It’s no secret that we, as Americans, have a fascination and deep respect for our military men and women. No matter their branch or MOS, these individuals have courage, compassion, and strength. The latter of these is bolstered by technology and machinery that supersedes much of what the rest of the world has to offer, and it’s here where you, our fellow diesel enthusiast, may find the call to arms.
If you’ve had even a passing interest in diesels, perhaps you’ve heard of the blowout reality TV show that came out earlier this year – Diesel Brothers. The program depicts the life and times of David Sparks, head of Diesel Sellerz and Diesel Power Gear out of Woods Cross, Utah, along with his good friend “Diesel Dave” and the other merry misfits. Many builds were covered during the pilot season, and many featured the use of military components to make them happen.
Diesel Brothers creations like this Duramax used plenty of military components.
The show did its job and got us and many others stoked about the diesel lifestyle, but it also showed us just how buff and badass these military components could be. From gigantic deuce-and-a-half axles to six-wheel-drive systems, these unmatched vehicle underpinnings had power and durability to spare. It got us thinking: How have other people tried to transition military hardware to the civilian side?
Whether it’s a piece of the vehicle or the whole thing, it turns out that there are several ways to have your OohRah cake and drive it, too. So mount up, and let’s discover how it works.
Gathering Intel On Larger-Than-Life Vehicles
To clue us in on the crossover of military vehicles and civilian diesels, we had a talk with Bill Dozer at Those Military Guys (TMG) in Rancho Cucamonga, California. TMG is all about these larger-than-life vehicles and has the ability to take on all customers no matter their requests.
“We came into being about six years ago,” said Dozer. “The founders, Robert DiCarlo and Jonathan Hensley, were builders of hot rods and musclecars. Things were going okay, but then tracks and events started closing down and it made sense to get out.”
DiCarlo and Hensley made the leap to military vehicles, with the cause being both nostalgic and profitable in nature. “You know how boys want real-life Tonka trucks? That’s kind of how these guys came into it,” joked Dozer. “They actually wanted a five-ton and got it, and then they fixed it up and started advertising with it.”
At Those Military Guys, it’s possible to buy and sell vehicles, get maintenance done, and also pull parts off of donor trucks.
Word of mouth and necessity took care of the rest of TMG’s development, to where now it can handle custom builds, buying and selling, repairs, and maintenance. They’ve even done mobile repairs at events like Tierra del Sol in Ocotillo Wells SVRA in California.
Now that we knew these guys were familiar with military vehicles, we pressed on and opened the discussion up to the first topic: axles. Specifically, axles from either the 2.5-ton or five-ton trucks.
Axles: A Common Swap
Deuce-and-a-half axles like these are stout and easy to service.
This was one of the more common swaps that we witnessed in Diesel Brothers (DB) builds. The guys would yank off all of the stock driveline parts and replace them with extremely heavy-duty axles and driveshafts, although they would keep the motor the same, whether it was a 6.7-liter Cummins or a 7.3-liter Powerstroke. We wanted to know out of what vehicles these axles came from.
“Most people who do these swaps will go for 2.5-ton axles,” said Dozer. “Five-tons are simply way too heavy to transplant. Anyway, the 2.5-tons are good because they still have conventional brakes, so they’re not too great of a leap from factory equipment. The axles are also usually skinny enough to fit under a 3/4-ton and not stick out really wide.”
We recalled that on one episode: the DB crew had suffered a breakage in what appeared to be an axle that used planetary hubs. “Those are actually from Humvees,” explained Dozer. “They are piles of crap, to be honest. I rode a Humvee all the way through Iraq and those things broke all the time. They work well, but they can’t stand up to the abuse. That’s why you should go for a 2.5-ton axle, because it will last a lot longer.”
Axles from a 2.5-ton will work well in a 3/4-ton truck since they share the proper width.
In terms of positive characteristics, 2.5-ton axles have square tubing that supersedes the conventional round axle tubing found on OEM units; its main benefit is added strength. The high-pinion nature of the axles is also beneficial, as it offers increased clearance in off-road situations, and they’re easy to work on, too. The axle shafts come out of the side of the housing, and there’s no differential cover that can leak oil as it’s welded up.
Extreme Builds With Six-Wheel-Drive
Another interesting mod performed by DB, six-wheel-drive was reserved for the more extreme builds but was well worth the effort and time it required to install. “All of the military trucks come with it,” said Dozer. “It’s a must because these vehicles have to go everywhere and do anything while they’re out there.”
The layout and control of these vehicles’ six-wheel drive systems isn’t too hard to work out. “It’s just another driveshaft that comes from the middle axle and connects to the rear axle,” said Dozer. “It comes off of a transfer case just like you’d find on a normal truck. The front is activated by air pressure, but it doesn’t lock like the rears do.”
As with axles, transplanting the six-wheel drive systems from a military truck onto a civilian truck are best done with 2.5-ton equipment, as five-ton units are far too heavy to be practical. However, some of the five-ton systems come with a front locker if they are A1 models (1980-87) and are connected to a massive, 855 ci Cummins NC250 that make five-tons desirable as a whole truck, rather than as parts donors.
Onboard Air Systems
Onboard air systems are a cool modification to do in the off-road world, and many a Jeep Wrangler have we seen sporting an ARB compressor that’s used to inflate and deflate tires at a stop. But that can’t hold a candle to the units you’ll find in five-tons.
