Staring out at an open expanse of sandstone slabs on the back trails of Moab, Utah, I was reminded of the only steadfast rule when it comes to off-roading: if you’re planning to conquer the great outdoors, you’d better come equipped with a great vehicle. The name of the trail was Steel Bender—an inauspicious designation, to say the least—and I was in a Jeep Wrangler. On paper, this might not look like the ideal situation, especially for anyone familiar with a modern-day Jeep. Thankfully, I was not driving your run-of-the-mill Wrangler; I was at the helm of an American Expedition Vehicles (www.aev-conversions.com) rock-crawling monster, and my copilot was the company’s owner, Dave Harrington.
“Moab is an awesome training ground; it has everything from easy to really hard,” explains Harrington. “Plus it’s all right there close to town so you’re never really very exposed. You can push harder than you typically would if you were 500 miles away from the nearest town.”
Headquartered in Missoula, Mont., AEV builds and designs off-road machines to their full potential—a claim that the company backs up by testing them right in their backyard. Essentially, the company takes JK-style Jeep Wrangler models from the Toledo, Ohio, factory line and transforms them into off-road masterpieces. “We produce just over 200 cars per year,” claims Harrington. “There are about 10 Jeep dealers that are certified AEV dealers, but most people just call us up directly. We get a lot of special orders, so it makes sense that people come to us for their car.”
One such customer, Gary Voigt, has owned four different AEV vehicles since acquiring his first in 2005. Voigt was introduced to the aftermarket brand at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show after a friend suggested that he consider AEV for his next vehicle purchase. After speaking with Harrington at the Las Vegas convention, he ordered a Brute—a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon converted to pickup-truck form. “The Brute is a fantastic vehicle,” says Voigt. “You can’t go anywhere without someone asking you about it. I’ve had people follow me into parking lots, and one time I had a guy follow me for 10 miles just to ask me where I got it.”
According to Harrington, some of his retired customers travel the country in motor homes with their AEV in tow. For others, the AEV is their only car, one that they use as their daily driver during the week and take off-roading on the weekends. And then there are customers who require a car like this for their everyday drives due to remote living situations. “I just did a motorcycle trip this last weekend into some of the isolated areas of Idaho, and I know that we’ve sold quite a few cars into these obscure towns,” says Harrington. “Without the right vehicle, some of these people would be snowed in almost the entire year. I know a guy who has almost a five-hour drive to his house through the woods. It’s not a hard road, but you really have to be prepared for anything at that point—trees, mudslides, snow … anything.”
Voigt’s Brute—the first of his AEV vehicles— sits at his cabin in Idaho, where most of his off-road excursions take place. Even though Voigt will dabble in some rock climbing from time to time, he doesn’t consider himself a serious off-road driver. Instead, he sees himself more as a collector. “I actually bought a four-door JK in 2008 with a lift kit and 35-inch tires,” he says. “It was a great road vehicle, but I ended up selling it to one of my business partners when I bought a 2009 JK with a 5.7-liter Hemi engine. Jeep’s biggest problem was that their cars were just anemic. They make a lot of noise, but they wouldn’t go up a hill. I have a lot of cars with a lot of horsepower, so the Hemi was really a great addition to the car. Now I have a 2012 JK that rides behind my motor home. It’s just a thing of beauty.”
Currently, AEV is working on producing a 6.4-liter Hemi conversion with 475 hp and 475 ft lbs of torque for customers who share Voigt’s lust for power. Harrington claims the vehicle will be priced around $80,000, but AEV offers a variety of options ranging from a $40,000 lift kit to an unstoppable force of machinery outfitted with leather interior, a Hemi engine, and full off-road armoring that costs upwards of $100,000.
“Most of our owners have some really nice cars, but they end up driving our car more often,” says Harrington. “The Mercedes ends up just sitting in the garage, because these cars are just as nice to drive on-road as they are off-road. Plus, if someone ends up hitting our Jeep with their door in a parking lot, it’s the other car that gets hurt, not ours.”
A Winning Formula
Hauk Designs (www.haukdesigns.com) of Chambersburg, Pa., also shares an affinity for Jeep products, but it does things a little differently than American Expedition Vehicles. While the AEV conversions look as if they rolled off the Chrysler Group’s assembly line, Hauk Designs goes to great lengths to set its vehicles apart from the Jeep nameplate. “We got tired of seeing so many Wranglers that looked like a parts catalog threw up on them,” says Kenny Hauk, owner and founder of Hauk Designs. “Some of them look like a bad hack job, or sometimes they look good but just don’t perform well because the suspension isn’t a good match with the tires or the armor. We feel that we’ve put together a really good recipe.”
