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Dare to Be Different: The Jeep JK Gladiator

Posted in Features on August 23, 2017
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Photographers: Trenton McGee

Let’s be honest. It’s nearly impossible to stand out from the crowd in a JK, especially at a Jeep event. JKs are insanely popular, insanely capable, and unfortunately, insanely boring a lot of the time. If it can be bolted on, then someone makes it for a JK; and the fact that no two JKs are alike is precisely what makes them all alike. Don’t get us wrong, we love everything the JK has done to bring new people into the off-road world, but it’s rare that we even give a late-model Wrangler a second look. The first time we saw a bad cell phone spy picture of Chris Durham’s latest creation, we knew we had to get the scoop. We managed to catch up with him during Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, where the one-of-a-kind JK made its debut.

Chris Durham is no stranger to Jp, magazines in general, or rock crawling. A highly successful rock crawler back when competitions were in their infancy, his aggressive driving style was similar to the rock bouncing that came much later. Chris has been involved in our sister publication’s (4-Wheel & Off-Road) Ultimate Adventure for many years, and he has also been the brains behind some very cool vehicles that have graced these pages in the past, including the OG CJ-10, the TJ-based low-slung Willy’s truck, and the ultra-low Magnum-powered JK Roadster that was on the cover last year.

Chris owns a custom shop in Pickens, South Carolina, and you never know what might roll out of his shop next. We were expecting the unexpected, yet we were still surprised when we laid eyes on the Gladiator nose the first time. Chris managed to meld the nose of a ’62-’71 Jeep Gladiator pickup to a JK, and he did it in such a way that the conversion looks factory. The centerpiece of the grille is from a vintage Jeep truck, but the rest is all custom conversion from the genius of Chris Durham. It’s different, refreshing, and we love it.

Why This Jeep
The answer to that may seem obvious given the JK/FSJ body blend that looks like it rolled out of the Toledo, Ohio, Jeep factory—but under the skin, this rig gets even better, if that could possibly happen. It’s mechanically amazing, and sturdy as a tank. But then again, Chris Durham built it.

Hard Facts

Vehicle: 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
Engine: 3.8L V-6
Transmission: stock automatic
Transfer Case: NP231 with TeraFlex 2-Lo
Suspension: Skyjacker 3.5-inch Long-Arm System
Axles: (front) J8 Dana 44, 5.38s, Detroit Locker; (rear) JK Dana 44, 5.38s, spool, 35-spline shafts
Steering: CDM 7075 aluminum steering upgrade
Wheels: 17-in BAD wheels
Tires: 38x13.50R17 Falken Wildpeak M/T
Other Stuff: Chris Durham Motorsports Gladiator conversion, 7-Slot Customs body armor, TEN Factory chromoly axle shafts, Barnes 4WD axle trusses and bumpers, Warn Xeon 10-S winch, Premier Power Welder, paint by Nick’s Customs

If someone had told us about this conversion before we actually saw it, we probably would have pooh-poohed it away. Like those Corvette conversions that append an early Vette nose and tail to a C5 or C6 chassis, mixing vintage and modern hardly ever looks right. Yet somehow the lines of the original Gladiator grille and the JK meld perfectly, and the end result could have easily come from the factory.
The hood and the grille are fiberglass that has been painted and distressed to have some vintage-looking patina. The factory JK headlights and turn signals are retained but relocated from their original positions, and those are the stock steel fenders. Nearly seamless inserts attach to the factory JK hood latch locations to change the shape of the fenders’ front edges to match the lines of the hood and grille. The center is an original J-truck insert sourced from eBay, but Chris has plans for an alternative center if originals prove hard to find. The marker lights are commonly available FSJ reproductions. The Barnes front bumper is a production JK piece that was shortened to match the grille and will be available as an option.
When comparing a real Gladiator nose and the Chris Durham Motorsports conversion side by side, it’s obvious that Chris didn’t have to mess with the lines of the original nose much in order to make it match a JK. Even the forward tilt of the grille is just like the original. The response has been so overwhelming that Chris has plans to make the Gladiator conversion available as a kit.
Knowing the stock Dana 30 would never survive with his occasionally heavy right foot, Chris sourced a J8 Dana 44 and filled it with Motive 5.38 gears, TEN Factory chromoly shafts, and a Detroit Locker. The housing is trussed and gusseted using Barnes 4WD components. The steering linkage is 7075 aluminum, and the brakes are upgraded using off-the-shelf Mopar components. Chris carries both a complete spare steering box and a spare sector shaft because JK boxes are so notorious for failure.
Out back is a stock JK Dana 44 that’s been fortified with a Barnes truss, 5.38 gears, and a 35-spline spool with TEN Factory shafts to match. Both axles are located with a Skyjacker Curt LeDuc-edition long-arm system and Fox coilover shocks at both ends. The lift height of the kit is adjustable from 3.5- to 6-inches, and Chris has it set pretty close to 3.5 inches for stability.
The Skyjacker long-arm kit offers plenty of travel to keep the 38-inch Falken Wildpeak M/T tires on the ground. Single-digit tire pressures are no problem thanks to a set of BAD wheels, which have internal beadlocks.
The rest of the build uses mostly off-the-shelf JK components, from the Barnes rocker armor and tailgate cover to the Bestop soft top. The fender flares are custom, but will be available with the Gladiator conversion. Note the rare bruise Chris put in the rear corner during our shoot, mostly due to our bad spotting.
Under the hood is mostly stock with the exception of a cold air intake and a Premier Power Welder. Note that the radiator and core support are completely stock, with practically no underhood alterations needed.
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