“Newer five-tons had self-inflating tires systems,” said Dozer. “The system could change inflation levels on the fly to adapt to terrain, and had four settings – highway, sand, cross-country, and emergency. The highway setting was just for cruising on asphalt and kept the tires inflated at 65-70 psi. Cross-country and sand lowered the tire pressure to balloon the tires and let them handle off-roading better. Finally, emergency was there to keep the air pumping constantly in an effort to keep a tire as inflated as possible. That was great if one of the tires had a slow leak and we had to keep going before we could repair it.”
Five-ton vehicles had self-inflating systems that could be set for highway, cross-country, off-road, and emergency usage.
A system like this, in Dozer’s view, is best left to the vehicle rather than trying to source it and make it work on a standard Ford/GM/Ram truck. “If you wanted to do it to a truck, it’s going to cost a lot of money and time for something that isn’t worth it,” he commented. “Even if I had all of the parts, I wouldn’t do it, personally.”
Choosing The Right Wheels
If you’ve spent any time in the diesel world, you know wheels are a huge deal despite not being hardcore or badass. There are thousands of styles to choose from across dozens of brands, but they all pale in comparison to those used on Humvees.
As Dozer explained, “A lot of guys are buying Humvee wheels since they share the same bolt pattern as your standard, eight-lug diesel hub. They’re a two-piece wheel that literally bolts together and has beadlocks by default.”
Humvee wheels are starting to make their way to civilian vehicles since they have the same bolt pattern as any eight-lug axle.
The tire size that fits the Humvee wheel is 37×12.50/R16.5, which is a pretty limiting size, as we found out. A search on TireRack.com returned only two results, both made by Goodyear – the Military Wrangler MT/R and the Wrangler MT – and either option is well over $600 per tire! Hardly a number to sneeze at. Well-used tires with 75 percent tread remaining sell for about $125 to 150 a pop, so that’s probably the better option to consider.
Dozer claimed people could use Super Swamper TSLs for these wheels, but they were harder to come by. Regardless, the wheels’ standard beadlocking feature makes them very useful and appealing to those who enjoy hardcore off-roading.
Vehicles To Consider
So let’s say you’ve had your fill of looking at pieces that come from military vehicles, and you just want the whole kit and caboodle. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Dozer once again lent his thoughts to this notion.
“A lot of guys with Jeeps and F-250s are realizing that five-tons are better off,” he said. “The five-tons may look like a handful, but they can be made to ride well and look nice. We had a guy buy a five-ton and we’re converting it into a deluxe vehicle with A/C and an F-250 interior. It’s never going to drive like a Cadillac, but it will drive around enough to where it’s comfortable to do so.”
Owning a military vehicle might seem like a massive headache, especially in a state as restrictive as California. But that isn't the case, according to Dozer.
So what about the legal side of this process? Owning a gigantic 2.5- or five-ton truck probably strains the limits of patience and good manners of the average Californian person, right? Wrong, said Dozer.
“In California, after buying one of these trucks, you get the paperwork from the auction house and then go to the DMV to get the VIN verified,” he explained. “Once that is verified, they’ll give you registration and you’ll get license plates. Most people register [their military vehicles] as either historical or recreational vehicles, but sometimes they’ll be registered as commercial, too.”
Most people register [their military vehicles] as either historical or recreational vehicles, but sometimes they’ll be registered as commercial, too. – Bill Dozer, Those Military Guys
For those less inclined to own a big, burly, six-wheeled monster, there are the GM-made Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicles – CUCV for short – that were produced from 1984 to 1987. These were introduced to fill a need for the hole left by aging Jeeps and sported the 6.2-liter Detroit Diesel V8 rated at 155 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque.
“In the Marine Corps, we were still using these CUCVs up until the early 2000s,” said Dozer. “There are still plenty of them around to be purchased, probably in the neighborhood of 200,000. A lot of folks buy them and then rip out the Detroit Diesel, but keep the registration the same so they don’t have to follow emissions requirements.”
The CUCVs filled a variety of roles in the armed forces, from transports to communications to ambulance duties. The prices vary depending on which of these types the CUCV is, with the cheapest hovering around $3,000 to the higher end of $8,000.
From left to right: a 2.5-ton, a five-ton, and a Chevrolet CUCV. Which one would you want to take home?
Debriefing On The Genuine Article
It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who used a most rousing turn of phrase to describe the technology used by U.S. soldiers in World War II: the “Arsenal of Democracy,” he labeled it. American fighting men and women certainly have some of the most awesome pieces of machinery to have ever been crafted, and diesels are a big part of that.
Transitioning or repurposing them for civilian use, as we’ve discussed, is not impossible, nor is it impractical. There are several areas where these trucks can be picked apart to give benefit to a 3/4-ton, like the axles, transfer cases, and wheels.
By the same token, there are also times when it’s best to just buy the whole thing rather than part-out and fabricate. From 2.5-tons to CUCVs, these beasts not only look the part of military awesomeness, they act the part, too, because they’re the genuine articles.
So we leave it to you to decide when, where, how, or why you want to make the heavy-duty leap. Have a look at places like Those Military Guys or others, ask questions, lay down a general plan, and then … OohRah! Take that hill!