It’s an age old debate, with strong opinions on both sides. What makes a better multipurpose wheeler, an old rig or something new(er)?
Well, I happen to own a 1972 Ford Bronco, and a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. These are two of the best off-road vehicles ever made, of all time! (Yes, I’m pretty lucky, but calm down, they’re not Ferraris…)
The Bronco is driven around town, occasionally taken on the highways, and wheeled hard. The JK is used for everything else, and wheeled on easy trails. Each has a place, and excels in specific areas. They even get along in the garage. Actually, the Bronco gets the garage. The Jeep is outside. Die-hard brand fanatics everywhere are angry…
The point is I own both, new and old. I drive both, wheel both, and wrench on both. Here’s a firsthand perspective on ultimately what works better for me, and what I think will work best for most of my readers, the novice off-road enthusiasts. Of course, I’m assuming:
- You’re looking for a multipurpose vehicle, you’re not building a trailer queen, dedicated for the hardest black and red trails.
- You’re not building a Mall Crawler (not that there’s anything wrong with that…). You want something that will work in the dirt, and you’ll probably wheel 4 – 6 times a year (at least to start).
- You want something to cruise around town, to head down the shore, to take family camping, and maybe even on an overland expedition.
- Your off-pavement excursions will involve driving on the beach, traveling unimproved roads, and running trails at the off-road park of choice.
- You’re dealing with a working man’s budget, balancing multiple competing priorities, and that while you may have changed a tire or the oil, you’re no master mechanic. (Nor do you have any aspirations to be, at least, for now…)
But Before We Get Into It:
Hopefully we all agree that technology is generally a good thing. There’s a reason we’re not still starting vehicles with hand cranks and riding on bias ply tires. Most modern vehicles have power assisted 4-wheel disc, anti-lock brakes, fuel injection, three point seat belts, all kinds of creature comforts and cup holders up the wazoo – to name a few. These are great things, and the result of advancements in modern technology. However, all of this technology comes with the cost of heavier, overall more complicated vehicles. Plus, not all technology is truly a step forward for mankind. (Think Wall-E. Do you really want to be on the road with someone who can’t drive or park their own car?)
So, Here We Go…
Cool Factor: In a World of people keepin’ up with the Joneses and a sea of “me-too” cars on the road, an off-road rig stands out. It’s unique. It’s interesting. So I don’t care what brand, if it was built or bought, if it’s a Mall Crawler, or an Ultra 4 racer. I don’t care if it’s got 2” of lift and 33s, or a totally custom, sub-frame based suspension with 52” agricultural tires, off-Road rigs are all cool! That said, the rarer the rig, or the more trick it is, the cooler it is.
Advantage: Old Iron, hands down. In a World of Silver JK’s with black wheels (hey, mine’s silver too), my 41 year old classic Bronco is a rare bird, especially in my neck of the woods. It’s easily one of the biggest head turners, thumbs-up and wave generators I’ve ever ridden in. That’s cool! Get something rare enough (which usually means old), and it will bring a coolness factor that can’t be beat by modern, mass produced standards. (Though your lifted silver JK with black wheels is still pretty bad ass…)
Customizability & Upgradability: The ease with which you can modify the rig to meet your goals, suit your tastes and work for your type of wheeling. It comes down to the availability of high quality, commercially produced aftermarket parts. Unless you have an engineering degree and amazing fab skills, buy a vehicle with strong aftermarket support. The only thing that sucks more than not having the right accessories available for your ride are low quality parts that don’t fit, or don’t work. Don’t underestimate the importance of strong, high-quality, commercially available aftermarket support. Get something that’s popular in the off-road scene – even if you have to save up a little more or wait a little longer.
Advantage: Old Iron. Generally, more off-road products are available for older rigs. Older rigs have been available to the public longer, so people have tinkered with them longer. On an older rig, there’s a good chance someone’s already figured out how to do whatever it is you want to do, and this makes it easier for you. Older rigs are also generally affordable enough to take on the trails and modify. Some, like the 66 – 77 Ford Bronco, the early International Scouts, Toyota FJs, Tacomas & 4runners, and all variations of the Jeep Wrangler have attained legendary off-road status, and come with cult-like followings. This brings phenomenal aftermarket support. Buy one of these and you can easily build a brand new one with off-the-shelf parts.
There are a few notable exceptions, none bigger than the 2007-newer JK Wrangler. You can easily get anything you want for the ever popular Wrangler. Much of it is very high, almost EOM level quality, with excellent fit and finish. There are even commercially available kits that allow you install a Chevy LS, a Dodge Hemi and popular diesel engines into the late model JK. The Ford Raptor and the Toyota FJ Cruiser are two other newer vehicles that enjoy strong aftermarket support. (Though personally I think Toyota blew it on the FJ. It should have come with a solid front axle, a removable top and removable doors. Sorry ‘Yota fans.)
