As I write this, I’m knee-deep in work for the August 2022 issue of Four Wheeler magazine (on sale June 17, 2022), and it’s going to be jam-packed with a mind-blowing collection of 4×4 features. Feature 4x4s have been a popular staple of Four Wheeler for decades, and being able to publish them is one of the best parts of my job. It’s thrilling to help show off a fellow wheeler’s rig and detail the story behind the machine.
4x4s and Farmland
The first feature I photographed for a magazine was in the spring of 1989. The 4-Wheel & Off-Road Jamboree was in Pecatonica, Illinois, at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds, and I helped coordinate the use of some family farmland so Off-Road and 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazines could photograph 4x4s from the Jamboree. I was a wheeler, reader of the off-road books, amateur photographer, and a wannabe off-road magazine staffer, so I spent as much time as possible watching the magazine staffers work. I studied things like their technique and how they positioned vehicles. I also talked with the vehicles’ owners and hung on every word as they shared the backstory on their rigs.
First 4×4 Feature Photographed: a Suzuki Samurai
The duo of Stuart Bourdon and Brent Ross from 4-Wheel & Off-Road were photographing feature 4x4s in the pasture behind our house as Bruce Smith and Steve Reyes were at work on nearby property photographing rigs for Off-Road. I watched a steady stream of incredible 4x4s come and go for a couple days before Bruce Smith asked if I wanted to photograph one of the feature rigs for Off-Road—I recall it was a built Suzuki Samurai. Little did I know at the time, that Samurai would be the first of hundreds of feature 4x4s I would photograph over the next few decades.
4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine feature shoot, 1989.
4×4 Trends Through the Years
During the past 33 years of photographing feature 4x4s there have been many trends. When I first started out in the late ’80s and early ’90s it was all about tall suspension height, bolting as many shocks as possible at each corner, and neon. Through the mid- to late-’90s I recall a mix of high-end show truck builds and more than a few 4x4s that qualified as quasi-monster trucks.
By the late ’90s rockcrawling was coming on strong and I was photographing rockcrawlers and tube buggies. Soon, the high-end show trucks had dwindled and trail-ready 4x4s with flexy suspensions were everywhere. Today, the 4WD world is arguably more diverse than ever with a wide range of modified 4x4s.
Jeff Gotz’ 514ci-powered “Fordzilla. “
The Stash of 4×4 Feature Photos
Up until early 2002, all of the features I photographed were on transparency film, and I have thousands of outtake photos stored in bins. One of these days I need to dig into those, scan a few, and trot those 4x4s out right here in my “Firing Order” column. It’s guaranteed to be a fascinating walk down Memory Trail.
Steven Lutz’ solid-axle Nissan Pathfinder.
4x4s Reflect Their Owners
As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy meeting the owners of feature 4x4s and hearing the stories of their rigs, often told to me while I photograph them. It’s fascinating to hear why each owner chose their rig and why they chose to modify it as they did. For example, some built their rigs because that specific rig is appealing to them, and others chose their rig because it had a full frame. Some want a nice looking rig, others couldn’t care less what it looks like. Some owners build their rigs almost entirely of bolt-on aftermarket products, some incorporate home-brew engineering and fabrication, and others utilize used parts acquired from online sites like Craigslist.
In the end, these varied approaches to 4×4 customization are often an extension of the 4×4 owner and what the owner intends to do with the vehicle. For example, the collection of rigs in this issue ranges from a Wrangler YJ to a full-size van. And in this story you’ll see a small sample of the rigs we’ve featured in Four Wheeler, chosen from the last decade or so.
Todd Farrand’s Dodge Ram 2500 shod with 40-inch tires and small lift.
Thank You For Building Cool 4x4s
Thank you for building cool 4x4s! It’s an honor to feature them. If you have a 4×4 that you’d like to submit for potential publication in Four Wheeler and/or the website, please email a couple of high-res images and an overview of your rig to [email protected]!
Sam Ayars Cummins-powered Dodge.
Chris Russell’s 1996 Ford Bronco.
Terry Deleeuw’s “Wacky Willys. “
Andy & Shauna Bornschein’s 1968 Jeepster Commando.
“Firing Order” is the monthly column of Four Wheeler magazine Editor-in-Chief Ken Brubaker. Topics vary depending on what’s on his mind but are always 4×4 related, because that’s all he thinks about. Send feedback to [email protected].