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Budget Build Jeep TJ: Big JK Gears, Lockers Front & Rear

Built on a budget, this 2003 Jeep Wrangler TJ proved trail worthy with a few mods that made a big difference

Aden Ethridge and his budget build 2003 Jeep Wrangler TJ were one of 100 guests with us during the 2019 Jp Dirt 'N Drive off-road adventure presented by Jeep. Traveling from Farmington, New Mexico to Moab, Utah, with stops in between for lots of great four wheeling over the 4-day off-road adventure, Aden's custom budget build Jeep Wrangler TJ handled everything put in front of it without a hitch. The build on the Jeep TJ was a mild one, but it all worked together so well that it made Aden's job much more enjoyable and offered a perfect example of how to build a budget Jeep Wrangler TJ that's trail worthy.

Some generous Sawzall action on the fender wells opened up new possibilities in uninterrupted tire travel. The openings were then cleaned up with a set of Poison Spyder Defender 5-Inch Fender Flares. You'll notice that the front marker lights are from a JK but have been modified and positioned to echo a classic Jeep CJ style.

From the ground up, the suspension system starts with a set of General Tire 35x12.50R15LT Grabber X3s wrapped around 10x15-inch American Racing aluminum wheels with a 3.5-inch backspacing. The '03 factory Dana 30 axle and the swapped-in custom built Dana 44 rear axle with 3-inch tubes and JK gears both carry 4.56 ring-and-pinion sets. An OX mechanical locker fortifies the front axle and the rear axle is beefed with a Full Traction truss, ARB Air Locker, and 8.8-inch Ford disc brakes. Suspending the frame and body on those axles is the job of a 6-inch Metal Cloak Dual-Rate Long-Arm suspension kit with Bilstein 5100 shocks. Currie Antirock Off-Road Sway Bars help keep things under control. Repositioning the upper rear coil buckets greatly improved overall wheel travel in the rear end.

The budget build custom 2003 Jeep Wrangler TJ looks like a million bucks on the trail.

The stock 4.0L inline-six-cylinder engine is a trusty old gal, and has been pretty much left alone, with the exception of an Airaid Throttle Body Spacer, Airaid Cold Air Intake with SynthaMax filter and pre-filter, and a DynoMax muffler. Nestled in the engine bay is an ARB Onboard Air Compressor for locking up the ARB-loaded custom rear Dana 44 axle on the trail, and then pumping up tires before hitting the highway. An NVG 3550 5-speed manual transmission coupled to an NP231 transfer case carries the power down to the axles via custom Inland Empire Driveline driveshafts.

Body armor includes a GenRight Trail Stinger Steel front bumper, Poison Spyder Ricochet Rock Sliders, and Full Traction skid plates. The rock sliders and skid plates did their job well as evidenced by the scars on their undersides. As well as providing protection from trail hazards up front, the steel stinger bumper held a Warn XDi 9000-pound capacity winch at the ready in case a pull was needed. Some generous Sawzall action on the fender wells opened up new possibilities in uninterrupted tire travel. The openings were then cleaned up with a set of Poison Spyder Defender 5-Inch Fender Flares. You'll notice that the front marker lights are from a JK but have been modified and positioned to echo a classic Jeep CJ style.

A Full Traction Jeep TJ steering drop bracket kit was used with a converted Jeep ZJ steering link to create a system that could compensate for the 6 inches of suspension lift and maintain control over the 35-inch tires off-road and on the highway.

The interior got some nice upgrades to improve safety (a custom TIG welded rollcage), livability (a Kenwood stereo system), and functionality (an sPOD 6-switch panel to control the ARB air compressor, rear ARB Air Locker, and auxiliary lighting). Speaking of lighting and wiring, Aden's piece of advice for those building their Jeeps-Go easy. He got a little crazy with the Sawzall when installing the fender flares and accidentally cut through some of the wiring harness. Luckily, replacing that harness didn't blow the budget on this super clean custom 2003 Jeep Wrangler TJ.

The custom Dana 44 rear axle was built to accept JK-size 4.56 gears, and features 3-inch tubes, a Full Traction truss, 8.8-inch Ford disc brakes, and an ARB Air Locker.
Little custom budget build details like this 10-speed derailer style bicycle gear shifter was mounted on the Jeep Wrangler TJ transmission lever. Connected to a cable-control on the engine's throttle, the thumb-shifter can be used to control engine idle speed during winching operations.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: 2003 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Engine: 4.0L inline-six
Transmission: NVG 3550 5-speed manual
Transfer Case: NP 231
Axles: Dana 30, 4.56 OX manual locker (front); custom Dana 44, 4.56 JK gears, ARB Air Locker, 8.8-inch Ford disc brakes (rear)
Suspension: 6-inch Metal Cloak Dual Rate Long Arm with Bilstein 5100 shocks
Wheels: 10x15-inch aluminum American Racing
Tires: 35x12.50R17LT General Grabber X3