Safety: Antilock brakes, crumple zones, air bags and three point seat belts are modern safety standards that didn’t exist 20 – 30 years ago. Assuming your multipurpose wheeler will see highway time with the family on-board, safety is obviously very important.
Advantage: Something New. Sure, you can always increase the safety of an old rig, but it will be costly and time consuming. Just note that even something new may need off-road specific safety items, like roll cages (or extra bars to improve the factory cage) and tie down points for your cargo. As long as we are talking safety, realize that all the extra steel on your rig, that flexy, lifted suspension, and those bigger meats change how your vehicle handles.
Creature Comforts: AC, a radio, cup holders, power windows, door locks, mirrors, comfortable, adjustable seats, tilt steering wheels, Bluetooth, etc.
Advantage: Something New, hands down. Maybe I’m getting old, but I like to hear myself think, the radio, and even my passengers when I can. 🙂 I also want AC when it’s hotter ‘n hell outside. Bluetooth sure is great when I need to take a meeting from the road. I like being able to roll-up the windows and lock the doors with push of a button.
Even the newest OJ Style Bronco (1980 – 1996) is pushin’ almost 20. While it probably has EFI, power windows and door locks, maybe even AC, it might not all work. That stuff is amongst the most expensive to fix, especially those older AC systems. Something new is generally gonna have it, more of it, and it’s gonna work.
Interior Refinements: The carpet, the seats, the gauges, the dash, the steering wheel, etc.
Advantage: Something New. It shouldn’t need any interior upgrades – except maybe highly specialized gauges to let you better monitor the detailed vitals of your machine. Something old is probably going to need a lot of ‘em. You’re gonna want to replace that stank old carpet, and those stained, worn-out, faded and ripped seats. (Even if you can live with them, your better half and your kids will want you to!) You’ll also want to replace any non working gauges, maybe the faded and cracked dash, the chain link steering wheel, those fuzzy dice… You get the idea. At the very least, Old Iron is gonna need LOTS of solid elbow grease.
Maintenance & Reliability: Yes, you can make almost anything reliable. Yes, any rig taken off-road needs more maintenance. However in most cases, Old Iron is going to need more maintenance, more frequently than Something New. Old Iron might even need a bunch of stuff fixed before you can even enjoy it. That maintenance is time consuming to do yourself, gets expensive quickly – and very expensive, very quickly if you have to pay someone else. (Especially engines, transmissions, transfer cases and axle differentials…) Something new is going to come in good working order.
Another consideration with Old Iron is a lack of Subject Matter Expertise. Let’s face it, off-road rigs are purpose built machines. They are niche vehicles. Your average mechanic may not be familiar with the aftermarket products on your ride. He (or she) might not understand what it does, why you need it, how it works, and that you actually need it to work. The older the vehicle, the more interesting this gets. Old rigs become highly customized Frankensteins of sorts. The engine in my Bronco was never offered in the 66-77 Bronco. My front disc brakes are from a late-70s Chevy half-ton. My brake master cylinder is from a 79 Camaro. Make no mistake, this is all by design, it’s no “hack-job”. These are very good, intentionally made changes, installed correctly with best of breed, easily available parts and they all work great! Depending on what needs fixing, I can’t just walk into the local auto parts and ask for stock parts. Whoever works on your vehicle has to know this, and because of this, it might limit the people you let wrench on your stuff.
Advantage: Something New. Even after a fair amount of bolt-on aftermarket parts, your local mechanic is probably going to be more familiar with a newer vehicle than something that might well be older than they are. I didn’t even get into body work or frame repair. I strongly advise my audience to avoid anything that needs rust repair or significant body work. (Though Old Iron is the picture of simplicity, which makes them easy to work on, and great learning / teaching tools for any shade tree mechanics or those looking for family projects.)
Factory Wheel-ability: How well the rig comes from the factory ready to conquer the trail. With enough time and money, anything can be built into an amazing wheeler. However, some rigs do come from the factory better suited for off road adventures. Where the blacktop ends things like ground clearance, approach, break-over and departure angles become important. So do things like four wheel drive systems, suspension designs, axles, transfer cases and gearing. AC, a radio and Bluetooth sure are nice, but your rigs factory wheel-ability helps determine what trails you can run, and whether you make it or not.
Advantage: Old Iron. Unless it’s a Jeep Wrangler, especially the Rubicon! Generally an older rig (something 25 – 30) is going to have factory parts better suited for the dirt. Also, like I said in “Customizability”, older rigs will generally have more available off-road specific aftermarket parts to help improve factory capabilities. Those aftermarket parts will generally be cheaper, and easier to install for Old Iron. (Compare 4” lift kits for a typical late model IFS vehicle like the Toyota FJ against a 4” lift for an older leaf sprung vehicle like the 81 – 87 Chevy Blazer, or the square headlight Jeep YJ. Take note of the difference in number of parts and price.)
