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Manual Locking Hubs, T-case Levers, Push Buttons, and “Stripper” 4x4s

Firing Order: What’s the Best 4WD Engagement System?

My first 4x4 was this ’76 K5, it had a solid front axle, manual hubs, and manual crank windows.

I like things simple when it comes to 4x4s. For example, I'm drawn to the base model of a truck or SUV. I can't help it. This started back in 1971 when I saw my uncle's brand-new, mostly base '72 Chevy K5 Blazer. It was love at first sight. There were other notable events that reinforced my attitude toward simplicity. Back in 2000, I was at a GM event in Wyoming to see the then-new Chevy Suburban and Tahoe. I will never forget that event because one of the vehicles GM brought was a "stripped" 2500-Series Suburban 4x4. When it came time to choose a vehicle to drive, I snatched that one up. Not that anyone else wanted the de-optioned SUV. It was amazing: vinyl seats, vinyl floor coverings, manual crank windows, and basic steel wheels. It did have a standard 6.0L V-8, A/C, and swing-open rear doors, and as a bonus, the sticker price was darn affordable at just a hair over $30K.

My attraction to simplicity carries over to lever-shift T-cases and manual hubs. My daily driver is a 2005 Dodge Power Wagon with a lever sticking out of the floor to control the NV271 T-case. And there's also a pair of lockouts on each end of the TracRite locker-equipped AAM 9.25-inch front axle. Simplicity. I'm totally cool with having to get out of the truck and twist the lockout knobs prior to using 4WD.

My first 4x4 was this ’76 K5, it had a solid front axle, manual hubs, and manual crank windows.

Lock-O-Matic and Manual Hubs

The first 4x4 I owned had manual hubs, and it was a '76 K5 Blazer. My '77 Scout II had Lock-O-Matic hubs, which had an "Auto" and a "Lock" setting. My '92 F-150 had manual hubs, as did my '90 Geo Tracker. But I'm not a Neanderthal when it comes to the new methods of engaging 4WD. I drive a lot of new 4x4s, so this has given me the opportunity to experience almost every type of newfangled way to engage four-wheel drive.

In this photo, my '77 Scout II is still equipped with the factory Lock-O-Matic manual hubs. Shortly after I swapped 'em out for Warn Premium hubs.

4WD Engagement Systems

The technology has gotten better. Back in early 2000, I was testing a brand-new 3/4-ton truck, and the pushbutton 4WD system refused to respond. Because I needed to go off-road, this was a problem. Frenzied button pushing ensued, followed by exasperation when nothing happened. Eventually I had to find and remove the 4WD system fuse so the system would reset and function. 4WD system fuse? Too complicated. And when it comes to hubs, I seem to recall a buddy that bought one of the first 4x4s with automatic hubs, which was supposedly a good thing. He had to back up to unlock them. Personally, I'd rather get out and twist a dial. And don't get me started on front axle engagement via a vacuum or thermal actuator.

I know. High-tech four-wheel-drive engagement systems are just the way it is, and we're probably not going to see a reversal to the days when almost all 4x4s came with a solid front axle with manual hubs and a lever-shift T-case. I've accepted that. Which is why, like many of you, I'm going keep driving older rigs—or at least get something I can modify.

Yep, manual hubs again, this time on my '92 F-150.

Which 4x4 System Do You Like Best?

What is your preferred method of 4WD system engagement? Do you like the older method of locking hubs and a T-case lever? Are you totally comfortable with the new high-tech systems? Has your late-model 4x4's 4WD engagement system been rock-solid reliable? Have you modified your newer 4x4 with simpler 4WD system engagement components? Have you installed newer 4WD engagement tech in your older rig? Do you prefer "stripped" 4x4s as opposed to optioned-up models? Are you drawn to basic work truck-package 4x4 pickups? Drop an email to the address below, and tell me your opinions and experiences. I'd love to hear 'em.