The Search for the Perfect Trail Buggy

4x4 Magazine 4WD how to article 429

Story and photos by Lil’ Rich Klein

What does it take to build/design/find the perfect trail buggy? This is a question that I not only get asked but also ask myself. I have been wheeling for most of my life, and I mean it when I say that. I got in my first rollover at two years old on the Rubicon, and I have been hooked ever since. My dad, known affectionately in the industry as Big Rich, appropriately named me Lil’ Rich. I have been tied up in competition rock crawling since the second event ever, Warn Nationals in Johnson Valley circa 1999. I started at these events doing trash detail and moving crap all over the mountain in hopes of learning from one of the best drivers I have ever met, Bob Roggy (at the time, part of the Pirates of the Rubicon). I grew up with that group and a couple of others; wheeling and sitting co-pilot for years, but watching every move, driving technique, and reason certain traits are built into vehicles, or obstacles are attacked specific ways.

My first personal build started in 1999 with an FJ40. I saw Tracy Jordan at an event and decided that I wanted a vehicle like his, so at 15, I set out to build a replica FJ40 from my favorite driver at the time. I didn’t take any photos, but I knew where every piece of tube, wire, and pro trick was in his rig. He was nice enough to talk to some unassuming 15-year-old about all his little tricks in his rig. I didn’t get any photos of the build, it ended before I got to drive it. Apparently, it was a stolen vehicle when I bought it from a shady figure in Las Vegas, and it was removed from my possession. I remember being so crushed; I put every dollar I had into it.

The next rig was a Dodge D-50, not much of anything. Just enough to get out and enjoy the outdoors, small body lift, and 33’s. After that, I tried my hand at my very own buggy. By this time (2001), fabricators were throwing everything they could at evolving rock crawling tech. I am not sure who built the first full tube buggy, but they were being built and scrapped for newer tech every month or so. It was crazy. I decided to throw my ideas at the buggy build craze. A two-seat, front-engine, tube buggy with a lightweight Oldsmobile 215 Cubic Inch aluminum block V8, with a VERY narrow rear end, so it tracked better through cones. The problem was it didn’t climb very well because of the narrow rear end. The chassis was modeled after a Shannon Campbell chassis, at the time, he was my favorite driver.

Since finishing it in 2002, it has been bastardized and rebuilt about 200 times. So much so that it is entirely unrecognizable, and I have no idea where it is now. Heck, by the time I was done with it, I had three builders who had helped me finish it: Monkey Fab, S&N Fab, and HallStyle Racing who had all been a part of the build. Shortly after it was completed, I saw Tiny, the Nelson built buggy driven by Jon Bundrant; and the entire buggy building crazy went back into a tailspin for even more redneck renditions.

At this moment, I had to reevaluate what I wanted. I didn’t want a purpose-built vehicle for competitions. I was testing and helping to develop new products for the Jeep and aftermarket industry. I spent most of my time wheeling and camping with friends. I was spotting for Team RedBull, Jesse Haines, and others, in competition. I also co-drove with Pistol Pete in the #2 trophy truck as well as enjoying some other fun racing experiences. This journey in the off-road world had given me the unique opportunity to see the world, wheel in some crazy destinations like China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, and Australia. Eventually, it all led me back to the Lower 48, and Southern Utah, specifically. I vowed not to get involved in the sport, but that just led me to jump in deeper than ever.

I bought Jesse Haines original Willys Buggy and caught the bug again.

That evolved into building a James Treacy Buggy, which I took to Japan and wheeled overseas with. It was the first time I took my own vehicle to another country to wheel. Once I had built that car, I figured it would be my last, with the understanding that I had very possibly built the perfect vehicle for me. It fit my family and allowed me to push the limits of the sport without issue at all. My family loved going out with me in the car, and I knew that there was nothing in my way, I could drive just about everything.

But then the kids grew. My family got older, and the kids got bigger, so now we were limited and couldn’t bring the whole family out on our Buggy Adventures. With all this in mind, I went to the one friend/builder who always considered my ideas and has pushed the sport for so many years. Jesse Haines and I sat down and mapped out the build requirements to build the next-level trail rig. I had some odd requests, and Jesse worked with them well.

My List:

  • Comfortable seating, large enough to accommodate height and weight
  • American Horsepower (LS based engines preferred)
  • Two seats (Only one family member at a time, four seats will detract from the capability of the rig.)
  • Front Engine
  • Rear Steer (We are testing out some great new parts for this)
  • Portal axles
  • Narrow wheelbase (Wider cars are known for getting hung up in obstacles)
  • A design that could fit many engine/trans/tcase configurations (essential for mass production)
  • Looks cool – cause that is part of the sport as well.

That’s the back story.

The chassis will be available for purchase through JHF Motorsports, Jesse Haines. It will have builder upgrades: link suspension link mounts, shock mounts, motor mounts, interior paneling, and more that you can purchase as a kit and install yourself.

We’re just getting started with the build; we’ll be sharing all the details in future issues on the best buggy to battle the most challenging obstacles the rocks can throw at us.


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