Part station wagon, part CUV. This unique AWD hauler stands out from the crowd.
OTT: Uphill Both Ways in the Snow on the Nitto Nomad Grappler
Nature: One minute it's all sunshine, cartoon squirrels, and musical numbers. The next, it's beating you like you owe it money. Guess which version we ran into on the Gold River Trail. Jump to the video.
Way back when, we'd been out to Big Bear's Gold River Trail with a trio of Toyotas. This time, we figured we'd hit a beginner's path on the trail with three crossovers. We figured wrong. The weather was perfect the day before, when we were in Pioneertown. Once we got going on trail day, though, a whole heap of snow befell the mountains and our intended beginner's trail became a class in snow-wheeling three crossovers on short notice. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Normally, Big Bear's Gold Fever Trail is an 11 mile dirt that's only accessible for high-clearance vehicles or four-wheel drive cars.
It follows the Holcomb Valley which was once home to the dreams of thousands as they searched the area for their fortune during the Southern California gold rush. You can still find a few signs of that time up there but not exactly a full ghost town. Mostly diggings, old cabins, and the occasional old saloon.
Our Intrepid Adventurers
Host Mike Sabounchi brought his 2018 VW Golf Alltrack. As usual, he started the day in high spirits, albeit despite the winter wonderland rapidly developing around him (or maybe because of it; some of us northerly types love playing in the snow). When you live in a place like Washington (like Mike does), you see a lot of different driving conditions and having something versatile like the Golf is a good plan.
That said, he still improved on the stocker with changes like a lift kit, reflash to the ECU for more power, and a set of brand new Nitto Nomad Grapplers to boot. Luis Nieto and Cody Rasmussen joined him for the day's excitement, both in Subaru Crosstreks. Luis' being a '19 and Clody's a '18. They also have lift kits but in addition, they're carrying recovery gear. And just like Mike's Golf, they're rolling on Nomad Grapplers.
Not only are the new Nomad Grapplers mountain- and snow-rated, they're also designed specifically with CUVs and SUVs in mind. Nitto took all of the experience it has with making awesome light truck tires and applied it to this design for a crossover/SUV tire that's a joy to drive on or off-road. Gold Fever Trail seemed like the perfect place to test the Nomad out on those three crossovers.
And They're Off
Gold Fever Trail is an ideal place for cutting your beginner's teeth as an off-roader. It's not too challenging but it's fun with some interesting sites to check out along the way. Checking the weather beforehand is always a good plan, as is having your adventure pass and other basics like a first aid kit, lunch, and weather-appropriate clothing. Now, we always check weather ahead of time. Sometimes, though, "winter" in Southern California can be unpredictable, like it was this trip.
Just the day before, the crew had met up in nearby Pioneertown. A town started by actor Dick Curtis in 1946 as a living 1880s Old West movie set and it still stands today. Lots of Western films and shows have been shot there. It's the perfect base camp for hitting the nearby Gold Fever Trail. And like we said, the weather was perfect. Then.
Freeway? We Don't Need No Stinking Freeway
The day started off perfectly, too. No clouds, 54 degrees F, and clear sailing ahead as we hit Burns Canyon Trail to Big Bear instead of taking the freeway.
And why wouldn't we? Great day, great vehicles, and great company all made for an awesome start for the trip.
By the time we were at Belleville Cabin, though, the honeymoon was over. Snow cascaded down from the heavens in a big way, it was no longer 54 degrees, and the party decided to wait it out for an hour as the storm passed. As Mike put it, "On this episode of On the Trail, six guys go to the forest to have a picnic." Which they did in the cabin nearby. Bellies full, they ran back to their cars to finish waiting. It turned out that the cabin was pretty short on heating and long on draftiness.
Uphill Both Ways, in the Snow
It turned out to be a legit, real-deal winter storm. Not the usual wimpy "Stormwatch 2022" rain sprinkle that the local LA newscasters try to ham up as some big deal. We're talking ice forming on vehicles, real cold, the whole party. I grew up in Alaska. I had flashbacks just watching this. On the other hand, if you're not going to tackle nature, why would you be off-roading? Unexpected weather can also be a chance to up your skill set. Mike and company would not be deterred. Nature said they'd be snow-wheeling? Fine, they'd go snow-wheeling instead.
