Build The Search for the Perfect Trail Buggy

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Lil Rich

Spotter Required
Media Partner
Nov 26, 2016
Sand Hollow
What does it take to build/design/find the perfect trail buggy or vehicle? This is a question that I not only get asked, but also ask myself. I have been wheeling for most of my life, and when I say that, I actually mean it. I got in my first roll over at 2 years old on the Rubicon and I have been hooked ever since. My dad, known affectionately in the industry as Big Rich, appropriately named be Lil' Rich, and I have been tied up in Competition Rock Crawling since the second event ever, Warn Nationals in Johnson Valley circa 1999ish? I started at these event doing trash detail and moving crap all over the mountain in hopes of quietly learning from one of the best drivers I have ever met, Bob Roggy (At the time, part of the Pirates of the Rubicon). I grew up with that group, and a couple others; wheeling and sitting co-pilot for years but watching every move, driving technique, and reason why one would build certain traits into vehicles or attack certain obstacles certain ways.


My first personal build started in 1999 with an FJ40. I saw Tracy Jordan at an event and decided that I wanted a vehicle like his; so at 15, I set out to build a replica FJ40 from my favorite driver at the time. I didn't take any photos, but I knew where every piece of tube, wire, and pro trick was in his rig. He was also nice enough to talk to some unassuming 15 year old about all his little tricks in his rig, so that made it easy as well. I didn't get any photos of the build, it ended before I got to drive it. Apparently it was a stolen vehicle when I bought it from the shady figure in Las Vegas and it was removed from my property. I remember being so crushed, put every dollar I had into it.


The next rig was just a Dodge D-50, not much of anything. Just enough to get out and enjoy the outdoors, small body lift and 33's. After that I tried my hand at my very own buggy. By this time (2001) fabricators were throwing everything they could at the idea of evolving rock crawling "Tech" if there ever was such a thing at the time. I am not entirely sure who made the first full tube buggy but they were being built and scrapped for newer tech every month or so. It was crazy. I decided to throw my ideas at the buggy build craze. A two seat, front engine (They were pretty much all that way at the time), tube buggy with a light weight Oldsmoblie 215 Cubic Inch aluminum block V8, with a VERY narrow rear end so it tracked better through cones. The problem was it didn't climb very well because of the narrow rear end. The chassis was modelled after a Shannon Campbell chassis, since at the time, he was my favorite driver. Since we finished it in 2002, it has been bastardized and rebuilt about 200 times. So much so, that it is completely unrecognizable and I have no idea where it is now. Heck by the time I was done with it, I had 3 builders who had helped me finish it (Monkey Fab-not sure where he is these days, S&N Fab-Jason has been in and out of the sport for some time, and HallStyle Racing-John Hall now races in 4400). Shortly after I was done I saw Tiny, the nelson built buggy driven by Jon Bundrant and the entire buggy building crazy went back into a tailspin for even more redneck renditions.


At this moment, is where I drew the line in the sand. I didn't want a purpose built vehicle for competitions since I didn't compete. It made no sense for me, plus by this time I had a pretty good hold on testing and helping develop new products for the jeep and aftermarket industry. From there I had built a couple more, helped build a couple more, and raced a TON. Not really into the competition side of driving, since I built courses for W.E.ROCK and spotted for numerous teams throughout my career. I spent most of my time wheeling with friends and camping, but in the competition aspect I was spotting for Team RedBull, Jesse Haines, and others.

I also co-drove with Pistol Pete in the #2 trophy truck as well as some other fun racing experiences.

Drove my own rig and finished King of the Hammers.

It was fun, but the entire time I was thinking of the next big evolution of the sport. At this same time, I decided to move to Alaska (2011) and we built what in my opinion was an extreme overland vehicle.

This was a fun build and what we were able to see was amazing but our time in Alaska was limited and the move back to the lower 48 was inevitable.
This journey in the off-road world had given me the unique opportunity to see the world, wheel in some of the craziest destinations like China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and others.



