Each year, King of the Hammers (KOH) attracts four-wheeling fanatics from every corner of the hobby. The week-long event in Johnson Valley, California not only offers competitors a chance to put their rides through their paces in a torture chamber of rock crawling and high-speed desert racing, but it also functions as an annual social hub for off-roading fans and people who simply like to spend some time in the great outdoors.
Accordingly, it also provides a great forum to showcase cool 4×4 builds, as well as products that might be of interest to the sort of folks who’re involved with KOH. We caught up Bobby Friedman out at the King of the Hammers event earlier this year in Johnson City, California, where the FC certainly looked at home out on the dirt. Friedman’s 1961 Jeep Forward Control, dubbed “WilBilly”, manages to combine the two, as it serves as both a demonstration rig for Automobrella products, a company of which Friedman is the founder, as well as just being a rad vintage Jeep.
Creating A Unique Vehicle
The Jeep Forward Control was initially designed with military and municipal use in mind. Willys had been producing its vehicles almost unchanged from their WWII-era designs since 1947, but by the mid-1950s, competitive offerings started cropping up, which forced the company to respond. The FC-150 would debut in 1956, and its modular rear layout could accommodate a number of different configurations, including to tow truck, flat bed, and dump truck versions of the FC. FC-170s like Bobby Friedman's featured a larger wheelbase (103 inches versus the FC-150's 81 inches), as well as a larger bed (108 inches versus 78 inches for the FC-150).
“I’ve never seen another like mine,” explained Friedman, a former pro tandem surfer who hails from Aliso Viejo, California. “My company needed a truck for marketing purposes and I’ve always been into rat rods, classic Dodge Ram Power Wagons, vintage 4×4 trucks and the like, so it was a natural fit.” Friedman told us that his hot rodding interests dated back to his high school years.
“When I was 18, I got a 1969 Corvette convertible and fell in love with cool cars.” His affirmation that the Jeep Forward Control was unfinished and “will never be done” illustrated his veteran status in the gearhead realm.
The FC Jeeps made their press debut on November 29, 1956, and were shown to the public the following month at the National Automobile Show in New York City. The larger FC-170 made its debut the following year. Though it never proved to the be the sales hit that Willys had hoped for, the company ultimately produced more than 30,000 examples of the Forward Control in various configurations over its production run, which ended in 1964. That puts the Forward Control series in an interesting spot in terms of rarity; they’re an uncommon sight, but not rare enough to be prohibitively expensive.
The Jeep Forward Control, even in standard form, is a fairly unusual bird in its own right. Produced by Willys and Kaiser Jeep from 1956 to 1965, the Forward Control features a cab-over design with CJ-5 underpinnings. Originally designed as a work truck for military and municipal use, the styling borrowed from the full-size, cab-over-engine trucks of the day caught the attention of civilian buyers.
While a regular pickup bed was standard equipment for the Forward Control, a number of specialized packages became available through the aftermarket, including flatbeds as well as a complete dump truck, tow truck, and even fire truck conversions. Though never a sales juggernaut, Jeep would eventually build more than 30,000 examples of the Forward Control over the course of its nine-year production run, putting the truck in the sweet spot between rarity and ubiquity for today’s collectors.
True to its original intent, the cab of Bobby Friedman's '61 FC-170 is a no-frills affair, though the beer tap handles on the gear shifters give this Forward Control's interior some added personality. The original school bus-style steering wheel was also swapped out for an aftermarket piece at some point in this Forward Control's life.
“My fondest memory of the Jeep [so far] was trailering it home when I bought it,” says Friedman. After an initial investment of $4,000, the ongoing project has still managed to come in under $10,000 as it sits today. Since taking delivery of the FC-170, Friedman and his Jeep have made the trek to all manner of different off-road events. “King of the Hammers and the Baja 1000 are some of my favorites,” he explained. “I really enjoy the rockcrawlers – amazing machines.”
Friedman's FC-170 sports bumpers and a 12,000-pound electric winch from Smittybilt. The suspension setup consists of a leaf spring setup at both the front and rear with Pro Comp shocks and Dana 60 axles, the latter of which house G2 gears in their differentials.
A Build For Multiple Purposes
Plucked from an eBay listing, as it sits now, the Jeep has been substantially beefed up from its original configuration. Riding on a set of Ultra Motorsport wheels and 35-inch Goodyear Fierce Attitude mud terrain tires, the Forward Control uses leaf spring suspension with Pro Comp dampers at all four corners, which are anchored by Dana 60 five-lug axles at both the front and rear.
The original powertrain was tossed in favor of a 327ci Chevy small-block V8, which is hooked to a BorgWarner T18 four-speed gearbox. Friedman says 4 Wheel Parts deserves a shout-out for their help in getting the FC-170 to where it is today. “They’ve been really good to me and have donated some parts for the project,” he explained.
Originally, Friedman’s FC-170 would have been equipped with a Continental Motors Company-supplied Super Hurricane inline-six cylinder engine, good for about 115 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque, which was mated to a three-speed BorgWarner T90 manual transmission. That powerplant and gearbox have been swapped out for more potent hardware though, and in their place now sits a 327ci small block Chevy V8 and a BorgWarner T18 four-speed manual gearbox. Though we don’t have output specs for the SBC, it’s safe to assume it’s making quite a bit more than the original powerplant did on its best day.
On the aesthetic front, the Jeep now has a chopped roofline and set of trailer tail lights that have been fabricated into the custom bed, and it wears a Mad Max-style monochromatic coat of “barbecue” satin black paint on just about every square inch of the truck that’s visible from the outside. Friedman has kept the cab of the Jeep mostly stock, though a pair of beer tap handle shift knobs adds a sense of style to the Forward Control’s otherwise largely utilitarian interior.
While the FC-170 is pretty sweet as it sits right now, Friedman says it's an ongoing project that will never be completed by his estimate. Long term upgrades include a full roll cage inside and out along with a four-link suspension setup, an automatic transmission conversion, and upgrading the brakes and steering systems for power assistance.
So what’s next for Friedman’s self-professed never ending project? Down the road, he’d like to bolster its drivability by converting the Jeep over to an automatic transmission and adding power-assisted steering and brakes. Swapping over to a four-link suspension system and installing a full roll cage are also in the cards as he continues to get more involved in off-road events.
Along with being a fun weekend off-roader, the FC-170 serves as a demo rig for Friedman’s current venture, Automobrella. Designed with tailgating in mind, the system provides a canopy setup that connects to the truck via a standard trailer hitch. The heavy-duty steel construction provides stability to the umbrella set up in winds as high as 40 mph, making this a cool solution for excursions to the beach, desert, or anywhere else you can do some tailgating. To that end, the Jeep Forward Control serves as both an eye-catching and unusual rig that’s bound to strike up a conversation, while also providing a great way to demonstrate the virtues of the Automobrella product.
“Off-road culture is growing in general,” Friedman says. “With the government setting aside designated areas, it’s easier to get involved – back when I was a kid we would get in trouble for taking our trucks out in the dirt.”
And he offers some advice for folks who’re looking to get involved with the pastime but are unsure of the proper point of entry. “Go to an event and dive in,” he suggests. “It will either grab you or it won’t. It’s a dusty world, but fun! He also offers a word of advice for newcomers. “Just make sure you bring a car hauler,” he adds. “Because things do break down!”
What is the most unique vehicle you have seen out wheeling? Tell us in the comments below!