There is a time and place for high-dollar off-road builds. You’ll see them at the SEMA Show, Off Road Expo, Jeep Beach, and even Easter Jeep Safari. They look pretty and they sit still, and that’s all they’ll ever do.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you find beaters and hoopties that have long since passed their prime, but they’re still chugging along for the hell of it. These were the kinds of vehicles I found at the OG Gambler 500 back in late June. It was my first time checking out the raucous event, and I was blown away by some of the builds.
Part of what drew me to the Gambler 500 was the anything-goes spirit of it. It was all about $500 cars driving 500-plus miles for no real reason other than having a good time and fixing whatever broke. The Gambler 500 wasn’t really about competition, it was about gambling – driving a rig as hard and as far as it will go, always taking a chance on its survival. It’s that mentality that gave birth to the event’s catchphrase, “Always Be Gambling.”
Over the course of three days, I saw hundreds of cars, trucks, SUVs, and Pontiac Fieros. These were the top five that I think truly embodied the spirit of the Gambler 500.
5. Alex Luisi’s 1995 Ford Crown Victoria
Alex Luisi was out watching the HooptieX (Hooptie-Cross) event when I came upon his Panther-body pile. With its air of police authority, light bars, and beefy tires, it was like a street racer’s worst nightmare come true.
“I found the Gambler 500 through Instagram about two years ago,” Alex said. “I did the Southern California Gambler in 2017, and then I found out the OG Gambler was up here in Oregon. We only had a week left before we had to get up here, but we made it!”
Alex bought the Crown Vic in 2017 in preparation for the SoCal Gambler. “It was already running and driving when I bought it,” he said. “It only cost me $600 plus a lift and tires, it was a smoking deal. I mean, I did have to hammer back the fenders and build a front bumper, but besides that, it’s been good.”
Some of the Crown Vic’s highlights are its Smittybilt rooftop tent, with enough room for three people; a Yukon limited-slip rear differential and re-geared ring and pinion; and 32-inch Nankang Mudstar tires. “I like the Crown Vic because it’s a cheap car that I can take out with friends,” commented Alex. “I can take it on a few off-road trails and keep up with the Jeeps.”
4. James Anderson’s 2002 Kia Optima
On the way to the main event, our stop at the World of Speed Museum was more like a stop at the loony bin. Case in point was this 2002 Kia Optima built by James Anderson.
An Alaska native, James picked up the Optima when he moved down to Oregon, where its destiny was to become the most atrocious sedan this side of a Dodge Stratus. “It was my grandma’s,” he explained. “The engine blew up on it, so she gave it to me for free. I found a guy in Bellingham, Washington with an engine. He drove it down, we threw it in, and its first test run was this morning!”
Nothing says “Gambler 500” quite like test-running a brand new engine in an off-road rally event. Surprisingly, the engine was running fine. “The hood scoop keeps it cool,” joked James.
But the sketchy engine wasn’t what drew me to this Kia. It was the excessive body modifications – a load-bearing visor, fender vents, suicide doors, etc. “I mainly did it for aerodynamics,” laughed James. “On the suicide doors, I wanted the car to ‘pop’ looking at it from the side, because the front and rear were plenty modded. So I took a grinder, a welder, and some door hinges and made it work!”
3. Ben Rislov’s 1984 Buick LeSabre Limo
On the odd chance that someone had a prom date or rock star venue to get to, Ben Rislov was the man to see. Parked near the HooptieX like the Crown Vic, this long-bodied LeSabre was fit for a slumdog king. “It’s actually more of a social car, since it doesn’t have a partition, but whatever,” said Ben.
Ben got the inspiration to start on the Gambler in 2018, after hearing coworkers talk about it. “I was looking for something absurd, and I ran across this thing on Craigslist,” he explained. “I bought it from a guy in Vancouver, and it’s just kind of grown into this.”
Ben’s given the LeSabre the Gambler treatment, and it’s given him an opposite response. At some point, the LeSabre caught fire, and its vinyl roof is peeling up at the top of the windshield. The solution? “I took a ratchet strap and that holds it down pretty well,” said Ben.
The beer keg hood scoop is indeed functional, picked up from a random donation and cut in half to fulfill its purpose. Mechanically, Ben swapped the rearend gearing to 4.10:1, so it can “drive up a hill.” It sports 31-inch tires in the back with two-inch lift blocks. In spite of that, Ben affirms that the Buick rides comfortably, which is saying something for a Gambler car.
2. Chip Duncan’s 1979 Volvo Wagon
In 2017. Chip Duncan had a dream. He dreamed that he could purchase a vehicle that simultaneously commanded attention and filled others with envy. Knowing that a Lamborghini or Koenigsegg were out of reach, Chip went for the next best thing – a ’79 Volvo Wagon.
“I paid 300 bucks for it,” said Chip. “The old motor in it was completely trashed, so we had to yank it out. I think it was a 2.1-liter four-cylinder with a five-speed manual. It was all junk, anyway.”
With a small-block Chevy sitting in the shop floor, putting two and two together was easy for Chip. “We put a new cam in it and found a tunnel ram, and it was just like, ‘Why the hell not?'” he commented. “It turned out to be one of the simplest swaps I’ve ever done. The transmission was a Super T10, all it needed was a couple of holes drilled into the crossmember, and it was good to go.”
To the Volvo’s credit, it’s been all over the place, despite breaking parts frequently. “Last year, we drove it to Bonneville and Moab, and at just about every event, we’ve broken stuff,” explained Chip. “At last year’s Gambler, it was a strut and the radiator. At Moab, it was the clutch. But we hobbled 2,500 miles back home on that bad clutch, so all’s well that ends well.” Truly, the Volvo is a gambling machine.
1. Christopher Hiltz’s 1996 Honda “Double Accord”
If there was one vehicle that stood out at the 2019 OG Gambler 500, it was this – Christopher Hiltz’s so-called “Double Accord.” Up close or far away, there was something about this radical rig that made it stand out from the crowd.
It immediately became clear once I saw the car up close. It had four-wheel steering; perhaps the most jury-rigged, janky execution that still managed to “work.” And the way Christopher did this was incredible. “I basically took two 1996 Honda Accords and mashed them together,” he proclaimed.
“I took one car and cut the back off, and threw it away” he continued. “I took another car, cut off the front, and took the front half and installed it in the rear. So now it’s one car, two engines, and four-wheel steering.”
“I got the idea from an old magazine article,” explained Christopher. “The build was on a Chevy Citation and it was basically the same thing as mine – take a front-wheel-drive car, cut it up, and mirror it on the backside. It was more of a showpiece, proof-of-concept kind of thing. It didn’t drive around. But mine drives around!”
Overcoming numerous roadblocks – wiring, throttle, steering, and more – the Double Accord defied the odds of remaining a daydream, and became a reality. “I have to thank my buddy Shandy, he helped with donating the cars and getting this thing to work,” said Christopher.
The Gambler 500 was a terrific experience and one that I’m looking forward to again in 2020. What’s your favorite pick on this Top 5 list? Hop down to the comments and give your two cents.