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 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.