By Ben Stewart
West Coast editor, Popular Mechanics; contributing editor, Road & Track
As a kid growing up in New York City, there just weren't many places to venture off pavement. OK, let's be honest, considering the entire city is pavement there were exactly zero places to go four-wheeling. But I was completely absorbed in four-wheel-drive magazines, reading about all the great trails and incredible rigs out West. I just had to hit the dirt someday.
So when I moved to Arizona in 1990 and saw all that open desert terrain to explore, I wanted — no I needed — a four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup truck. Chevrolet's radical GMT400 redesign that had arrived two years earlier and replaced the venerable C/K trucks was ground-breakingly cool. So I ordered a K-1500 Stepside in Silverado trim with a tan cloth bench seat interior, an EFI 350 cubic-inch-displacement V-8 and a five-speed manual transmission. The truck cost just shy of $18,000, which was nearly Camaro IROC-Z money back then. But before the Stepside even rolled a tire off the Courtesy Chevrolet lot, I had to make one change. The dorky flush-faced 16-inch wheels just didn't work for me. Every four-wheeler on the street as well as those in the magazines wore deep-dish 15-inch wheels. So the stock wheels were traded for some five-spoke 15-by-8-inch Prime wheels with 32-inch tires.
However, those great-looking wheels and flotation tires would hit the fenders at full suspension compression over desert whoops thanks to my heavy right foot. So before long, I ended up with a simple Rough Country 2-inch lift that replaced the upper control arms with longer ones and dual shocks. The pre-runner look was incredibly popular at the time, especially in Arizona. I tried to ape the style while still maintaining the usability of the truck as a daily driver. I had a race truck fabrication shop called Dirt Trix bend some pre-runner bumpers — a shop the truck would visit again years later. And thanks to a pair of wider fiberglass front fenders and custom-molded rear stepside fenders, I was not only able to clear those 32-inch tires, but easily fit even larger 33-inch tires.
But I yearned to explore more technical terrain and that required better gearing. So in 1993 I swapped out the stock close-ratio Getrag five-speed manual for a more durable NV4500 from a one-ton Chevy equipped with an ultra-low 6.34:1 1st gear. A 6-inch Superlift suspension and 35-inch tires soon followed, as did a citizens band radio and a Motorola car phone (lame yes, but what can I say, it was the early 1990s). Because I was attempting to four-wheel more serious terrain, parts began to break with frequency. Each of the front constant velocity joints exploded at different times, and the stock GM 10 bolt was bent and leaking. I bought quite a few spare parts and gained quite a bit of knowledge from my buddy Rick Péwé — yes, the same guy who's now the editor of Petersen's 4 Wheel & Off-Road magazine — at his shop, Republic Off-Road, in Tempe, Ariz. By the time I landed a gig at Four Wheeler magazine in 1995, I was far more educated in what parts and systems really worked in the dirt. And I craved more wheel travel, durability and, of course, locking differentials.
So for the truck's final incarnation, covered in the April-May 1997 issues of Four Wheeler, I contacted John Dyke at Dirt Trix again for his fabrication and design expertise. We ditched the independent front suspension for an ARB-locked Dana 44 solid axle suspended by a three-link Bilstein coil-over suspension and upgraded the rear axle to a Dynatrac 35-spline Dana 60 with an ARB and a custom leaf pack from National Spring with four more Bilsteins. We retained the 35-inch tires, but now used 4.56:1 gears to help turn them. The engine was largely left stock with the exception of some Doug Thorley headers and an Edelbrock intake.
In the mid-1990s solid-axle swaps on four-wheel-drive trucks were certainly not common — especially ones with 15 inches of wheel travel at each corner. The improved axle articulation and locking differentials allowed the truck to go crawl up (and down) trails I had never even attempted before. And at higher speeds it worked really well too. Perhaps a little too well, as I found out one night while four-wheeling with a group in the Truckhaven Hills area of the Southern California desert during the Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari. After an evening trail ride, I decided to take a high-speed blast down a nearby wash. Locked in four-wheel-drive high range, with my foot to the floor in 3rd gear, I pointed the nose of the truck over a 3-foot-tall ledge that ran across the wash. The suspension soaked up the ledge so well that I decided to hit it from the other direction — like a jump.
The skidplate of the front bumper made first contact with that ledge at about 45 mph, and the impact was severe. It sent the truck skyward and pitched it so far over that when we did eventually land, most of the impact was absorbed solely through the driver's end of the front suspension. We hit so hard it split the 6-inch polyurethane bumpstop in half, bent the panhard bar and blasted out one of the off-road lights. It could have easily rolled, and there was no roll cage in the cab. So I'm fortunate that I didn't get hurt. The truck made a full recovery, and I decided not to abuse it (or my luck) anymore.
That was more than 15 years ago. In the time since, the truck has been relatively retired. I repainted it the original Flame Red in 2005. But the rest of the truck remained much as it was back in the late 1990s with the exception of a winch bumper built by famed rock racer Shannon Campbell. For some reason, my pal Péwé‚ decided to put it on the cover of 4 Wheel & Off-Road in 2006 (must have been slim pickins for cover trucks that month) with a nice story by Fred Williams. This truck has been through a lot during the last 23 years. It's been such a reliable and trustworthy companion and such a part of me; I can't imagine a day when it won't have a prime space in my garage.