Can you imagine the frustration of a Jeep salesman seeing this striking custom-built Wrangler ute for the first time?
Yep, a Jeep ute would be just the ticket to get sales soaring in a market obsessed with utes. Forget your Hiluxes and Rangers, this thing would be the duck’s guts on any worksite or campground and, if Jeep had the smarts to build them, we’re sure it’d be run off its feet trying to keep up with demand.
Alas, this Wrangler ute isn’t some flash pre-production model… and Jeep has no plans (that we know of) to build such a rig. But while it might not be a production model, the Wrangler JK-8 you see here is a kind-of official Jeep product. You see, the JK-8 pick-up conversion kit is sold through Jeep’s performance and accessories arm Mopar. And although the kit is damn good value – at less than $US6K – you’ll also have to stump up for freight, a Wrangler Unlimited and the rather extensive labour and know-how required to fit it.
Nevertheless, if you’re a Jeep fan and you want a usable ute, then the JK-8 is certainly a good way to get one. And that’s precisely why Autobody Prestige proprietor Wayne Bernhard built this bright orange JK-8.
“We use it mainly for promo,” Wayne says. “We’ve started another business called GOT 4x4, so we’re doing a lot of fit-ups on Jeeps, and that’s sort-of been generated through Uneek 4x4 and Murchison Products in Queensland.”
Wayne’s JK-8 started life as a 2007 Rubicon-spec Wrangler Unlimited. After all, if you’re going to modify a vehicle to this extent, you might as well start with a Rubicon that already has all the good off-road bits fitted to it including ultra low-range gearing, diff locks, sway bar disconnects and the like.
The JK-8 kit was sourced through Alan McMullen at Jeep Konection. “We actually did the conversion on Al’s JK-8,” Wayne says, “and we thought, you know what, we’re going to have a go at one ourselves. Once I found the right vehicle, being a Rubicon, I thought that’s the one we’d use.”
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Fitting a JK-8 kit can be completed in around six to eight weeks, however the conversion on this Unlimited took more like six to eight months. “It wasn’t the only job in our shop; it was a filler,” Wayne says of the JK-8.
The conversion process is quite involved, and requires a fair bit of chopping and welding of body parts, as well as the vehicle’s original roll bar. Wayne also wanted to do much more with this project to make it really stand out, starting with that spectacular orange paint.
“The colour’s just awesome,” Wayne says. “It’s Ford Focus orange and it’s got a flick of pearl through it. The car was silver but we thought ‘let’s make it the colour we want.’”
The driveline remains essentially standard Rubicon gear, but Wayne gave the front diff a going over. “The front diff, it’s a [Dana] 44, and I’ve bomb-proofed it, so it’s got the outer shell around it, the inner sleeves in the diff housing, the gusseting… we’ve sort of beefed the hell out of that front diff because it just got hammered,” he says.
The 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 engine hasn’t been touched – not even a snorkel – but there’s enough performance on tap to push around the lightweight Wrangler without it raising a sweat, especially off-road thanks to the Rubicon’s fantastic low-range reduction of 4:1.
Wayne has messed around with the suspension a fair bit to get the perfect stance out of the JK-8. “I’ve probably changed the springs in the rear four or five times just to get it to ride really nice. I wanted that sort of Baja look, you know… a little bit of arse-end down.”
To achieve the right suspension set-up, the JK-8 has been equipped with AEV (American Expedition Vehicles) springs front and rear; providing about 90mm lift at the pointy end and 30mm at the rear. The shock absorbers are aluminium-body Bilsteins.
The Pro Comp 35x12.5in R17 Xtreme A/T tyres are mounted to American Eagle Wheels Series 140 rims. “They were chrome and we powdercoated them,” Wayne adds. “Because there’s no other chrome on the vehicle, we made them black.
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The result is a stark contrast to the bright orange body, yet it mates well with the other black components on the vehicle, including the Bushwacker fender flares from Jeep Konection.
The Bushwacker flares are claimed to offer an additional 50mm of tyre coverage and are finished in a similar matte-black to the original Jeep items. The Torx bolts are all decorative and the flares are easily fitted using the existing factory holes, so no cutting or drilling is required.
