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2012 Jeep “Gladiator” with an LS Engine: A Different Spin on the Gladiator Pickup

The Gladiator Jeep Should Have Built

Everyone is talking about the new Jeep JT Gladiator, and with good reason. Not only is it new, it's really cool on many different levels. It's the first Jeep pickup truck to roll off the assembly line in more than 25 years, it has solid axles front and rear (unlike its mid-size truck competitors), and it has the equipment for serious off-road work. Whether you love or hate the JT, however, there are some styling cues that many would say left it looking a bit unfinished. Quite a few Jeep concepts hinted that the truck would take on the styling cues of the past-generation Gladiator trucks, but we now know it's nearly identical to the JL Wrangler. If we were in charge of Jeep design, we would have gone with something much closer to this Gladiator, which melds old school and new design perfectly.

You never know what's going to come out of the shop at Chris Durham Motorsports, but one thing is for sure-it will be well done. Well-known rock crawler and custom vehicle builder Chris Durham has created all sorts of innovative 4x4s, some of which have graced the pages of Jp Magazine. Durham operates a shop in Pickens, South Carolina, and works on everything from hot rods to hardcore rock crawlers and classic trucks. As a result, it's not unusual to see several design elements combined in one of his way-out-of-the-box creations that are normally unique to different automotive niches. And unlike a lot of other shops that spend a lot of time modifying Jeep styling cues, Durham also spends a lot of time 'wheeling all over the country. He knows what works and what doesn't off the pavement, and every one of his vehicles is designed to be used hard and survive under his enormously heavy right foot. His approach to building a Gladiator truck is not only refreshing, it began before the new Gladiator was officially unveiled.

The front axle is a Ford ball-joint Dana 60 filled with 35-spline Ten Factory chromoly shafts and 5.38s from Motive Gear. The truss and suspension mounting brackets are from Barnes 4WD and emulate stock JK control arm mounting points. This combined with a stock JK four-door frame enabled the use of a complete Skyjacker JK long-arm kit with the company's coilovers and air bumps. Steering comes from a PSC Big Bore box with ram-assist and heavy-duty tie rod and drag link that Chris fabricated from T-7075 aluminum.

It's difficult to really pinpoint exactly what year the vehicle should be. The frame is from a 2012 Jeep Wrangler JKU, as is most of the dash, the transmission, and some of the wiring. The pickup cab was fabricated from a two-door JK body, in part because unlike a four-door, the B pillar is separate from the tub. Most of the rest of the vehicle was put together with a combination of parts that were lying around with a sprinkling of new components added into the mix. Unlike his last couple of builds, this one marks the return to his racing roots with some healthy LS power on tap, which he doesn't hesitate to use when the situation demands. This Gladiator is low and stable despite packing 40-inch tires, and it hasn't had an easy life so far. After debuting the Gladiator at the 2019 Jp Dirt 'N Drive and Moab Easter Jeep Safari (where these photos were taken) events, in just a few short months the truck has been to Alaska, Maine, the Southeast, and all over the East coast. It's one of a kind, and it's definitely worth a closer look.

