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MCE Builds Lightweight JK For All-Purpose Wheeling

Posted in Features on September 3, 2015
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Photographers: Verne Simons

For the most part, we could all stand to go on a diet. That even includes our Jeeps. Lighter rigs with strong components are usually the top performers. Saving weight is a benefit that should include every section of the entire vehicle. A better power-to-weight ratio, less stress on the powertrain and drivetrain, and even different suspension dynamics can all make any Jeep a superstar on the trail and road. Seems like a no-brainer to drop some pounds, but what if you wanted to start over instead of modify? That is exactly what Jason Robson of Modern Classic Enterprises (MCE) did with its newest project build.

Robson initially came up with this build idea by driving a JK Unlimited for an extended time before the end of 2014. He genuinely liked it but saw a few shortfalls when it came to wheeling it. It was too heavy, too complicated, and didn’t have enough horsepower. Most of us can relate to these dilemmas. With the help of his business partner Mike Waclawski, and friends Kraski Gochev and Todd Thayer, Robson started construction on his aluminum JK.

The goal was simple: build a vehicle that was road worthy, dependable, lightweight, and straight-up good fun. Strong and lightweight is a theme running throughout the company, considering that MCE Flexible Fenders are manufactured with those goals in mind. The build process for the new Jeep started in a two-car garage, using a frame donated from a ’09 JK Unlimited. Robson was excited to get back to the basics and enjoy the build. His kids helped by running amuck around the garage and bringing tools to Dad.

Body Works
The original-equipment steel body is a substantial portion of the weight of any vehicle. To solve this big problem, Robson got in touch with the folks at Aqualu. A steel JK Unlimited body was sent to the Aqualu shop in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. There it was used it to model a full-aluminum replacement body. As of this report, we know of no other aluminum JK body in existence. Aqualu built the tub from 5/32-inch-thick 5052 aluminum. A set of aluminum half doors was added to the tub, reducing the overall weight even more. A grille shell, windshield frame, fenders, and hood from a ’15 JK were added to the body to complete the sheet metal. For front and rear frame protection, aluminum Savvy bumpers were installed. And of course, there are flexible MCE flares all the way around.

The interior design of the Jeep keeps the lightweight and simple theme running. Dakota Digital gauges were installed so Robson can stay “in the know” with the engine; a mixture of PRP and stock JK seats keep occupants off the floorboard; and a custom 8-point TIG-welded ’cage built from 1 1/2-inch tubing handles safety concerns. The buzz of the fuel pump scavenging gasoline from the ’71 Blazer 21-gallon fuel tank makes up for the lack of a stereo system.

Power Needs
Under the aluminum skin, Robson opted for a 5.3L Chevy LS motor, a 4L65E transmission augmented with an Art Carr shifter, and an NP 241C transfer case straight out of a ’06 Chevy pickup. An air intake was added to help the LS breathe, and Edelbrock headers were bolted on to let the exhaust flow quickly to a custom true dual exhaust.

To get better angles for the Tom Wood’s driveshafts, Robson bolted in an Off Road Design clocking ring and a JB Conversions slip yoke eliminator. The goal here was to have a motor that offered plenty of power, was simple to work on, and would have replacement parts readily available no matter where Robson decided to take his trail-ready rig.

Classy Chassis
The frame was cut down and some of the crossmembers replaced with aluminum pieces for strength without the weight of steel. Suspension duties are handled by a TeraFlex 3 1/2-inch suspension lift, TeraFlex coils and shocks up front, and stock JK coils out back with TeraFlex shocks. Robson custom built a 1 1/2-inch body lift to gain just a bit more clearance for the 37-inch race-compound General Grabbers. He mentioned that the tires wrapped around ATX Chamber Pro beadlocks work well when he drops them to 2 psi for the snow or 8 psi for the rocks.

Robson decided to stick with a JK Wrangler Dana 44 in the rear and a Teraflex D44 in the front. They are lighter than a Dana 60 and nearly as strong when you beef them up. A set of 4.88 ring-and-pinions was swapped in, a Detroit locker was planted in the rear, and an ARB air locker inhabits the front axle. To transfer power down to the wheels, a set of Nitro ’shafts were bolted in. A TeraFlex Big Brake upgrade was added to the front to help stop the beast. Robson fabricated the custom hard lines for the brake system.

Good Times
2015 was the 7th year of an annual tradition for Robson and his buddies to drive their Jeeps from the Pacific Northwest to Moab for the Easter Jeep Safari. His aluminum Jeep was finished up just before the Safari and then tested on a 1,100-mile, 20-hour break-in drive.

However, the group hit the trails of the La Sal Mountains hard before rolling into Moab. As Robson put it, “The adventure begins the moment the engine starts in the driveway.” Overall, he is happy with the performance, on- and off-road handing, and looks of his ultralight aluminum-bodied Jeep. Why wouldn’t he? His Jeep was built on a diet that any Hollywood starlet would envy.

HARD FACTS

Vehicle: ’09 JKU, custom Aqualu aluminum body
Engine: 5.3L LS V-8
Transmission: 4L65E five-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NP 241C
Suspension: TeraFlex 3 1/2-inch lift, TeraFlex shocks, TeraFlex rear front coils, OE rear coils
Axles: NG Dana 44 rear, TeraFlex D44 front; Detroit Locker rear, ARB Air Locker front, 4.88 gears
Wheels: 17x9 ATX Chamber Pro beadlocks
Tires: 37-inch race-spec General Grabbers
Built For: Long trips and trails.

Why I Wrote This:
Face it: How many all-aluminum bodied custom JKs have you seen? One. This is it, and it’s pretty cool. It’s got guts, and Robson drives it hard wherever he goes, so what’s not to like?

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