VERY few people can say they enjoy taking their work home with them, let alone away on holidays.
This article was first published in 4x4 Australia's July 2012 issue.
But if you work in the 4X4 industry and can cope with the constant temptation of living in an off-roader’s answer to a lolly shop, it’s not hard to combine work and play.
With years of experience in the industry and the latest knowledge on the best products, Chris Leybourne was likely not only to have a very cool rig but to have no trouble convincing us that the gear he’d kitted it out with was the best choice. Like most young lads, Chris’s introduction to the dirt was a humble beginning.
His first ride was a Ford Escort that didn’t hold much credibility with the girls. But what it lacked in presentation it made up for in the sheer fun of punting it around out-of-the-way forestry gravel tracks. It wasn’t long before he was no longer content to accept the restrictions placed upon the Escort by the edges of the winding tracks.
Chris started saving his pennies for something that would let him explore the fascinating landscape beyond the graded gravel. By 19, Chris was on his way to owning a succession of 4X4s ranging from V8-powered HiLuxes, LandCruisers and even a ground-shaking V8 diesel Patrol.
Chris readily confessed that each vehicle promptly departed from the original OEM design. Each fourbie came with a different set of challenges and problems to overcome to improve capability and reliability. “Modifying each vehicle allowed me to create my own style and visual appeal, rather than just driving another clone,” Chris said.
Chris was already living a life less ordinary when he signed up for a 2011 four-door JK Jeep running the factory 3.6-litre V6 petrol coupled to the standard auto ’box. Naturally, Chris up-spec’d to the more aggressive Rubicon model offering better rims and tyres with electric diff locks front and rear.
Why the Jeep, and not another Toyota or Nissan? Chris grinned, “I have fond memories of riding in the back of a CJ7 Jeep with no roof when I was a kid, I just loved it. With the JK, I’ve got the freedom to remove the roof when I want to enjoy those balmy summer nights, wind in the hair and the sound of the engine.
Nothing compares to the sensation of open-air motoring, it’s simply great fun.
“On the business side, Jeep has a well-respected name with rich heritage and the JK Rubicon is no exception, offering strong off-road performance out of the box. And I liked the fact the Jeep Rubicon is one of the few remaining live-axle designs in a sea of independent suspension evolutions from other manufacturers.
It means the JK provides the perfect platform for some specialist tuning to create a robust family tourer capable of withstanding the rigours of outback travel in comfort and safety.”
As Chris well knew, building a competent off-road warrior is one thing, but it all too easily compromises the vehicle’s on-road dynamics. Not only did the Jeep have to prove itself as a competent off-road explorer for dad to play in; it had to meet the demands of family commuter, work truck and daily driver.
It also needed to be a long-distance tourer capable of pulling a camper-trailer while providing comfortable accommodation for many hours in the cab for mum, dad and three kids. You don’t attain this breadth of functional capability and reliability in a vehicle unless you really know what you’re doing.
We’ll admit, at this stage we were a little dubious as to the broad capability of this rig – it looked like a custom truck. Chris spotted our reservations and interrupted with an offer we seldom hear: “Not convinced eh, would you like to have a drive?” Before Chris had the chance to change his mind, I’d snatched the keys from his hand with the precision of a cobra and had my rump firmly planted in the command seat.
He got me back out of the seat with his next comment: “You know, it’s a lot more fun with the tube doors.” Within minutes Chris had unbolted those restrictive side-skins and we fitted the ultimate Jeep accessory. Twisting the key growled the V6 into life.
It quickly settled into a seductive burble thanks to custom exhaust headers and performance stainless-steel dual outlet muffler beautifully installed to look like a standard OE fitment. As we made our way through the car park first impression was positive.
It’s smooth, seating is comfortable and the rubber-necking we were copping courtesy of those tube doors was an ego boost even if we were only borrowing the glory. Turn onto the blacktop and this Rubicon retains a civilised driving demeanour; steering is responsive, the suspension absorbs minor surface irregularities and bodyroll is predictable and linear through winding bends.
We had to keep reminding ourselves that Chris was sitting next to us as the temptation to sink the slipper and enjoy the seductive rasp of the exhaust on exiting the corners was getting stronger.
Chris told us that having tried and tested so many variations of suspension across a number of vehicles, “you begin to appreciate the nuances for a balance between on-road stability and off-road toughness and flexibility”. Chris chose AEV’s 3.5-inch suspension kit specifically designed for the JK and completed the fit-out with quality Bilstein shocks.
Chris explained, “AEV’s approach is more than just increasing wheel articulation or suspension height, but rather obtaining a system extremely capable off-road, while offering superb on-road performance and handling.
They’ve achieved this by optimising the geometry of the JK’s steering and control arms to accommodate the extra lift while retaining excellent braking and cornering feel. With the correct geometry the springs and shocks don’t have to work so hard to compensate for a poor set-up.”
Chris’s Rubicon proved the point; he definitely had a well-balanced on-road ride, now we needed to see if it had improved the ability for exploring off-road. Watching this Jeep in its preferred playground negotiating rocky outcrops with enough flex to make a Pilates instructor wince, it’s hard to believe how well it sits on the road.
Having the extra lift and flexibility to keep the Jeep level when negotiating difficult terrain would also make the task of pulling a camper-trailer to those secluded camping spots that much easier and safer.
