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2004 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hemi - Sprayed Hemi

Posted in Features on November 23, 2006
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Contributors: Rob Hall
Photographers: Rob HallC.L. Fry

When Dan Hightower started out modifying Jeeps 40 years ago, he never dreamed he'd end up with the one he has now. His first Jeep wound up with a Chevy V-8 long before any adapters were offered. Many years later, he purchased this '04 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and turned it into a masterpiece of metal. After having a garage full of trail machines, he changed his normal modification process to include not only setting up the vehicle to get there and back but also to turn a head or two on the trail.

Working as the Texas distributor for Vortex Spray-On Liners, Dan felt that his '04 Rubicon could do with a bit of weatherproofing to help it withstand the harsh off-road environment it so often sees. The Vortex material is a two-part, spray-on, poly-based epoxy, and the application process is performed with a 110-volt portable spray machine. It is self-contained and includes the pumps and blower system in one package. The ability to move it around affords the versatility to spray items such as decks, heavy equipment, and Jeep tubs that are off the frame and immobile.

The new Hemi engine looks right at home in this Jeep.

The base '04 Rubicon performed well off-road, but it was sluggish (to say the least) on the highway. Dan enlisted the help of Atomic 4x4 in Cedar Park, Texas, to give his "little red wagon" a new heart. A 5.7L Hemi was selected to take the 4.0L's place. The swap requires using the automatic transmission from the V-8, while the Rubicon's NVG231OR Rock-Trac transfer case was retained. To shoehorn a huge block into the TJ chassis, the stock engine mounts were removed and new mounts from Atomic 4x4 were welded into place.

Once the engine was fitted, the suspension pieces were added to the chassis. Each piece of the Full-Traction 6-inch long-arm kit was masked and coated in the Vortex material. This process proved to be a painstakingly long one, but the results were worth it. The coating provides a tough, fracture-resistant surface that is impervious to water, oil, and gasoline, and is easy to clean. The 6-inch front springs were swapped for a set of 4-inch because an adjustable coil-spring spacer from JKS was used to dial in the final ride height.

Both the front and rear skidplates from Kilby look great coated in red and provide all the protection Dan requires under his rig.

Dan also wanted to coat the inside of the tub with Vortex. The floor and sides were sanded with 80-grit sandpaper to ensure a good bond, and the entire tub was shot red to match the outside. The material looks great, is durable, and works as an insulator to keep road noise to a minimum. With the tub empty, the custom interior from Katzkin Leather was easily swapped in. The old seat skins were pulled off and new ones were installed at a local upholstery shop.

Dan ordered Hanson Enterprise bumpers and rock sliders in bare metal so they could also be coated with Vortex. A quick trip to Town and Country Sandblasting and the metal was rough enough to coat. These pieces were shot in a standard black color and textured with the finest setting of the machine.

A set of Bushwacker 6-inch fender flares was sent to the body shop for paint-matching, and the trail corners were given the same Vortex bath as the bumpers, which provides a seamless look for the rear. The flares are made from a flexible, plastic-like material that resists tearing and retains its original shape even after an impact. Speaking of impact, the steering box and gas tank are on the front line of approach and departure on a Wrangler, so Atomic ordered a set of Kilby skidplates for the front and rear. These are super-thick and can take a serious beating. Red Vortex was applied to match the body and to protect them from chips and gouges.

Since the Jeep would see time on the trails, an aggressive tire was necessarily selected. Toyo had sponsored Dan when he raced Nissan/Datsun Z-cars in the '70s, thus he felt that the company's tires should be a part of his Rubicon. He chose Open Country M/Ts for their heavy sidewall and aggressive tread pattern. With 6 inches of lift on this Jeep, 35x13.50R15 tires and TrailReady beadlocks on 15x10 wheels look and work great.

The stock Dana 44s were retained, with the exception of a 33-spline ARB locker out back and a 30-spline version up front. The decision to keep the 44s was made easier by utilizing Big Spline shafts from Superior Axle & Gear. The stock 4.10 gears were tossed in favor of a more trail-friendly 4.56-ratio set. Atomic 4x4 was able to get a pair of preproduction differential covers from Riddler Manufacturing. These cast-steel covers are super-strong and fit easily into Dan's budget.

PhotosView Slideshow

Performance upgrades for the 5.7L Hemi included a K&N cold-air intake pirated from a Chrysler 300C, and a set of Performance Distributors LiveWires. Since this is a custom installation, an off-the-shelf intake system didn't exist, and the 300C kit just happened to have "good bends." The wires, however, were a set specifically for an '04 Dodge Hemi truck. LiveWires come with space-age, heat-resistant sleeving to provide protection from exhaust heat. The sleeving is heat-treated glass braid and is nonflammable and noncorrosive.

All the power and performance are no good without safety. A Rock Hard 4x4 bolt-in 'cage was fitted to the bulkhead and strung along to the rear hoops. This 'cage allows the soft top to be reused. It can be ordered with an optional bar that ties the bulkhead to the floor and ultimately into the frame. We hope Dan doesn't have to use this 'cage, but it's there if he needs it.

Dan's Jeep is both a handful and a pleasure to drive, all depending on how far you push the gas pedal. A 345hp Hemi is not an uncontrollable beast - you just have to keep one hand on the wheel at all times. The power is managed by the 45RFE automatic transmission and shifts are crisp and timely. On the rocks in 4-Lo, this Jeep really shines. The torque is so available off idle that only slight feathering of the pedal is needed to hop up on ledges that once required more momentum. The bottom line is this is a go-anywhere, do-anything Jeep that will last Dan a lifetime. When they ask, "That thing got a Hemi?", Dan just smiles and says, "Do you want to race?"

PhotosView Slideshow
Year/Make/Model: '04 {{{Jeep Wrangler}}} Rubicon
Owner: Dan Hightower
Engine: 5.7L Hemi
Transmission: 45RFE automatic
Transfer Case: Rock-Trac 241OR
Frontend: Dana 44 axle, 30-spline
ARB locker
Rearend: Dana 44 axle, 33-spline
ARB locker
Ring-and-pinion: 4.56
Suspension: Full-Traction 6-inch

35x13.50R15 Toyo
Open Country {{{M}}}/Ts/15x10
TrailReady beadlocks

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