The Hot-Rod 'Banger TJ
We're not too crazy about seeing advertisers' company vehicles featured in magazines. From a reader's perspective, why should somebody be forced to flip through pages and pages of Joe Advertiser's stickered-up TJ just because their company buys ink to sell its product?
While lining up for a trail ride in the parking lot of the Moab Diner during the '06 Moab Easter Jeep Safari, the little TJ parked in the back of the lot beckoned to us with the right stance, the right look, and the right color. After making a quick 360 around it, we left business cards under the wiper and hit the trail. Later on, we got a call from Jack Schuler from Avenger Superchargers asking us what the hell we wanted. So, in our defense, we really had no idea who owned this cool little hot rod TJ when we spied it and decided it was feature worthy.
What we really froth over is the fact that, although it's an '03 model, it's just as much of a hot rod to us as any '23 Ford. Only instead of running an Ardun-headed 'banger four, this one runs a supercharged, intercooled DOHC 2.4L. No matter what you lay eyes on, some sort of trickery has been done to either clean the lines, lose weight, increase performance, or make it wheel better. Read on to see how Jack turned a stripped-out, recovered-theft TJ he dubbed "Scrappy" into a clean machine that scoots along the trail as well as it does down the road.
For starters, even the untrained eye notices that the tires sit comfortably close to the front and rear bumpers. The front axle was moved forward just a tick with custom-built longer upper and lower control arms built in-house at the Avenger shop. The stock control-arm mounts were cut off and moved back on the frame. Up front, the factory coils and shocks were cut off and tossed in favor of some Sway-A-Way air shocks mounted on some simple custom shock hoops.
Out back, the factory control-arm mounts were retained, but some custom-length arms were built to stretch the wheelbase out to 103 inches. The rear coil buckets and track bar bracket were lopped off and moved back on the frame. The frame was frenched to keep the rear coil buckets level in their new mounting position. The stock coils ride on 1-inch spacers and are damped by a pair of Old Man Emu shocks.
Underneath all that whiz-bang suspension sit the stock Dana 30 and Dana 35 axles. While we may bag on the D35 here in print, but even though the engine pumps out 182 hp at the flywheel it's up to the task, thanks to this TJ's automatic tranny and very light weight. To bolster the axles, Jack installed Superior Axle & Gear alloy axleshafts, 4.88 gears, and a Lock-Right locker in the front Dana 30. The rear Dana 35 received a Superior Super 35 kit with 30-spline shafts and a Detroit Locker, all spinning 4.88 gears.
Moving up the drivetrain, a pair of CV driveshafts link the axles to the 4:1 geared NV231 T-case. The lower gearing is pretty much mandatory in any four-cylinder trail machine. While autos and four-bangers rarely walk hand in hand with performance, the factory four-speed auto doesn't hamper the fun provided by the 2.4L DOHC engine, thanks to the intercooled Avenger supercharger. Other power boosters include the Airaid cold-air intake and Flowmaster exhaust. Surprisingly, this is one of the only four-cylinders with a performance muffler we've heard that doesn't sound like a wimpy Honda with a fart pipe.
BODY & INTERIOR
Despite the fact that Jack actually uses and abuses the TJ on the trail, a ton of attention went into subtle body modifications and prepping for a top-notch paint job. For starters, the lengthened wheelbase required the removal of the factory gas tank. Jack installed an RCI fuel cell in the bed. The repositioned rear axle also required drastic cutting of the rear fenders. To keep the wheel openings centered over the tires, Jack had Poison Spyder Customs custom build a set of its Crusher Corners with no wheelwell openings. Jack and company then cut out the corners themselves. A pair of PSC rocker knockers protects the sides and some PSC tube fenders clean up the front.
More subtle modifications can be found in the sheetmetal itself, from the sunken factory taillights to the CJ-7 hood latches and latch-mount bulges that were grafted into the factory hood in lieu of the goofy TJ latches. The simple and light bumpers were fabbed at Avenger before receiving a coat of what we can only describe as metallic candy Burnt Sienna paint. It's a cool contrasting color to the gold that we really like. Finally, the whole body was sprayed with Martin Senour Inka gold in-house at Avenger. Wrapping up our tour of the exterior, the GR8Top half cab really gives the TJ a unique look that evokes memories of a rodded Model T pickup. Jack says he got one of the early cabs and had a bit of trouble making it fit right, but we think the results are well worth his efforts.Inside, a pair of comfortable PRP suspension seats replaces the factory seats, which were ripped off by dirty thieves. Remember, Jack bought this as a recovered theft. Above the occupants, a Poison Spyder Customs trail cage protects the skull and brain tissue while deftly snaking around the factory dashboard. The carpet has been axed, and we say good riddance. It looks better without it and makes the Jeep lighter.
WHEELS & TIRES
With the lack of fender flares, the 37x12.50-17 BFG Krawlers mounted on 17x9 KMC XD series wheels poke out just the right amount for that hot rod look. An added bonus of protruding tires is the protection against trail obstacles they afford. The Krawlers are the softer competition "blue labels," and they stuck to the Moab sandstone like it was made of flypaper. The KMC wheels look killer and have a 4 3/4-inch backspacing, which keeps the tires from sticking cartoonishly far away from the body.
GOOD, BAD, & WHAT'S IT FOR?
A cursory glance around the Jeep does little to understand how much work went into its creation. Under the hood, all of the smog garbage, sensors, and trinkets were either scrapped or hidden. In true hot rod form, if it didn't make the Jeep go faster or wheel better it was tossed. True, while some things - like the Poison Spyder Customs armor, the Warn 9500 winch, and the Currie heavy-duty steering - add a bit of weight, it's offset by the shaving of other stuff.
The intercooled supercharger is a real highlight in making this Jeep as fun as it is. Without it, running 37s with an automatic and four-cylinder would be an exercise in misery. As it is, the Jeep scoots off the line and really pulls hard through the gears. The one downside Jack admits to the build is that the front air shocks tend to grow and stiffen as they heat up if he's been bombing down washes or hitting a lot of hard terrain. He's contemplating swapping to a traditional coilover front suspension, but, for now, the lighter air shocks aren't that objectionable.
WHAT WE THINK
There's really no part of this Jeep we're not down with. Even though it was built by a company in a shop, to us it's still essentially a homebuilt machine that uses simple, no-nonsense components and leaves the overkill at the door. Sometimes simple is better. Rigs like this just prove that simple doesn't have to always be boring and ugly.