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Jeep J12 – The Return of the Gladiator


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Car & Driver / May 2012

When all else fails, mine your past. At times, this seems to be the only strategy Chrysler knows how to follow anymore. But for all the Chargers, Challengers, and Darts trading on their namesakes’ legacies, the Jeep division’s products have arguably walked the straightest path from the brand’s inception to its current showroom offerings. Take the Wrangler, for instance: ladder frame, stick axles, and coil springs. You can find more-complex riding lawnmowers.

Because of the seemingly eternal primordial state in which the Wrangler exists—its recent interior redo notwithstanding—Jeep designers have an incredibly versatile and cost-effective rolling canvas on which to base concept rigs. Taking full advantage of the situation, they’ve made a point of annually churning out a passel of concepts surrounding the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, hoping to keep enthusiast fires stoked and grab a few headlines in the process. It’s worked.

Recent years have yielded the stripped-down Wrangler Porkchop and the military-style Nukizer 715. There also was the Lower Forty, which we pitted against a donkey in a comparison test. And last year Jeep dropped the JK-8 on us, a custom pickup truck that recalled Jeep’s production Scrambler quasi-pickup of 30 years earlier. For 2012, Jeep checked in with a half-dozen or so new projects.

Wedged between the adolescent-fantasy-fueled Mighty FC and Hemi-powered Wrangler Apache was the mild-mannered Jeep J-12 concept you see here that we recently sampled at Chrysler’s proving ground in Chelsea, Michigan.

“If there was a guiding principal or theme behind the J-12 concept, it was grandpa’s fishing truck,” says Kyle Evans, the J-12’s designer. “The color, the logos, the grille—these things evoke very specific memories for people. When we were out in Moab last month, virtually everyone had a story about a personal experience with a Jeep J-series.”

When the time came to begin constructing the actual J-12 concept, Evans didn’t have to look far. As a senior designer in the Jeep studio, he has unparalleled access to the corporate parts bin and, by association, to the extensive collection of performance and appearance parts that trade under the Mopar brand name. “Not to mention some pretty select Dumpsters,” laughs Evans, a sentiment echoed by fellow Jeep enthusiast Mark Allen, who just happens to be the head of Jeep Design. (Allen would later lead us away from the off-road area—it’s used by Jeep to help certify its vehicles’ Trail Rated badging—by drifting his Grand Cherokee SRT8 around long, sweeping gravel-strewn turns.

Starting with a four-door Wrangler Sahara, Evans and the team at the Mopar Underground workshop first stretched the chassis by 18 inches, long enough to facilitate a six-foot bed. Two complete off-the-shelf Mopar JK-8 pickup-bed conversion kits were utilized to fabricate the cargo box, which has just enough room underneath to stow a full-size spare tire. The cab was modified slightly in pursuit of payload inches; by creating a custom bench seat, the team was able to maintain legroom. The tailgate and the fender flares are custom pieces.

Special care was taken to include the brow across the top of the windshield that disappeared on production-model Jeeps around 1980. “Collectors refer to their trucks as either pre- or post-brow J-series. We couldn’t ignore it,” says Evans.

But more than anything else, it’s the near-faithful reproduction of a late-’60s Jeep J-series front clip that intrigues. Aside from the chrome-plated front bumper and “rhino style” grille, the entire retro-look hood, fenders, and fascia are constructed of carbon fiber and are essentially installed directly over the Wrangler’s existing substructure without modification. It was all designed from the git-go to use all the Wrangler’s original mounting flanges and bolts, and Evans claims he could take the entire front end off and replace it with the stock Wrangler pieces in a half-hour or so. “Yeah, maybe Mopar will want to do something with this front end,” says Evans, his voice trailing off in calculated indifference, looking for a reaction. We offer none, but inside we’re saying to ourselves, “Good God, man! Make it! Sell it! The planets will align, and all will be right with the world again!”

No exterior detail has escaped scrutiny: The dog-dish hubcaps wear Kaiser-era Jeep logos, and the tailgate lettering and the fender badges are composites created from various Jeep fonts used throughout the years.

The mechanicals found underneath the stylish exterior are a fairly even mix of factory Wrangler and aftermarket parts. A stock 285-hp, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission funnel torque to a pair of ARB air-locker-equipped Dynatrac axles (D-44 front, D-60 rear) via a set of Tom Woods custom driveshafts. Mopar’s three-inch lift kit gives the classic 36-inch bias-ply tires plenty of room to breathe, and Teraflex anti-roll bars keep body motions under control in more civilized settings, although they were disconnected for the duration of our drive.

Creating the tall, narrow period-correct tires required a clever melding of new and old techniques. Engineers started with the worn carcasses of some appropriately sized tires, and the process involved “remolding” the tires (in a process similar to the one used to retread semi-trailer tires) with a pseudo-knobby tread pattern, resulting in a set of steel-belted, bias-ply period-correct rubber that would fit the J-12’s comparatively dinky 16-inch steel wheels. The effect this attention to detail has on the finished product cannot be underestimated; any effort to adapt currently available rolling stock to the J-12 concept would likely have stood in stark contrast to the meticulously designed bodywork. Mix old with old—or at least old style—we say.

Settling in to the J-12’s red, white, and plaid cabin is a bit like returning to a cottage you haven’t visited in a decade or so: vaguely familiar and welcoming, except the cottage also would smell like tackle boxes and moldy life vests. The split bench seat was constructed from modified Wrangler buckets and covered in white upholstery with plaid trim to continue the throwback vibe. An old-school compass serves as a shift knob, and a vintage fly-fishing rod hangs in the rear window, carrying the retro-whimsy theme to near-obsessive levels. (At no point during the test drive did we have the urge to don a crumpled hat and shuffle off down a forest path mumbling to no one in particular about how we’d be “catching” our dinner. If it had been a rifle, things might have been different.)

We did, however, find the time to give the J-12 a thorough workout on the Jeep trails at the proving ground. The biggest surprise driving the J-12 concept came not when climbing the rock staircase or traversing the off-camber whoop-strewn downhill (both of which it tackled with aplomb) but during a brief near-40-mph run on hard-packed gravel. Although we had no time on actual pavement in the J-12, we were impressed by how composed it remained at these real-world speeds; most concept vehicles can’t even drive onto an auto-show podium under their own power.

Although it’s largely built on proven Wrangler underpinnings, we thought perhaps the driving dynamics would be compromised by the frame stretch and custom tires. Instead, we found the J-12 to move about with a confidence and ease rarely found in highly modified or custom vehicles. The steering feel will be instantly familiar to anyone who has had seat time in a current-gen Wrangler, and the added length seems to have somewhat tamed the porpoise-like body bobbing common to shorter vehicles. The ride defies the J-12's appearance and capabilities, reserving harsh impacts for bumps and drop-offs that exceed 10 inches in height. On smoother terrain, the truck takes on a lazy—but not loose—demeanor that encourages you to place your left elbow on the windowsill and think about the weekend.

As the day winds down, Craig Buoncompagno from the Mopar Underground skunkworks points out that, at the very least, the J-12 concept would need side-marker lamps and acceptable head restraints to even begin the process of becoming federalized. The mood slightly dampened, we nevertheless press the subject of putting a showroom-ready J-12—or any Jeep pickup—on the market. “Don’t count on it,” we’re told.




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