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The Demise of the Solid Axle?

Well, I think the idea of how big 33” tires used to be has been covered and re-covered enough lately, but it remains as one simple way to show how far this sport has come in the last couple of decades.  Almost 20 years ago, my hand-me-down Jeep Grand Wagoneer was basically a monster truck sitting on 33” no-name tires, open diffs in stock axles, and no winch – not to mention the swanky power windows and seats.  How cool we felt cruising around in these 4×4s so many years ago – and now that childish pride is uncorked when the 10 year old boy in the minivan waves in our direction as we pilot our tow rig down the highway with the rock crawler in tow.

For years we’ve seen innovation in this crazy sport of 4 wheeling.  I guess we can call it a “sport” since everyone seems to be OK calling my 2wd Tahoe a “Sport Utility Vehicle”.  And if somehow the Tahoe is an SUV, then rock crawling is most definitely a “sport”.  I’ll never really understand the term “sports car” though.  Anyway, the innovation in our sport seems to have taken off in the most recent 5 years or so.  After many years off basic modifications like lower gears, lockers, longer leaf springs, etc, we’re now surrounded by tube buggies shod in all kinds of features and technology.  And I believe this recent increase in adoption of new technology by average wheelers like us is here to stay.

Dare I use the two of the most overused topics in a single article?  You bet.  How 40” tires are the new 33”s, and the four words: “King of the Hammers”.  As we’ve all seen, the KOH cars are migrating to independent front suspension, for good reasons.  They need to rock crawl and run 100+mph in the desert   But what does this mean for the rest of us with a 2-car garage that barely fits our stick-welded, leaf-sprung crawler amongst the arsenal of plastic kids toys and bikes?  Let’s look back 10 years or so to find out.

While I can’t seem to find the exact date or specifications any longer, I vividly remember reading about Walker Evans first foray into rock crawling about 10 years ago.  Coming from desert racing, his first rock crawler truck ran independent front (and rear, I think) suspension.  We all said this was a bad idea, and we held firm to our roots by saying things like solid axles are important because they give you “constant ground clearance”.  Anyone else remember that?  The bottom line is that we were fighting off new technology while remaining stuck in 1970s technology.  Of course, Walker Evans did end up with solid axles front and rear, and his competition rigs have been this way until… now.

A quick web search will yield pics of his latest creation here that is running front and rear independent suspension utilizing a very unique design that seems to capture many of the benefits of both traditional dual A-arm style suspension and a four-link setup.  You owe it to yourself to take a gander at the pics.

So let’s see.  20 years ago we thought 33” tires were huge, and we’d never need 44” tires (we didn’t know 52 inchers would even be an option back then).  10 years ago we fought against independent suspension because we thought a “swing arm” was something our wives would do if we stayed in the garage all weekend.  7 years ago we thought tube buggies were exotic and our rigs were just as good.  5 years ago we thought coil-over shocks were only good on desert racing trucks, and they were way too expensive for us.  And now we’re watching independent suspension move toward the mainstream.  Let’s not be naïve and think it’s not a game changer for our sport.  Start saving your pennies and hope that stick-welder in your garage is going to cut it.  The future is here, and if we can learn anything from the past, pretending to fight it is futile.

As much as I’d like to build my own independent suspension front and rear with portal boxes – much like the HMMWV, but with longer travel – I’ll just keep hauling my boat anchor, 14 bolt and Dana 60, up the mountain, leaf springs and all.  See you on the trails.  Wheel on.

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