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Objective-Based Four-Wheeling in a 2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ with a Homebuilt Trailer

Is this the way you should be building your vehicle?

Matt Patterson and Samantha Wilson are a case study on how to build a vehicle. That's because they turned a stock '01 Jeep Cherokee into a trail monster that can also overland with ease, and they did so without any idea how to go about doing it. On top of it all, they sliced and diced a donor Cherokee to be the trailer.

But let's start somewhere in the middle of this story: Matt and Samantha used to go drive up one of the highest points in Missouri called Bald Knob. It had no easy route. "After every trip that you made it to the top, you felt like you had achieved something and you knew what to mod next," explains Samantha. Among the Jeep's earliest upgrades were ones inspired by the road up: rocker replacements and aftermarket bumpers. Inspired by trail damage, in other words. But here's the key to it all: "This was also where our love for 'objective-based' 'wheeling was born: You start at the bottom and can see Bald Knob, you have a goal, you know it won't be easy, and if you make it, it will take all day." The method to objective-based 'wheeling is: You build to meet your goal—even if it takes more than 10 years, like it has for them. And counting. It's been about building a reliable rig that can take them to events and also not leave them stranded on or off the trail.

"The engine modifications we made were about longevity and smooth operation," Matt explains. "As a result, we do not really have any major horsepower or torque gains to speak of. The mods we have done were reactionary to circumstance or issues as we went, as well." For example, ingestion of water led to knowing they'd need to swap out the stock intake. "We settled on a cowl intake and still recommend them to people, especially in our area, where many trails have tight trees that tend to rip off snorkel setups." They have a Spectre unit, Odessa heads, a DEI fuel-rail insulation kit, and a 160-amp Dodge Durango alternator to help power the upgraded headlights with upgraded wiring loom and winch. Assist also comes from an Optima deep-cycle battery and 5.9L Jeep Grand Cherokee hood vents for additional cooling.

Matt had kind of an enviable childhood: He grew up with Jeeps. His father worked at (and retired out of) a now-closed local Chrysler plant. Dad would take Matt and his brother on local trails, and young Matt got to experience Jeeps—think CJ, YJ, and TJ. "When I met Matt, he was 16 and had recently been on a few Jeep Jamborees and a trip to 'wheel in Moab with his father." Matt then got Samantha into 'wheeling and "we have devoted a lot of time and resources into this lifestyle ever since. We have traveled all over the country to go to different Jeep events, and part of the fun is the adventure of getting there and home." (It should be noted that their first vehicle together was still cool, even though it was not this Jeep—a '73 Plymouth Trailduster.) The XJ came to them by way of Matt's brother-in-law. Actually, Matt's brother got it first. "It was the one brother not into cars," says Matt. It had been run without coolant, so the motor blew up. And then it sat. But Matt and Samantha ended up getting it from its new owner, the aforementioned brother-in-law—a bargain Jeep that was rust-free and modification-free. Plus, it had a new motor by then.

"Matt had very basic mechanical ability. We virtually learned as we went," said Samantha. First, they headed down the rabbit hole of research by way of the North American XJ Association (naxja.org) forum section. They "read through the OEM tech and modified tech areas of the forum and bookmarked what page we made it to, so we could continue further into the past tech that had been covered there. We did that for almost 2 years before we ordered our first parts and posted in the forum." They started with bolt-on parts. "You would think the bolt-on stuff would be the easiest, but with the amount of learning and research we had to do at the time, I don't think it was," notes Matt). They also had help building the XJ from their friend and business partner, Nick "Chachi" Bafaro. "We moved from the usual basic tools to more advanced fabrication, one well-researched mod at a time," says Samantha. Down the road, they even started their own custom fabrication and metalwork company with Chachi.

Some engine mods they made were also related to heat soak. "Our XJ was fine when running as far as heat, but if we parked with the hood closed for lunch or to enjoy a lookout, it would misfire a little bit on start up," Matt says. But now the engine runs "almost a full notch under 210 degrees and warms up to about a half notch under 210 in normal day-to-day operation." Even towing or hard trail use is still within the norm. The tranny runs cool, other than in extreme situations such as long climbs. "Even then, we can attach our jumper wire that hard-wires the electric fan and use our Montana Auto and Fabrication shift controller to bring the temps down by controlling the gear more effectively and moving more air across the cooling fins." Other parts put to good use: B&M transmission temp gauge and trans cooler, JEG'S Push-Loc hoses, onboard air, external breather, and WIX oil filter.

