Classic 4x4s draw endless crowds. They’re charming. Rustic. Nostalgic. They’re the kind of vehicle that’ll make you friends everywhere you go, and put an endless smile on your face every time you turn the key and hear the cast-iron engine slowly wake from its slumber.
Modern 4x4s? Well they’re not. And they don’t. And they won’t.
But they are reliable, capable and they’re comfortable for the long haul, meaning you can punch out thousand-kay days without wanting to crawl into your swag with a bottle of Jack Daniels when you get to camp. But they are a little soulless.
But what if you could have both? Have your cake and eat it too; a 4x4 that not only looks the goods and makes you the envy of all your mates, but isn’t going to shake you to bits on any extended trip, and will confidently get you there and back without requiring a dose of Dodgy Mods to keep it on the tracks.
Here we’ve put together our hitlist of the 10 areas you need to focus on to restomod your old 4x4 to make it perform like a new one. Some modifications are doable in an afternoon, while some will take you a month of Sundays and twice as many busted knuckles, but hey, that’s the charm of an old rig, right?
1 - All the little stuff
Okay we’re going to kick things off with what seems like the smallest area to focus on, but is actually one of the most important things. Before you find yourself daydreaming about turbocharged V8 engines and slinky suspension, grab out the panel removal tools and set to work focusing on the little odds and ends throughout your 4x4 that need attention.
Unless your idea of an old 4x4 is a 2007 Hilux, chances are the rubber work is going to be pretty average. Side window rubbers (Bailey Channel) can dry and deteriorate, making the windows rattle at even low speeds. It costs just a few hundred bucks and can be swapped out in an afternoon, drastically reducing wind noise, NVH levels and dust ingress on dirt roads.
Of course, that’s just one area that people often overlook that an afternoon of elbow grease can massively help. Starting from the front of your 4x4 you’ll find plenty of little areas that can do with a helping hand. From LED bulbs in the gauge cluster and a little plastic polish, to new power window motors or a healthy squirt of spray grease on the OEM window tracks, your 4x4 will start feeling like it’s 10 years younger.
4x4 gear: How to replace bushings and grommets
2 - Let there be light
In almost any classic 4x4 the lights were… well, let’s not sugar coat it, they were crap. There are a few reasons why, too. Older incandescent headlight globes were horrendously inefficient, with less than 10 per cent of the power they consume being converted into light, the rest gets turned into heat. Halogen lights did improve this somewhat but they, too, have since been relegated to the scrap heap.
Modern LED headlights are available in a few different conversion styles but any decent offering will not only produce significantly more light, it’ll put less draw on your electrical system in the process, meaning more of the sparky stuff left over to power fridges, radios and driving lights.
An added side effect of changing your old rig to LED headlights is you’ll also notice a drastic change in colour temperature, going from the yellow of an incandescent bulb to a more blue hue. Due to the way our brains are wired to process the different types of daylight, a warmer yellower light emulates sunset making our bodies think it’s sunset, and therefore time to hit the sack.
By changing to a bluer colour headlight your body is tricked into thinking it’s midday, making you less likely to nod off on long night drives. Just make sure your new-found laser beam lights are adjusted correctly so you’re not blasting on-coming traffic and meet appropriate ADRs.
4x4 gear: LED light buyers' guide
3 - Sharper steering
Swapping out your hydraulic steering box for a rack and pinion arrangement probably won’t be on the to-do list any time soon, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t still ways you can firm up that all-too-common steering slop older rigs are notorious for.
Climb underneath and have someone jump in the cab and swing the tiller from left to right with the motor off. As the steering binds up against the stationary wheels you’ll be able to see any slop in joints in the system and identify where the issue is coming from.
Some older vehicles had adjustment in the ends that could be wound in but in most cases you’ll find yourself on the internet ordering up a new set. Before you take the old unit out measure the overall length and set the new end the same distance. You’ll still need an alignment afterwards but it’ll stop it wandering off the road on the way to the shop.
