Diesels in the Dirt

Diesel Power - - Detonation - John Le­hen­bauer

THE POP­U­LAR­ITY of diesel en­gines has boomed in re­cent years here in the U.S. Do­mes­tic truck man­u­fac­tur­ers con­tinue to de­velop new and en­hance ex­ist­ing ve­hi­cles with diesel pow­er­plants. The en­gines are be­ing in­stalled in ev­ery­thing from com­muter cars to 1-ton pickup trucks. And, con­sumers’ en­thu­si­asm for diesel has steadily in­creased the num­ber of oil-burn­ers that are on the road.

The grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity is not lim­ited to the en­gines be­ing op­tional in cer­tain ve­hi­cles, though. It is be­com­ing the pow­er­plant of choice for a lot of peo­ple who per­form engine swaps and build cus­tom rides. Diesel en­gines in a wide range of con­fig­u­ra­tions (I-4, I-6, V-6, and V-8) and brands can be found in hot rods, old pick­ups, drag cars, and off-road rigs.

In March 2018, I was in Moab, Utah, for the an­nual Easter Jeep Sa­fari (an off-road gath­er­ing). I was there work­ing with folks from some of the Four Wheeler Net­work’s brands and no­ticed a ton (fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing) of diesel-pow­ered off-road ve­hi­cles run­ning about. In past years, there were al­ways a few, but this time there seemed to be far more than I re­mem­ber. I am not re­ally talk­ing about the heavy con­cen­tra­tion of oil-burn­ing tow ve­hi­cles that also seem to grow in num­ber each year. The thing that re­ally caught my at­ten­tion is the boom in pop­u­lar­ity of the off-road rigs.

Since the event has been Jeep-cen­tric for more than 50 years, diesel-pow­ered off-road rigs are not some­thing that was nor­mally seen. All the Jeeps, Toy­otas, Chevro­lets,

Fords, and such that have con­verged on the area through­out the half-cen­tury have been pre­dom­i­nantly gas-pow­ered. This was due par­tially to the fact that there were not a lot of fac­tory diesel op­tions and us­able oil-burn­ers to swap (non-ideal size/weight, power, avail­abil­ity, and sup­port). So, his­tor­i­cally, when own­ers bought a ve­hi­cle or did an engine swap they went with en­gines that were easy to get, work on, and main­tain. Hence the use of and swap­ping of gas en­gines.

This trend is be­gin­ning to change. Diesel-engine avail­abil­ity has in­creased sub­stan­tially, thanks to Cum­mins crate- engine of­fer­ings and the large num­ber of ve­hi­cles on the road. Ve­hi­cles in ser­vice are be­gin­ning to age, which in­creases the avail­abil­ity of en­gines that can be used to build a four-wheeler. It is be­com­ing far more com­mon to forgo trans­plant­ing the tra­di­tional spark-plug en­gines for a com­pres­sion-ig­ni­tion unit. Many builders are en­joy­ing the ad­van­tages that diesel pro­vides over gas, like am­ple torque, fuel econ­omy, and re­li­a­bil­ity. The ev­er­grow­ing af­ter­mar­ket sup­port also helps make oil-burn­ers more ap­peas­ing.

Some of the more pop­u­lar en­gines I saw be­ing used in swaps were the Cum­mins 4BT, Cum­mins R2.8, and Volk­swa­gen TDI. They were found in a va­ri­ety of ve­hi­cles: Jeeps (from flat-fender Willys to JKs), Bron­cos, Toy­otas, Suzukis, and even some cus­tom-built rigs. Of course, ev­ery­one loves what com­pound tur­bocharg­ers, big in­jec­tors, and such can do, but when you’re in the mid­dle of nowhere and a tow truck is not an op­tion, hav­ing a re­li­able and easy-towork-on engine is more im­por­tant. That is why so many of the oil-burner trans­plants re­main very close to stock.

The re­main­ing driv­e­train hard­ware be­hind the en­gines varies as much as the ve­hi­cles do. In­stallers use ev­ery­thing from stock ar­range­ments with adap­tors to cus­tom heavy-duty set­ups. Many of the stouter set­ups are not in­tended to sup­port the engine’s out­put as much as the larger tire sizes (pos­si­bly 37-inch or big­ger) many run and how the rig will be used (easy trails or hard-core rock­crawl­ing).

Along with all of the ve­hi­cles that have had swaps per­formed on them, a lot more ve­hi­cles with fac­to­ryin­stalled diesels were trekking around in the dirt. There were quite a few older trail-worn full­size trucks (Dodges, Fords, and Chevro­lets), some with clear­anced body pan­els (by tools and rocks), big tires, and cus­tom beds. There were even some very clean rides that don’t nor­mally see a lot of dirt brav­ing off-road per­ils. I got to see a good va­ri­ety when I tagged along on the Diesel Full­size In­va­sion hosted by Bul­let Proof Diesel. It was also great to see Chevro­let Colorados with the 2.8L Du­ra­max and Nis­san Ti­tans with the 5.0L Cum­mins V-8 romp­ing about.

I don’t see diesel’s pop­u­lar­ity sub­sid­ing any­time soon in the off-road com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially with the in­tro­duc­tion of a diesel op­tion for the Jeep JL that’s com­ing by 2019, and the pos­si­bil­ity that the new Ford Ranger may have the op­tion as well.

JOHN LE­HEN­BAUER jle­hen­bauer@en­thu­si­ast­net­work.com

This cus­tom Cum­mins-pow­ered Dodge Ram trail rig made short work of this ob­sta­cle (and ev­ery other) on the Fins & Things trail in Moab, Utah. The torque of the big Cum­mins along with a high-clear­ance bed and large tires makes this a very ca­pa­ble rig.

A Chevro­let Colorado with the 2.8L Du­ra­max engine and 37-inch tires looks good as­sault­ing the slick rock of Moab, Utah.

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