When you leave the happy valley of the Inland Empire and head east, it readily becomes apparent that California is not all coastline and palm trees. Out past the mountains, the land opens up into a vast desert area within the Anza-Borrego State Park. It’s here that the Salton Sea resides, and folks live a hardy life during the summer months. Having a vehicle that can deal with its broken streets and unpredictable off-road terrain is a good idea, and it’s one that Jim Richert had for a long time.
Jim’s ride is a 1968 Jeepster Commando, which is one of nearly 60,000 made from in the first generation. They were actually the idea of Kaiser Jeep way back in the early 1960s, built to compete with the emerging SUV class. Its direct competitors included the Ford Bronco and Toyota Land Cruiser, and later on, the Chevrolet Blazer. Production began in 1966 and finished in 1973.
These days, the Jeepster Commando is the subject of many fan clubs around the country. Jim is certainly a fan, having owned his for quite some time. “I bought the Jeep about 20 years ago,” he said. “I’ve always lived out here in the desert, and off-roading has been a fun hobby to get into on the weekends.”
A Resting Classic Given A New Life
Jim came to own the Jeep during a trip to Huntington Beach. “I found this particular Jeep sitting in a guy’s garage,” he explained. “The guy owned it for a long time and was ready to let go of it.” Jim wanted a classic, but more than that, he wanted something he could build up and get ready for day trips out into the desert.
One of the first things that Jim modified was the engine. “It had the old AMC inline-four, the Hurricane, and that was no good anymore,” he commented. “I took it out of the Jeep and put a Chevy 305 V8 in it, out of a Camaro, I think.” He bolstered its function with a FiTech Easy Street 600HP EFI system. The added comfort of knowing his fueling is up to snuff makes driving the Commando all the more enjoyable. “I would say, maximum, I’m making about 300 horsepower,” said Jim.
Added to the V8 were a number of improvements, including electronic ignition and fuel injection. He changed out the front and rear axles, originally a Dana 27 front and Dana 30 rear, into one-tons that could handle a lot more abuse. “I gave each of them an Eaton Detroit Locker,” he said. “I like to have grip where I go!”
For the drivetrain, Jim runs a transfer case using a Teraflex 4:1 kit. The gearing alone makes the kit a great addition to the Jeep, and affords him crawl ratios unheard of on a stock Commando. Jim still uses a stick-shift transmission, in this case a four-speed T18 from a Ford truck.
Traveling The SoCal Desert
Jim’s Jeepster Commando is a seasoned veteran of exploration in Southern California. We saw his Jeep at the Tierra del Sol event back in March, and we can only imagine where he’s taken it since then. He told us at the time that he had been all over the place. “I’ve taken it to Ocotillo Wells, out to Glamis, places like that,” he said.
A vehicle that lasts like Jim’s Jeepster Commando tends to build a special bond with its owner. Asked what he liked best about it, Jim said, “I’d say my favorite aspect of it is that it will climb just about anything. I love the ability to go where I want to go. With the gearing as low as it is, I can walk faster than this thing can crawl! It’s a reliable little machine.”
Crawling is something we learned to do as babies, but it’s something we have to re-learn as off-roaders; at least, where it concerns rockcrawling. Bolstering his awesome crawl ratio and axle lockers, Jim uses 35-inch Goodyear Wrangler MTR tires, which have been around for a while. Its chunky tread and unmistakeable sidewall provide the necessary grip when going up rocks and boulders, and there are plenty of those in Anza-Borrego.
Jim knows better than to run without a roll cage, so his is naturally stout and ready to take a roll. “I had a buddy of mine, Gary Cotton, build out the roll cage that came on the Jeep,” he said. “Usually, it’s just a transverse bar in the middle, but I had that beefed up and running lengthwise, too.”
Jim showed us why classics are still (and always will be) awesome. Planned obsolescence be damned; 4x4s like Jim’s are carrying the torch of off-roading’s origins and will for many years to come. What do you like best about classic 4x4s? Let us know in the comments below.