If you want to take things to the next level, look at later model versions of the same vehicle. In many cases the overall dimensions of items like the steering box are more or less the same, but the internals are built much stronger and with tighter tolerances. Less steering slop and a stronger driveline is worth a few hours in the shed.
You’ll find afterwards your rig will track straighter and require less steering input, thus making you less fatigued on the long haul.
4 - Stopping power
With your newfound steering prowess you’ll be tipping the big rig into corners like Ken Block. To make sure you make it out the other side of that right-hand sweeper you’ll want to make sure your rig can stop as good as it looks.
Old brakes suck; it’s as simple as that. They were designed in a time when a 1500kg tow rating was acceptable, and 110km/h was something to work towards, not the cruising speed on every back street. Solid discs overheat after just one pull, small diameters simply can’t cope with the rolling mass of larger mud tyres, and tiny drum brakes are more there for encouragement than assistance braking.
Before you start looking at expensive conversions eye off if there are bolt-on replacements for your rig. Much like steering, OEMs vastly improved brakes over the years – even in the same models – with newer rigs receiving physically larger units and more pistons per caliper for improved clamping force.
If the bolt-on options aren’t enough and your dimpled and slotted rotors still aren’t pulling up your rig in time, a hydraulic brake booster can offer a vast improvement in pedal feel and clamping pressure over an older vacuum booster.
Finally, drum to disc conversions for the rear of older 4WDs aren’t an uncommon modification at all and will comfortably lock up 35s repeatedly, but will require some custom work to get running smoothly.
4x4 gear: How to replace the brakes
5 - Fat beats
If you’re sick of busting your knuckles under your rig and wiping caked up mud out of your eyes it’s time to swing the doors open again and step inside, this time firing up the soldering iron. While not a necessity – in fact, far from it – an updated stereo can make the captain’s chair of an old rig a whole lot nicer place to be. Simple units can be picked up for less than a case of beer and offer up a CD player option or auxiliary input making for reasonably rudimentary connection to your phone.
If you’re looking to step things up another notch Bluetooth connectivity will not only allow you to play your favourite road trip bangers without a mess of cords, it’ll also let you take phone calls without a million dollar fine and loss of licence for 47 years. You will need to locate a microphone somewhere near your head though so expect to drop out at least a section of roof lining.
Finally, high-end units with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto offer all the above and more. By feeding off your phone’s computer wizardry you’ll have a big touchscreen for easy control of all your music, as well as inbuilt GPS and voice recognition for asking where the nearest mechanic’s shop is. Hey, you’re still running that old cast-iron engine after all?
6 - Pipe down mate
That 500W of ear-shattering audio pumping out your favourite Akka-Dakka songs at 11 is pointless if you can’t hear yourself think over the road noise emanating from every nook and cranny.
Older rigs ran a simple type of sound deadening. A few sheets of tar stuck to the floor and painted over. Modern solutions aren’t just a whole lot more effective; they’re a whole lot lighter, too! Often foam backed over thick tar, you’re able to get far more coverage for less weight, meaning a quieter and lighter rig.
By replacing the sound deadening in the cargo compartment of our old FJ62 LandCruiser we went from having to yell at the kids to being able to clearly and loudly hear them. The jury is still out on how good a decision that was, but it was a quieter place to be.
If you want to take things to the next level pop the door trims and roof liner off and go to town in there, too. The extra mass will reduce the harmonics of the panels themselves humming away and add much needed insulation as well.
4x4 opinion: Updating exhaust systems for older 4x4s
7 - Captain's chair
Never cheap-out on anything between you and the ground. It goes for shoes, tyres, mattresses and the seats in a 4x4 you’re planning on driving further than the local shop. If you never travel past the local café, or think a hernia is part of a weekly schedule, the old torture benches from stock should be perfect. If you’d like to jump out after a five-hour drive without a crook back a modern seat offers a whole host of benefits.
