SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 10, 1966
There was a time when the only people who drove jeeps wore khaki and got shot at. Now, like many other forms of work, jeep driving has become a sport. There are some 300 jeep clubs in the country, a third of them in California, where—just for fun—drivers can bounce over mountains or get stuck in sand dunes
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 10, 1966

They Call It A Sport Now, Sarge

There was a time when the only people who drove jeeps wore khaki and got shot at. Now, like many other forms of work, jeep driving has become a sport. There are some 300 jeep clubs in the country, a third of them in California, where—just for fun—drivers can bounce over mountains or get stuck in sand dunes

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Something seems to compel us—nostalgia, corrupt romanticism, defensiveness about the good old days—to single out odd sorts of extinct drudgery and preserve them in a recreational matrix, like a brontosaurus in a tar pit. There are a sizable number of activities now called sport that are really nothing more than obsolescent work. Included are such things as running, hiking, log birling, snowshoeing, canoeing, dogsledding, sculling, riding a western saddle, fishing and camping with children. All were once labors of the dreariest, backbreakingest sort, fit occupations for slaves, servants and savages.

Whatever the reason for this compulsion to save outmoded work forms by making games of them, it is, apparently, still operative. Quite recently, quite quietly, another one of these leisure-out-of-labor pastimes has evolved. They call it jeeping. (You heard me right, my stout, middle-aged hearty with the still-tender coccyx. You get in a jeep and ride it for fun.)

From the standpoint of a recreational taxonomist, sport four-wheel driving—a broader term that includes the pleasure wrangling of not only Jeeps but Scouts, Land-Rovers, Toyotas, Datsuns, Broncos and similar breeds—provides a sort of souped-up case study of the work-retained-as-play phenomenon. It is like being able to watch the evolution of the horse from Eohippus to Kelso take place in a quarter of a century. The whole thing began in 1940, when the military ordered its first General Purpose (GP, hence Jeep) vehicles. They rapidly became the single most romanticized piece of machinery used in World War II and, much as troopers led home their cavalry cobs in 1865, GIs brought their Jeeps back to the home corral in 1945. Since then jeeps and their near relations have prospered and multiplied, there now being some 200,000 four-wheel-drive vehicles roaming the civilian ranges. The majority of these mechanical nags earn their keep scraping snow, sawing wood, towing automobiles, carrying hunters, surveyors, loggers and stockmen into the rough, roadless boondocks.

However, the crucial factor in the sportification of four-wheel driving has not been utility but sentiment. A kind of glamour, hazy but as real as exhaust smoke, hangs over these ugly little machines. A man riding with his boot negligently dangling out the doorless side of a jeep has the look of one who has been to Anzio and is at the moment off to prospect for uranium. This heroic image has made 4WD owners and drivers out of a growing number of people who got no closer to Hickam Field than two readings of James Jones and who have no more need for off-road mobility than your Aunt Katherine. Faced with this unsettling situation, wanting to be a jeepster but lacking any necessary reason for being one, some of these frustrated rough riders hit upon an eminently modern compromise. They made it a sport.

At the moment there are nearly 300 clubs organized to promote and practice what must incredibly be called pleasure 4WDing. This is a tentative figure, being revised upward almost daily. "Four-wheeling is the fastest-growing automotive sport in the world," claims Bob Ames, the earnest editor of Four Wheeler (circulation 21,000), a Tarzana, Calif. magazine devoted to this activity. Ames may not be the most unprejudiced 4WD authority in the world, but apparently a few cold-blooded computers and consumer-analysis boys agree. Ford, for one, entered the 4WD market in 1965 with the Bronco.

Like so many faintly fantastic recreational phenomena, sport jeeping flourishes in California as it does nowhere else, the state having close to 100 of the country's 300 clubs. Resisting the temptation to cogitate on California's penchant for bizarre transportation—skate boards, balloons, Irish setter dog teams—there is one obvious explanation. From Death Valley to the High Sierras, California has the kind of terrain calculated to test a 4WD rig and inspire a driver along the lines of I-drove-from-that-glacier-to-that-sandpit-in-second-gear-low-range-because-it-was-there. By way of negative proof of this geographical challenge-and-response theory, neither Oklahoma nor Indiana is blessed with a single 4WD club. After all, a man will strike an image more like that of Groucho Marx than John Wayne four-wheeling hell-for-leather through a flat cornfield that can be easily and comfortably crossed in a Volkswagen.

Not only is 4WDing getting big, it is continuing to evolve. For many enthusiasts jeeping is still in the primitive, lowercase sport state, i.e., you and a few friends just hop on the old bucket seat and go rattling over some attractive-looking rocks. However, there is now a definite trend toward greater sophistication, or at least organization. Competition is raising its hot head, and with it have come rules, rhubarbs, commercial sponsorship and some relatively big money. Four-wheel driving is, in fact, rapidly becoming a Sport in the full, formal and ferocious sense of the word.

One week not long ago I had an opportunity to make some joggly field notes on both strains of 4WDing, informal and organized. The week began with a just-for-the-hell-of-it trip into the Sierra with some Sacramento drivers. It ended at a place called Pismo Beach, 160 miles north of Los Angeles, where 400 vehicles raced for trophies across the sand dunes while various 4WD salesmen and promoters squabbled and connived.

Among the California 4WD clubs a group called the Sacramento Jeepers is one of the oldest (eight years), largest (65 vehicles in the herd) and most prestigious, having both an eight-page constitution and, by reputation, the best mountain drivers in the state. Early one morning eight vehicles from this club assembled in the parking lot of a West Sacramento shopping center preparatory to heading off toward Baltimore Lake, which is high in the Sierra northwest of Donner Pass. Nine hours, 100 miles and three vertebrae later the caravan reached its destination. It proved to be a pretty place, with blue water, green meadows and snowy peaks all around, but scenery was of secondary interest to the Saco Jeepers. For them the main attraction of Baltimore Lake was that it is unconnected to any recognizable road and well removed from any known civilized point. This might be called the motivation of pleasure 4WDing.

In 4WD terms the Sacramento Jeepers are an exclusive outfit. Right in their constitution (Article III—Section 1) it makes it plain that they are segregated, membership being restricted to owners of genuine "jeep" vehicles. By "jeep" the Saco Jeepers have in mind the same thing as does the Kaiser Jeep Corporation of Toledo, Ohio, which has published an entire brochure with the plot line that Jeep (big J please) is a registered trademark. The problem is that jeep (with a small J) has become a generic term for any 4WD utility rig. It's like you ask for a Coke and get a Pepsi. The big-J Kaiser Jeep people are very touchy about this. They don't want somebody to ask for a Jeep and have some clown sell them a Bronco.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6