Part 3: 1997-2012
To celebrate 70 years of Jeeps, we wrap up our series with recent vehicles, events, and the people who helped distance the brand from its imitators. The year 1997 was significant for two reasons. First and foremost, the TJ was introduced with eye-raising quad-coil suspension and a welcome return to round headlights. Also introduced that year was the Scorpion MK1. Soni Honnnegar and Heath Biggs’ long-travel, tube-framed rock buggy went way beyond the limitations of stock-framed vehicles.
“Extreme” Jeepers, many of whom began entering rockcrawling competitions in the mid to late ’90s, came to a fork in the trail. They had to either “keep it real” and see how far they could go in a still-Jeep vehicle (Ned Bacon is an example) or stay on the cutting-edge of trail-based technology and go the rock-buggy route, like Shannon Campbell did.
(Note: A common denominator for long-travel Jeep experimentation was Editor Rick Péwé’s former Republic Off-Road shop in Tempe, Arizona. Innovators who worked or hung out there included Ned Bacon, Shannon Campbell, and Randy Ellis. Wide-track axles, SOA conversions, and the discovery that aggressive mud tires excelled in rock are part of the shop’s legacy.)
The Death of Leaves
The quest for maximum suspension travel/articulation defines Jeep performance. Jeepers in the Rockies and Sun-belt in particular wanted to be the first to scale certain natural obstacles. Aftermarket kits were engineered for broad appeal and easy installation. Leaf limitations were pushed with innovations such as spring-over-axle conversions, shackle reversals, and race-inspired quarter-elliptical springs.
By the mid ’90s, leaves had reached their limits. Ned Bacon was one of the first enthusiasts to replace leaves with coils. In 1996, the industry’s first coil-conversion kit, the Black Diamond XCL, hit the market. That and the OE coils on the ’97 TJ confirmed leaves as antiquated technology for short-wheelbase Jeeps.
Competitions advanced Jeep trail technology. Although not limited to short-wheelbase vehicles, the first Four Wheeler magazine Top Truck Challenge (1993) attracted extreme Jeepers Rick Péwé and Ned Bacon. In 1998, the BFG National Rockcrawling Championship brought trail riders together to see who could conquer Las Cruces’ natural obstacles the most elegantly. The field included Randy Ellis, the late Harold Off, Shannon Campbell, Ned Bacon, Rod Pepper, John and Frank Currie, and Dan Mick. Jeff Waggoner ended up taking the title.
Like war, competition brings people together. The Rock Crawling Champion-ships and series they spawned (ARCA, ProRock, W.E.Rock, UROC, CalRocks, XRRA, Ultra4) put the innovators in the same place at the same time. Media coverage allowed all enthusiasts access to what worked, won, and why.
Beyond documenting the advances in the field, the media also attempted to influence Jeep trends. Magazine projects combined influences from top builders and technologically advanced manufacturers. Jeep itself eventually embraced this approach, creating its own project vehicles through its Skunkworks/Mopar Underground division.
This concludes our aftermarket tribute to 70 years of Jeep action. The utilitarian World War II weapon went on to become the catalyst for uncivilized automotive adventure. Thankfully, Jeep enthusiasm seems poised for many more years of defining 4x4 capability and customizing. No other vehicle’s enthusiast base has influenced the assembly line as much as Jeep’s. We attempted to present a slice of the people and vehicles that helped make Jeep much more than just a badge on a 4x4.