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Verne Simons' 4x4 Hoard

Verne SimonsPhotographer, WriterChristian HazelPhotographer

As a true dyed-in-the-wool 4x4 nut I own more 4x4s than I have any right to. Most of them have been modified in ways that reflect what works for me, and all of them are (like me) a little different. Some are waiting for time and money for their day under the knife.

Many things make off-roading attractive to me. I like getting out in nature and exploring the relatively untouched areas of the world. I also like the challenge that comes with obstacles on the trail. When something breaks or someone gets stuck I like the mental gymnastics necessary to get them unstuck or off the trail using only what’s on hand.

I love working on Jeeps and trucks and love the individuality that can be built into our rigs. These 4x4s are part of me, and I hope you can learn from them as I have. There is something to be learned from almost every person you meet and good ideas to borrow on almost any 4x4 you come across. Of course, like people, some 4x4s are more work than they are worth, but in general I think it’s a good idea to have an open mind and take a look before you walk away in disgust.

What does any of this this have to do with my projects? I have no idea, but as I said they reflect my personality, so don’t expect them to be predictable or follow a formula.

Rosco P. Drivetrain
Rosco was my first full build at 4WOR. The idea was to build an inexpensive bulletproof JK Unlimited fighter. We all know JKUs are hot, if not all practically the same. They also need a V-8 swap and 1-ton drivetrain to run big tires. So why not start with another four-door SUV that already has an injected engine and beef up the drivetrain?

This former Henderson Nevada Police Car cost $6,500 a few years back and has plenty of character from the dubious paint and police sticker remnants to the dual battery, hydroboost brakes, vinyl flooring, barf-proof back seat, and lots of leftover police parts (like strobe lights and siren). Since the build not much has changed. I added a recessed trailer plug to the rear bumper and swapped the TTC Baja Claws for Pro Comp AT Sport tires. I’d like to add a custom rear bumper with a tire carrier and a mount for my Hi-Lift jack, and maybe a roof rack. I thought I’d be harder on the Tahoe than I am, and right now it’s probably my nicest rig. I’d like to set it up as a bit more of an overlanding rig and may add a roof rack and an awning from ARB.

Tech Specs
2005 Chevy Tahoe PPV
Engine: 5.3L V-8
Transmission: 4L60E
Transfer Case: NP241C with Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts slip-yoke eliminator and double cardan driveshaft.
Front Axle: 2012 Ram AAM 9 1/4, 4.56:1 gears, AAM Locker, Yukon Spin Free kit
Rear Axle: 2002 GM full-float 14-bolt (with factory disc brakes), 4.56:1 gears, Yukon Grizzly Locker
Springs & Such: Sway-a-way 2 1/2-inch remote reservoir shocks with 250/350 Eibach front springs, custom 4-link front using Ram Track bar, Custom Rusty’s Off-Road control arms, Skyjacker 3 1/2-inch Tahoe lift springs (rear)
Tires & Wheels: 37x12.50R17 Pro Comp AT Sport on black 17x9 Mickey Thompson Classic
Steering: Redneck Ram, West Texas Off-road modified steering box, Sam’s Off-Road mild steel flat pitman arm, 2012 Ram tie rod and draglink
Lighting: Lifetime LED driving lights
Other Stuff: Custom front bumper, custom rocker guards, front framerails plated with 1/8-inch steel, engine cage, front shock hoops, lots of help from Rob Bonney Fabrication.

Kimchi the Flying KIA Sportage
Originally bought for Cheap Truck Challenge 2015, Kimchi the Kia is my side-by-side fighter. It’s dumb because it’s a $1,500 vehicle with $3,000-$4,000 worth of custom work done to it, but it’s incredibly durable and an absolute hoot to drive in the dirt. It’s very capable, and you don’t have to slow down for big bumps. I like having rigs hat I can beat on without feeling too bad about, and the Kia has to have one of the highest fun-per-dollar scores of any 4x4 I (or many other people) own.

Unfortunately I haven’t played with Kimchi in a while because basically all the front lights, from head to turn signal, have broken free from the truck after a particularly abusive weekend at TDS 2016. I’ve looked at RockAuto.com, and replacement lights are cheap, but I also need some time to get it street worthy again. Right now other projects are a higher priority.

Some will remember that I wanted for more low range. Well, I basically tripped over a T-case from a Sportage at the local self-service junkyard and had to have it. It looks like a small copy of a Toyota T-case, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be fairly easy to stack it behind another T-case with an adapter and shaft work. Now I just need more time.