That recipe is showcased in all three of Hauk’s purpose-built creations: the Dune Raider, River Raider, and Rock Raider. Each Raider model is a turnkey product that is custom-manufactured to the owner’s specifications. As the model names suggest, each individualized off-road warrior is tuned and modified to tackle a specific terrain: the Dune Raider for sand, the River Raider for wetlands, and the Rock Raider for rough-and-tumble trails. All three model variations are offered with a variety of power train options, since Hauk’s goal is to offer personalized touches to each of the vehicles his company creates. The cars are offered with either manual or automatic transmissions and are mated to either a 5.7-liter Hemi with 400 hp or a Corvette-sourced 7.2-liter V-8 engine that produces more than 600 hp at the wheels. “We also offer a conversion with a Cummins diesel motor, which is probably one of the most popular things we have going right now,” Hauk says. “With this engine our SUVs are getting over 30 miles per gallon without losing any torque or power. That’s unheard-of in the SUV segment.”
Up until this year, everything that Hauk Designs offered was $100,000 and up, but the company recently introduced a more basic package for its Raider model in the $80,000 to $90,000 range. “We found that many people interested in our brand wanted something that looked great, but maybe not quite as extreme as our top-of-the-line vehicles,” says Hauk. “The off-road stuff is a little intimidating to some [customers].”
Regardless of a customer’s inclination for off-roading, if they’re looking for an adventure vehicle fitted with luxury components, Hauk is confident his company can deliver. His team starts by scrapping almost every standard feature found in a Jeep’s interior, doing whatever it can to eliminate the inexpensive plastic stigma of the stock car. An iPad can be installed into the dash to control all of the navigation, Internet, and music systems, and each Raider comes with heated and ventilated leather seats, Bluetooth connectivity, and LED headlights and taillights. Even the Jeep emblem on the steering wheel is replaced with one depicting the Hauk Designs logo. “There is nothing on this car that says Jeep,” notes Hauk.
In the end, the company aims to offer the customer the perfect blend—a vehicle that satisfies on every level. According to Hauk, if such an outfitting is done correctly—the way his company does it—a customer won’t have to worry about bad steering or the car getting squirrelly on the road. Designed to have a low center of gravity with plenty of ground clearance, the Raider boasts 40-inch tires with only four inches of lift—an ideal scenario for owners who would rather drive the vehicle around town than across unpaved countryside. “Ultimately, we have created a car that is very sporty, very stable, and very safe,” says Hauk. “You can cruise on the highway just as well as you can tackle the off-road obstacles. It is the ultimate go-anywhere vehicle, and you can do it in style.”
Jonathan Ward is another off-road enthusiast who understands the importance of creating a car that can excel in any conditions. Fifteen years ago, Ward saw enough beauty in the beat-up bodies of vintage Toyota Land Cruisers to launch TLC, a Van Nuys, Calif., company that restored and serviced the off-road vehicles. Ward’s work eventually led to a collaborative effort with Toyota, through which he built three prototypes for Toyota’s then-upcoming FJ Cruiser. The partnership was short-lived, however, as Toyota selected a design that moved away from the classic Land Cruiser look that Ward had provided.
Instead of scrapping his design, Ward formed Icon (www.icon4x4.com) and began making his own FJs: off-road vehicles characterized by a vintage appearance and modern components. “Usually people like the look of an old car, but they never want something that drives like an old car,” says Ward. “So we like to start with a derelict vehicle and then repurpose the vehicle to live on in this more modern form.”
Last year, Ward began offering the four-door, six-seat FJ44, which has a starting price of $140,000. Now he is ready to debut a complete new work of art: the reimagined Icon Bronco. This time, Ward collaborated with Ford designer Camilo Pardo—known for his work on the Ford GT—to establish a framework for this modern take on an American classic. The styling carries a strong resemblance to the familiar, original Bronco, but as with previous Icon models, the similarities end there. Beneath the car’s classic exterior lie top-of-the-line underpinnings such as Fox Racing shocks, Dynatrac axles, a StopTech Sport braking system, an Aisin-Warner 5-speed manual transmission, and a state-of-the-art 4×4 transfer case.
