WD 1/2-ton Chevy pickup donated its front knuckles, spindles, hubs, and rotors, which were grafted onto a custom beam front axle built by Randy. The beam axle is a mix of 2-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall tubing and 3/8-inch plate steel. Out back, the donor pickup's 12-bolt axle complete with 3.73 gears and leaky pinion seal was fitted with JK rotors, Randy-built caliper brackets, and a pair of 2WD GM 1/2-ton front calipers. The JK rotors share the 5x5 bolt pattern of the early GM 2WD pickups, and taking Randy's fab skills into the equation, the disc brake upgrade was easier than rebuilding the drum brakes.
With the front and rear axles ready to go, Randy fabbed up the rear four-link using 1.5-inch-diameter, 0.120-wall lower and 1.25-inch-diameter, 0.120-wall upper control arms with standard polyurethane bushing ends. The front received 1.5-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall lower and 1-inch-diameter, 0.120-wall upper control arms with the same bushing ends. A quartet of Air Lift bags was hung off trick cantilever front and rear mounts and attached to the lower links. A pair of Rancho rear and KYB front shocks smooth out the bumps on the 102-inch wheelbase.
The air bags allow the chassis 7 inches of vertical travel, so extra room was needed under the tub for rear axle clearance. Randy accomplished this by creating a special under-tub shelf onto which he mounted the 15-gallon RCI fuel cell, Optima Red Top battery, cheapie Chinese air compressor, polished air tank, and the air solenoids that control the front and rear bags.
At the business end, Randy wanted a way of pointing the tires in the right direction without resorting to a bulbous frame-mounted steering box. With traditional hot rod style, he commissioned a custom steering gear by Benchworks in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he mounted under the cowl with linkages built to clear the driver-side front tire at full-turn and when the bags are slammed. The steering gear uses a vintage Chevy truck case, Ford sector shaft, and Dodge reverse worm gear to get the job done.