Most of the time, products are built around a vehicle. This time, a vehicle was built around a product. Frank Currie spied American Expedition Vehicles' Highline body kit for Jeep TJ Wranglers at its Moab debut three years ago. Plans for a Jeep buildup were instantly set in motion. AEV's kit includes a stamped-steel hood, stamped-steel front fenders, four fender flares (two front and two rear), and a pair of battery-tray supports. Although the Highline kit is topnotch in fit and finish, its appeal goes well beyond the aesthetic and firmly into the functional. The Highline body kit raises the front fender height and creates extra room beneath. Taller fenderwell cavities mean that larger tires will fit at much lower lift heights. Lower lift height means a lower center of gravity and greater ease of ingress and egress.
Before going further, a bit of background is in order. The Highline-equipped Wrangler on these pages is far from Frank's first Jeep. Instead, it's the latest in a series. Prior to building the Highline TJ, Frank put together a red, V8-powered TJ on 40-inch Goodyear MT/Rs called the Strangler. The concept behind the Strangler was to have "the ultimate all-around Jeep." It turns out that 40-inch tires make for tough going if daily driving and general trail riding are on the menu. As such, Frank decided that his Jeeping world was better off with two vehicles. The first would be built for trail riding and general exploring, and it would be street-driven. The second would be a hard-core rock buggy capable of taking on whatever series of obstacles could be thrown at it. The Highline TJ is the first on Frank's two-Jeep list.
Frank's blank TJ canvas appeared on a used-car lot in completely un-glorified form. It was a base model with a four-cylinder engine under the hood and a delectably low asking price. It couldn't have been more perfect, as the buildup plans called for nearly every major component to be replaced. Frank pulled his new prize into his home garage, and the transformation began.
Fitting the AEV Highline kit was the first order of business. The hood simply bolts in place of the stocker. The front fenders bolt in place using modified support brackets. Next, the AEV flares bolt to the Highline fenders and the stock rear body panels. Since 37-inch tires were destined for the TJ, Frank trimmed the rear body tub per AEV instructions for proper clearance. The resulting body configuration allows this TJ on 37s to sit 2 inches lower than a TJ with stock body panels on 35s. To put this further into perspective, Frank's TJ has a ride height equivalent to a stock TJ fitted with comparatively puny 32-inchers.
After the Highline kit was in place, the stock four-cylinder engine made a quick exit. In its place, Frank slung a Chevy LS1 plucked from a Camaro at a local salvage yard. A 4L60E transmission backs up the LS1, which feeds into the stock NP231 transfer case. The 231's weak points were addressed by fitting an Advance Adapters heavy-duty slip-yoke eliminator kit and a 2-Lo kit that allows low-range operation in two-wheel drive.
The stock axles and suspension were next to get the axe. The TJ's stock suspension design is already good, so there was no need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The front Dana 30 was replaced by a Currie High-Pinion 9-inch that uses 1/2-ton TJ knuckles and Currie Currectlync steering components. The Dana 35 rearend was ditched in favor of a RockJock Dana 60 with its trademark aluminum centersection. In front, a Currie three-link articulates more freely than the stock four-link and positions the front axle 1-1/2 inches farther forward. This improves approach angle and high-speed stability. At the rear, a Currie J-arm suspension was configured to scoot the RockJock 4 inches rearward from the stock position. The stock coils were replaced with 2-inch lift springs that work in concert with Rancho's adjustable RS9000 dampers. Combined, the new suspension offers a smoother ride, better articulation, and 5-1/2 inches of additional wheelbase.
Finally, the TJ was ready for a set of 37-inch Goodyear MT/Rs wrapped around 15-inch Walker Evans bead-lock wheels. Fifteen-inch wheels and 37-inch rubber make for a lot of "big, fluffy" sidewall, and that's just how Mr. Currie likes it. Eventually, Frank's supply of these tires will dry up (Goodyear no longer makes this tire size), and the Highline TJ will then sport 37s on 17-inch wheels.
On paper, the Highline TJ has everything needed to be the ultimate exploration and trail-riding Jeep. Paper doesn't cut it (pun stumbled across unintentionally), so a day on the trail was in order. Yours truly was able to ride along with Frank's son Ray as he put the Highline TJ through its intended paces, which means we drove through a little bit of everything. We met at the Currie Enterprises shop in Anaheim, California, and made our way up to the curvy mountain roads and the rocky trails of Big Bear. John Currie and David Castillo went along in the four-door Currie Cruiser (see May '08) just in case something happened and because a day on the trail always beats a day in the shop.
On the freeway, there was no lack of acceleration, and the ride was smooth and predictable, even over the jarring expansion cracks of the SoCal freeway system. On the mountain roads, a pair of Currie Antirock sway bars kept body roll in check for predictable handling. On the trail, the 37s made the rocks seem small and manageable instead of sizeable and intimidating. The low center of gravity made for a secure-feeling ride whether on high-speed asphalt or low-range dusty granite.
Frank Currie set out to build the ultimate Jeep for trail riding and exploring. Did he do it? Yes. After only a day in the saddle, we can say that the best line to take with a TJ is the Highline.