Slip Sliding Away
At first the snow had been tight and compact but as the day worn on and snow turned to sleet, the ground morphed into a wet blend of dirt, snow, and water. The guys found themselves off-road drifting. If you're out in the snow like this, using 4-Lo and steady momentum (no sudden speed changes, up or down) is the way to go. Having the Nitto Nomad Grapplers was a godsend as they gave our team the better traction, even wear, and reduced noise that you want in winter conditions. However, even with a good car and great tires, there are limits. Having traction boards on hand gives that extra umph when you get stuck. Just make sure you know how to use them ahead of time instead of learning in the field.
Looks Like We Made It
Trail's end found the group in good spirits. Nobody got stuck or ran into problems. Conditions went from great, to snow, to icy rain but that didn't discourage the guys from having a terrific time. On top of all that, the Nomad Grapplers made that good time possible.
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Fat ‘N’ Furious: A Curvy Custom 1950 GMC Pickup Restomod That’s Been All Dressed Up
It comes to no surprise that Mike Shannon would grow up to be a full gearhead— his father operated a Wisconsin-based Sinclair gas station that he opened up in the 1930s. When he became a local Pure Oil distributor, Mike began hanging around filling stations more often and would accompany his dad on trips to Road America at Elkhart Lake to deliver a truck load of Pure Firebird racing gasoline every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for race weekends.
The Spoils of Selling Success
Fast forward a few years and Mike found himself accepting his first full time job selling Oldsmobiles at Holiday Olds in Fond du Lac. While working at the dealership, he paid attention, learned everything he could, and ate, slept and breathed everything relating to the vehicles in his available inventory. 49 years after he first began selling cars, and he now owns four dealerships.
With his continued success, Mike thought it would be fitting to get an old GMC 5-window pickup to customize as promotion for his business and to display his passion for classic vehicles. To help find the right project truck, Mike reached out to the seasoned veterans at Fat Fender Garage out in Arizona. From there, Jason Noel and the rest of the crew could work their magic to assist in turning Mike’s vision of a clean yet obviously customized classic truck into a reality.
A Foundation for the Future
The guys located a solid ’50 GMC pickup that would work great for what Mike had in mind, and as soon as it was parked safe in their garage, Jason and the guys kicked off the project by scraping the factory chassis and replacing it with a brand new REVO Series version from the Roadster Shop. This chassis was proudly built with an IFS font end as well as a rear 4-link for modern ride quality.
It was equipped with Ridetech springs, Wilwood spindles and braking components, as well as power rack and pinion steering to help make it handle supremely. To further enhance the driving experience, a set of 18x8.5 and 20x11-inch U.S. Mags Mad Max US354 billet wheels were fitted with 245/45ZR18 & 315/35ZR20 Nitto NT555 G2 tires and bolted up. Not only does this combo look stunning, but the tires help keep traction in dry conditions with large tread blocks and efficiently dissipate any water with circumferential grooves.
Plug and Play
Now that Mike’s GMC was guaranteed to ride like a dream, the next order of business was to ensure that it started up and drove like one too. A 2017 6.2L Chevy LT1 crate engine was the power source of choice for this truck and a few tweaks were done to make it a little more interesting. A Champion radiator with Spal fan was first introduced to keep things cool, and a set of 1 ¾-inch custom headers along with a Borla XR-1 muffler equipped 2 ½-inch stainless dual exhaust system helps the LT1’s breathing ability.
To complement the crate engine perfectly, a new 8L90-E 8-speed auto transmission, which GM developed specifically to be the ideal partner for the LT1, was mated to the motor. General Motors has recently introduced a Connect & Cruise powertrain system of factory-matched engine and transmission combos, which these both are part of, that are equipped with specially calibrated controllers and harnesses to increase the ease of retrofit installs in older vehicles like Mike’s 1950 pickup.
The Hand Treatment
With a fresh performance-driven drivetrain now in place, Jason and the guys at Fat Fender then turned to prepping the GMC’s exterior for paint. The end result was to give Mike’s truck a classic look, but to put a different spin on a regular candy apple red paintjob. The crew ran with Mazda Soul Red Crystal—a color that was first used by Mazda on concept cars and only sprayed by hand given its deep and lustrous finish.
Original exterior parts were used where possible including the grille and mirrors. When replacement parts were needed, LMC Truck helped by sourcing the bumpers and door handles. LED headlights and tails update the GMC’s illumination just enough to give it a much welcomed modern twist. To help maintain a cool appearance on the exterior, a custom bed wood floor was laid down for a timeless addition.
Clean and Cozy
Bryan Cline of Queen Creek, AZ, expertly tackled the tan leather upholstery job, and finished the leatherwork off with a mesmerizing diamond stitch pattern to upgrade the interior. Up front, Dakota Digital gauges now take up residence in the dash, as does a new stereo unit and control panel for the full Vintage Air climate control system. Mike made sure to request power windows and cruise control, which was, of course, obliged given this truck had already been outfitted with all the other top tier amenities one could ask for.
