ormidable as Benn and Sutton’s Jeep might have been, it also seemed to have been parked in a bog at some point in its life and then disassembled and put back together while fully submerged. In rebuilding both axles, the team had to fabricate a tool to reach into the housings to scrape out all the mud. To check the fluid in their transfer case, they had to punch a screwdriver through a thick crust of Mother Earth inside the drain plug. But if any vehicle can run on equal parts oil and soil, it’s a Jeep.
And if any team was going to resurrect a fossil, it would be Benn and Sutton. They rebuilt their front suspension, made a variety of components for the rear, modified the steering linkage, fabricated brackets to mount new seats to their rusty floor, and built a frame to attach belts to. In any contest of speed, knowledge and talent can sometimes offset a bigger budget.
Top right: Fearsome crawler crawls over construction detritus. Bottom: Sutton crawls under fearsome crawler.
The Jeep started off the cheapest but ended up costing the most: $2930, all in. (Features editor Jeff Sabatini, arbitrator for the contest, had initially decreed that wear and safety items wouldn’t be counted, but then changed his mind. We changed his title to “arbitrarian.”) At least they had a few freebies: A call to BFGoodrich turned up a set of All-Terrain KO2 tires for each vehicle, and Optima donated Red Top batteries for every competitor.
It came as little surprise that the Jeep was the most miserable to drive on the street, with its occupants donning rain suits, earplugs, and goggles on the damp drive to Bundy as if riding topside on an Alaskan pollock trawler. All were awed when shortly after their arrival, Benn crawled beneath the Cherokee with a hammer to shift the transfer case into low range, having run out of time to repair its damaged linkage.
Stripped-out interior with fun starter switches.
We started with dirt drags on a strip that had been reduced by an overnight downpour to more of a mud lake. Here, the Jeep finished last, its locked differentials clawing at the muck but its 4.0-liter straight-six reduced from its original 177 horsepower to the approximate output of a Lawnboy by the long-term ingestion of several cubic yards of dirt, possibly including the partial jawbone of a yet-undiscovered sauropod. At our next stop, a timed obstacle course, the John Deere Jeep missed a turn and plunged into a hood-deep water hazard that Bundy Hill’s owner had cautioned us about, predicting that none of our trucks could cross it. Not only did Benn and Sutton make it through, they somehow did so without getting soaked despite being in a vehicle with no doors. Fluid dynamics had finally turned in their favor.
On the second run, the welded front diff forced them to make a three-point turn on the course’s tightest corner, costing time. But upon completion, they scrambled with ease over a pile of concrete construction debris that we’d identified as a bonus obstacle.
Unfortunately for the Jeep team, the light faded and the park closed before we hit any trails on which Toledo’s Thunder surely would have left at least a couple of its competitors behind. And their transfer case ground its internals back into raw material en route to Silver Lake, leaving them with a DNF and a front-wheel-drive rig that Sabatini gleefully christened the “Two-by-Four.” A Cherokee, even one less crazy than this, might have won this contest based on potential, but, as Sutton noted, “Maybe that ‘Open 24 Hours’ sign on the hood was an omen we shouldn’t have ignored.”
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