Part 1: Introduction And Disassembly
(Editors note: Never before in Four Wheeler's 45-plus years has there been a project vehicle more well-known than our beloved teal-blue '97 Jeep Wrangler. Similarly, Chrysler's North American product portfolio has enjoyed a decade of undisputed success thanks in part to the TJ model. Perhaps it is appropriate to say that the majority of our countrymen embrace the great outdoors and whatever adventures exist beyond the artificial network of asphalt and progress. Or maybe it's just the allure that comes from tossing in the old fishing rod or swift-water kayak and heading out into the backcountry just because you can. After all, life in suburbia can be pretty monotonous without some form of external endangerment, right? That was the idea behind Teal-J when Chrysler gifted her to us back in 1996. Back then it didn't take long for our staff to add a whole assortment of bolt-on parts, arming Teal-J for outback amusement. Fast forward 10 years and Teal-J is still chugging right along, only now she's been modified so drastically there isn't much Jeep left. Luckily Chrysler honored Four Wheeler again. This time with a new red four-door JK Unlimited, which we're sure Jeep purists won't disapprove of. However, this did present a whole new question; what's going to happen to Teal-J?)
American Expedition Vehicles (AEV), of Missoula, Montana, has been at it for just over 10 years now. Regarded as a leader in Jeep aftermarket parts, conversions, and vehicle buildups, AEV's owner Dave Harriton ranks right up there with aftermarket styling legends like Chip Foose and Carroll Shelby, transforming otherwise ordinary vehicles into show-stopping marvels quite unlike anything else. Unprecedented quality, along with original styling, gives AEV the upper hand in vehicle accessorizing. The Brute Pickup conversion, for example, adds pickup truck utility while enhancing the unique character of the Jeep TJ. We fell in love with the Brute concept at the 2006 SEMA show. The fact that anyone can take a '97-'06 TJ and transform it into a midsized pickup in just about 60 hours intrigued us. So we got in touch with AEV and proposed the idea of performing the conversion on Teal-J. Luckily they agreed to the deal and shipped out one of the very first production kits including stamped-steel body parts, frame extensions, and a injection-molded composite hardtop. As the pallets arrived, we marveled at the quality and attention to detail found on each and every item.
We knew we needed a fab shop with an extensive background in body work to do this conversion justice. We also assumed performing the very first production Brute conversion would include a fair amount of stumbling blocks, especially since nobody other than AEV has done a conversion. So we made some calls and did some digging. Our doubts about the project quickly vanished when we spoke to Dustin Chernoh of DC Customs in Ukiah, California. Dustin started his career in the autobody industry 15 years ago. However, his love for four-wheeling overcame his everyday struggle to make a paycheck when he decided to open a four-wheel-drive shop. DC Customs has been around for four years and is quite capable of everything from bolt-on suspension systems to custom fabrication. We flat-towed Teal-J into DC Customs on the first Monday afternoon in March, knowing full well we'd never see her as a Jeep Wrangler again.
As the professionals at DC Customs stripped Teal of all her componentry, we were reminded that each and every editor throughout the years had left an obvious impression on the project, some of which entailed a lot of massaging to undo. With less than a month to get the project done, DC Customs's crew felt confident that Feature Editor Robin Stover would be driving a Brute in time for Easter Jeep Safari 2007.