Rumble Bee — Part 2 — Final Product
After a few years of moderate trails, it became obvious the Bee was under-built for modern 4-wheeling.
We needed taller tires, locking differentials front and rear, lower gears, and a host of other improvements. All average stuff for today’s rock crawling Jeep, but don’t forget, we were relatively new to the rougher trails.
More, with its original tractor style steering the old Willys was downright scary to drive on pavement. This is where Chris Overacker and CODE 4×4 really came into the picture.
Chris lent his advice and skill to a major buildup that included everything from a rebuilt and customized transfer case to modern steering.
Early Jeeps came with a configuration known as “Ross” steering, consisting of a funky wear-prone steering gear mounted on the frame rail near the driver, along with a massive bell crank hanging from the front crossmember, connected to the front wheel hubs with two manky tie rods. This might be some of the worst steering ever invented — requiring weight lifter arms on the trail, and wandering on the pavement like a DUI fighting a blackout. As the CJ model progressed, the steering was upgraded to a system known as Saginaw, with a strong single tie rod connecting the front wheels, and a gear box located near the front of the frame. This was still manual “armstrong” steering, but required less muscle, and handled much better on pavement.
But power steering is even better than manual Saginaw. Thus, converting early Jeeps to power has become somewhat of an art form, and was even somewhat a cottage industry for a while, before the Wrangler line took over the roost. As we wanted safer handling for the Bee, along with better trail manners, power was the only way to go, and CODE 4×4 the best place to get it done.
The project went well. I stripped out all the old steering in my home shop, installed the power steering pump, modern tie rod and tilt steering column myself, then towed Rumble Bee down to CODE for the more technical aspects of the install. Chris carefully located the steering box on the front framehorn, including fabbing a tricky notch in the front crossmember, then hooked everything up. The results were nothing less than amazing. We can steer the Bee with one finger, it’s solid on pavement, and power steering on the trail is the ultimate, as it frees you to maneuver with more flow, making wheeling more of a motion and timing sport rather than a battle with with a steering wheel.
The Spicer model 18 T-case in the early Jeeps is actually a decent unit for lower horsepower and tires of reasonable size. It’s noisy, but easy to work on and geared low.
Nonetheless, our 18 was worn out, and aftermarket gears are available that drop your low range another 25%. My son and I tore it down, bought a slightly larger, later model shell, and stuffed it full of an excellent gear set from Terra Low. Good wrenching adventure!
We re-installed our Warn overdrive unit as well, which lets us go with our super-low gears on the trail, but easily cruise at about 58 mph on the highway.
As for the ever leaking speedometer cable that hooked up to the T-case: I chucked the cable in the trash, plugged the hole in the case with JB-Weld, and use a GPS as a speedometer. Speedometers are over rated for rock crawling anyway.
Seats and Belts
We started the Bee project with original style seat frames, but they were torture. I got fed up with the pain, headed for the salvage yard, and bought a pair of seats out of a Ford Escort. Embarrassed to admit I used something from Ford in our mostly GM project, but the seats are the correct size, have removable head rests and comfortable side bolsters, and work well as Jeep seats (with custom mounting frames). When I installed the seats, I mounted the passenger side on pivots so it rises up for access to the cool under-seat toolbox all the early Jeeps have. (Our OEM seats sold well on Ebay.)
Our safety belts are another story. Being encapsulated in the rigid cage of a small Jeep, you want at least a competition style 4-point harness (double shoulder straps). Otherwise you’re gonna get whacked bad in an accident or roll. Problem is, such harnesses hold you back in the seat and you can’t reach anything without pulling your shoulder straps off. Thus, you see a lot of Jeepers wheeling along with just their lap belt on — even though they have beautiful expensive race harnesses installed. My solution: install 4-point harnesses — with inertia reels from the same Ford I got the seats out of. While the reels lock when the angles are extreme, passenger and driver can usually lean forward with some slack. To prevent worry in extreme situations, the harnesses are rigged so they can be snubbed down at will with all the slack taken out of the reels.