Equally important is what lies under the car’s stainless steel hood. The Icon Bronco is blessed with Ford’s 5-liter V-8 engine, which currently powers the new Mustang GT and produces 412 hp and 390 ft lbs of torque.
Ward has presold five Bronco prototypes, the first of which debuted last monthat the SEMA show in Las Vegas. A limited-edition run of only 10 modern-day Broncos will be made available in 2012, which means interested buyers must be quick on the draw if they want to stake claim to the latest Ward design.
While Icon still is making a name for itself among Ford Bronco lovers, F650 SuperTruck (www.f650pickups.com) is well known in Ford circles for enhancing what was already Ford’s largest and most powerful vehicle. As Chris Walker, the company’s president and CFO, explains, the entire concept materialized on a whim. Back in 2000, Walker was the owner of a utility company, and after driving one of his company’s crew cab maintenance vehicles for a day, he began to wonder if he could somehow turn it into a pickup truck. In essence, that’s how F650 SuperTruck began.
Today, the Augusta, Ga., company fulfills orders for as many as 90 vehicles each year and can customize a vehicle to be as straightforward or as over-the-top as the owner desires. “The way that the cars have evolved over the years all stems from what the customer wants,” Walker says. “Whatever customers have asked for, we have designed and made it happen. At the same time, the trucks are cool on their own. They’re safe, they don’t break, they run forever, and they pull 30,000 pounds.
“We built one truck for a sultan from Malaysia, which was about $340,000,” he continues. “It was a six-door F650 Excursion beyond your imagination. But then, on the other hand, we can build you an $80,000 pickup truck or whatever you want in between. We take great joy in being able to please people who can have anything in the world.”
Even after the upgrade work, an F650 SuperTruck remains covered by Ford’s original warranty, since Walker and his team almost never modify the vehicle’s power train. In fact, in cases where customers have blown a turbo on a five-year-old vehicle, Walker has sent them checks to cover the cost of the repair. It’s what he refers to as old-school customer satisfaction. “It’s rewarding to build a truck that’s this good,” he says, “so we stand behind it.”
In It For The Long Haul
For those looking for a little more function than flash, SportChassis (www.sportchassis.com) in Clinton, Okla., designs hauling trucks that are both dependable and stylish. According to SportChassis’ Chris Brinkley, at some point, hauling with a pickup just isn’t enough. It becomes a safety issue when trucks are pulling loads that are beyond their limits. “We find that everyone who comes to us has what we call a SportChassis moment,” says Brinkley. “This happens when the truck they are hauling with starts having issues with weight. The brakes don’t work, they’re fishtailing all over the road, or they push through a stoplight. We always hope that people will come to us before these things happen, but it just seems to be the nature of the business.”
That business is spread pretty evenly throughout three categories of traveling hobbies: motorsports, horses, and RVs. “Everything we built was based on a luxury model for a long time,” Brinkley says of the company’s history of manufactured vehicles. “But we’ve just introduced a more serious work truck. This is more of a hot-shotter, which means it’s strictly built to get the job done.”
Unlike most similar truck manufacturers, which point to the need for power and performance as the main selling point for their vehicles, Brinkley at SportChassis also can tout the simplicity of ownership and operation. All SportsChassis vehicles are equipped with a push-button starter; there is no semitruck-style gearbox to navigate, which means no special license is required to operate it. As Brinkley explains, the operator simply has to push D and hit the gas.
According to Brinkley, each SportChassis model offers the power and durability of a semitruck, but it combines that with the maneuverability and accessibility of a pickup. And with 15 dealers across the country, the company provides services throughout all of North America. Additionally, because the company is a heavy-duty truck builder and an original equipment manufacturer, each SportChassis warranty is honored through Freightliner. However, Brinkley says you won’t even need the warranty. “The SportChassis will last 500,000 miles, so you’d easily wear out five pickup trucks before you run out one of ours. And because we are aligned with the Freightliner model, we actually sent one to get shake tested by Freightliner.”
In addition to the P-Series and R-Series models, SportChassis offers XL products in limited numbers (about 12 per year), due in large part to their size. Regardless of the model, each vehicle is a one-off build, and because the employees own the company, a high level of detail is paid to the criteria by which each one is built and tested. “SportChassis customers are the guys who buy the nicest RV trailer, because they own the best horses or the best cars,” says Brinkley. “They don’t settle for anything less than the best of the best.”
Through his team of engineers and craftsmen, that’s just what Brinkley aims to give them.