When Is A Jeep Not A Jeep Anymore?
Photography by Harry Wagner
How many parts can you replace on your vehicle before it isn’t the same vehicle anymore? When does it lose its soul? Do 4x4s even have souls??? These were the questions that kept me awake recently when thinking about my father’s 1967 FJ40 Land Cruiser that he bought new in 1966, but the same thoughts applied to Jeeps, Ford Broncos, or really any 4×4. This FJ40 isn’t showroom fresh, it has been used as a hardcore rockcrawler for decades and is more of a time capsule from the 80s with a 3-inch roll cage, carbureted engine, and a lot of chrome.
I have been dreaming about swapping in an LS engine, a stretched aluminum tub, and a coilover suspension. But really, what would be left of the Land Cruiser of my childhood at that point? These are not new questions. At the risk of getting too philosophical on The DIRT, we can go all the way back to 400 BC when Plato was having similar thoughts. Now, they didn’t have Jeeps back then, but he posited the question if you changed out every board on a ship over the course of a journey would you arrive in the same ship? If you want to impress your friends, this idea is called the Ship of Theseus.
A suspension lift used to involve new leaf springs and shocks, but these days a long arm suspension like Rubicon Express offers for the JK and JL Wrangler not only replaces the coil springs and the shocks, but the control arms, sway bar end links, track bars, and an entirely new transmission crossmember. The control arms are not only longer for better suspension geometry, but also stronger as well.
No one really questions if it is OK to swap out the suspension on your Jeep. This is typically where most of us start in an effort to fit larger tires and gain ground clearance. No longer is the goal just more height though, now there are plenty of options that provide more articulation and a better ride as well. Since the TJ was introduced in 1997, Jeep Wranglers have come with coil springs. Coilover conversions are popular for vehicles that originally came with leaf springs or coil springs. I never questioned if this impacted the soul of a vehicle though, typically modifying the suspension is the first thing that I do as well.
Dana-Spicer has supplied OEM manufacturers like Jeep and Ford with axles for decades, and more recently they have started offering crate axle assemblies to bolt into Jeeps. They come with all the brackets necessary to bolt under a JK or JL Wrangler or JT Gladiator, plug-and-play ABS sensors, and use huge ring gears, u-joints, and brakes.
People have been swapping stronger axles into their vehicles as long as vehicles have been around. Currie Enterprises was building Ford 9-inch axles to swap into Chevrolets in the 70s. The smaller the vehicle, the easier it fits on tight trails. Unfortunately, the smaller the vehicle the smaller the axles it has. This becomes an issue when you add larger tires and more torque (either through gearing and/or more power). Starting with a one-ton truck adds a lot of extra sheet metal though, and that translates to worse visibility and more body to smash. The solution is to swap the bigger axles into the smaller vehicle. In the early 80s my father narrowed an 8 lug Dana 44 and a Dana 60 and put them under his FJ40 to remedy the issues with birfields and course spline pinion shafts.
This 468ci Big Block engine was swapped into this FJ40 back in the 80s long before Atlas II and dual transfer cases were common for torque multiplication. The solution was to generate more torque from the engine, but the byproducts included frequent overheating and a twisted frame.
Engine swaps are less popular these days since you can get so much power right off the showroom floor. The 285 horsepower offered by the 3.6L Pentastar in the Jeep Wrangler is twice as much as the power generated by the 258 ci I6 used in the CJ, but if that isn’t enough for you more power can be had by adding a supercharger (or ordering a 392 Hemi right from the dealer). I generally like to match the make of the engine with the make of the vehicle (like a Ford engine swap into a Bronco) but Chevy engine swaps have always been the most popular, from the ubiquitous 350 Small Block to the current craze of “LS swap the world”. These engines are relatively inexpensive, compact enough to fit in most engine bays, and benefit from enormous aftermarket support. Does your vehicle lose some of its soul if you swap a GM engine into a Ford or a Toyota?
Icon built this stunning pickup with a 1965 Ford crew cab body on top of a, wait for it… Dodge Ram 2500 chassis. I actually prefer Cummins engines to Powerstroke engines but this felt off to me. If the truck was on a modern Ford chassis I would not have blinked an eye, but a new Ford chassis doesn’t have any more in common with the cab and bed than a Dodge chassis does.
Perhaps the most extreme is a frame swap. These are fairly common in the Rust Belt, when putting a new body on top of an existing chassis. For some reason frame swaps only bother me when they mix brands, like putting an International Scout on top of a Jeep frame. In contrast, I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone put a CJ7 tub on top of a TJ frame. Swapping to a different body style does leave me wondering which component defines the vehicle and its soul, the body or the chassis?
The SEMA Show, held at the beginning of November each year in Las Vegas, it’s full of 4x4s with axle swaps, engine swaps, and frame swaps. Some of these vehicles are built completely from aftermarket parts, they don’t even use the original body or frame. This Bronco from the Roadster Shop has an Ecoboost engine and independent front suspension. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but it does make me question whether or not it has a soul.
When this Land Cruiser was modified in the 80s, little thought was given to resale value or keeping the vehicle showroom fresh. It was built to wheel! Is it more of a service to keep it in this configuration, update it to modern standards, or restore it to stock?