Stuart A. BourdonAnthony Soos
It’s a fun concept: Transform a dead-stock vehicle from nothing into a total slayer in a brief, predetermined amount of time. Motor Trend Group’s street performance titles call it Week to Wicked, but we here at the off-road side of the company call it Week to Wheelin’. So far we’ve done two of them. Last year we did a Jp magazine edition of Week to Wheelin’ with a Jeep Wrangler JK. This year it was our turn at 4-Wheel & Off-Road.
JL Wranglers are worth their weight in gold, and even JKs are really expensive. But TJs are just about right. You can pick up a TJ and build it pretty close to what we did here for not much more than the entry price of a newer JK Rubicon Wrangler. And the aftermarket is still flooded with awesome TJ parts.
We hit up our show sponsors for some great product to prove our point. Check the captions for the build highlights, but don’t forget that this is an online program, with five highlight videos on the Motor Trend YouTube channel, where you can watch us do the actual work. Also, all of our daily updates, which went live at the end of each build date, can be found on fourwheeler.com. So go ahead, crack your favorite beverage, and watch us take a well-worn 1997 Wrangler from zero to off-road hero in a week.
Day 1 of the buildup began with the video crew staging the TJ for the “before” shots. This particular Wrangler is a 1997 with over 200,000 miles on the factory 4.0L engine, a AX15 transmission, and an NP231 T-case. The drivetrain in these vehicles is super-solid, and since we were ditching the suspension, axles, interior, and almost everything else, the high miles didn’t bother us.
Full disclosure: We did cheat a bit with the installation of the Durabak polyurethane liner by rolling it on ahead of time so it would have a chance to cure before we started messing inside and around the Jeep. Carpet in an off-road vehicle is nasty. Durabak is available in a wide palette of colors as well as smooth and textured varieties. We selected the company’s orange color with rubber texture granules. The Durabak will provide sheetmetal protection, sound absorption, and a fun pop of contrasting color.
The build team was comprised of Editor Christian Hazel and Motor Trend Tech Center superstars Jason Scudellari and Christian Arriero. In no time they had the whole undercarriage of the Jeep stripped from the frame down.
The suspension we selected was a MetalCloak 4 1/2-inch Lock-N-Load Long-Arm that utilizes control arm mounts on a custom heavy-duty crossmember. We used a Miller plasma cutter to zap off the factory frame-mounted control arm brackets front and rear.
Hazel is showing the camera the difference in size and length between the Advance Adapters 32-spline slip yoke eliminator output shaft (left) and the factory slip yoke output shaft (right).
With a relatively healthy 4 1/2 inches of suspension lift, an Advance Adapters 32-spline slip yoke eliminator kit was a necessity. We cracked the factory NP231 T-case open, swapped the chain and components over to the Advance Adapters shaft, and reinstalled it with the new Advance Adapters tailhousing and 1310 CV yoke. The beefy 32-spline output is a worthwhile upgrade for serious off-roading and allows a much longer rear driveshaft than the factory slip yoke. You can read a full step-by-step on this in our sister publication, Jp magazine, and watch the install in the Week to Wheelin’ video.
Scott Becker from MetalCloak Suspension swung by to help us lay out all the bitchin’ parts of the MetalCloak 4 1/2-inch Lock-N-Load Long-Arm system. The system is very high-quality and comes with every nut and bolt necessary for the installation. A bit of cutting and welding is required, so it’s an advanced installation but still something a competent wrench can do in his or her driveway.
For now we simply chopped off the factory exhaust after the cat and stuck a simple turn-down on it until we could make it to an exhaust shop. The MetalCloak frame brackets located perfectly using the existing crossmember mounts. We installed them, marked where we needed to drill the frame for the included weld-in-bungs, and then pulled them back off. Check out the video at youtube.com/motortrend for detail on this procedure.
MetalCloak’s Scott Becker ran down some of the finer points of the MetalCloak 2-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall control arms. The MetalCloak Duroflex spherical bushings are high-quality Kevlar-infused rubber. The rear joint shells are forged, not welded. It’s pretty sick stuff we’ll never bust on the trial. And if we ever do put enough trail and street miles on this thing to wear out the bushings, they will be easily rebuildable.
Because we ordered our axle assemblies late, we put the suspension installation on hold the moved to the Rampage bumper install. We selected Rampage’s Recovery Series front and rear bumpers, which feature mounting provisions for the factory 4-inch foglamps. Our Jeep didn’t have factory fogs, so we ordered Rampage’s front and rear lighting kit. We installed the Rampage foglamps on the ground and slung the bumper on the framerails like buttah. The whole front bumper installation took less than 10 minutes, including removing the stock bumper.
Out back our biggest hang-up was removing the aftermarket trailer hitch that had been installed with regular nuts and bolts. Not willing to drop the fuel tank, we broke out the saber saw and unceremoniously removed it and tossed the factory rear bumper in the scrap heap. Like the front, the rear Rampage Recovery bumper dropped right in place with no fitment issues whatsoever.
While Hazel and Scudellari fitted the swing-out tire carrier to the Rampage Recovery rear bumper, Arriero worked on wiring in the lights. He used a two-position switch in the factory foglamp switch location to keep the interior uncluttered and retain two open switch spots for the E-Lockers.
