Project Sgt. Rocker, our supercharged behemoth of a JK Unlimited, is not our only Jeep project caught up in a litany of cool mods and sweet upgrades. While Sgt. Rocker is something of an all-star showstopper that gets a lot of attention, there’s something to be said for the understated yet capable vehicles that just get the job done.
Enter Project Redneck, our 1997 TJ that previously received an installation of a Barricade soft top and set of front and rear bumpers, as well as two bumper-mounted Raxiom square LED lights. Powered by the 2.5-liter inline-four that carried over from the days of AMC ownership, the rig is by no means a strong yet silent creature; it is a loud and scrappy contender that fights to get wherever its passengers want to go, and it gets the job done.
As far as what’s powering our TJ, though, we’re content to just leave things the way they are right now. Project Redneck is not a trailer queen, nor is it a do-it-all machine. It’s simply a serviceable daily driver, combined with four-wheel-drive, all-terrain tires, and just enough chipped clearcoat and cigarette butts to give off the right amount of attitude.
That’s all changed now, however, as we recently took the Redneck into the shop and got it totally fixed up with a host of aftermarket parts to give it higher ground clearance, more robust suspension, and improved road manners as we pave the way for new wheels and tires. So, without further ado, let’s dive in, shall we?
Upping The Game: The Players
Prior to getting started, the Jeep stood with a four-inch lift on it, yet kept the stock control arms (made from stamped steel) for a four-link front end and four-link rear end. It had stock motor mounts; solid, bolt-on sway bar end links; standard style monotube shock absorbers; a drop belly pan; and a slip-yoke rear driveshaft.
On the whole, the Jeep had a stiff suspension setup when on-road, with decent off-road performance on the flipside. It did some basic rock-crawling at Calico, as well as the Tierra del Sol event out at Ocotillo Wells. The Wrangler strained to go over obstacles, and the rigid ride didn’t do the passengers any favors, either.
After some back-and-forth and phone calls galore, we had finally assembled some of the best in the business to get our Jeep up to snuff. TNT Customs, Mountain Off Road Enterprises (a.k.a. M.O.R.E.), FOX Racing, Rugged Ridge, J. E. REEL Driveline, and JKS Manufacturing were all brought together to give Project Redneck a big shot in the arm.
We imagine the TJ one day sitting on top of 35 to 37-inch tires and new wheels, and to get there, we had to factor in something that would increase clearance. That’s where TNT Customs came in with a two-part solution: the TJ Rock-Tek High Clearance Long Arm kit (p/n TLAU) and TJ/LJ Steering Stretch Kit/Steering Box Rotation Kit (p/n TSSK).
The long arm kit would definitely play a big part in the end result’s success. Toward the front, the Y-link control arms would contribute to a greater amount of articulation, while also reducing the deflection factor that the driver experiences when coming across obstacles like rocks or fallen trees.
The steering stretch kit/steering box relocation kit, meanwhile, was a must-have if this phase of upgrades was to come out the other side looking and performing on-point. By rotating the steering box up and away from its stock location, the fear of obstacles like jutting rocks or tree branches would be reasonably snuffed. As a companion kit to the long arm kit, we could expect three more inches of clearance to set us up for bigger tires–something that will be addressed in a later stage of the project, to be sure.
M.O.R.E., meanwhile, offered up its BombProof “Torsion” motor mounts (p/n JM603L) to keep the 2.5-liter inline-four mill stable and steady when the going got rough. Aggressive action off the road had already done quite a number on the factory motor mounts, which used a rubber compound not meant for this level of intense usage. M.O.R.E.’s Cody Hancock explained thus: “The rubber on the stock motor mounts will tear away from the steel and deteriorate. This will cause metal on metal contact, causing the metal strap to break and the engine to raise up on one side.”
M.O.R.E.’s proprietary compound, however, was made expressly to keep NVH to a minimum and keep doing so for the life of the vehicle, not just the engine. “Our mounts are made with a superior rubber bushing and built stronger than the stock mounts,” said Hancock. “Once installed, there is no maintenance involved. We will replace our mounts for life if they ever break.”
