Lockers, proper gearing, coil-overs, and onboard air are great, don’t get me wrong. But what do you really need to get out on the trail?
Sure, your buddies high dollar rig is down right drool worthy. It can do it all; send the steep stuff and attract the looks, cause we know ladies love a man who can articulate and if it’s in your budget then power to ya’. For the rest of us, we are left cruising Craigslist, By Owner, price maxed at a few hundred dollars, clicking and scanning into the wee hours of the night. Hoping and praying all that time you spent watching your dad haggle for kitchen flooring and second hand mulch pays off.
For me it happened a few years ago. I saw it and before I knew it, I was the proud new owner of an 81’ Toyota Hilux SR5 with an engine swap done by some guys nephew and all it needed was a new front driveshaft. Ignoring the feeling in my stomach, I bought it. I mean, it’s a cool truck, totally worth it. After papers were signed and a few trails were run in my new-to-me rock eating icon of off road history, I started asking questions.
Like how much are driveshafts? Do they even make these parts anymore? What does a slip yoke actually do and how much play can it tolerate before it eats itself alive? A year later I sold that truck, along with the hopes and dreams I had for our life together, with every spare and hard to find part I had stockpiled in the bed for a nominal one thousand dollars.
Once it was gone I quickly realized that I was still not on the trail. Also, I still had not adopted a rescue puppy and raised it to be my most loyal friend. Also, I never got a girlfriend, so the bench seat from that truck was worthless to me and only served as a constant reminder of the fact that my life is not a country song, but it’s the only thing I had left from the experience, so I use it in my shop as a couch, because there’s a little bit of redneck in all of us.
Lessons learned and notes taken, I’m a different man now.
When you're on a budget, it is important to make, and keep, "getting on the trail" your main goal. We're talking about replacing cool factor with practicality, rare parts with easily sourced junkyard bits, and custom fabbed individuality with a large aftermarket support of the bolt on variety.
Enter our new budget build, Bent Motorsports’ symbol of getting-on-the-trail-ness, our 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee. We picked it up for 300 bucks and out of the box it's ready for some door dinging good times. It is under the radar off-road fun and that’s exactly the point. This run of the mill, mass-produced, soccer wagon is as vanilla as they come. Nobody is gonna gawk over a first generation ZJ but when you look at the guts of it, the ZJ has all the requirements to become a proper 4x4.
The 96' ZJ has Solid front and rear axles, full time All Wheel Drive with high and low gear ratios, and enough space to haul your gear. But most importantly, it meets the requirements of being a truck that runs, passes smog, and is road registered.
One of the huge benefits of owning a plain, regular, nothing special kind of off road vehicle is you don’t give two used tires about dragging it through the trees. Parts are plentiful and it’s not going to be a collectors item any time soon. Actually, banging it through the Squeeze makes you giggle and while ol’ johnny paint job is lily dipping his insanely market priced showpiece down heart attack hill, you’re spinning tires driving up it, laughing, as the rock sliders you had the extra cash for earn their keep and collect some trail pin-striping.
It’s been said driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow and the same rings true for rock crawling. Driving a barely built beater is fun and it will teach you how to find your lines due directly to its limitations, verses just shooting up the hill. There is a certain amount of satisfaction watching fully locked and linked guys keep checking their rear views to see if the hooptie on 31’s made it up the same slab they did and when you crest the ridge there’s no excuses for what money can’t buy; skill. Before you know it you’ll be driving on the ragged edge of your rig’s abilities with full confidence.
Bent motorsports has built a Jeep LJ that is our flagship rock-crawler and its on another playing field of fun, comfort, and capability. However, you don't need to build something that extensive to start slinging rocks. That being said some things we feel are a must for our cherokee. Our list looks something like tires, increased ground clearance, light body armor, recovery based add-ons, and a way to keep our cheap beer cold.
With our 96 ZJ we want to find out what order these modifications make the most sense and show you what we believe are the the most bang for your buck products out there. I mean, the only difference between just messin’ around and science is recording the data. So in the spirit of getting to the good stuff we will start with establishing a baseline. This involves us taking our completely stock ZJ out to Ocotillo and banging out the side skirts on a variety of trails. Which means we get to leave the shop and go out into the sunlight, allowing us a much needed break from our torque wrenches and keyboards. It burns so good.
Be sure to look out for the coming installments in this series, where we beef up the ZJ and give you the facts on what makes a trail rig, and what breaks the bank.