Project Rubiconier: Just in Time for Easter Jeep Safari 2016
Easter Jeep Safari 2016 has now come and gone in a typical whirlwind of last minute vehicle builds, sleepless nights, and plenty of fun out on the rocky trails of Moab, Utah with friends, both new and old. EJS16 was similar to many others in the past, but as the 50th anniversary of this amazing event, was purposely set out to be the biggest, and well, best yet!
For this year’s event, we decided we should have a new Jeep Wrangler JKU Rubicon to showcase some of the wares we sell. But in true Offroad Power Products form, this was decided only two weeks prior to EJS! And if that wasn’t enough, we were also in the midst of building a new package for Heavy Duty Rams, dubbed the Nomad, that ALSO needed completion for the event. At this time, our Nomad Ram was at the body shop having fender modifications completed, meaning we had one vehicle that couldn’t be worked on because it wasn’t physically in our possession, and another vehicle that we had just picked up, but didn’t have parts for. So basically we were at a ten on the sense of urgency scale. If this situation doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you’re not doing it properly.
The first order of business to meet this quickly approaching deadline was to outline the complete JK build and get parts coming, and coming FAST. We immediately decided that the theme for this JK should be what we sometimes deem, the Swiss Army Knife approach. Basically, a Swiss Army Knife approach entails a vehicle build that features off-the-shelf, bolt-on components that are absolutely bulletproof and can handle and TACKLE any obstacle we throw at it. Further, we wanted this approach to still be affordable for the Average Joe that just went out and bought a Jeep JK, which means stock axle housings, stock transfer case, stock engine, and any other of the truly expensive powertrain components would remain stock. Overall, we would take a bone stock, brand new Rubicon, throw a carefully selected pile of parts at it, and transform it into the Rubiconier!
As anyone with a Jeep knows, the first order of business is suspension. And anyone that knows us, is well aware that this is an area that we will meticulously scrutinize for days, weeks, or even months over depending on the build. For the Rubiconier, the decision was actually quite simple, keeping with the Swiss Army Knife theme, a JSpec 3.5” J Kontrol Suspension System from our friends over at JKS Suspension was on the list. This system offers superb off road prowess, while still being extremely street friendly. This kit includes everything that any Jeep enthusiast would have on their bucket list, to include front and rear dual rate coil springs, front adjustable track bar, JKS’ exclusive front sway bar “Quicker Disconnects,” all relocation brackets, and a plethora of components you can add to the kit. We opted to upgrade with a weld on track bar brace in the front and rear, a rear adjustable track bar, sector shaft/steering box brace, and extended brake lines. Further, because we wanted this Jeep to handle as well at crawl speed as at redline, we upgraded from the standard Fox 2.0” IFP shocks to Fox 2.5” remote reservoirs in the front, and 2.5” piggybacks in the rear.
Because of the diameter of these larger shock bodies, we needed to move the front lower shock mounts outward, which was easily accomplished by welding on a set of Synergy Manufacturing’s Lower Shock Mounts that relocate the lower mounting position to the inner C’s. From there, we knew we needed to handle the length of the factory arms, and for this we opted to run the new JKS J-Axis Adjustable Arms. Not only do these adjustable arms allow us to stretch the wheelbase back where we want, but also adjust the caster to our specifications.
The next order of business was to handle the steering. Due to the oversized tires we run on EVERYTHING, and our fondness for dirt, we’re huge advocates for adding a PSC hydraulic assist steering to most vehicles. The addition of their system, to include a new higher volume pump, reservoir, cooler, and pressure relief breather, makes turning even 42” tires on dry pavement like butter. In order to ensure this steering ram couldn’t disfigure what it was attached to because of the massive pressure, we then looked at upgrading the tie rod. The Rock Krawler tie rod was another no-brainer with its robust construction and built in “wobble stoppers” that would prevent the tie rod from flopping all over like a wet noodle when the hydro assist is doing work out on the rocks.