Oh, and I’m still open to racing any and all side-by-sides. Even if they win the race, I’ve won the battle because I don’t have to make payments.

Tech Specs
1997 Kia Sportage 2-door Base
Engine: 2.0L DOHC 4-cylinder
Transmission: stock 5-speed
Transfer Case: stock 2-speed
Axles: Stock
Springs & Such: Daystar budget boost, old Pro Comp rebuildable remote reservoir shocks (rear).
Tires & Wheels: 31x10.50R15 Mud Stars on Chevy Orange 15x7 Ford Bronco/F-150 wheels
Steering: Stock
Lighting: Broken and falling off
Other Stuff: Full rollcage made from 1.75x0.120-wall DOM and 1.5x0.120- and -0.095-wall DOM.

Shrink Ray TJ
This is really a Jp magazine project vehicle that I built a few years back. I had a cheap four-banger TJ and a good idea. Rather than stretch it and make it heavier I decided to shrink it. I did this by chopping down the hood and front framerails (using a JK steering box). Then I chopped down the rear of the body and framerails and used a GenRight TJ stretch gas tank pushed all the way forward. The result is a Jeep with a vertical approach angle and a better-than-factory departure angle. The Jeep is little and nimble and very modified.

I’ll keep wheeling it and using it to test parts until it gets so beat up that I junk it, restore it, or sell it, but I’ve always said I drive it like I know it’s going to the junkyard next, and that has been fun. Still the Jeep is eking out a place in my heart. It seems to love the abuse and goes places it has no business going.

Tech Specs
1997 Jeep Wrangler SE
Engine: 2.5L AMC I-4
Transmission: 1967 GM SM420
Transfer Case: NP231 23-spline input gear, slip-yoke eliminator, Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts front and rear
Front Axle: Dana 30, ARB Air Locker, 4.88 gears, old Warn full-float kit with CTM U-joints
Rear Axle: Toyota 8.25/8.4 out of a V-6 2WD non-prerunner first-gen Tacoma, 4.88 gears, ARB Air Locker
Suspension Springs & Such: ZJ front springs, Rubicon Express Budget Boost, JKS control arms
Tires & Wheels: 35x12.50R15 Dick Cepek Extreme Country tires on 15x8 Dick Cepek wheels
Steering: JK steering box, Parts Mike Handler Steering System
Lighting: Rigid headlight and cube LED driving lights
Other Stuff: GenRight steel corners, Synergy Mfg. rollcage, TNT Customs aluminum belly pan, Advance Adapters adapters, NP231 cable shifter

My Keeper, the 1949 CJ-3A
I bought this 1949 CJ-3A in 1999. It was stock . . . sort of. It had been “restored” at some point. I use quotation marks because nothing on the Jeep was rebuilt properly. It actually broke down on the test drive, but I had to have it. I built it mildly at Jp magazine in 2000, adding a 2 1/2-inch suspension lift from Rancho and some 32-inch Goodyear MT/Rs.

In 2003 I fully rebuilt the Jeep in the garage basement of my parents’ house in North Carolina and righted almost all of the wrongs. At that time I built a Dodge Dana 44 that Editor Hazel gave me for the front and redid the frame for YJ leaf springs, and I added a Buick V-6 and a Ford T-18 transmission. It has been reworked and massaged a few times over the years to fine-tune how things work. I also got the chance to bring it on the 2011 Ultimate Adventure.

One of the nicest parts on the whole Jeep is the rear axle. It’s a custom Dynatrac JK Dana 44 axle with 35-spline shafts and an ARB Air Locker.

I don’t want to do much if anything with it, although I have toyed with the idea of running 37s. One way or another it needs new tires after Easter Jeep Safari 2016. During EJS I was pretty hard on the old girl and ran it up Pritchet canyon. The Jeep needs love, and it deserves it. Several parts need to be gone over, if not redesigned. At the same time I don’t want to change it much, just fortify what it is.

Oh, and I’ll probably never sell it. I don’t think anyone would be silly enough to pay me what it would take to get me to sell it.