Eventually it all led me back to the Lower 48, and Southern Utah specifically. I vowed to actually not get involved in the sport, but that just led me to jump in deeper than ever before. I bought Jesse Haines original Willys Buggy and caught the bug again.


That evolved into building a James Tracey Buggy, which I had taken to Japan and wheeled overseas with. The first time I took my own vehicle into another country to wheel.



Once I had built that car, I figured it would be my last with the understanding that I had very possibly built the perfect car for me. It fit my family (at the time) and was allowing me to push the limits of the sport without issue at all. My family loved going out with me in it and I knew that there was nothing in my way, I could drive just about everything.
Eventually my family grew (in size, they got older... no more kids for me ;P) and we needed something that could fit everyone. Plus I got a pretty good contract for testing some DOT parts and so it was time we moved on from the buggy. With this, my goal was to build an ultra capable jeep, and in the end, it has really already been done. A local friend had a great platform already proven, so I traded parts for this:

and turned it into this:

That was and still is fun. At this point we are pretty close to our current time. However, in the process I picked this up:

It looks like shit, but it once was the All-Pro Off-Road "Truggy" which is a little slice of history that is fun to have. This is what it originally looked like.

And I turned it into this:

Now being caught up, through all these years and instances, I liked the idea that I had equipment on the forefront of the industry, for the regular/average wheeler. However, companies are always pushing their products to the limits and beyond. This caters to one of the sides of our business that most don't look into: Product Development and Testing. Over the years we have helped refine many company's products, everything from shocks, suspension packages, steering, tires, compounds, and more. This new build is no different. So of the products can be shown in this build thread, others still are awaiting patents or cannot be released to the public. However, you will get a glimpse into our next build, something we really don't do much of.
With all this in mind, I went to the one friend/builder who always took into consideration my ideas and who really was the person that has been pushing the sport for so many years. Jesse Haines and I sat down and mapped out the needs to build the next level in capable trail rigs. There were some odd requests that I have and he worked with them well. I need the following for the rig to not only work well for me, but also the public, in case he wanted to mass produce the vehicle.

My List:
Comfortable seating (I am a larger person, 6'2" and about 240 lbs) so I need the rig to have room inside of it
American Horsepower (I love the LS based engines and so do many people)
2 seats (I want to be able to take my wife or one of my kids. No way will we all fit in a capable rig anymore)
Front Engine (Easier to build and feels like a regular/obtainable buggy)
Rear Steer (We are testing out some great new parts for this)
Portal axles (I want them, haha)
Still Ultra capable (Wider cars are known for getting hung up in obstacles, so even with comfortable seating, I need it to be narrow)
A design that could fit many engine/trans/tcase configurations (this is important for being able to sell)
Something that looked cool (Cause that is part of the sport as well)

So now you have the back story. I am gonna drop a couple build photos of the new car and let you all catch up and ask questions or comment if you wish.

But before I get started, know that this chassis will be available for purchase through Jesse Haines. It will have builder upgrades link suspension link mounts, shock mounts, motor mounts, interior paneling and more that you could purchase as a kit and install yourself.







Thanks for providing all that "rich" history Rich! Would I be right in assuming that Woody's new JHF chassis is also the result of your efforts described above?
So what engine, trans, and case are you going to use in this one?
Truck 5.3 with car Intake, TH350, and a Dana 300. You may think the drivetrain is light weight but considering the drivetrain strain is vastly minimized due to the Portals, the more affordable components are ok. The Dana 300 was built by Novak Conversions and has 300M shafts, gears, and flanges.
Thanks for providing all that "rich" history Rich! Would I be right in assuming that Woody's new JHF chassis is also the result of your efforts described above?
I think this would be a valid statement. We have both been waiting for several different companies to build something that we both would want, and after some time I realized if I wanted something particular, I would need to just find the right person to help me build it. Many of my needs are also woody's (And many more people as well) so I think it works out.
You can't really see it in the pictures, but I wanted to talk about the width of the build. Some of the most capable 2 seat buggies are 48" wide. This width has been a good standard for pivoting off the rockers around rocks, allowing the vehicle to not have obstructions between the cab and tires, and allowing for more proper link geometry. The other side to 48" is the competition rules don't allow a two seat buggy to be narrower than 48" wide for safety concerns, (Shoulders stick out, head is able to move outside of the chassis, etc). The problem with 48" wide is that I have broad shoulders and I am not a Horse Jockey.