To complement the new high steer drag link that is included with the JKS kit, we opted to upgrade to a set of Reid Racing knuckles. With the high steer drag link, one would typically drill out the factory knuckles to relocate the drag link, however the Reid knuckles feature a pre-drilled tab specifically for vehicles running a high steer kit. Besides having the high steer functionality built in, the Reid knuckles also relocate the tie rod up 1.5” from factory, meaning more ground clearance. Plus, these knuckles are one of our favorite colors….ORANGE, so how could we go wrong?!
Now that the suspension was dialed in, we turned our attention to the wheel openings that somehow needed to clear 37’s with only 3.5” of lift. But why did we only lift the JK 3.5” if we wanted to run 37” tires you may ask. We’ve found that this combination will do a couple of things for us. For starters, its easier to get in and out of! But the most important reason is the fact that it gives us a much lower center of gravity, making the vehicle feel more comfortable and stable in off camber situations. The easiest way to get a larger tire into the wheel opening on a Jeep Wrangler is to get rid of those massive factory fender flares, as they take up a lot of valuable real estate. To fit the look of our build, we went with a set of Nemesis Industries Notorious Flares, accompanied by their Billy Rocker Rock Sliders with Tub Armor. These flares are so much more than the typical fender flare that most are used to. Nemesis has designed an internal reinforcement system, they affectionately refer to as the Skeletos. This system connects the fender flares to the inner structure of the factory fenders, sandwiching the outer flimsy body panels in between, creating a rigid structure. This allows for load dispersion in the event you were to run into or slide across an obstacle, drastically reducing the risk of body damage. We have personally used these as “kick stands” that have prevented the body from falling into trail obstacles.
Nemesis carries on with this theme on the Rock sliders that feature a reinforced tub armor which ties into the inner structure to disperse load again. The other added bonus is all of this body armor is made from high grade aluminum to prevent a massive weight gain. And surprisingly, despite the fact that the factory flares are made out of plastic, they actually weigh MORE than their Nemesis counterparts. Now to put some attention on to the bumpers. Keeping with the theme of light weight and high clearance, we went with the Savvy Off Road LHT aluminum front bumper which requires you to remove the factory front cross member and replace it with a steel winch cradle, tying the front back together. Out back, another Savvy LHT bumper. Like the front, the rear also has you remove the factory cross member, but this time tying everything back together with a new high ground clearance steel cross member that must be welded into place. We also opted to upgrade all four doors of this JKU with Savvy’s Aluminum Half Doors. Besides the weight savings, one of the nicest features of using these doors is you find yourself not quite as concerned with destroying the doors on an obstacle. Why? The Savvy’s are WAY less expensive to replace than the factory doors. To finish off the clean lines of our Nemesis and Savvy products, we had everything color matched to the vehicle, and the inner fenders shot with a layer of spray-in bedliner material.
To handle the weight of the spare tire without adding a component that we would have to open before opening the back of the Jeep. We installed the Teraflex HD hinged spare tire carrier. This replaced the factory unit allowing us to not only keep the spare tire mounted in the stock location, but exponentially reinforce the mount to handle the added weight of a 37” tire.
Now that the body and suspension are ready for the larger tires we needed to give some attention to the drive train. An early morning trip with the Jeep in tow, and we were on our way to Cashmere, Washington to pay a visit to our friends, and all around axle gurus, Nitro Gear and Axle. Knowing that we already had front and rear Dana 44 axles, coupled with factory lockers, and wanting to keep this vehicle with stock drivetrain in place, the only major upgrade to the axles would be a ring and pinion upgrade to give us the proper run out we would need with the addition of 37” tires, coupled with some minor axle reinforcement while we were there. To give us the offroad grunt we desired, a 5.13 ratio was selected to fill the front and rear pumpkins.