"For a long time, the Jeep itself being a smaller—well-balanced—build, with most of the mods not visible, excluding bumpers and rockers, it didn't draw much attention. That is, until people saw it perform," says Matt. "It was a bit of a sleeper, especially with the 4.56 gears and ARB lockers." The steel tube fenders and armor received some curiosity: "Ever since the cage, it draws a lot of attention and we get a lot of questions. And, of course, if the trailer is hooked up or nearby, it draws tons of attention and questions."

Their 15-year-old daughter, Serena, is also an enthusiast. She has her own XJ and trailer that her parents have been building for her. The family wouldn't call themselves strict overlanders, as you can probably guess. As much as they like scenery, "We get itchy for some banging, dragging, and scraping through the rocks with our lockers on," says Samantha. They're also fans of water crossings, "but Matt can get a little out of hand on those and has flooded the Jeep a few times!" All to be expected as part of this lifestyle. Samantha adds, "The time we share on the road, experiencing new places for the first time, brings us together as a family and makes beautiful memories." Objective realized.

Things you may have noticed: clearanced rear quarter-panels, 2x6 rockers with outer tube steps, front and rear quarter-panel armor with steel taillight boxes and rear rub rail, and B-, C-, and D-pillar/hatch-side armor. Also, the combo of General Grabbers and Cragars.
Photography: Matt Rowland They got a great deal from a NAXJA member for a new, fully built transfer case from JB Conversions with all the strength upgrades, plus a full HD slip-yoke eliminator, wide chain/sprocket kit, Azzy's Design Works shift linkage, and six-gear planetary setup. "It's still the stock NP231 ratio and we do prefer that for the type of 'wheeling we do," says Samantha. "With the 4.56 gears and the trans shift controller, we feel we have the control and low-end grunt to crawl in the rocks yet we can keep up the pace in easier areas in between challenging obstacles."
They were satisfied enough with the original suspension upgrades that they recently "refreshed" them with the same parts from the same companies. The XJ got a 4-inch lift for 31s, and then it had a fender trimming to run 33s. "It worked out so well that we managed to not catch 'inch-itis,' which is what we call the tendency to want to go taller and taller, running bigger and bigger tires." But they are considering a 5-inch lift, 5.38s, and three-link front suspension in the future. The front and rear 'shafts are from Driveshafts Unlimited. Steering went to hydro-assist and includes a sector shaft brace.
Yet another screaming deal that came via an NAXJA member: matching, already-built axles. "They were built to run 35s, so they were geared where we would be able to 'wheel and drive comfortably on 33s." There were also ARB Air Lockers, Nitro Gear & Axle axleshafts, Rokmen Riddler diff covers, Spicer U-bolt straps, and Artec LCA skids, "so we could tackle harder obstacles and get to even more remote places without fear of breakage," says Matt. The high-pinion Dana 30 and Chrysler 8.25 were also easy bolt-ins. "The HP30 having more clearance and a better driveline angle and the 8.25 being easy to add disc brakes to made them a great swap for our abilities at the time. Over the years they have proven to be very reliable with our tire size and 'wheeling style." (Don't be surprised to spot a Dynatrac 44 and JK Dana 44 underneath at some point soon.) That's primarily Magnaflow on exhaust duty, and both the XJ and XJ trailer's fuel tanks get used—a crowd-pleaser when both are fueling up simultaneously at the pump.
Here's the point in which you'll learn about the more challenging departments for this Jeep's build: Fabrication work ranked pretty high in those early days, with the hybrid rollcage taking the prize here, since it was their first project with a tubing bender. Despite sketches and drawings and notes up the wazoo, a lot of adjustments had to be made on the fly. "Some of its unique features are the wide floor plates that tie in and have keyed plates that pass through the floor and tie into the full-length unibody stiffeners, as well as the A- and B-pillars tying into the 2x6 rockers and their stand off to the unibody stiffeners," Matt explains. Particularly difficult were the "swooping, tapered ends of the halo that protect our Orvis spoiler and rear hatch and A-pillars. We obsessed over the A-pillars to find a form that would look organic and be appealing from various angles while being strong enough to do its job." (That spoiler is from a European-export XJ with an LED brake light; it was an Orvis edition.) The tube fenders and armor? "What worked in 2D drawings didn't always work or look right in the real world."
The trailer is exactly what you think: a Jeep Cherokee from the B-pillar back. They originally wanted an M416 trailer, but in those days their funds were limited, so that resulted in a trailer built almost entirely from scrap. "Our friend Chachi had wrecked his XJ on the highway pretty bad and it was a total loss. Matt talked him into the idea of building it into a trailer," says Samantha. "We got started but didn't get too far before the city was threatening to ticket him for a half-cut-up car in his driveway." All ended well, and what you see here was painted to match and built to match the lift and the wheel and tire sizes. "I had a dented hatch that became the new front, and our refrigerator had died, so we took all the sheetmetal off of the outside of that. A friend donated an old S-10 tailgate that we used the sheetmetal from to take out the trans hump on the floor. Then the rest of the metal was from scrap that Chachi got on a jobsite and the 'scrap shed' at the local metal supplier." The only actual purchase? A rotating sprung lunette from an M416 for extreme articulation. They don't sleep in the trailer, so it has tons of storage space.
Want to do a similar vehicle-trailer yourself? Matt says, "I would recommend not making it any longer than from the B-pillar back for a well-balanced trailer that isn't too tongue heavy and tows great on- and off-road. If you needed it to be a little longer for sleeping inside, I would say to keep half of the front door and no more." It wasn't that bad of a job, either. "It really is as simple as some cutting, grafting, and minor fabrication that primarily requires basic welding skills and an angle grinder. There really is no way to get a cheaper off-road trailer together, and ours performs on some surprisingly difficult obstacles and the highway."
Their favorite necessity is the Tepui Gran Sabana rooftop tent "with a comfy bed and plenty of room downstairs for guests on the cot, a table, and room to change." But the ClimateRight heat/AC/dehumidifier is a pretty close second. The trailer also has a battery, campground lighting, and functional interior lights and windows. There's a custom-made storage container that replaces the driver-side rear quarter-panel window, which holds their recovery gear and first-aid supplies. "We have the Camp Chef stove with the oven to make great food, including our famous enchilada casserole, no matter how far out on the trail we are."
Matt and Samantha really appreciate having the paracord grab handles, microfiber headliner, padded interior tubing, and sound system with subwoofer. "But I think I would have to say the Corbeau suspension seats up front and Jeep WJ bench in the rear with PRP Seats five-point harnesses are my favorites in the Jeep. It's so much more comfortable on and off trail, and I feel so much safer and secure in the comfortable padded harnesses—even when way off-camber or on the rare occasion we flop onto our side, which has happened twice now," says Samantha.