So this, to me, is one of the largest changes in this chassis vs. others. What did we do? We kept the width at the rocker panel and A Pillar (at the door bar) at 48", and moved the door bar at the B pillar to 52". This provides a little more shoulder room and seat room for occupants for comfort and safety, without sacrificing the capabilities of a 48" wide rig. My last rig was awesome, 50.5" wide at the B Pillar Doorbar, but it was 1.5' wider at the rocker because of the rub rails. It was apparent that it got hit regularly, the tube was crushed and bent, and my skins were constantly tore up there.


It is not incredibly bad to have width there, but there is a better design.
So Saturday night I got the chassis from Dave Wong. He is building a new single seater with Jesse, and now that he lives close to me but goes to jesse's during the week to build his rig, he was kind enough to bring me the parts and chassis from Jesse's shop. Dave and I got it loaded in to my very tight garage, and then it was me looking at it for a couple hours dreaming, lol. Can't do much without a lot of room and my garage is mostly my wife's garage (Not originally in our Martial Agreement :p )

So the next day (Yesterday), I loaded it up on the trailer to take it to Woody's so that the buggy can be built next to it's bastard twin brother ;) I got it loaded up all by myself, which was not quite an easy feat. Too excited to wait for other people to get off work and help though.


A little bit of work and help from Scottie, and I was able to get the axles under it. I decided to go with Summit Machine links, Julene has always supported us since the beginning and her work is amazing. Plus I like to support women in our industry and I think it is great that she not only has a thriving company in a very masculine industry, but that HER craftsmanship and customer service is top notch.


I had to get some more heims ordered to finish the rear, so it only got upper links for now. I thought the coping and detail work from jesse is incredible. Just enough room to mount everything, and still keep strength and accessability.


The rocker (Lower door bars) are 1-3/4" .188 wall tubing and generally this would be great. But I always like to make sure tubes are stronger in HIGH impact areas, so we will be taking solid aluminum stock and sleeving the inside of the tube for extra strength.


You'll also notice the brake pedal assembly. This was a cool addition Jesse made. Having the linkage run the master cylinder under the seat would allow for more visibility, and the linkage isn't exactly 1:1 so it gives a little extra umph and clamping pressure for the manual brakes.

I go back tonight to get the portal boxes on, and get Woody's Transmission mount figured out.
I noticed that when you got the chassis from Jessie the welds are visible on the jointed front "hood" bars if you will. Can you detail the process of grinding and buffing those to the finish shown in post number 4? Visible welds from post 14 on. The line in the "corner" were they meet is so straight!!

Thanks for sharing your build. I love a good build thread.
I noticed that when you got the chassis from Jessie the welds are visible on the jointed front "hood" bars if you will. Can you detail the process of grinding and buffing those to the finish shown in post number 4? Visible welds from post 14 on. The line in the "corner" were they meet is so straight!!

Thanks for sharing your build. I love a good build thread.
I think when the photo was taken for post 4 that they were not welded yet. just tacked on the inside. So you see the miter and the fitment is so precise that there is no gap. This is a HUGE benefit to having the chassis CNC bent, CNC laser cut and Notched. The buffing you see is to take off the mill scale and clean/prep the weld area. The corner is Tig welded to ensure penetration without blowing through, which mig welders like to do on mitered corners with this wall tubing.
Updates... First time working with portal axles, so I figured I would document the install of the portal box to the Fabricated JHF C's. Some very interesting things come to mind when I first looked at the hardware: 1st-there is definitely method to this madness, 2nd-it is pretty damn amazing that someone took an IFS portal box and created parts around it to make it work for a straight axle, 3rd-the attention to detail is palpable, but there isn't a TON of info on how do put these together. Which is why I will go into a little detail.