Out back is a 14-bolt that is fully trussed with a Barnes 4WD kit along with JK control arm mounting points. The rear axle has been shaved and filled with 5.38 gears and a Detroit Locker just like the front. The coilovers, control arms, and air bumps are all bolt-on units for a four-door JK.
Under the hood is a rowdy 6.0L LS engine that benefits from Tilden Motorsports Ultra 4 goodies. The electronics proved to be the most difficult portion of the build, as the LS engine is backed by a NAG1 transmission and ties into the stock JK wiring (including the gauge cluster) thanks to a host of trickery from Bruiser Conversions. There's a Premier Power Welder under the hood, which Chris uses regularly on his off-road trips, repairing other people's vehicles most of the time.
The interior of the Gladiator is pretty much standard JK fare with the stock dash, gauge cluster transmission shifter, and more. The seats got new covers, and the custom top from Bucket Stitch helps keep the inside cozy with the functioning climate control. Far from a trailer queen, this rig has logged thousands of pavement miles since its initial build and saw serious trail time in Alaska, Utah, and Maine during its first six months.
The bed on the back of the Gladiator is a work of art and was hand-fabricated out of aluminum. Under the bed cover is a full-size spare, tools, spare parts (some of which are mounted in custom racks), and an ARB fridge. It's perfectly proportional to the rest of the cab, striking just the right balance of classic Willys truck and more modern styling cues. The tailgate folds down, making a great flat surface for trail repairs or cooking in camp. The rear bumper is another custom-made piece.
The unique nose is a Gladiator conversion that Chris developed a couple of years ago. The kit consists of a fiberglass hood, grille, and inserts that meld the stock JK fenders with the new shape of the nose. The grille accepts the stock JK headlights and marker lights, while the custom flares finish out the overall look. The kit accepts either a classic Jeep Gladiator grille insert or a fiberglass one that mimics the styling of the original, which is what you see here. The front bumper is an available option with the conversion, and it holds a Warn Xeon 10-S winch.
All of Chris Durham's builds are low and stable, and this one is no different. A conservative 4-inch Skyjacker lift clears 40x13.50-17 Milestar Patagonia M/T tires wrapped around 17x9 Walker Evans Racing Legend II wheels. The big tires clear thanks in part to some creative fenderwell design and body clearancing. The tires just barely kiss the fenders at full stuff, but not enough to do any damage.
It took a substantial amount of work to make a two-door JK body into a pickup cab, so Chris wasn't taking any chances on protecting that custom sheetmetal. The doors are stock JK pieces as are the rocker panels, just shorter. The rock sliders are integrated pieces fabricated from 3/16-inch steel, and there's some added protection that extends to just under the door. As you can see, both were tested on the trails during 2019 Easter Jeep Safari.
This rig has a ton of cool little details that add to the overall effect of this amazing rig. One example is this subtle location for the fuel filler in one of the rear fenders, using a flush-mount cap that makes it all but disappear. Even though this rig was put together in just a few months, details like this indicate Chris didn't cut any corners.
We first caught up with Chris at Dirt 'N Drive, where the rig was just barely finished in time to make the event. We later ran Pritchett Canyon late one afternoon during Jeep Safari, where most of these photos were taken. The Gladiator made short work of the obstacles on the first half of the trail before an obligation back in town required us to turn around. Sharp-eyed readers might spot Jessie Coombs in the background, who tagged along with us on the last-minute run. This turned out to be the last time we would have the opportunity to go four-wheeling with her.

Why This Jeep Pickup

It's a completely different take on what a Gladiator truck should look like, and we love it. Often vehicles that are "converted" to pickups end up looking odd and out of proportion, but everything about this truck is just right. The four-door frame is completely stock, so it has the exact same overall dimensions as a JK, yet this thing looks like it could have rolled off the assembly line in Toledo. Best of all, it has some serious hardware under the shiny sheet metal, and with Chris behind the wheel, there's no trail this Jeep couldn't tackle.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: 2012 Jeep "Gladiator"
Engine: 6.0L LS w/ Tilden Ultra 4 internals and Bruiser Electronics
Transmission: NAG1
Transfer Case: Atlas 3.8
Axles: Dana 60, 5.38 gears, Detroit Locker (front); 14-Bolt, 5.38 gears, Detroit Locker (rear)
Suspension: 4-inch Skyjacker long-arm with coilover shocks and air bumps
Wheels: 17x9 Walker Evans Racing beadlock
Tires: 40x13.50R17 Milestar Patagonia M/T
Steering: PSC Big Bore ram-assist with 7075 Aluminum tie rod and drag link
Other Stuff: Chris Durham Motorsports Gladiator conversion, custom aluminum bed, Barnes 4WD skid plates, Tom Woods driveshafts, Warn Xeon 10-S winch, custom top and interior by Bucket Stitch

 

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