Tech Specs
1949 Willys CJ-3A
Engine: 3.8L Buick V-6
Transmission: Ford T-18
Transfer Case: Spicer 18 with Saturn overdrive
Front Axle: 1983 Dodge W150 Dana 44, 5.38 gears, ARB Air Locker, Moser Axle chromoly shafts, CTM U-joints
Rear Axle: Dynatrac JK Dana 44, G2 5.38 gears, 35-spline axles, ARB Air Locker
Springs & Such: YJ 4-leaf springs and RSX9000 shocks (front); Wagoneer front leaf springs with 4-inch BDS leaves and RSX9000 shocks (rear)
Tires & Wheels: 35x12.50R15 BFG KM2s on 15x8 Champion beadlocks
Steering: Synergy Mfg. tie-rod ends, draglink, and tie rod; Unique Metal Products Saginaw box and pump
Lighting: Old H4 headlights that glow in the dark
Other Stuff: Howell fuel injection, Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts, onboard air with a modified Harrison compressor and ARB Twin Compressor, Aqualu aluminum body tub, Warn 8274

Wicked Willys
Many things inspired this build from the pages of Jp magazine, including lots of existing and former rigs and bench racing sessions I’ve had with friends and colleagues since I started working on 4x4s. Also, I’ve had a tendency somehow to end up driving and owning rigs with smallish, low-horsepower engines and smallish tires, so this is my chance to experience the exact opposite.

The Wicked Willys is a 1949 Willys pickup on a lengthened TJ frame, with 1-ton axles, a 505-cube Dodge RB stroker, 42-inch BFG Krawlers, and so on. As I write this I’m about to “finish” this project and hope to fire the big-block as soon as tomorrow. By the time you read this I also hope this Jeep will have been on Ultimate Adventure 2016—but I have to finish it first. What am I doing writing this? I have wrenches to spin.

Tech Specs
1949 Willys Pickup
Engine: Dodge/Chrysler 440 RB stroked to 505 ci
Transmission: Dodge NP435
Transfer Case: NP203/NP205 Doubler
Front Axle: GM kingpin Dana 60
Rear Axle: GM full-float 14-bolt
Springs & Such: Old Man Emu springs and shocks on Synergy Mfg. 3-link (front) and 4-link (rear)
Tires & Wheels: 42x14.50R20LT BFGoodrich Crawlers on 20x9 Trail-Ready beadlocks
Steering: Redneck Ram and West Texas Off-Road Ctr. steering box, Chris Durham Motorsports aluminum tie rod and draglink
Lighting: Some old Pro Comp driving lights and H1 lights Other Stuff: Warn 8274, the Edelbrock catalog for Dodge RB big-blocks, Eagle rotating assembly, Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts, Offroad Designs 203/205 doubler adapters and NP205 32-spline front output

2015 JK Unlimited
One day I bought a 2015 JKU for 60 bucks! OK, it’s just a frame with some damage that no one else wanted to store. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet, but I’ve had two good ideas. One is find just about any pre-1960s car or truck with patina and a complete body and make it fit with JK axles and whatever running gear. The other is buying a two-door JK and building a Jeep-based pickup of sorts. Or who knows what will happen? We’ll see before too long, I hope.

Tech Specs
2015 JK Unlimited frame
Engine: None
Transmission: None
Transfer Case: None
Axles: None
Springs & Such: None
Tires & Wheels: None
Steering: None
Lighting: None
Other Stuff: Some damage to the front crash bar and frame horns.

Blazin’ Blazer
After building the Tahoe I realized I still didn’t have a family friendly rockcrawler because, despite the fact that a person could drive Rosco anywhere, I don’t want too. It’s too nice, comfy, and big for trails and is better suited for a family road trip exploring the backroads of the Southwest. I’d be sad if I leaned it on its side and knocked out a bunch of glass and folded in a door.

Enter a clean, yet inexpensive 2001 Blazer 4x4. For now the plan is a budget family rockcrawler with full-width axles on leaf springs. I’m going to build it as low as possible and cut a bunch of sheetmetal to make 37s, 38s, or maybe 40s fit. [Do 40s, Verne! —ed.] I also have a plan for a different type of rollcage—not exo, not totally internal, but a little of both. I’ve got most of the parts for the axles and suspension and will be starting this one soon. Keep your eyes peeled, and I promise I won’t cry when I knock out a bunch of glass on a heavy rock trail . . . unless I get a sliver.

Tech Specs
2001 Chevy S10 Blazer 4x4
Engine: 4.3L V-6
Transmission: 4L60E
Transfer Case: NP233
Front Axle: Stock, but soon to be Ford Dana 44
Rear Axle: Stock, but soon to be Ford 9-inch
Springs & Such: Stock, but will get leaf-spring SAS front
Tires & Wheels: Stock-sized tires, GM “Krull” wheels
Steering: Stock
Lighting: Stock
Other Stuff: Old-man bug deflector on the hood