I essentially received a box of bolts and hardware, along with other hiems, bolts, etc for different parts of the build. All kind of just thrown in together. The only info I could find was a facebook group for Jesse's portals, which helps, but FB sucks for searching and finding past posted info. Now there was no real instructions, but this isn't rocket science either. so off we go.

The box is attached with two bolts to replace the ball joints. The top bolt is the one pictured above, and has a longer threads and a shorter shank between the two bolts. This is because the bolt threads into the upper portion of the knuckle and has a crimp nut below causing a double nut. The bronze bushing goes downward into the C and the steel washer above it, like pictured.

The washer has a bevel on the inside, this is because the bolt seat (the small step beneath the head) will interfere with the bushing since the tolerances are tight. Make sure this bevel is faced up towards the head of the bolt.

Getting the bolt through the C is easy but getting it to thread into the knuckle can be cumbersome because lining up the bolt to the Portal Box threads is tedious. We used a race jack and two people to move the weight of the portal box around until we could get thread engagement, but there is a better tool by the looks of it.

Jonathan Aursland developed these little diddy's that look like they would make installing the boxes easier. I ordered two, one for woody and one for me. I figure these boxes will come off a bit during this process and it may make life easier. Between the two of us we have 8 portal boxes that will be taken on and off about 3-4 times each by my estimation, and that is before we get to even drive it.

Here is you can see a close up of the mounting. We placed the lower bushing in with the threads of the upper bolt more exposed. we did this so we had threaded control of the box from the top but room to place the bushing in the bottom. The bushing in the bottom is placed from the bottom, up (So essentially opposite of the top bushing). The lower bolt has WAY more shank, so the threads are not a stress riser. The bolt head is on the bottom as well with the crimp nut on top. Once the bushing is in place, we tightened the top bolt to take away the slop and shorten the gap between the lower portion of the C and the portal box so the bushing wouldn't fall out (Pictured above). Then we placed the lower bolt in and tightened everything moderately. I know there are not toque specs yet, but jesse says to tighten them with an 18" ratchet "Very Tight".
Of course once we got the knuckles on the front (We are waiting for heims to finish out the rear), we HAD TO put tires on it.

If it looks wide, that is because it is. Jesse built the axle to have my track width at 88" however, I currently have wheel spacer/adapters on that take it from 8x6.5 (Hummer Portal) to 8x170 (My Wheels from my last car). I have new wheels coming soon, but this is just were we are right now. So the car sits 4" wider than it should.

Sitting at full bump on the front. I am a little biased but I think it looks awesome!

Currently I am waiting on the motor, but that should be in hand within a day or two. So of course we had to check out waht the visibility looked like.

And for someone that is all torso, it has plenty of head height.

But since we are waiting on a couple parts, I figured I would show you the hood that I am working on. this is mainly for mock up and trail fit, but I really like the way it is turning out...



Lastly, I went and ordered some things....

I really like the clean look of the PRP seats, and I need to stop sitting in woody's seats to be honest. The seat will give you a little insight into what the color scheme will be for the rig... The seat mounting (Which we will go into on another post) is going to be key for me and this build. EVERY vehicle I have ever had, the seats were a pain in the ass to get in and out. Then I watched Jeff Rubico pull his seat on the trail in 3 seconds and I realized I have always mounted them wrong, lol. So needless to say I am excited to build the seat mounts, just to make life easier.


We also got this^^^. the thought is to eliminate additional fans, free up room, and create better visibility. This Fluid Heat Exchanger will allow the trans to stay cool without the use of a full blown tranny cooler. The Dimensions are 5"x4"x10" and the engine coolant runs through the system. Heat transfers between fluids are more efficient than Fluid to Air cooling. For instance, Erik Millar uses a system similar to this for his ULTRA4 car with zero issues. Granted his exchanger is essentially two of mine, but his car is also two of mine ;) This will likely be mounted under the driver's seat with heat shielding between it and the exhaust.
That hood looks cool as shit on there!!