Life in the Fat Lane
For a guy who was raised around the sweet scent of gasoline, you’d think Mike could be a tough customer to please, but Jason Noel and his trusted talent at Fat Fender just applied their business-as-usual approach to his GMC truck project, which was obviously more than enough to deliver the utmost level of satisfaction on this stylish fat fender pickup.
***Story by John A. Mata Jr.***
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Off-Road Essentials: Choosing the Right Upgrades for your Crossover SUV
Modern crossover SUVs have proven that you don’t need a big truck or SUV to explore the great outdoors. While modern technology often makes older gearheads weary, it has brought us some of the most advance terrain control systems we’ve ever seen. From the Subaru Outback to the Ford Bronco Sport, the aftermarket for these vehicles is constantly growing and improving. If you’re looking to get going on your crossover SUV upgrades, you’re in luck.
In this article, we’ll go over the top worthwhile mods that will give any crossover SUV a solid foundation for off-road exploration.
All-season tires are typically the standard on CUV’s. Unlike an all-terrain tire that’s designed to handle a variety on and off-road conditions, all-season tires are built with the highway in mind. Moving from an all-season to an all-terrain is an easy way to ensure your CUV won’t be spinning in place as soon as the rubber leaves the road. A great upgrade from a standard all-season would be the Nitto Nomad Grappler. It’s an all-terrain tire that’s designed specifically for Crossovers. This means you’ll have the load rating you need without sacrificing performance by going with a tire that’s simply too heavy for the vehicle. The Nomad will still provide all of the on-road benefits as an all-season tire, but give you the more aggressive tread you need off-the-road. As an added bonus, the Nomad’s are 3-Peak Mountain Snowflake rated.
The Right Wheels
We see many CUV’s fit with large 18- and even 20-inch wheels from the factory. The larger wheel sizes are more susceptible to damage and limit the amount of sidewall on the tire, which can make for an unpleasant ride off-road. Going with a smaller ratio wheel (when applicable) will help you on the trail. It will also open up tire options as well. You’ll need to do your research as offset and backspacing are critical. An easy tip to remember is that the lower the backspacing number, the farther outside of the vehicle the wheel will be. (So, 4 inches will poke out from the fender more than 6 inches of backspacing). We recommend cast aluminum for cost and weight savings benefits. Also, look for wheels that protect the valve stem as it’s something that can be easily damaged if it hangs out past the wheel.
Many modern CUV’s come with roof-rack options from the factory. If yours did not, don’t fret it as there is a wide variety of aftermarket ones available. What is important here is to find one that will fit your needs now and later. If you think you’ll be swapping between bike racks and a roof-top tent, be sure to get one that can handle both. Thule and Yakima are well known rack companies, but there are a host of vehicle-specific brands making racks specific to crossover platforms.
CUV’s are hit and miss when it comes to receiver hitches, but companies such as Draw-Tite and CURT make affordable aftermarket options that you can easily install at home. While a receiver hitch will be great for hauling bikes and extra gear for the trail, it also opens you up to a tire carrier. This is important as many CUV’s only allow for a stock-size spare tire. Upsizing your tires will create the need to home your full-size spare. Luckily, companies such as Rigid Armor make tire carriers that use your vehicles receiver to act as a base.
CUV’s, unlike trucks and larger SUV’s often have their recovery points hidden behind a plastic bumper cover. Before you hit the dirt, but sure to install yours. Most CUV’s only come with one thread-in recovery point, so you’ll need to order a second one for the rear if you do not have a receiver hitch. Make sure you have a shackle that can fit the provided recovery eyelet and a rope that can work with said shackle. If you plan on adventuring solo often, invest in a winch. Companies such as Warn offer winches and mounts suited for CUV’s.
In the world of CUV’s, a little goes a long way. A modest spacer lift is often just enough to not only provide room for larger tires but keep the underside of your vehicle out of harm’s way. Like many things automotive, you can drop some serious money in the suspension department, but we recommend starting with the basics and learning what you need from there.
Light It Up
Exploring off-road isn’t always done in the sun. A few smartly placed auxiliary lights will not only allow you to see better but keep you safe. Amber lenes actually helps cut through fog and dust a bit better than a standard clear cover. Adding an amber light to the back of your vehicle will also help those behind you spot you more easily, thus reducing the potential for accidents on the trail. In terms of lightings brands there are many (KC, Baja Designs, Hella, PIAA, Rigid, etc.).