Next was FOX Racing. The suspension company’s credentials and involvement in off-road excellence is too long to list here, but suffice it to say, we were all too happy to have them aboard for the sake of enhancing the Jeep’s ride comfort and longevity. We went for a set of FOX’s Performance Series 2.0 IFP shock absorbers (p/n 980-24-643, front; p/n 980-24-645, rear), which represented a good balance of cost, technology, and capability.
To better illustrate where these shocks fit in amidst FOX’s lineup, we had Brian Godfrey give it to us in a nutshell: “[The Performance Series is] in the middle of the lineup. The Factory Series is at the very top of the lineup, or ‘best’. Factory has the same parts as our race shocks, but made for specific applications.”
“Because the Performance Series is in the middle, it’s honestly the best option for most enthusiasts,” he continued. “They are serviceable with their aluminum bodies. The bottom line is the Evolution series. These have the same ride quality as the Performance Series, but are steel body and not serviceable.”
Seeing as the TJ would serve double duty as off-roader and daily driver, we liked the Performance Series all the more for its aluminum body, “The precision metal impact aluminum body increases cooling capacity and will never rust,” said Godfrey. And with the built-in Internal Floating Piston (IFP) preventing aeration of the oil, we could say “Goodbye” to any worries of cavitation and rapid wear-and-tear.
The stock slip yoke driveshaft was another area of concern, which we had thankfully addressed with Rugged Ridge and its Heavy Duty NP231 Slip Yoke Eliminator Kit (p/n J12680). With the suspension lift factored into the equation, an SYE kit is practically a requirement because it strengthens the transfer case while raising the driveline angle. The heightened driveline angle, left untouched, can otherwise lead to the U-joint snapping under stress or even normal use.
“Eliminating the slip yoke shortens the drive train to allow use of a longer driveshaft,” explained Rugged Ridge’s Ryan Huck. “This flattens the driveshaft angle, which eliminates driveline vibrations from lifts over four inches.”
Speaking of drivelines, it only made sense to recruit the help of J. E. REEL Driveline, operating out of Pomona, California. We sought the company out for its ability to manufacture custom driveshafts, which was obliged with a set of 1310 CV style units. Such an order is not out of the ordinary for J. E. REEL, as explained by the man himself, Jim Reel.
“We make custom driveshafts every day for Jeeps, Ultra4, Trophy Trucks, short-course trucks, and hot rods, as well as transmission or axle swaps,” said Reel. “The customers are usually in need of a driveshaft that will handle more horsepower, torque, and RPM. Or they might need something extreme to take a beating against rocks for King of the Hammers, or long-lasting durability for Baja or DAKAR. That is why we use only the best parts or have our own parts made to achieve the quality of a J. E. REEL driveshaft.”
The process to build a custom driveshaft is to first find out about the vehicle and its intended use. -Jim Reel, owner, J. E. Reel
The way to getting custom driveshafts might be simple for the customer, but J. E. Reel has a lot more to consider, as Reel explained. “The process to build a custom driveshaft is to first find out about the vehicle and its intended use,” he said. “Other things to factor in include horsepower, tire size, gear ratio, operating angle of the driveshaft, measurements at ride height, full bump, full droop, are there any clearance issues transmission, control arms and links, and so on.”
“All of these things will determine CV, non-CV, how much slip is needed in the slip joint, how heavy the duty the parts and tube will need to be, what diameter the tube will be, two-piece or three-piece driveshaft. The manufacturing process is ready to start once we know the customer’s needs. Pull the parts from inventory, machine parts to fit the customers build, assemble, weld, and balance the driveshaft.”
Last but not least was the issue of the sway bar. To make full use of the greater articulation we would get with the TNT kits, it made sense to have a set of TJ Quicker Sway Bar Disconnects (p/n 2001) like the ones we got from JKS Manufacturing. We talked with company rep Ryan Snyder to better understand the benefits of the product.
“Our design is not anything revolutionary in its concept, but the spherical urethane bushings are the critical difference,” he explained. “We have found that generally, the major factor when disconnecting links that causes the process to be difficult is that one has to fight against the bushings, and more or less force a bind in the whole assembly, to get the link removed from the post or stud.”
