Factory fantasy first-shots
It’s become a thing. To be specific: a Jeep thing. Not too many years ago, a few maverick employees at Jeep who called themselves the Mopar Underground started it. They built up some cool concept vehicles and loaded ’em on a single transport truck headed for the Moab Easter Jeep Safari, where they were unveiled to a small group of hand-selected media. These concepts were wild—to a degree. A Wrangler-based pickup, no-lift JK sporting 40-inch tires, stripped-down base Wrangler with all the Rubicon gizmos, a military-themed J8 nicknamed “Sarge,” and others whetted our appetites and gave hope that true off-road enthusiasts still rattled the halls of Jeep headquarters.
While in Moab the Underground guys wheeled the snot out of their creations. What a concept: actually wheeling a concept. The media embraced the vehicles, but also embraced the fact they were introduced to them not at an auto show surrounded by smoke and mirrors, but on the trail in off-road Mecca surrounded by fellow enthusiasts. Furthermore, we were told, “Here are the keys…see what you think of ’em.” Wild. Positive praise and accolades ensued.
And like anything that meets with success, the production has grown in scale and complexity. The Underground guys are now joined by the Mopar Performance team, who create their own vehicles using many products you can pick up at your local dealership. And where before only a handful of hardcore enthusiast Jeep employees were present, now high-level suits fly into town to offer presentations and congratulatory back-patting. Suits whose average day back in Michigan deals more with facts and figures than rocks and mud.
But here’s the thing: While the suits are there they’re going on trail rides, blasting dunes, climbing ledges, and catching big air; all with a huge ear-to-ear smile. In short, they’re learning about the Jeep thing. They’re catching the bug. They’re understanding why a Grand Cherokee needs to keep a real low range or why it’s a cool idea to make a Wrangler pickup. They’re getting it. And the future of the brand bodes well thanks in part to their exposure to our world. So our hats are off to the Underground crew, the Mopar gang, and the Jeep brand in general. Here’s to next year’s crop of concepts and brighter things on the horizon.
In addition to his day job as Head of Ram and Jeep Design, Mark Allen leads the Mopar Underground. He’s the Captain Kirk to their Enterprise; the Milli to their Vanilli and the dude whose overall vision (along with the hard work of his Underground teammates) is responsible for the likes of the JT Heritage Wrangler pickup, Sarge J8, Lower Forty, and one of our favorites to date: Pork Chop. Allen is a real enthusiast with a wacky bent towards the obviously not obvious. We like to think he’d fit right in at Jp magazine—not that he’d take the pay cut. Perhaps it’s for that reason we usually get his vision so clearly. Such is the case with Pork Chop.
Consider a ’70s-era CJ-5 came with a 150hp/245lb-ft 304 V-8 and weighed roughly 2,780 lbs. Fast-forward several decades and much wussification of Jeep buyers and the new two-door JK comes with a 202hp and 237lb-ft 3.8L V-6 and piled-on safety and creature comforts to the tune of 3,780 lbs. That’s for the lightest soft-top version and is only about 50 lbs less than a ’60s Wagoneer. So time to trim down, cut the fat, chop the pork!
The Underground team started by ditching the top, doors, tailgate, bumpers, hood, factory roll cage, sway bars, front and rear crossmembers, forward underrun (anti-submarine) bar, fuel tank, and the entire exhaust system including the manifolds. See ya. Then the bodywork started. The windshield was chopped 2 inches for aesthetics, the door and tailgate openings shaved clean and reshaped, and the rear taillights were moved inboard 2 inches per side. Next, Hanson Offroad was tapped to build the lightweight aluminum front and rear bumpers that weigh a combined 5 pounds. The fender flares were intended to be aluminum pieces built by Hanson, but time constraints required the team to dive into the Mopar catalog for some ABS flares. Allen plans on having the aluminum flares on by the SEMA show later this year. To cover the Mopar Performance cold air intake, AEV tried its hand at stamping one of its Heat Reduction Hoods in aluminum. The aluminum stamping didn’t retain its shape too well around the hood ends, so for the sake of time Allen and his team cut out the middle of the aluminum hood and recessed it into a custom-built carbon fiber surround. The new aluminum/carbon fiber hood weighs 8 pounds and is held down with Drake latches.
The diet continued to the interior where the factory airbag-equipped seats were replaced with Sparcos at exactly half the weight. Aluminum seat track risers replace the heavier (and uglier) factory jobbies and even the side-view mirrors were replaced with convex parts-store mirrors stuck on the A/C vents at the corners of the dash. Brilliant hackery. A new rollcage without one single straight length of tube was rolled out of 2¼-inch DOM. Allen wanted to use thin-wall chromoly for a slight weight savings, but in the end the DOM was a wash with the factory cage weight-wise. However, there’s no arguing its more pleasing lines.
Underneath, the heavy factory exhaust was replaced with custom long-tube headers and twin Banks mufflers. Exhaling through this system, the 3.8L is loud and obnoxious. Out back is a standard GenRight JK aluminum fuel tank, but instead of the usual 3⁄16-inch-thick steel skidplate it wears an aluminum piece. As for the suspension, the upper control arms are factory, but Full-Traction built some solid aluminum lowers. In reality there’s probably not much weight savings compared with the stock steel control arms, but it’s something else to polish. As the Underground team shed weight, the Jeep kept getting taller, so no lift springs or spacers are used to make room for the 35s. However, the team did swap some springs from a military J8 and rear springs from a four-door JK to level things out. Bilstein 5160 shocks damp at each corner and some TeraFlex Speed Bumps make big-air landings nice and cushy.
The star of the undercarriage is undoubtedly the highly lightened Dynatrac Pro Rock Dana 44 front and Dana 44 rear. The housings feature fluted tubes, drilled knuckle Cs, and even hole-sawed suspension brackets. Dynatrac’s ProSteer ball joints and some big 1350 axleshaft U-joints keep breakage at bay. Dynatrac sent the Underground team a pair of its cast steel diff covers, which were recreated in aluminum. The axles house 4.88 gears and ARB Air Lockers. The whole dealio is turned via a stock 3.8L V-6, six-speed manual, and the JK Sport’s factory 2.72:1 T-case.
Moving to the overall view, the whole thing was slathered in silver paint with a red cowl stripe. Tasteful. The interior with matching-color dash is a flash of things to come from the factory. The spare tire is bolted to the rear tub floor and a cool flip-up race fuel filler hides the factory gas cap. Finally, one of our favorite aspects of this build is the wheels Allen chose to wrap the 315/70R17 Mickey Thompson Baja Claws around. Not only are the 17x8 E-T Wheels lighter than the factory wheels, their heritage associated with the altered dragsters of the ’60s and their raw cast aluminum is so in touch with the raw, primitive pulse of this vehicle. Naysayers be damned.
The end result of all these efforts was an 850-pound weight savings. It may not seem like much, but we’re here to tell you it really translates when you’re behind the wheel. You feel like you wear the Pork Chop as a backpack, floating over terrain like a butterfly—not like you’re riding on the back of an elephant walking and bobbing across ice flows. Furthermore, the 3.8L actually feels snappy with the lighter weight and 4.88 gears. We’ll even go so far as to call it a bit more than adequate. That’s high praise from snobs like us. And at the end of the day, after driving all the high-horsepower and unique stuff offered us, we’d put this in our garage over all the others if given the choice.