In our travels, we come across a lot of rigs on the trail. We see beaters and trailer queens with monster tires and toothpick axles, tall gears and puny mills, sky-high rigs with no forethought and scary 12-inch lift blocks, and wannabes and the real McCoy. That said, when we ran into Ron Phillips and his '95 Grand Cherokee at last year's Sierra Trek, we might have thought, "Hmm, another pretty Jeep." But that was before he crept by us and flashed a Tera 60 axle articulating off the back. Closer inspection revealed a spec sheet that would fill the Christmas wish list of any dirt-loving wheeler.
Spending his childhood years in the back of dad's corn-binder Scout II on weekend trips to the Southern California desert, getting his own 4x4 was a knee-jerk reaction for a kid with a new driver's license. And why not a Scout II like Dads? The modification of his first rig and his obsession for building the ultimate four-wheel vehicle had begun. Several vintage Toyota 4x4 pickups followed, each a step up on the four-wheeling food chain. Sometime in the late '80s, Ron's priorities became directed toward a serious career - he made the ultimate sacrifice: sell the wheeler, pony up for tuition, and head to college. After all, a decent job might net him the coin to build his dream rig someday.
Ron would eventually become a firefighter, and with a firefighter's flexible four-days-off schedule coupled with living in Northern California, the opportunity certainly existed for frequent trips to the Rubicon and Fordyce trails in the Sierra high country. It wasn't long before a position opened up in Sacramento, and the moving van was packed. When his folks were ready to unload the family's grocery-getter Grand Cherokee, Ron reflected back to his younger days and decided to keep the ZJ in the family. Not many on the trail, it had room for the dogs (the kids were grown), A/C, and you could sleep in the back if need be. However, the stock form wasn't going to cut it; the ZJ would need a major makeover if it were to see any serious trail time. The criteria were simple: no weak links! It needed to be able to drive to the trail, wheel with the best of them, and drive home.
We queried Ron about the cost involved in the build and his wife's take on the matter, because when the check list includes a new crate motor, mega-dollar axles, and all the bells and whistles, you find out pretty quickly if you've married the right girl. As it turned out, Ron did: "Natalie is the best dang wife in the world. Her only question was, 'When is it going to be done so we can go wheeling?'"
With the kids grown and booted out of the house, it was the adults' turn to play. Rubicon Express had just released its long-arm ZJ kit, and after a few hours of consultation with Jeep guru Scott Arentz at Extreme Gear in Sacramento, plans were drafted for the ultimate wheelin' ZJ. The plans were extensive and thoughtful and included brands like Tera, Advance Adapters, ARB, Goodyear, Mickey Thompson, Borla, Dutchman, Rancho... what the hell, the kids are gone, right?
The final mods were completed just in time for inaugural runs at the 53rd Jeepers Jamboree and 40th Annual Sierra Trek. So if you're looking to build up a Grand Cherokee and you're in need of the perfect blueprint, look no further than this wheelin' ZJ.