On the heat exchanger. I'm guessing it will go in line on the cool side headed back up front to the engine?
Yes, I am going to run one of the coolant lines from the motor to the radiator through the chassis, and the other from the radiator to the heat exchanger then back to the motor.
so about track width.........why not stay wider? are you finding a certain width is close to perfect for SH? I'm right at 89" and I think it's helped me more than hurt me. or are you trying to find that happy medium between comp and trail riding?

just curious :cool:
so about track width.........why not stay wider? are you finding a certain width is close to perfect for SH? I'm right at 89" and I think it's helped me more than hurt me. or are you trying to find that happy medium between comp and trail riding?

just curious :cool:
Track width can be a problem if you are too wide or too narrow. This of all the large climbs that are a flat wall with a crack at the top of it. If you are narrow, you can be shorter because your tires reach lower into the crack than if you are wider. The wider you are, the longer you need to be. Does that make sense? and after measuring again, without the wheel spacers it should be about 87" wide.
So, I got my remaining heims from Ruff Stuff yesterday and we were able to get a little more work done. Got the rear portals on and the trans/tcase mounted. and of course, then best part... we made it a roller.

To start out though, Woody came up with a thought on the process to install the portals. For the fronts we had focused on getting the top bolt into place and this was a bit of a struggle with two people and a floor jack. the top capture on the Portal box is threaded which makes it difficult to align.

So this time we started on the bottom bolt. The new process turned into a 1 person, 3 minute job. Easy enough though I still think the jack stands from Jonathan Aursland will help in the taking them on and off constantly. It is easy to see how a slip of the portal and jack stand could result in a smashed finger or worse. So I still bought them more as a safety device and ease of process than anything else.


If you notice the top and bottom of the C has grooves and a Zerk port, and if you look closely, the zerk port comes in at an angle. I thought this attention to detail was pretty wild.

This bushing likes to drop out the bottom if there is nothing holding it in place. So I took some birfield grease and dabbed the bushing, it is thick enough to hold the bushing in place so you can have an easy install.

You can see the remaining grease on the bushing, but look underneath it, clean. The tolerance was tight enough to put it in by hand easily (for it to fall out as well), but to also remove remaining grease from the bushing below. I just thought that was cool and shows Jesse's attention to detain on his parts.

The lower bolt, as it goes through the knuckle, is a little tighter than what I could do by hand. I felt like this was convenient because it allowed me to place the bolt and maneuver the portal to ready the connection without the bolt falling out. Once the bottom connection is loosely bolted in place, it should look like the picture below.

Now you can work on the top bolt and line up the threads very easily. The whole process now takes 3 minutes tops and can be done with one person.

Still you can see how the portal sits on the floor jack, not the greatest. This is why I am happy with my purchase from Jonathan Aursland.
Prior to mounting the rear portals, I placed the transmission and transfer case. We decided to go with a Novak Conversions TH350 (This particular one was out from my old car that got a once over before it was placed in this one). Novak originally built it and it performed well in the old car, so I figure it should do great in this one. I am also running a Dana 300 with stock gear ratios. The case is stock but it has 300M shafts, flanges, and stronger internals. My final crawl ratio should be around 54:1 and I am ok with that. The last car was 60:1.

I took the converter off to make the trans install easier. I bolted both together and came in through below the engine bay. a decent amount of room.

Jesse had supplied the cross member and mounting plate which was convenient for me for obvious reasons. However, I assumed that we would be bolting the adapter to the lower mounting holes that were meant for mounting. After messing with it woody and I realized that it wasn't going to fit. we lifted the drivetrain higher to measure the holes, then found out that the drivetrain would be mounted a hair further back on the trans side.

At thought about then confirmed with jesse. Not every adapter is the same, but ever 4 bolt 4wd tailhousing is. So the mount be built will work with close to any adapter for the 700R4/TH350.


You can see on the phot below the room and routing the driveline must take to get around the trans. A two piece driveshaft from J.E.Reel is how we will address this. Many jeepers are leery about a two piece front driveshaft but it has been common practice for buggy people for decades.
maybe I missed it, but can the trans/t-case come out the bottom? it's a pita to bring them out the top through a "window" after taking the interior out

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