“Because our bushings are spherical, they allow the link to misalign more easily, which makes the process much quicker and smoother. Less fighting the with the bushings or rod-ends to get everything lined up just so, like with many other disconnects on the market.”
Upping The Game: The Install
With so many moving parts involved with this stage of our project TJ, we had to have a clear plan of attack on how we would go about installing everything. Wheels and tires off, Jeep in the air, tools at the ready–let’s do this!
Off came the belly pan and crossmember, exposing the transfer case, which we had situated on a floor jack. We applied some degreaser to the frame rails where the TNT kit would be mounted, and then proceeded to “stage” the front control arm mounts. With the new mounts used as templates, we made marks where we had to drill. We then removed the mounts, drilled out the holes, and then reinstalled the mounts.
Next came the transmission crossmember, which bolted right in and nestled against the tranny with some space created by an isolator. The rear suspension crossmember came afterwards, requiring welded-in bungs (supplied with the kit) to be situated where we had “staged” the rear crossmember in a prior step. Fitted in between the crossmembers was the TNT belly pan, holes drilled and affixed with eight 3/8-inch bolts and nuts and 16 flat washers, all tightened to 35 ft-lbs. of torque.
Steam gathered and running at full speed, we went on to weld the axle truss to the rear, as well as get the rear control arms lined up correctly when the time came to re-install the axle. We then measured the rear control arms to ensure they were the same length–29 inches–and inserted them into the mounts. Some extra elbow grease was required here to get the lower control arms to fit, but we eventually got it to fit just right. The uppers went in without issue.
We welded on the lower spring mounts onto the rear axle, making sure they were even with one another by way of a digital leveler. Once the rear axle was spray-painted black and dried inside the shop, we hooked up the control arms to the axle, inserted the new springs, and bolted in our FOX shocks.
The same steps followed us to the front: axle resting on a floor jack, out with the old control arms, in went the Y-links. The upper control arm portion of the Y-link is adjustable, and we measured it out to 15 inches overall length to keep the pinion angle in check. We welded on the new spring mounts to the axle and reinserted the axle into its proper place with the help of the floor jack; sure enough, our pinion angle was spot-on. Shocks and springs went in shortly afterwards.
Once we had installed the slip-yoke eliminator kit, we moved on to the motor mounts. The Jeep was lowered to the ground and had its front fenders removed. We raised the Jeep back up, scooted a screw jack underneath the motor, raised it up, unbolted six bolts on the stock motor mounts, swapped in the M.O.R.E. motor mounts, and reversed our steps back to normal.
Nearing the end, our set of J.E. Reel driveshafts went into place lickety-split (the stock ones had been removed already for the sake of letting J.E. Reel get the proper measurements, and were not reinstalled at any point).
The moment of truth arrived after a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. We grabbed a staircase ramp to test flex in the parking lot, and wouldn’t you know it, our little TJ is a regular steel-bodied gymnast! All joking aside, it was a piece of cake once JKS Manufacturing’s Quick Disconnects let the sway bar hang free, and the TNT parts could really perform.
But what’s the point if you can’t ‘froad the darn thing? We were ready to see just how well everything came together, and the varied off-road “course” near our office would prove a worthy test track to get some answers.
Starting with the sand and rock-laden path that leads to the “course,” we immediately felt significantly less harshness from the previous setup. FOX’s shocks were pumping up and down, never missing a beat; the motor mounts and SYE kit were transferring less vibration to the built-tough drivetrain; and the TNT Y-link front end and triangulated four-link rear end were able to take the occasional bump without severe deflection–a definite boost to ride comfort right there.
We arrived at the dirt mounds and got out to test our flex (admittedly, not a great spot, but time and Municipal Security were telling us the sooner we left, the better). JKS Manufacturing’s Quick Disconnects let the sway bar hang loose, and let us see just how great of articulation we now had. Needless to say, we were not disappointed!
All this to say that compared to where the Wrangler began and where it ended, the performance curve went nowhere but up, both on-road and off. We’re gearing up to make some more changes in the future–steering, wheels, tires, and so on–and we now have the goods installed to make those upcoming mods shine brighter once we get there.