To give the Jeep every opportunity to gain the maximum benefit of the electrically-operated diff locks, Chris swapped the original factory rims for some bold Metal Mulisha rims wrapped in sticky Pro Comp 325/65R18 X-Terrain tyres.
Chris said the reverse rotation works better in the sand and loose rock because they don’t dig in as much, plus it keeps the blocks square so in the winter months when the mud gets deep, you can flick them around for optimum traction.
To ensure the Jeep doesn’t lose its Cheshire grin from wayward animal strikes or the odd tree stump, frontal protection is in the form of a solid AEV black winch bumper bar with over-riders tailored perfectly to the Jeep’s original bodylines.
Neatly housed inside the front box section is a tough Warn XD 9000lb winch with synthetic rope for safety when performing those recovery operations in the unlikely event that the Jeep should get stuck.
Night driving is supported by two powerful Lightforce HID Genesis spotlights with any gaps filled in by a brilliant-white LED light bar hiding just beneath the front rail of the Land Rover Defender roof-rack – yep, both the rack and LED light bar fit perfectly, so good in fact that you’d think they were Jeep options.
Rounding out the body protection are Hulk Hogan bicep flares from Bushwhacker and an AEV snorkel to make certain the Jeep breathes easily. The Jeep keeps its cool when things get tough, thanks to the stylish and practical AEV heat-reduction bonnet with polished silver accented air vents.
Looking after the tail-end duties for spare wheel, shovel, axe or high-lift jack is the smart-looking AEV rear bumper and wheel carrier. An interesting feature of this design is it incorporates two four-litre water tanks, one at each end.
Very handy for a quick clean-up or to fill the billy for an afternoon cuppa. Controlling communications and navigation duties in the Jeep is a GME TX3520 UHF remote-mount radio sitting neatly above the driver’s rear-view mirror. Chris sighed that “like many new vehicles these days dashboard real-estate in the Jeep for mounting additional equipment is limited”.
The TX3520 provides the perfect compromise of compact dimensions for a fully-featured radio. Chris was using the VMS 700 for touring duties, but is planning on giving the smaller Hema unit a try given it would impact less on the interior space.
Chris has paid special attention to keeping the interior of the Rubicon clutter-free, carefully installing or concealing gauges, switches and wiring harnesses needed for lighting, comms, accessories and power outlets. Secure storage in a JK can be a bit tricky, especially with no roof or when only running the soft-top.
It’s less of a problem when you’ve got a deep, lockable Tuffy roller-drawer system which will easily house the recovery equipment with plenty of room for extras like a camera, purse or wallet for when you need to leave the vehicle unattended.
The Tuffy system also provides a good flat surface area, on to which Chris can load up the fridge/freezer to fill with goodies and cold drinks for the family.
Chris summed-up the key benefits after all the changes: “Without doubt the suspension system was the best modification made; it gives the vehicle a unique visual appeal, retains near-perfect OEM road manners yet transforms the Jeep into a very capable tourer and off-road explorer.
“Wheel travel has been vastly improved, allowing the vehicle to stay in contact with terra firma over much more challenging terrain, readily maintaining forward motion in situations the Jeep might otherwise have been stuck.
“The on-road control and handling are standouts for me – I had a lifted Patrol that floated so badly over the road under cornering that you felt sure you were going to scrape the door handles.
Plant the Jeep in a corner and you know you’ll make it out the other side. The engine performance is crisper under acceleration since the headers and muffler were fitted, and I just love the exhaust note.”
Chris loves the Jeep, especially with the roof off on a summer evening enjoying a run on the beach with his wife Helen and the kids, but he does have a pet hate: no factory-option V8. While he dreams of a conversion, his patient wife just rolls her eyes and says “no”.
Especially as a new camper-trailer is currently the subject of hot debate. While Chris has plenty of long-distance touring behind him, including two trips along the Canning Stock Route, he hasn’t yet had the chance to take the new Jeep too far.
The family already have several holiday destinations ticked off the Jeep’s to-do list including exploring the gold country run around Southern Cross, playing in the dunes near Lancelin, Wedge Island and down to Western Australia’s south-west region – including Chris’s favourite little town, Pemberton, surrounded by national parks.
“I can’t wait to test out the Jeep on a big trip, camping with an open fire, millions of stars in a crisp, clear night sky. Sunrises that leave you speechless and sunsets to take your breath away,” he said. “I’m lucky my wife Helen, my two girls Jordan, 19, and Abi, 10, and my boy Lachy, 14, all love camping.
There’s nothing they enjoy more than throwing down a swag under the night sky, laughing and joking around a camp fire or getting out and exploring the bush. Watching the kids have lizard-catching competitions can be just priceless. “It’s suddenly coming across things you don’t normally see which make the travel and destinations so memorable.
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I love how my whole family becomes energised by the beauty of a rugged landscape or playing on pristine beaches with crystal waters. You don’t forget the sights and sounds of native animals and insects in the wild, or seeing your first wild eagle and witnessing the kids’ astonishment at how large they are.
You’ve just got to get out there and experience it for yourself.” I decided the strongest testament to Chris’s passion for all things off-road was young Lachy, who’s already stripped his own FJ40 and is carefully rebuilding it, piece by piece. Lachy confided that: “Once the FJ40 hits the dirt we’ll be able to see how well dad’s Jeep really holds up.”