Now, the obvious, enormous white elephant in the room is the Jeep Wrangler JK, especially the Rubicon. As of 2013, the Jeep JK Wrangler is one of very few US vehicles that still comes from the factory with solid front and rear axles, and with a manually shifted, two speed transfer case. (Thank you, Jeep, for staying true!) These features are HUGE in the off-road community, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the Rubicon, which is an AMAZING wheeler, even in stock form! The selectable lockers, 4:1 low range, high pinion solid front axle and 4-link suspension make the JK Rubicon a better on-paper wheeler than my Bronco. A 3.5 – 4.5” lift, some 35” tires and protection in the form of skid plates, bumpers and rock rails will give you the capability to comfortably wheel the most challenging trails anywhere in the country.
But Will You Wheel It?: How likely you are to actually take it wheeling, to leave the pavement, to seek adventure? Let’s face it, off-roading IS going into the Wild, and off pavement driving is always a roll of the dice. There are no guarantees. There are real risks to both man and machine. Yes, you can get body damage, break things and even get hurt on the easy trails.
Advantage: Old Iron, for most. Most people I know are more inclined to take that older rig into the woods. My Bronco has a few scratches and dents from the trail. (Hey, it comes with extremely difficult trails and you learn to accept it.) IN fact, they are badges of honor on the Bronco. Remembrances of great times with family and friends… that was my very first dent, I got it right before we went up that almost vertical, loose hill-climb where John and Todd thought we would go over backwards. (We made it.) That one I got the time my Dad came wheeling…
Some people just don’t want to risk it with a newer, high-dollar ride. Let me tell ya, I’d be a lot less laid back about scratches and dents on my brand new JK. The JK is my daily driver and I like to keep it sharp. (I’m one of those guys that parks away from other people to prevent doors dings.) I wouldn’t feel right pulling up to a high class function or work in a dented and scratched vehicle. (But I still take it wheeling. I also know plenty of guys who wheel their new JKs hard, and keep ‘em looking immaculate.)
Versatility: The essence of being able to use your vehicle for anything and everything. The idea of using it daily for commuting, taking the kids to school, getting groceries, then picking up and driving across country with a family of four (and all your gear) and wheeling the Rubicon Trail or Moab Utah for a week straight. Then driving back and going right back into daily driver mode without missing a beat. It’s obviously more than just drivability, and way more than just wheelability.
Advantage: Something New. Don’t get me wrong, my Bronco is awesome. For a 41 year old lifted vehicle on a flexy suspension and 35” tires, it tracks true and straight. It handles great, runs strong and is very reliable. (My mechanical abilities have come a long way.) With zero rust, and very few scratches or dents, it’s in phenomenal shape for its age and where I live. It has a rarity, a cool factor, and sense of nostalgia that’s hard to beat.
That said, I’ve spent 8 years, more money than I’d like to admit, countless hours, blood, sweat and tears (not all my own) chasing’ that dream. During that time, I’ve had some great, unforgettable experiences and a lot, about myself, my family and machines. Yet despite all my efforts, she’s still not quite there. It has that 70s carbureted, un-burnt fuel smell. It’s loud. There’s no radio. There’s no AC. It doesn’t have 3-point seat belts. Sure, mo’ money and mo’ time could fix every issue, but there are limits on how of each I can spend on such things, especially these days. The only thing the Jeep can’t do that the Bronco can (at least for now) is hard core off-roading. The list of things the Jeep can do that Bronco can’t is a lot longer.
Cost: The combination of vehicle purchase price, the cost of ongoing modifications (though project vehicles are never done), and ongoing maintenance. It’s a no-brainer right? At first glance it might seem like it, but it’s actually a bit tricky, and quite a slippery slope. (Please don’t make me tell my wife what I’ve spent on the ole Bronco…)
Advantage: Old Iron, at least to start. The upfront, initial vehicle purchase will no doubt be substantially less with old iron. Generally so will certain essential upgrades like lift kits and other hardware. That said, maintenance and upgrades add up fast! They also never seem to end…
And the verdict is…
If you’ve been keeping a tally, it’s a tight race. Really, with deep enough pockets or tons of free time and solid mechanical ability, it wouldn’t matter. However, for what I do most of the time, and for what I’m guessing most of you want to do, something new(er) is the way to go. Honestly, you just can’t beat the 2012 newer Jeep JK, especially a Rubicon! Get the Rubicon – trust me!
With a 2012 Jeep JK Unlimited Rubicon in the stable, there are very few times I take the Bronco over the Jeep, in any situation. Just a few more mods, (a lift and big tires), will easily make the JK Unlimited Rubicon everything the Bronco is, and much more. Yet while she’s no one-trick Pony, it would take a lot more to make the Bronco do everything the Jeep can, and it still wouldn’t have four doors or as much room. (Ok, the last one wasn’t completely fair, but it’s true.)
So, lemme know what ya think. Did I get it right or miss the mark? Am I being unfair to Old Iron? Should we accept and appreciate it for what it is – and not try to make it something it’s not?