Because we knew we would be installing front and rear Tom Woods drivelines to handle the added articulation from the JSpec suspension, we had the crew at Nitro install solid spacers in place of the crush sleeves that come standard in this kit. This would allow us to install the Tom Woods drive flanges without compromising the pinion bearing preload. In order to combat any weaknesses inherent to the front 44, we sought the advice of Nitro coupled with our experience and added some relatively simple reinforcement. The front Dana 44 is a strong differential coming in a high pinion, which puts the drive load on the strong side of the gear, however the weak links are in the small, soft axle tubes, as well as the C’s which have been known to bend when stressed. Fortunately, because Nitro addressed these issues long ago, they offer an Axle Assurance Kit that includes knurled inner axle sleeves and knuckle gussets. Now, the sleeves aren’t something you can just go purchase and throw in as soon as you get home, they require at least a little bit of planning. Because they are an interference fit, it is recommended to literally freeze them overnight (that’s right, put them next to your ice cream and hamburger in the freezer) so the material can contract before being pounded into place. Once the sleeves warm back up to temperature, the knurling around the outer two inches dig in and secure their position. This is a great upgrade to either the Dana 30 or 44 since they both share the same size axle side tubes. With the sleeves in place, we welded on the knuckle gussets and front lower control arm skids. Wham, bam, axles are DONE!
After some tuning with our Superchips F5 Flashcal tuner to let the ECM know about its new gear ratio and tire size, it was time for the tires. We installed the new Toyo R/T’s in a 37×13.50R17 on a set of Method 105 Beadlocks in a 17X9 with 3.5″ of backspace. This widened our stance dramatically, giving us enhanced stability in off camber situations, and with the 13.50” tire width, the contact patch for offroading is perfect.
At this point, we were down to the final pieces to the puzzle. With the Tom Woods flanges waiting for us, we quickly installed them, then measured length for the custom shafts. Tom Woods was nice enough to bust those out and ship them out the same day. To guarantee the front driveline didn’t contact the exhaust at full droop, we went with the best option, a Magnaflow Loop Delete Pipe that moves the Y crossover behind the transfer case instead of in front, gaining the JK substantial clearance and another margin of safety, protecting the exhaust from all those pesky rocks. From the Y back is Savvy’s custom built Magnaflow high clearance exhaust. In true Magnaflow fashion, it was a perfect fit.
Now what to do with the interior? For all of the 12 volt auxiliary devices we would be running, we needed a power distribution center. Switch-Pros was chosen for this because of the eight programmable buttons and its solid state construction. For those unaware, solid state means there are no fuses or relays, it is all built into a circuit board, similar to most current vehicles’ factory computers. Plus, it means only running a single power lead to the battery, instead of a rats nest of wires and fuses hanging from the positive side of the battery. We mounted the Switch-Pros control panel on a custom A-pillar mount for easy access (and because it looks cool). One of these switches controls an ARB Twin Air Compressor that we mounted under the passenger front seat using a compressor mount from Teraflex. Another switch is utilized to engage the two Baja Designs XL-80 LED lights mounted to the A pillar windshield hinge for nighttime trail visibility. The final switch is for the ten….yes TEN, KC HiLiTES Cyclone LED Rock Lights to make sure we can see what we’ve both already ran over with the front tires, and about to run over with the rears. Now time to protect the seats with the best Jeep seat covers on the planet…..Bartact. We’ve used these covers in numerous other builds, as well as offer them to our customers, and they are without a doubt the best fitting, most durable, and best looking covers out there for Jeeps. And finally, to make all of our friends on the trail envious during mealtime breaks, we added a Trailgater folding tailgate table with a bamboo slide out. This awesome accessory mounts to the inside of the tailgate, and folds down to provide a sturdy table. It sure beats trying to prepare and eat your meal from your dirty seat or the ground.
With Project Rubiconier complete, sitting on all fours, looking pretty and less than fifty miles on the odometer, it was time to load this bad boy with gear and hit the long road to Moab, Utah to see how she handles the rocks. Others may believe in what most call a “shakedown run,” in which you take the vehicle for some mild testing before a big excursion…..nope, not us, who’s got time for that nonsense?!