This Wrangler Was Built Just Right For The Trail

    Jay KopycinskiPhotographer, Writer

    To watch Thom Campbell wheel his Jeep in the rocks, you would think it was loaded up with a high-dollar drivetrain and 1-ton axles typical of hardcore rigs. However, the fact is T.C.—as his friends call him—owns a Wrangler with a reasonable combination of well chosen parts that all work together to get him through the trail. Add that to Thom's significant wheeling prowess and this TJ successfully negotiates some gnarly trails on a regular basis. Thom picked up the ’01 Wrangler Sahara with only 3,000 miles showing on the odometer, and over the past 14 years, he has racked up a lot of off-road miles exploring trails in the American Southwest.

    Thom started the modifications to his Jeep with a Rubicon Express 5 1/2-inch lift combined with 2-inch coil spring spacers. The front suspension uses the standard Rubicon Express links, but the front lower link arm brackets were swapped to 1/4-inch-thick mounts for extra strength. To improve upon the kit to suit his rockcrawling needs, Thom swapped in rear LJ links and moved the coil mounts rearward on the frame. He also relocated the rear lower link mounts from the frame rails and triangulated them to a point near the transfer case output. This gets those links off the vulnerable breakover spot on the frame where link mounts can grab on to boulders.

    The final setup yields a more stable wheelbase of 104 inches, and that works great for climbing wash ledges and waterfall faces. Shock choice was a set of Rancho RS5000s, and the rear pair has been relocated for clearance and to maximize articulation. For underbelly protection, Thom added skidplates designed by Barry Brummet from 4Wheelers Supply & Off Road Center. The plates run from the front of the engine to the tail of the transfer case. These fully protect the engine oil and tranny pans and overlap the original transfer case skidplate.

    The Wrangler retains its factory reliability by using the stock engine, auto transmission, and NP231 transfer case. Only an open-element air filter has been added to the 4.0L six-cylinder, along with an Optima YellowTop battery. Simple, yet effective.

    The front axle has been upgraded with a Dana 44 from a Rubicon model. It's been improved with 4.88 gears, chromoly axleshafts, and a Detroit locker. Plus, the front caliper bolts were upgraded to 1/2-inch hardware due to the smaller stock ones breaking. The differential cover was beefed up with a 1/4-inch-thick strip of steel formed and welded over the ring gear hump. The original rear axle got matching gears, chromoly ’shafts, and a Detroit as well. A Tom Woods LJ length rear driveshaft hooks the transfer case to the axle, and a heavy-duty Advance Adapters slip-yoke eliminator sits at the rear of the T-case.

    The factory tie rod was too skinny a steel tube to spend much time meeting rocks. Thom's friend Symon Devries fabricated a new tie rod and draglink from 1 1/4-inch, 0.250-wall steel tube with rod ends. The pitman arm is a double-shear, 6-inch-drop arm from 4 Wheel Drive Headquarters. The steering box was ported by AGR and an AGR pump helps move the hydraulic assist ram. A Warn steering box skid helps protect up front as well.

    Rubber of choice consists of 37x12.50R17LT Pit Bull Rocker radials that are mounted on American Eagle 17x9 wheels with TrailReady beadlocks. Thom finds the Pit Bulls offer excellent traction for the Arizona rockcrawling he does so often.

    Body and Interior
    The Wrangler body was changed to provide more wheelwell clearance and accommodate the 37-inch Pit Bulls. Up front, Thom swapped over to Metal Fusion fenders for tire clearance and added a hood louver panel from AtoZ Fabrication to keep underhood temps under control during hot days crawling in the canyons.

    Warn rocker guards were modified with the addition of tubing. Metal Fusion rear body panels were added for armor and to open up the tub for tire clearance. The factory rollcage has been strengthened with a windshield tube. There are custom front and rear tube bumpers, and a set of custom tube doors. Most days you will see Thom running a Bestop bikini, but when winter weather sets in, that usually gets swapped for a standard Bestop soft top.

    A Warn 9.5ti winch sits in front for recovery purposes. With the rear axle pushed rearward, the differential ran right into the factory gas tank. Thom relocated the tank into the rear of the tub and out of harm’s way. Staying with the stock tank was economical and already compatible with the stock feed and return lines that were extended. Also in the rear cargo area sits a CO2 bottle, tools, spares, and fluids just in case trail repairs are needed.

    Good, Bad, and What It's For
    This clean Wrangler has nothing outrageously special on it, but the sum of its parts is much greater as a whole. Each part chosen has a purpose and the rig gets it done on the trail. We generally like to see beefier axles turning this size tire, but Thom has a lot of seat time in this TJ and knows his rig well. He knows the limits of his rig and we seldom see him grenade parts, despite the fact he's a thrill-seeker always looking to tackle tough trails.

    Why I Wrote This Feature
    It's a pleasure to watch a guy wheel a rig he really knows. I've always been impressed with Thom's ability to get this rig in and out of some hardcore trails, plus keep it looking great over many years. This Wrangler’s build sheet is a formula I think many readers might be interested in taking note of.
    -Jay Kopycinski

    Vehicle: '01 Sahara Wrangler
    Engine: Stock 4.0L I-6
    Transmission: Stock automatic
    Transfer Case: Stock NP231
    Suspension: Rubicon Express 5 1/2-inch, 2-inch coil spacers, modified & triangulated long-arm link setup
    Axles: Front: Rubicon Dana 44, 4:88 gears, Detroit locker, chromoly axle shafts
    Rear: Dana 44, 4.88 gears, Detroit locker, chromoly axleshafts, Solid Axle cover
    Steering: AGR steering box and pump with ram assist, cooler
    Wheels: 17x9 American Eagle wheels with Trailready beadlocks
    Tires: 37x12.50R17LT Pitbull Rocker radials
    Built For: Southwestern rock trails and backcountry exploring

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