The off-road world has changed notably over the decades that humans have pursued motorized adventure off the beaten path and the paved expanses. New innovations have allowed us to go faster over rougher terrain, jump higher, crawl slower, and tackle bigger boulders. Along with that, we can travel into the backcountry to explore in greater comfort and with the assurance of greater reliability in our vehicle gear.
While there are many great inventions, innovations, and improvements that have propelled our off-road world forward, there are a few that stand out to us as real game-changers. All of the things on our list came out of the 20th century. Off-road vehicles have undoubtedly excelled over the last 13 years, and the parts we use have seen countless revisions, improvements, and refinements. But most of the technology is still based on prior designs that arrived in the 20th century.
If you think we missed one or are just plain wrong about an entry, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish yours in an upcoming issue.
Electronic Fuel Injection
During the mid ’50s, Bendix developed their Electrojector system, one of the first electronic fuel injection (EFI) systems to come to market. It was inspired by fuel injection systems used on aircraft during the Korean War, but the system got off to a rocky start. Bosch later acquired the patent rights and introduced their D-Jetronic systems that took root in production cars. With increasingly rigid emissions regulations and the demand for higher fuel economy and better engine performance, EFI has sustained and evolved. Today’s systems are microprocessor-controlled and married to sophisticated ignition systems that enable full electronic control of the combustion process. The boon for the off-roader is getting away from traditional carburetors with their troublesome float bowls and jet systems that can be unreliable in a rough, dusty environment. EFI brings improved horsepower and drivability to the modern dirt machine.
Dana/Spicer Model 60
Beefy axles that can take abuse are vital to off-roaders, and the Dana 60 is a staple of hardware in our world. First introduced in 1955, this Dana/Spicer axle has been used by domestic manufacturers who have built heavy-duty pickup trucks. Steering and non-steering versions are available. The center chunk houses a beefy 9.75-inch ring gear. Inner shaft spline counts have included 16, 23, 30, 32, 33 and 35. Outer spline counts are typically 30- or 35-spline. Rear axles come in both semi-float and full-float flavors. These days you can find yourself a junkyard 60 from a wrecked 3/4- or 1-ton truck, or order a custom-built crate axle to your specs from any number of aftermarket axle builders. Gear ratios run from 3.31 to 7.17 to satisfy a wide range of applications. High-strength replacements are available for each axle component, making the Dana 60 extremely customizable. When running high horsepower and big tires, they’re not just for lead-footed hillbillies anymore.
4WD Locking Hubs
Arthur Warn founded Warn Industries in 1948 and saw a need to provide locking front hubs for surplus WWII Jeeps. The use of selectable front hubs allowed these surplus service vehicles to be converted for more practical on-road use. Locking hubs have allowed off-roaders to easily enjoy the best of both worlds in a single vehicle. Lock in the front axle to tackle the dirt, then unlock when you’re ready to hit the highway. Selectable hubs save wear and tear on the front drivelines, increase fuel economy, and make sharp steering easier.
Gas-Charged Monotube Shocks
Fast engines are great, but you can only drive safely as fast as your suspension can keep your vehicle in control. Shocks play a huge part in that handling equation. One innovation that truly changed how an off-road rig could move quickly across rough terrain was the creation of the gas-charged monotube shock. Bilstein developed the idea in the late ’50s, with Mercedes-Benz as their first customer. When some desert guys started driving and racing fast down the Baja Peninsula, some driver tried a set of OEM Mercedes shocks on a race car and won. This began the importation of more Bilstein shocks to satisfy competitors and spurred Bilstein to take notice of the trend. They created Bilstein of America in San Diego, and Bilstein was the number one brand of shock absorbers in off-road racing in the ’70s and ’80s. Modern shocks are critical to our needs, with newer designs offering superior fade resistance due to gas charging.
General Motors didn’t invent the V-8 engine, but they did push it into mainstream America. What’s notable about the ’55 small-block V-8 debuted by Chevrolet is that it ushered in a period of high-performance engine availability on a large scale. Previously, most domestic engines were inline six-cylinder models. That first V-8 was 50 pounds lighter and more powerful than the GM Stovebolt six. Over nearly six decades, it’s worked its way to being one of the most popular engines in the world. GM still sells Generation I design engines for use in marine and industrial applications. Today, the company continues to manufacture a variety of high-tech small-blocks, including the Generation IV 638hp supercharged LS9 in the Corvette. The move from cast-iron to aluminum heads and blocks has meant ever-lighter powerplants for off-roaders. These engines have long been popular in GM trucks and SUVs but have also been a top choice for engine swaps into everything from CJs to mini trucks. Aftermarket support is through the roof and parts are very affordable.