Top 5 Vehicles of 2018 King of the Hammers

The race rigs of KOH are noteworthy and deserve the praise they get, but the thing that bogs them down are rules. From cage specs to engine sizes to antenna lengths, the differences between vehicles in a particular class are close to naught. Racing history has more or less removed all of the loopholes out there, and the ones that do exist are likely dubious in implementing on any one race vehicle.

That’s why the spectators have more fun. Sure, they don’t get to spray champagne on a crowd and take home an oversized cardboard check, but they do get to romp around the desert in a vehicle crafted and painted the way they wanted it to be.

For 2018, we certainly witnessed some of these awesome spectator rigs. Each one brought something unique to the table, and that’s always worth celebrating. Kicking us off is Shane Murray and his 1971 Jeep Wagoneer.

#5: Shane Murray’s 1971 Jeep Wagoneer

The Jeep Wagoneer isn’t a vehicle that you often see at events like King of the Hammers. Their age and dwindling numbers usually make them better suited to a resto-mod project, but that was the opposite direction of what Shane Murray wanted.

As with so many of these builds, it starts with good old Craigslist. “I found this old, ugly Jeep with some crappy axles underneath it,” explained Shane. “I fell in love with it. It was my daughter’s birthday when I bought it, and that ticked off the wife, but they fell in love with it after a while.”

The adventures Shane has had in the Wagoneer have been anything but ordinary. "I've caught it on fire, rolled it end on end, gotten stuck," he said. "But hey, I lived!"

In 10 years of owning the vehicle, Shane has done whatever he can, whenever he can. “I’ve done an RCI fuel cell, Reid Racing knuckles, PRP seats, a new front axle and rear locker, and a lot of electrical work,” he said. “Other than that, it’s stock.”

That isn’t to say that Shane is done modifying his Jeep. “I definitely want to do a full roll cage,” he said. “An LS motor would be nice, too. Also, I’d like to get a Dana 60 front end and Sterling rearend. I’ll cut it and stretch it, but, you know – money.”

#4 Taylor Felts’ 1984 Ford Bronco

Taylor Felts did a fine job on his 1984 Bronco. A fan of off-roading since an early age, he hailed from Victorville, California, a part of the state that’s no stranger to the deserted landscapes of the Southwest. This was his fifth time coming to King of the Hammers, and he was making the most of it in his red SUV.

“I bought the Bronco in 2013,” said Taylor. “I wanted another truck at the time. The Bronco was bone-stock, and I started building it up. It was supposed to be a slow build, but the transmission went bad. So I rebuilt it, as well as the engine. From there, I did suspension, then the cage, then bumpers and everything else – one thing led to another.”

Taylor's mods to the Bronco are extensive, from widening the front axle to caging the interior. Not to mention, he did it all on his own.

The 351 Windsor V8 it came with is still under the hood, but it’s souped up with a bigger camshaft and bolt-on upgrades. Taylor kept the I-beam suspension up front, but extended it four inches longer on each side. He also trussed the axle housing and modified the shock mounts to accept 2.5-inch King shocks, as well as custom radius arms. Out back, Taylor has a 9-inch housing with King smooth-body shocks and Deaver leaf springs.

“I don’t think there’s one thing I haven’t gone over that’s not stock,” Taylor commented.

#3 Ryan Jones’ 1986 Toyota 4Runner

4Runners have been a staple in Toyota’s truck-framed repertoire for many years now, and this is one of the originals. Owner and builder Ryan Jones is proud to call it his own, and he has every right to be, given the work he put in.

A resident of Monrovia, California, Ryan saw King of the Hammers as more than just an excuse to go ‘froadin’ for a week. To him, it was a place to connect with other like-minded (and like-skilled) individuals. Add to this that Ryan was experiencing King of the Hammers for the first time in his life, and it’s clear that he was having a blast. “Seeing all of these people out here, it gets me excited,” he said. “It’s one of the best things ever.”

Ryan got lucky with the 4Runner. It already had one-ton axles installed, so instead Ryan could focus on getting the cage, suspension, and frame the way he wanted them.

In fact, it was only through modifying his 4Runner that Ryan had even heard about King of the Hammers. “Trail Gear came out with the front bumper for my 4Runner,” he explained. “From there, I saw their videos, and they got me to come out here and see it for myself.”