At a Glance

General
Vehicle: '01 Jeep Cherokee
Owner: Matt Patterson and Samantha Wilson
Stomping grounds: Imperial, Missouri
Build time: 10-plus years
Drivetrain
Engine: 4.0L I-6
Transmission: Aisin-Warner four-speed auto
Transfer case: JB Conversions
Low range ratio: 4.56:1
Crawl ratio: 34.7:1
Front axle/differential: Dana HP30, 4.56 gears/ARB Air Locker
Rear axle/differential: Chrysler 8.25, 4.56 gears/ARB Air Locker
Suspension
Front: Old Man Emu coils and shocks, Clayton Off Road track-bar brace, JKS Mfg. upper/lower control arms, steering stabilizer
Rear: Old Man Emu leaf springs and shocks
Tires/Wheels
Tires: 33x10.50R15 General Grabber X3
Wheels: 15x7 Cragar Series 342 D Window w/FireFab beadlocks
Miscellaneous
Armor: Hooligan Off Road nerf bars w/integrated tube fenders, quarter-panel armor w/JcrOffroad integrated rub rail/skidplates/rear bumper, Logans Metal Products 4x4 front bumper, FireFab/AJ's Offroad Armor tube step, FireFab hybrid/halo rollcage/tube fender/truss/armor, Rokmen Riddler diff cover
Cool stuff: Odessa heads, Spectre Performance cowl intake, DEI fuel-rail insulation kit, Brown Dog motor mounts/brackets, CSF Radiators three-row radiator, JEG'S hoses, WIX oil filter, Optima battery, VIAIR onboard air, PRP Seats five-point harness, Corbeau seats, unibody reinforcement/stiffeners, Currie Currectlync/Savvy Offroad steering/aluminum tie-rod, Blue-Top Steering Gears box w/hydro-assist ports, Ironman4x4Fab steering-box brace, C-ROK 4x4 steering-box spacer, PSC Motorsports steering pump, Artec LCA skids, FireFab track-bar mount, Jeep Liberty disc brakes, Hella bulbs, Driveshafts Unlimited driveshafts, Alpine head unit, Infinity sub/amp, Cobra CB, Anzio synthetic winch line, Warn/Jeep recovery kit, Astra Depot soft shackles, FireFab storage system, Ryobi fans, Camp Chef camp stove, Luci inflatable solar lights, Trashaoo, Warn 8274 winch
For the trailer: Custom XJ with FireFab roof rack, matching 4-inch lift/tires/wheels, Tepui tent, fridge freezer, functional e-brake, onboard battery, ClimateRight heat/AC/dehumidifier

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