As soon as he received his license, Steve Wilson Sr. began his love affair with anything that had wheels. His first car was a ’63 VW, but it wasn’t long before he made his first Jeep purchase. That began his lifelong infatuation and appreciation of Jeeps, a passion that continues to this day. However, as can happen, life got in the way and his passion for Jeeps took a back seat to job and family.
Years passed. Then, out of the blue, his son Steve Jr. called and asked if he would like to put together a custom Jeep for the 2015 Vermont Overland Rally. Enthusiastic about the idea of having his son’s fully equipped Wilson & Steely Kustom Coachworks Restoration shop at his disposal, as well as the opportunity to share in a father/son experience, Steve Sr. eagerly accepted the challenge.
The guys went back and forth and then settled on a Jeep ’02 TJ Wrangler for the project. Steve Sr. threw himself into researching forums, magazines, reviews, and blogs to see what had already been tested and approved, yet would meet his ideas of what this vehicle should become.
Suspension/AxlesSteve Sr.’s 35 years of experience as a mechanic now proved crucial as he quickly switched out the Dana 35 rear axle for a Dana 44, then regeared the front and rear diffs with 4.56 ring-and-pinions, added ARB Air Lockers and upgraded chromoly axleshafts, and used a VANCO big brake kit with Black Magic pads to upgrade the front discs. A 3 1/2-inch MetalCloak suspension lift with adjustable upper and lower aluminum control arms and front and rear adjustable track bars was added. Bilstein 5100 shocks do damping duty on all four corners.
The trails they wanted to run demanded that 35s would be a must for the TJ, so a set of 35-inch BFGoodrich KM2s that fit nicely on the KMC XD Enduro wheels they wanted were picked up. The Wilsons also anticipated a lot of off-camber situations on the trails, so a front and rear Currie Antirock was added to the TJ to help make the Jeep more nimble and stable.
Powertrain PartsThe NP231 transfer case got a TeraLow 4:1 conversion kit, 2Low 2WD Low Range Shift Sector Kit, and an Extreme Short Shaft Kit. This gave the T-case much better off-road gearing and allowed for a less acute driveline angle. A 1-inch body lift was then installed so the T-case and NV3550 transmission could be moved higher into the tunnel. A new cable T-case shifter mechanism was added to prevent binding, and the trans lever was bent to clear the dash.
The 4.0L I-6 got a 1-inch motor mount lift to also gain a better overall driveline angle. As a result, the fan shroud had to be moved upward too. The motor was also treated to a Spectre cold-air intake, aluminum valve covers, and a MagnaFlow after-cat exhaust system. He then finished off the tummy tuck with a Savvy skidplate for the transfer case and engine and a MetalCloak skidplate for the gas tank. Tom Wood’s driveshafts were used front and rear.
Body BitsNext, Metal Cloak fully arched tube fenders and armor were installed, as well as a Poison Spyder louvered hood with Drake hood hold-downs. The bumpers were then updated to Smittybilt XRC units, with a trail tube modification applied to the front, and a tire carrier with a custom high-lift jack mount was added to the rear.
As the Jeep started to take shape, it was time to decide on a color. Steve Sr. wanted something bold. After seeing the beating Monstaliner do-it-yourself roll-on bedliner could take on his son’s CJ-8, Steve decided to go with the same product in an apocalypse orange tint for the body and black for the TJ’s hardtop.
Creature ComfortsSteve Sr. went to task installing the needed storage before completing any other interior modifications. A Smittybilt full back storage vault topped by a Tuffy vault and side speaker boxes were installed for ease of access to camping gear, spare parts, tools, food, and other necessary items since part of the rally including overnight self-sufficiency camping for the team members.
They added a Posion Spyder drop tailgate to make access to the equipment easier and gained the added bonus of a table for making the all-important coffee on cold mornings. Black Corbeau Baja VRS seats and harnesses were installed, followed by a simple Sony Bluetooth radio, and air pressure gauge was added to the center console to watch for leaks.
Next, an iPad mini with a Bad Elf GPS receiver installed was mounted on the dash for hands-free navigation on the challenging trails. A CB radio was installed in a Tuffy overhead console for communication between other vehicles, and a custom built switch panel was placed on the center dash filled with Carling rocker switches for control of the ARB Air Lockers, dual compressor, rock lights, fog lights, rear lights, hood lights, and rooftop lightbar.
Last but not least, a Smittybilt Defender roof rack was installed, providing a mounting location for gas and water cans, plus the ARB awning with tent. As Steve Sr. knew from his years of camping, you can never have enough storage.
With a dedication bordering on obsession and only a week left, Steve Sr., his son, and the rest of the shop employees pitched in with the finishing touches. Finally, after months of hard work, the TJ was done. They were now ready for the 2015 Vermont Overland Rally.
Good, Bad, And What It’s ForYou may or may not be a fan of “bedliner paint jobs,” but overall, their hard work paid off. With obstacles aptly named “Agony Road” and the “Can Opener,” as well as fording 3-foot-deep mud holes, each day of the Vermont Overland Rally was filled with adventure and challenge, pushing the father/son team and their vehicle to perform. All the months of hard work has been worthwhile, and they now had a kickass Jeep, as well as memories of a grand adventure done together.
Why I Wrote This FeatureA good build is great, but even better is a build for a purpose. The Wilsons’ ’02 Jeep TJ Wrangler was designed as an adventure/overlanding rig, and it does that job very well. However, it can also deal the cards when it comes to a rocky trail.
HARD FACTS:Vehicle: ’02 Jeep TJ Wrangler
Engine: 4.0L I-6, Spectre cold-air intake, MagnaFlow after-cat exhaust
Transmission: NV3550 5-speed manual
Transfer Case: NP231 with TeraLow 4:1 conversion, and extreme short shaft kit
Suspension: MetalCloak 3 1/2-inch suspension lift, adjustable aluminum upper and lower control arms, Bilstein 5100 shocks
Axles: (front) Dana 30, 4.56 ARB Air Locker, chromoly ’shafts; (rear) Dana 44, 4.56 ARB Air Locker, chromoly shafts
Wheels: KMC XD Enduro
Tires: 35-inch BFGoodrich KM2
Built For: Adventure/overlanding