When Chris installed the power steering, he built a simple but effective front bumper that includes a winch deck. I built an equally simple rear bumper out of 3/16 inch steel C-channel. Both bumpers have built-in flush mounted 2-inch hitch receiver tubes that accept a recovery D-ring or tow-ball mount.
The rocker pinch seam on early Jeeps frequently gets trashed, and when it does, the body can’t contribute to the strength of the Jeep — a necessary factor with the weak OEM frame. More, the underside of the bodywork catches on rocks, and has no place for a highlift jack to hook up if you need to lift your Jeep from the side.
My solution was cut off the pinch seam, then weld 1/8 inch x 10 inch wide steel panels on the underside of the rocker area, then extend out from the body with two sticks of 1×1 inch steel tubing laid side-by-side. Result: a super strong rocker guard and rock slider that extends 2 inches out from the body for pivoting around boulders, actually ends up with more ground clearance (with shortened support struts and no pinch seam), and ends up being about 1/4 inch thick on the bottom.
Other protection includes a custom 3/16 inch steel skid plate, oil pan skid, integrated front axle skid (see below), and a beefy rock ring on the rear Dana 44 diff, which also received a moderate trim for about 1/2 inch more ground clearance.
Axles and Suspension – Round 2
This was the biggie. Chris located a used Dana 30 axle for us, and suggested he build it into the perfect setup for the Bee.
He did a beautiful job “shaving” the D30 by cutting the bottom off the pumpkin, installing a Lock Right locker, and doing a number of other tweaks to make it state-of-art.
At the same time we upgraded to Jeep Wrangler springs and bushings at all corners, and Chris moved the springs to a spring over axle (SOA) configuration, which provides a huge amount of axle articulation and more than enough lift.
In fact, a spring-over may provide too much flex, and it did in our case. Without the correct setup, our springs bend in strange ways on the trail, and handling on the street is a constant adrenaline rush. I thus spent quite a bit of time rigging the correct shocks (adjustable Rancho RS9000X), building a custom traction bar for the rear axle, playing around with other handling adjustments such as doing an axle knuckle rotation to increase caster angle, and messing around with U-joints, pinion angles. Our suspension works well now, though I can see a few more improvements on the horizon.
While it was out for the spring over conversion, Chris also did a quickie shave on our rear Dana 44 (only removing the extra steel hanging from the bottom of the differential housing), and added a beefy rock ring to the pumpkin in case we back into any boulders and hit the diff first (likely).
Tires — Round 2
These days there is only one choice in trail tires: Goodyear MTR. With our spring-over suspension and a bit of body trimming, a pair of 35 inchers fit perfectly. These meats are so good I’d even consider gluing one of those childish marketing banners to my windshield — but it’s still split down the middle like all early Jeeps, so such banners won’t fit (thankfully).
We’re out of money and time now (whew), so our winch solution is the budget Mile Marker 9000 winch (basically a re-badged Ramsy). It’s slow on the uptake, but free-spools for rope deployment, and shouldn’t have any trouble moving the little Bee around. The winch is custom installed, however, with extra-thick wiring, solenoids hidden in the engine compartment, remote control connector on the dashboard, in-dash toggle switch control, and synthetic rope instead of steel cable (for family safety). This was all fun owner-built stuff I was able to do in my garage shop.
We also carry several nylon tow straps, a snatch block, and 100 feet of 11mm climbing rope for rigging weird situations or perhaps using my mountain rescue skills (don’t laugh, a Jeeper rescued a climber from a Utah canyon just a few years ago). We’ve recently been leaving our high-lift jack behind, and bringing a small bottle jack. With the spring-over lifting the Jeep so high, the weight of things such as a jack and extra tools can make it even more tippy if they’re stored too high above the axles, and thus far we haven’t figured out how to stow the weighty high-lift down low.
