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1997 Jeep Wrangler Pickup - Dumpster Dive

Posted in Features on September 22, 2014
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What do you do if you have a pile of Jeep parts, some spare time, and an amazing talent for bodywork? If you’re John Hendrix, you build a one-of-a-kind TJ pickup. With the want for something different and the skillset to achieve his goals, Hendrix bartered, scavenged, and fabricated his ’97 Wrangler into the super-low machine you see here today. We caught up with Hendrix on the Jeep’s maiden voyage at the Flats ORV Park in Marion, North Carolina. Although Hendrix states there are more tweaks to come, we were more than impressed with the ingenuity in the project we saw before us.

Despite starting with a ’97 TJ frame, Hendrix left very few areas of the chassis untouched. Starting up front, the Wrangler received a Rokmen Mercenary stubby front bumper, which was fit with a Warn M8000 winch and Viking synthetic rope. Secured just below the high-clearance bumper is a Currie Antirock sway bar, which adds extra stability to the already low-slung setup. Since the front axle was plucked from a Jeep Wrangler JK, the TJ’s stock suspension brackets didn’t line up.

Hendrix overcame this problem by fabricating a custom five-link suspension. Using Currie Johnny Joints for his link ends and 12-inch-travel Fox coilovers, the setup is durable and dialed for both on- and off-road performance. Another add-on to provide versatility was a hydro-assist steering system from PSC Motorsports. Given the Jeep does have such a low stance, Hendrix raised the stock body mounts up one inch via a GenRight Off Road kit.

After spot welding these parts together at my work, I began

Even more care was taken to flatten out the belly. The high-clearance setup uses a custom transmission crossmember and T6061 aluminum bellypan, which places the bottom of the pan a cool 17 inches from the ground below. To support the 55-inch-long bed assembly, a 2x3-inch box-steel frame was created. This budget-friendly steel graft retains the original frame-width but extends the wheelbase to a more stable 115 inches.

Suspending the rear is a custom spring-under leaf setup. The leaf packs are a combination of Crown XJ rear springs, with an Iron Rock Off Road add-a-leaf added to each pack. To attach the 10-inch-travel rear shocks, a set of custom towers were notched into the frame. Finishing out the back is a Rokmen TJ rear bumper and Pure Jeep fuel tank.

Future plans of a more serious powerplant are high on Hendrix’s list, but for now, the stock 4.0L inline-six will have to do. Other than a custom cold-air intake, which his DIY highline conversion required, the engine remains stock. To make the TJ pickup more highway friendly, an AW4 transmission was swapped in from a late-model Jeep Cherokee XJ. Splitting the power is a NP231 T-case, which was outfitted with an Advance Adapters slip-yoke eliminator, along with a Novak cable shifter.

Hendrix scored such a good deal on the JK axles; he couldn’t help but use the slightly wider set under his TJ. Up front rests a JK high-pinion Dana 30, which was fit with a Synergy Manufacturing axle gusset kit and 5.13 gears. Out back, a 30-spline non-Rubicon JK Dana 44 axle was stripped of its original brackets and outfitted with matching 5.13 gears. EBC Yellow Stuff pads where used with Centric Premium rotors to slow down the 37x12.50R17 Goodyear MT/Rs. Using his talents with a paint gun, Hendrix doused 17-inch JK Moab wheels with a gun-metal finish.

Body and Interior
There is so much custom bodywork on this rig, we barely have the room to cover it all. For starters, the stock hood was trimmed three inches to make way for the DIY highline and Rokmen fenders. Not one to overlook details, Hendrix re-attached the stock hood bottom to give the hood a smooth underside and stock appearance.

Of course, the real magic of this rig is in the bed conversion. Hendrix states that it all started when he “cut a section out of the side of the tub to take to my local metalworker’s shop. They were able to duplicate the top edge of the tub in two body panels to make the bedsides. After this was done, I mocked up the bed with two OEM belt rails from an LJ and two OEM repair corners from a Jeep.

contemplating ideas for an inner-bed floor. I happened to have just repaired a Toyota Tacoma and still had the composite bed assembly lying out behind the shop. After a few quick measurements and some head scratching, I started cutting the bed assembly down to size. Three hours later, I had the new bedsides assembled and clamped to the composite bed.

“I made some side and rear plates to reinforce the bedsides and got it ready for paint. I chose a P72 New Holland Blue for the color. I then spent the next few weeks working on building the inner panels and welding in a toolbox that I had been saving from a ’90s model S-10. Once everything was welded up, I ordered LJ armor and a set of trail corners from Rokmen. I flipped the trail corners RH to LH upside down, which gave me the material I needed to create full cab armor to protect it from any side impacts.

“Finally, the hardtop was built from an Iron Horse fiberglass TJ hardtop. It was pretty badly busted and was a two-piece full top. I had to cut the rear section off and move it forward to make a half-cab. I fiberglassed the three-piece top back together and cutout a template to give to a friend that does custom glass work.”

Good, Bad, and What It’s For
Once you get past ogling the bed, you’ll notice that the Jeep sits extremely low. The bodywork is hands-down some of the nicest we’ve seen on daily driven Jeep. So nice, we’d have a hard time twisting the Jeep through a tree-lined trail with a clear conscience. Without question, it needs lockers and a little more fine tuning to keep the tires from digging into the sheetmetal out back. Given that this started out as a pile of parts and an impulse to simply build a unique daily driver, it’s just about perfect for its intended use.

PhotosView Slideshow

Hard Facts
Vehicle: 1997 Jeep Wrangler
Engine: 4.0L inline-six
Transmission: AW4
Transfer Case: NP231
Suspension: Five-link w/Fox coilovers (front), custom leaf-springs w/Fox shocks (rear)
Axles: JK high-pinion Dana 30 (front), JK Dana 44 (rear)
Wheels: 17x8 JK Moab
Tires: 37x12.50R17 Goodyear MT/R
Built For: Daily driving

Why I Wrote This Feature
Having owned a TJ for over a decade, I can attest to many hours bench racing different ways to convert my Wrangler to a truck. Sure, American Expedition Vehicles makes a great conversion, but it isn’t cheap. Understanding that Hendrix has the time, tools, and talent to make this look deceptively simple, it still reignites that fire to look for a more inexpensive way to build a TJ-based pickup.
—Ali Mansour

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