In addition to being AEV's founder, Dave Harriton was one of those nuts. AEV has a long history with Chrysler, having crafted show cars for the company since 1999. That relationship enabled Harriton to obtain a supply of engineless, transmissionless J8 kits. AEV assembles the kits and sells them directly to consumers, who then obtain a drivetrain and registration through a network of independent dealers. ("For legal reasons," Harriton says, "we're not selling a Jeep. We're selling a collection of Jeep parts that happen to be assembled in the shape of a truck.") All told, the painted, drivetrain-ready package costs $42,300; drivetrain costs vary, but according to Harriton, most people budget another $12,000 or so to complete the project.
Jeep badging or not, AEV's J8 has an awful lot of Auburn Hills in its blood. The diesel fitted to our test vehicle is the same 2.8-liter VM Motori four-cylinder found in "official" J8s and is the same engine offered in the European-market Jeep Wrangler. (Conveniently, Chrysler's Hemi V-8s will also fit under the J8's hood.) The rear axle is a limited-slip, leaf-sprung Dana 60 similar to the one found in the old Dodge Ram SRT10. Steel wheels originally intended to be Ram spares fill the wheel wells, and the Wrangler Rubicon's beefy Dana 44 front end lives in the nose, albeit with thicker axle tubes.
Borrowed parts aside, the details are the best part: The tailgate, a mass of right angles and square tubing, looks as if it were built in someone's garage, or maybe a dingy tent in Fallujah. Lumpy cast-iron fittings and helicopter-rated tow hooks pepper the massive, bridge-girder-steel bumpers. A cheap toggle switch on the dash of this prototype J8 blacks out all the lights on command and makes you long for night-vision goggles. And although most Jeeps seem to beg for a manual transmission, the J8 makes do with a five-speed automatic because, Harriton claims, "all military vehicles are automatics - they're easier on maintenance and easier to drive when wounded."
Fittingly, the town of Bodie, California, was once a great place to get yourself shot. This mining village just northeast of Yosemite National Park was home to some 10,000 people in its heyday 130 years ago. Gold was discovered there in 1859, a decade after California's famed rush; by 1880, more than a mile of buildings lined Bodie's main drag, thirty mine shafts poked out of the nearby hills, and there were more than sixty saloons inside the town limits.