Speaking of modifications, you might notice that the vehicle is heavily shortened. This was to help it with rockcrawling, which is Ryan’s main off-road passion. “I was lucky enough to buy it with the one-ton axles already installed,” said Ryan. “It also had two transfer cases. But I did the re-gearing and locker installations, and all the tube bending for the cage. I did all the research I could, got some buddies to help, and it was a fun experience.”

The difficulty came with trying to get the axles correctly positioned. “Just trying to make it function was tricky,” commented Ryan. “It’s not sexy right now, but it’s safe, and that’s what matters.”

#2 Jake Roberts’ 1990 Chevy K5 Blazer

In between Hammertown and Chocolate Thunder, we found two awesome Chevy Blazers. Though they were both quite stupendous, the desert tan of Jake Roberts’ 1990 Blazer was what did us in. We got to talking with Jake to find out how he made his Blazer come alive.

Before everyone goes haywire complaining about the front end not being from 1990, Jake explained thus: “I backdated it to a 1973 front end.”

Jake is founder and owner of his own shop, Roberts Custom Trucks, out of Laguna Hills, California. “We specialize in bringing classic Chevy trucks back to life,” he said. “LS swaps, long-travel suspension, one-ton axle conversions, we do it all. We go all the way back to 1967 model years.”

Jake's full-time job is restoring old Blazers like these at his shop, Roberts Custom Trucks in Laguna Hills, California.

The story on this particular Blazer starts after Jake graduated high school. “I bought it bone-stock from the original owner,” he explained. “I got it up on one-ton axles and four inches of lift. Two years later, it had an LS V8 and 4L60 transmission. Now, it has a coilover front suspension.”

Of course, working on one’s own truck has its low points, but it has its high points as well. “I came home from working on trucks all day, and there’s mine, still needing this and that,” he said. “But after six years of working on it, I have it to where it’s reliable and daily-driven.”

Nowadays, the Blazer sports a 5.3-liter LS V8 with an LS6 cam, a Dana 60 front axle, a GM 14-bolt rear axle, 5.38:1 gearing, full-float axles, a rear spool, and Fortify Offroad front race suspension with 18 inches of travel. “It’s the kind of truck I can take down to Baja, do some prerunning, and still be comfortable on the street,” commented Jake.

#1 John Martinson’s 1959 Fiat 1100, aka “Ghoulie”

The special ones that you find at King of the Hammers don’t make themselves known; you have to get lucky and be in the right time and place to see them. Such was the case for this 1959 Fiat 1100, owned and built by John Martinson of Yelm, Washington.

John’s path to off-roading started in drag racing, of all places. He grew tired of sitting in line, waiting his turn to have fun. He took home his father’s Fiat 1100 in 2008 and decided to build an off-roader out of it so he could have fun whenever he wanted to.

"Sometimes, I think I like building it more than I like wheeling it," joked John. "It's been a lot of trial and error, but I'm not the kind of guy to give up on a project."

“I cut the unibody out of it and built a tube chassis for it,” said John. “It went from there, snowballing as I learned more about fabrication.”

John ripped out the stock 1.1-liter inline-four and replaced it with a 2.7-liter turbocharged Toyota 3RZ. He went so far as to make his own fuel injection system from a Honda setup, as well as a handmade intake manifold. “It makes about 550 horsepower,” said John, without blinking an eye. The power goes to two Unimog four-ton portal axles, increasing the ground clearance of the car by a significant degree.

Suspension on the Fiat is comprised of Sway-A-Way 2.5-inch air shocks, as well as Fox 2.0 bump stops and shocks with 16 inches of travel. Steering is four-wheeled, with a Stazworks electric pump out back. The engine sits partially past the firewall, such that the rearmost spark plug is accessible only from inside the cab. A Warn 9,000-pound winch sits up front, ready to pull John out at a moment’s notice. He even has an 8,000-pound winch in the rear, next to the custom-made fuel cell.

All in all, it’s an amazing creation, and a labor of love that truly belongs at the top of our list. What awesome rigs did you see at KOH this year? Let us know in the comments below.

About the author

David Chick

David Chick comes to us ready for adventure. With passions that span clean and fast Corvettes all the way to down and dirty off-road vehicles (just ask him about his dream Jurassic Park Explorer), David's eclectic tastes lend well to his multiple automotive writing passions.
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