Smarter spring and fabric design means the seat itself can be a whole lot less bouncy and, at the same time, softer, making it a whole lot less jarring on your back. Adjustable lumbar support and thicker side bolstering will also help hold you in place on even the bumpiest of tracks.
If you’re going full golden credit card on the situation brand-new seats offer the world (including air adjustability), while budget-conscious builders might be better suited to a set of later model XR6 seats and a set of aftermarket seat rails to suit. Changing your seats will require a mod plate or engineering.
8 - That's shocking
Older 4x4s fixed engineering issues by throwing material at the problem rather than smarts. It does mean things are typically over engineered and will last until the next Ice Age in 2021, but it also means there’s a whole lot more unsprung mass in an older 4x4 to reign in than a modern counterpart. Whether you’re running leaf or coil springs in your pride and joy it’s a sure thing a set of modern suspension components will make a monstrous improvement to ride quality.
Progressive coil springs and parabolic leaf springs both promise a smoother ride without adversely affecting load carrying ability and tow capacity while modern shocks set out to iron out all the bumps, or at least reduce them.
If the shocks you’re running look like new old stock for a Model T Ford then just about anything you can buy will make an improvement. Midrange setups generally consist decent quality remote reservoir options that’ll boost ride quality as well as reduce shock fade in corrugations due to the larger oil capacity holding off cavitation.
If money is no object, the $5000 mark will get you into tuned high-end gear that can be dialled in for your needs. Want to haul 1500kg worth of gear across the Madigan Line in comfort? Easy. Want to launch your old jigger down a mountain? You’ve got it pal. Just maybe order the hydraulic bump-stops too, yeah?
4x4 opinion: The difference between a good and bad suspension
9 - More power baby
Look, we know this is the one most people will go for first because it’s the exciting one, but it really does make one of the smallest differences to making an old rig drive like a new one. It just makes them feel like an old rig that’ll kill you a whole heap faster.
BUT – and it’s a big but – providing the other steps are done, it can be the icing on the old-school cake.
If you’re just chasing a little more overtaking power and want to pull out into traffic without fearing for your life in almost all cases the stock engine with a few tweaks will be your most cost effective option. Older diesels respond well to aftermarket turbocharging options as well as dyno tunes, while petrol options are best left at a tune up, intake and free-flowing exhaust, unless you’re planning on towing your own fuel tanker.
If you’re taking things to the next level in-house engine conversions are generally the simpler way to go. Swapping a 1HDT into a 60 series LandCruiser or a 12HT into a 40 is an easier option than shoehorning a Cummins 6BT into a G60 Patrol. They’ll offer bang for buck and retain a semblance of the old-school vibe.
Finally, put an LS V8 into it. Yes, there are a million different options, but for dependable reliable power and reasonable fuel consumption the LS platform should be your first and last call. They’re lightweight and with a pushrod design are incredibly compact, making them a relatively straightforward option compared to overhead cam engines.
10 - Grandad's axe
You know what, life is short, so live your best life. If you’re after the absolute perfect mix of old-school motoring and new-school reliability and performance, why not literally mash the two together?
Modern chassis swaps are becoming more and more common as later model frames are getting cheaper and cheaper. You only need to look at the explosion of 40s and 60s on 80 Series LandCruiser frames to understand that.
Yes, they are heaps of work, and in almost all cases should be done by a shop with an open cheque book at hand, but the results are inarguable. In one fell swoop you’ll not only pick up a modern engine, later model suspension and vastly improved brakes, but you’ll also get all the little bits and pieces the manufacturer has added to get that nicer ride.
Think better designed and stronger body mounts, stronger suspension mounts, more effective sway bars, longer lasting wheel bearings… the list goes on. But hey, that’s what modifying and maintaining an old 4x4 is all about. Just do us one favour: when you finally wrap up your dream project, make sure you send a few photos our way.