By Kevin Wilson
To some, the lure of off-roading is the peace and solitude that remote places have to offer. For these folks, an off-road vehicle is more than just transportation, it's a means to an end.
A case in point is a unique machine dubbed the Baja Beast. While rather odd looking at first glance, this 1964 Jeep FC-170 crew cab pickup serves not only as a ticket to off-road adventure for Jack and Kay True of Aguanga California, it also doubles as home in even the most remote of locations.
Jeep aficionados will immediately recognize the FC-170 moniker (FC stands for Forward Control) as Jeep marketed these pickups from 1957 to 1964 in both short and longbed configurations. Actually built by Willys, the shortbed FC pickup shared the same 81-inch wheelbase chassis as its more famous cousin, the Jeep CJ-5, while the longbed FC-170 rode on a 103.5-inch wheelbase.
Hardly seen, however, is the crew cab configuration built on the FC-170 chassis and using the shortbed cargo box. Manufactured specifically for the Air Force in limited numbers, these crew cab 4x4's were used to transport pilots and crews to the flight lines in the mid 60's. Forward Control pickups featured either Jeep's inline four-cylinder or "Hurricane" six-cylinder engines, and had a top speed of only 50 mph, not to mention an alleged propensity to tip over now and then. Only a handful of Forward Control pickups remain today, so a crew cab version is considered a rare find, even among collectors.
While the history of the Forward Control pickup goes back quite a ways, so does Jack True's involvement with Jeeps and off-roading in general. It was nearly 20 years ago when he traded an old caterpillar for a 1941 military Jeep. From then on, Jack's love for off-roading grew along with his grading business and list of previously owned 4x4's until 1989 when he ran across the FC-170. Immediately he set to work transforming it into a fully functional machine to meet his particular needs.
The original drivetrain was scrapped in favor of more heavy duty equipment. Up front, the stock axle was replaced with a Dana 44 unit with 4:10 gearing, a limited slip unit, axle truss and Warn hubs. Rebuilt and re-arced leaf springs, with two extra leaves over stock, provide suspension while air shocks dampen the movement. At the rear is a 1980 Ford 9-inch rear end, fitted with 4:10 gears and a Detroit Locker, mounted under 3/4-ton leave spring packs. Another set of air shocks help level the vehicle. Rolling stock is a set of 33-inch 11.50x15 Dick Cepek Radial X-C tires mounted on 10-inch aluminum Western rims.
Replacing the stock six-banger engine and manual transmission is a Ford 351 V-8, lifted from a '70s vintage Mustang Mach I, installed on custom motor mounts in the stock motor location between-the-seats. Making this truck a multi-fuel vehicle is a propane conversion kit fed by a 20-gallon main tank and twin five-gallon auxiliaries. Behind the Windsor smallblock is a Ford C-6 three-speed automatic, upgraded by Weber Transmission of Temecula, California. Splitting power front and rear is a New Process 205 transfer case.
The V-8 installation required a few extra modifications including the use of a large four-core main radiator ahead of the motor and an auxiliary unit between the frame rails cooled by twin electric fans. Custom motor, transmission and transfer case mounts were fabricated as well as custom driveshafts from Roll Welding in Fallbrook, California. The motor cover was also redone to accommodate the V-8's extra width and added radiator height. Also, a special sheetmetal air scoop was added underneath at the front of the vehicle to help duct air to the engine and through the transmission cooler.
Next was refitting the interior of the crew cab. The rear bench seat was removed (it can be replaced with a handful of bolts), and the interior reupholstered in black diamond tuck material including the door panels and headliner. Black all-weather carpeting covers the floor, and the rear section received a custom storage pouch setup. For communication, Jack installed both CB and marine radios as well as a cellular phone. Custom bucket seats with three-inch lap belts hold he and his wife firmly in place. For sounds, there's a 300-watt sound system inside the cab that plays through removable Impact mobile audio monitors. To keep track of engine vitals, a selection of Stewart Warner gauges supplement the stock setup.
To meet the needs of the Baja traveler and make the rig self-contained, Jack added a few extras you won't see on most 4x4's, the most notable of which is a pair of roof-mounted solar panels which crank out enough amps to run the truck's electrical system and on-board refrigerator as well as charge three deep-cycle RV batteries. Also roof-mounted is a heavy-duty air conditioning unit for those hot runs to Baja.
Under the custom-made camper from Universal Camper from Phoenix, Arizona, is a huge ice chest capable of carrying over 150 pounds of ice for extended stays. Lift-out windows on the camper's side and twin "French" doors at the rear provide easy access to the full-width bed which sits atop storage cabinets for food as well as an air compressor and tank.
On the outside, a Con-Ferr roof rack up top holds two spares and twin five-gallon water jugs along with such necessities as an axe, shovel and high-lift jack. The unique step-side style bed allows for twin five-gallon "Jerry" cans to be mounted on the left side while the right side holds the 20-gallon propane tank and gas tank filler neck. Up front, the Beast features an 8000 pound Warn winch mounted in a custom winch "porch" replete with storage box. A single mega-watt aircraft landing light, mounted in the center of the grille, provides additional illumination. Finishing off the Beast is a metallic blue paint job applied by Eric Otto of Lake Elsinore, California.
Judging from the equipment list, it's obvious this rig sees lots of long-term off-roading. The True's spend at least two months of the year in Baja as well as attending local trail runs such as the Mohave Trail and Tierra Del Sol.
"Spending time in Baja is our favorite," commented Kay True. "We like the serenity and tranquility. We are always finding isolated place and new trails to explore and best of all, we don't run into those little brown signs from the 'friendly' BLM."