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.
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.
Due in part to the remote location and the absurd amount of money changing hands – Bodie’s mines yielded roughly $100 million in gold and silver before they gave out – the town soon developed a reputation as one of the nastiest places in the West. In 1881, the Reverend F. M. Warrington called Bodie “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion,” and that same year, a local newspaper reported that the area was becoming a virtual paradise, with “no killing in the past week.” Fatal gunfights happened almost every day, winter travel usually meant death by blizzard, and unless you were broke or dumber than a bag of hammers, it was best to avoid the area altogether.
Predictably, the very reason for Bodie’s existence was also its undoing. When the best mines played out in the early 1880s, the town collapsed, losing about two-thirds of its population in two years. The next half century brought rapid decay: two major fires, the sale of the local railway for scrap, the move of the post office to an old woman’s house on Main Street, and rampant exodus. By the time the area was declared a California state historic park in 1962, only a few people were left. (Local opinion holds that they weren’t the sharpest pickaxes in the shed. Go figure.)
We rolled the J8 into Bodie not to the tune of gunshots but to the sound of clicking camera shutters. We were met by a surprising number of tourists, interlopers who took the one smooth gravel road into town, the road we had purposely avoided. The California park service has maintained Bodie in a state of so-called arrested decay since it took possession, aiming to minimize deterioration. The result is an odd mix of sight-seers, furniture-filled dead buildings, and rural Americana. It’s like something out of a Dorothea Lange exhibit, or maybe the world’s most authentic Hollywood back lot. The barren landscape and sun-baked abandonment seemed to mesh well with the J8’s groove, but after wandering around and shooting a few pictures, we decided to head out in search of wilder climes.
When I asked Harriton to drive for a while, he took the bit in his teeth, flinging the J8 down a side trail, burying it up to its headlights in an overflowing creek, and generally appearing unfazed by the severe lack of pavement. (When I later asked him how bad the road was by Jeep standards, he laconically replied, “Nothin’ much – maybe a two out of ten.” If nothing else, this is proof that when society collapses, postapocalyptic Jeep freaks will run the taxi services.)
Owing to its stiffer springs and more precisely tuned dampers, the J8 is only slightly less comfortable than an ordinary Wrangler. It trundles over the road with a nose-down, dog-will-hunt sort of vibe, oozing just enough raw focus to remind you that you’re in a machine designed to haul people off to war. It also handles better – a lot better – than an ordinary Wrangler on paved roads, with much less pitch and roll and a lot more high-speed stability. The turbo-diesel four is a little sleepy when prodded, but it offers bags of torque and feels unburstable. John Wayne would approve.
Leaving Bodie on the sole eastbound road out of town, we dove into a mirror-scrapingly narrow canyon, crossed the Nevada border on an unimproved two-track, and headed toward the closest village on the map. A short jaunt up a nearby ridge, one torrential rainstorm, and some knee-deep mud later – nothing claws through soupy dirt like a Jeep getting its war on – we found a marker commemorating the long-dead mining burg of Aurora, a hilltop whistle-stop that peaked during the Civil War.
Once the J8 dug its way past the dirt-spattered marker and into the next clearing, we both fell silent. Like so many defunct western towns, Aurora didn’t so much die off as vanish into the bush. Unlike Bodie, there were no tourists poking around the old buildings, just a barely visible dirt road, a bunch of mud, and a handful of tombstones. Oddly, the contrast of wilderness and spent humanity hit me harder than the perpetual still-life glory of Bodie – unlike much of modern California, Aurora came across as honest and organic, a stark reminder that America’s love affair with progress can often be a little heartless.
In the end, that notion has a lot to do with why the J8 works. By honing in on a compelling mix of history and purposeful charm, it reminds us of what we love about, and what has gone missing from, Detroit’s most iconic brand. By focusing on progress – a tamer disposition, greater ride comfort, etc. – instead of personality, Chrysler has strayed from the intangible qualities that make Jeep, as a marque, so special.
Thankfully, the J8 is rolling, reassuring proof that the basic ingredients are still there, just waiting to be unearthed. And although Chrysler may not offer Jeep diehards the old-school Wrangler that they deserve, that’s OK, because Dave Harriton does. And I suspect that he’ll sell every last one he can make.
Q&A: Dave Harriton, Founder, American Expedition Vehicles
How involved is Chrysler in AEV’s production efforts?
Not a great deal. All they do is allow us to buy the parts; we’re making the J8, but the end customer is the manufacturer of record.
You’ve worked closely with Chrysler for a decade. How has the company changed in the wake of bankruptcy?
It’s actually kind of cool – it’s much easier to get things done. The huge housecleaning made a difference; we started the J8 program last February, and it went through pretty quickly, well before the end of the summer. Two or three years ago, that never would’ve happened. There’s much more of an entrepreneurial attitude there now – individuals are taking initiative, and people seem to care a little more. It’s like someone’s taken a very large weight off the company’s chest.
WHAT MAKES A J8 A J8 – or – WHEN IS A JEEP WRANGLER NOT A JEEP WRANGLER?
Wondering why the AEV J8 doesn’t look that different from a civilian Wrangler? The answer is simple: like most military vehicles, it puts function ahead of form. Here’s what you get for $42,300:
- Reinforced Jeep Wrangler chassis (two- or four-door)
- No engine (2.8-liter turbo-diesel I-4 or 5.7-liter Chrysler V-8 recommended)
- No transmission (five-speed automatic recommended with either engine; six-speed manual also recommended with V-8)
- Wrangler Rubicon-spec Dana 44 front axle
- Limited-slip-equipped, leaf-sprung Dana 60 rear axle
- Uprated towing and payload capacities (7718 and 2952 pounds, respectively; in 2.8-liter Jeep J8 form)
- Recalibrated suspension (stiffer springs and Monroe dampers)
- Dodge Ram disc brakes, ABS
- Seventeen-inch Dodge Ram steel wheels
- 255/80QR-17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM2 tires
- No sound deadening, no carpet, no radio
- Rear-mounted battery
- Sandstorm-capable air filter
- Engine snorkel (with thirty-inch fording capability)
- Heavy-duty helicopter-rated “lifting” tow hooks
- Pintle-type tow hitch
- Heavy-duty bumpers
- Reinforced tailgate
- Dual front air bags
- Tan or green paint (other colors available at additional cost)