This short wheelbase Jeep does tend to tip sideways on occasion, with resulting body damage. After doing the rocker protection shown above, I built front and rear tube fenders that tie into the protruding ledge of the rocker.
The rear fenders are basic tubing bends (done by CODE 4×4) that still follow the body lines and design theme enough to not totally “modernize” the flattie look.
For the front fenders, I cut away the factory rolled edge of the fender and replaced with square tubing. While doing this I widened the front fenders about three inches to match the width of the rocker guards, and tied the fenders into the front grill protection hoop with small braces and poly bushings (see below). Building these was a huge amount of work, but worth it for time saved in the future. The idea is to be able to set the Jeep on its side with minimal damage — nothing a few swings with a hammer and a dab of spray paint can’t fix.
Radiator Roll Bar
Even with an occupant roll bar, rolling or side-flopping a Jeep will frequently trash the front of the hood and ruin the radiator. Prevention is a “radiator roll bar” or “front hoop.” CODE4x4 installed this on the Bee in 2005. In our home shop we fabricated links that tie the front hoop to the tube fenders.
In all, decades have passed an we’re still excited about our Willys Jeep, and always anxious for the next trip the Bee will join us on, be it Moab or Leadville.
After all the mods and upgrades, how much of the original vehicle remains? In honesty, the frame, body, gas tank, clutch and brake peddles, and a few parts of the transfer case — oh, and the classic round headlights and a few gauges — that’s it. Absurd? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! Watch for us on the trails, or stop by and visit us in the garage.
Mistakes and Successes
Most amateur Jeep builders, myself included, can relate sad tales of woe when it comes to their “money pit.” It’s hard to work to a final plan, thus one tends to do an expensive upgrade, then find themselves upgrading the upgrade all too soon. Selling swapped out parts can mitigate the financial pain, but planning ahead is best. As consolation, a big part of the reason we do these projects is to enjoy the work of fabrication and repair, and building an old Jeep into a modern trail rig will give you all the wrenching you’ll ever want.
What We Did Right
Bought a welder and learned how to weld (sort of).
Almost immediately swapped in a modern motor and transmission.
Kept the flattie “look.”
Installed onboard air compressor and tank early in project.
Concentrated on mechanicals rather than body work.
Installed a reasonable cage and seats.
Kept the fold-down windshield and use it frequently.
Installed Warn overdrive early in the project.
Retained the services of CODE 4×4!
What We Did Wrong
Didn’t decide on final tire size and build project to that end.
Flat towed the Jeep for years instead of buying a trailer.
Didn’t buy a complete engine donor vehicle to scavenge things such as wiring harness parts, exhaust system and clutch parts from.
Installed a 4-speed instead of an automatic transmission.
Didn’t buy the welder the day we bought the Jeep.
Used a NAPA rebuilt power steering box, which developed annoying play soon after installation, and was out of warranty before I had time to pull it out and return it.
Had two noisy mufflers installed with a dual exhaust system, instead of one big quiet one.
Used a NAPA starter motor, which soon developed a bad solenoid soon after warranty expired (eventually replaced with aftermarket unit).
Didn’t immediately go to Rancho RSX adjustable shocks after spring over axle conversion.
Spent time working on original front axle, should have immediately swapped it.
Should have bought a new aftermarket frame as a foundation for the whole project.
Didn’t buy and install a quality winch earlier in the project.
Should have befriended more Jeep mentors when we started the project!
I had fun doing the 500% more wrenching I did while making the above mistakes, but did spend extra money, and got close to burning out on the project a number of times. Lesson: if you want a Jeep with the classic look and feel of a flat fender, but with modern trail performance, buy an old Jeep for the badged bodywork, then throw away everything but the body, buy an aftermarket frame, and start from there. Otherwise, keep it mostly original and use as a collector’s truck and grocery getter — but remember there is really no compromise — you have to go one way or the other.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.