Dude, that’s a nice rig. 

Originally Published in Issue 33 of 4Low Magazine

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Story by Bryan “Opie” Bennett
Photos by Bryan “Opie” Bennett and Kelly Marquis

My wheeling buddy Phil Weeks and I have known each other for going on 16 years.  In 2006 or so, we went wheeling maybe two weekends a month, the whole year.  On one of those trips, possibly on the Swamp Lake trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, east of Fresno, CA, I distinctly recall Phil saying that he wished that someday, someone would come up to him and say “Dude, that’s a nice rig.”

At the time, we were wheeling in modified Cherokees on 35’s, driving to the trails, taking body damage on and losing glass with each trip – and to be honest, looking back on it; we didn’t have the nicest rigs.  That has been the inspiration for decisions and the ‘measuring stick’ as I’ve been building this car.

Phil’s current Cherokee chassis was built in stages. When terrain and money and downtime all collided requiring upgrades – you know, the one that everyone has. Cut a little off, add something new, another time cut more, add something else back, ending up with a firewall and some plated factory uni-body pieces, some tube, and a lot of great buggy parts hidden in all the compromises along the way.  When Phil decided it was time to start fresh, I jumped at the chance to build another full-tube buggy.  Goals were to re-use as many of the Cherokee buggy pieces as possible and build a 4-seater, Rubicon camping, Hammers cruising, WE Rock Pro-Mod legal car.  I had recently performed the same recycle of good parts into a tube chassis, building the ‘Banquet’ buggy in 2017.  Competing at many of the WE Rock western series events in 2018 and 2019 allowed me to work out some kinks.  My first call was to Patrick McAuliffe at Those Guys Rod and Customs in Bremerton, WA.  As a long time friend, former WE Rock Stock Mod competitor, and professional automotive fabricator, he was a huge help in building my pro-modified car.  Patrick and I agreed on shop space, tooling use, and materials.

For this car, Patrick and I built the same suspension subframe and cradle that is the basis for his FTH line of buggy chassis but added 4” in between the front and rear suspension cross members.  The cross members are made from 3/16” cold roll plate, with integrated lower control arm mounts and skid plate mounting bolts.  These bolt hole index well into the Those Guys Rod and Customs chassis table, providing a reliable “locked-in” basis for measurements during the chassis building process.  On a long weekend, Phil came up, and we disassembled his then running Cherokee buggy for parts.  Once we’d stripped the 4.0L, AW4 transmission, and Atlas II transfer case from the old chassis, and set the drivetrain and axles on the table, this was now a real project, and the new buggy “Stella” was underway.

Somewhere along the way, Phil acquired a free super-wide Dana 70HD.  We opted to sell his existing 14 bolt and modify the Dana 70, narrowing it and off-setting the differential far to the passenger side.  Doing so takes advantage of the fact that when the tire climbs and lifts the axle tube with it.  The closer the differential is to the tire, the more the center section is also lifted up.  This approach also allowed us to make room for the gas tank at belly-pan level, nestled between the back of the sub-frame and the front of the rear axle, in between the three-link with panhard rear suspension links.  This was a borrowed idea from Jesse Haines at JHF, and has proven successful in his pro-modified car “Pokey” and my own pro-modified car.  This gets weight lower and extends the belly length of the car, in some ways preventing the rear axle from “hooking” on rocks.  In this car, it also puts the fuel cell under the rear-seat instead of behind it, freeing up precious cargo room.  A custom low profile truss and a few tabs finished out the rear axle setup.

On the front Dana 60, all the existing link tabs and truss were cleaned off, and a custom low profile truss was built around the pinion and caster angles and the chassis interference at full compression.  Slightly off-setting the shocks to the backside of the axle lowered the overall shock assembly, making room to have the 14” coilovers just peeking above the hood line.

Fitting the passenger compartments and lower frame section using 1.75x.120 DOM tubing was performed with the axles at full compression.  After fabricating the remainder of the suspension tabs and linkage, the rig was lifted off the table and the suspension was cycled.  This determined the final location and design of the upper shock mounts.  Some additional triangulating and support tube work in 1.5 x .095 wall, 1.5x .120 wall and 1.25x.095 wall was added while the professional fabrication tools were readily available at Those Guys Rod and Customs.  Seat mounts, the gas tank framework, an oil pan skid plate, the radiator mount, and winch mount soon followed.

In late summer 2019, a combination of progress on the buggy and Patrick needing his frame table back determined it was time for the next phase. This required pulling the car off the table, disassembling installed components, final welding all available joints, painting the chassis, and re-assembly of enough pieces to winch the entire project onto the trailer.  From there, it was off to my house for the finish work.  The decision to paint the chassis at this phase, knowing a large number of mounting tabs had yet to be placed, was made to allow the core of the car not to require disassembly in the future.  Minor paint removal in the attachment area, and re-application after welding accomplishes these goals.

“A buggy is about half done when you take it off the frame table, and it is a roller,” Patrick said to me at some point.  When I took the buggy home, I’d logged approximately 280 hours of nights and weekends, some more productive with many items accomplished, and some less productive with more garage racing and sharing ideas going on.

At the time of writing this article, my plans, for now, are to finish tightening the fluid systems connections, add fluids, and attempt to start the new buggy.  Expect a follow-up article showing the completed car in the next few issues.

Technical specs:

Engine: Jeep 4.0L inline 6

Transmission: AW4 with RADesigns stand alone winters shifter

Transfercase: Advance Adapters Atlas II, 3.8:1 low range gears

Front axle: Narrowed mid 80’s Ford Dana 60, 4340 shafts, clearance for additional steering, CTM u-joints, Reid Racing knuckles, WFO concepts high steer arms, RPM off road drive flanges, 4.88 gears and a spool

Rear Axle: Custom narrowed (offset) Dana 70HD, 4.88 gears, ARB air locker, Custom length Mosier axle 4340 axle shafts.

Front suspension: 3 link with panhard, 14” Fox 2.0 reservoir coilovers

Rear suspension: 3 link with panhard, 16” Fox 2.0 reservoir coilovers

Wheels / tires: 17” Raceline beadlocks, 37×12.5r17 Sticky Maxxis Trepadors

110” wheelbase, 17.5” belly, 70” overall height, and 6” uptravel.

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