Let's assume that, for some strange reason, you have no cultural reference points from the past century. Maybe you just landed from Mars or woke from the world's longest coma; regardless, you know nothing about modern history or what's cool.
Got it? Now think about this: Even if you were a cultural blank slate, a green Jeep Wrangler in combat trim would probably still look awesome to you. Military Jeep love is etched into humanity's bones, a chunk of DNA sourced from the same evolutionary magic that guarantees we enjoy things like bacon, sex, and the weather in San Diego.
Dave Harriton, then, is no dummy. When he geared up to build a modern military-spec Jeep, he knew exactly what he was doing. When he agreed to help me drive an early prototype into deepest California, he knew I'd likely prepare for the trip by watching Sands of Iwo Jima until I could recite the dialogue from memory. And when I announced that we were going to center our trip on the Golden State's most famous ghost town, he knew that I probably just wanted an excuse to play John Wayne, military cowboy, in the latest incarnation of the greatest iron horse ever built. Sound like hyperbole? Consider the Jeep pedigree: No other current consumer vehicle can trace its lineage back to the beaches at Normandy or lay claim to having helped the free world pimp-smack Adolf Hitler. The U.S. Army may now use AM General's Humvee for frontline work, but the military Jeep is an enduring icon, perhaps the most emotionally resonant war machine in history.
Technically, however, the truck on these pages isn't a Jeep. The hulking green and black machine that Harriton and I rode into the high desert is officially called the American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) J8 Milspec, or J8 for short. It's a much-tweaked Jeep Wrangler Unlimited in everything but name, and although it has no carpet, a diesel engine, and huge steel wheels - and thus makes an ordinary Wrangler look like Fluffy, Queen of the Barbie Rubicon - it's no handbuilt one-off.
Surprisingly, the J8's life began in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Chrysler introduced the truck two years ago at the Defence Systems & Equipment International trade show, a biannual British gathering that caters to the security industry. The truck unveiled there was essentially a beefier version of the current civilian Wrangler, one gifted with everything from reinforced body panels and rear leaf springs to a 158-hp turbo-diesel with 295 lb-ft of torque and a sandstorm-friendly (five hours in zero visibility) air filter and snorkel. It was targeted at Middle East militaries and set up for easy assembly from completely knocked-down (CKD) kits. Predictably, Chrysler then refused to certify the J8 for U.S. sale. Stateside Jeep nuts howled in disapproval.