We purchased a pair of G2 Core 44 axle assemblies for this build, which arrived midweek. Available with optional 35- or 33-spline axleshafts, we selected the regular 30-spline units for our needs with 35-inch tires. The front is high-pinion, the rear low-pinion. The housings are super-strong and come set up with heavy-duty factory brackets and the gears of your choice. We selected 5.13s for the max in off-road gearing without completely compromising on-road drivability and Eaton E-Lockers for simple installation and reliable performance.
As a cost-saving measure you reuse your factory knuckle and brake assembly on the front Core 44 axle. Hazel stripped it down in no time, and the crew transferred the parts onto the new Core 44 heavy-duty ball joints and torqued everything to spec.
We slung the prepped Core 44 under the front of the Jeep and hooked up the MetalCloak control arms. We then installed the springs and shocks and hooked up the MetalCloak track bar and aftermarket heavy-duty steering linkage that we purchased.
Here’s the party piece of the MetalCloak Lock-N-Load Long-Arm suspension system. The upper passenger-side control arm employs a spring-loaded joint which, when unlocked, allows a full 1 1/2 inches of travel in or out. That 3 inches of movement eliminates the bind inherent in a radius arm suspension during suspension flex. When it’s time to hit the street, use the supplied spanner wrench to spin the arm back into locked position. It’s quick and easy. Best of all, MetalCloak sells the Lock-N-Load arm separately so you can upgrade your existing radius arm suspension.
While Hazel and Arriero were wrapping up the front suspension install, Scudellari was prepping the rear Core 44 axle for installation by cutting off the upper control arm brackets. The MetalCloak upper control arms use much larger Duraflex joints than the factory, so wider upper control arm brackets must be installed. The MetalCloak instructions walk you through getting the angles right.
The driver-side upper control arm bracket also houses the track bar mount. Hazel, Scudellari, and Arierro slung the axle home in just a couple minutes and then wrapped up the rear suspension install with the MetalCloak heavy-duty rear track bar, dual-rate coil springs, and shocks.
Notice the dual-rate coils that MetalCloak employs. During regular driving, the lighter coils at the top of the spring remain compressed, but when the axle drops out the coils expand to keep the spring seated in the buckets. That eliminates the banging and clanging normally associated with long-travel coil-spring suspensions.
Before we buttoned up the suspension and axle completely we upgraded the brake package with EBC Brakes’ Extra Duty Light Truck & SUV Brake Pads. These pads feature a proprietary break-in coating that helps them bed to the rotors, and the pad composition is designed for low noise, high grip, and long life.
Along with the EBC brake pads, we upgraded our rotors with EBC Brakes’ 3GD dimpled and slotted rotors, which feature the company’s Nitrotherm thermal black coating. The coating provides corrosion protection without being affected by high braking temperatures. The dimpled and slotted features allow gases and debris to be evacuated and, unlike fully drilled rotors, won’t suffer from high-temp spider cracking around the drill holes.
We set the Jeep back down on the factory wheels and tires to install the Bushwacker flat-style smooth fender flares. The Bushwacker flares mounted right into the stock flare mounting holes, with no drilling necessary. Not only are they wider than the factory flares to fully cover our 12 1/2-inch-wide tires for 50-state legality, but their flat-style construction provides more tire clearance at full articulation, too. They’re flexible, durable, and won’t suffer from UV damage like the stock flares.
While the Jeep was down on its tires we took the opportunity to install the much-improved Procar by Scat seating, available in dozens of styles, colors, and materials. We selected a pair of Elite seats: a classic high-back recliner with generous yet unobtrusive side bolsters, adjustable headrests, a rear map pocket, and one-touch recline function. We also ordered Procar’s optional universal seat adapters, which we used to tie into the factory TJ Wrangler flip-forward floor brackets.
The Elite Procar buckets in simple black vinyl not only look great against the high-contrast Durabak liner inside the tub, but they will also easily survive off-road weather and wear. And when the interior gets filthy, we’ll be able to simple hose it down and wipe it off at the end of the trail to get it looking this good again.
The party piece of any off-road build is always the tires. This is the newly introduced Kenda Klever R/T tire in 35x12.50R17 size mounted on 17x8.5 Method wheels. The Klever R/T is a tweener tire that splits the familiar mud- and all-terrain families, offering the best of both worlds: great on- and off-road grip, long tread life, and excellent snow and ice performance. We’ll be putting these tires through their paces to bring you a full review in our June 2019 tire-themed issue.
As with every Week to Wicked and Week to Wheelin’ program, we employed a Covercraft car cover for the dramatic unveil. But this cover isn’t just for the cameras. It’s a form-fitting protective cocoon that will keep bird turds, tree sap, and other yuck off our interior and paint. The color-fast dye is in the threads, not just applied to the outside, so it should be looking and performing great for years to come on this vehicle.
Although our late finish on a Friday afternoon in the middle of Los Angles precluded us from actually hitting the trail for the video cameras, we did blast down the road to our warehouse where our RTI ramp is housed and ran the Jeep up a couple times. We got about 10 inches farther up the ramp with the MetalCloak Lock-N-Load arm unlocked. Note the clearance afforded for the Kenda Klever R/T tire by the Bushwacker flat flares. We’ll be hitting the trail to bring you video of this sucker in action for the full-length Week to Wheelin’ video, but for now enjoy the five daily update videos at youtube.com/motortrend and revisit the daily updates at fourwheeler.com.