It’s unlikely that you’ll see this JK-8’s distinctive front bar on any other vehicle. “The front bar is from Uneek 4x4, but I didn’t want the hoop,” Wayne explains. “I go to the SEMA Show every year and I look at what’s trending over there, and I try to bring back those kinds of ideas to Australia. So I said to Dave [at Uneek 4x4] ‘you know, I don’t want a hoop, I want to put this massive winch on it, so just do this hoop delete and call it a Baja Bar’. He said ‘awesome mate, let’s do it.’”
The front bar is equipped with a couple of substantial recovery points, integrated LED fog-lights and that monster Powerplant Dual Force HP winch, which incorporates what Warn claims to be a best-in-class air compressor. The winch itself is rated at 9500lb pulling capacity, while the compressor has enough pressure and volume to operate air tools such as nail guns and impact wrenches. It can also quickly air-up tyres after a day on the tracks or inflate rafts.
The rear bar is also from Uneek 4x4 and has a tidy step for easy access to the ute bed and a couple more recovery points. The tailgate is the standard Wrangler Unlimited item, albeit with the spare wheel removed.
Another stand-out exterior feature is the bonnet-mounted light bar. Both the mounting system and the light bar are from Monster Lights Australia. The mount is manufactured from laser-cut 304 stainless steel and has been designed to specifically fit on the Wrangler’s bonnet in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the vehicle’s window washers. The light bar is the company’s ML200X 200 Watt unit, which is claimed to generate 12,000 lumens and offer a range in excess of 300m.
“It really projects the light nicely from out there,” Wayne says. “I’m six-foot-three, so I can see right over the top of it; it doesn’t get in my way at all.”
The replacement LED headlights are also from Monster Lights Australia, as are the neat fog lights in the front bar.
As the JK-8 is mostly used to promote Wayne’s GOT 4x4 business, he hasn’t bothered with fitting items for off-road navigation or communications gear. In fact, the only real interior modification to speak of is the sound system.
“On the JK wagons there’s a sound bar, but that doesn’t fit when you do the JK-8 conversion,” Wayne explains. “We got this sound bar out of the States from Michigan Vehicle Solutions, so we could mount the sound bar speakers out of the wagon into the new sound bar carrier. And then we got two subwoofers, made a frame and bolted it underneath the seats.”
Despite losing a second row of seats, the cab configuration of the JK-8 Wrangler still offers relatively decent interior space. “Put it this way, you couldn’t fit a fridge in there but you definitely get your jackets and stuff in there. It’s pretty handy, like an extra-cab ute…”
So what’s next for Wayne’s JK-8?
“Move it on. Sell it,” he says. “We’ve finished this one. The next project we’ll look at will be the new Navara or the new Hilux. We’ll work with Uneek 4x4 and get the bars right, and the sliders and that sort of thing. Because we’re looking at getting more involved in 4WDs we’re still developing GOT 4x4, and that’s where we’re at.
MOPAR JK-8 Kit
Mopar offers the JK-8 pick-up conversion kit for less than US$6K, plus freight. It’ll fit any JK Wrangler Unlimited models from 2007 to 2015.
The JK-8 is referred to as a style-side pick-up, and it takes its cues from the Jeep Scrambler CJ8 that was offered in the 1980s. It was, however, a troopie-style conversion of the Wrangler Unlimited that spawned what was to eventually become the JK-8 kit.
According to US-based Michigan Vehicle Solutions (MVS), its J-8 program was the genesis for the JK-8. “MVS worked with D-Mac Industries and Jankel Armouring Ltd to build 34 Jeep J-8s for United Nations Haitian relief efforts,” MVS states. “The vehicles began life as bare-metal body-in-white Jeep Wranglers and were modified to become two-door pick-up trucks with high clearance rollcages, upgraded leaf spring suspension, military spec paint and primer, and a diesel powertrain.”
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The success of the J-8 program lead to MVS being selected to help Mopar develop the consumer version of the J-8, called the JK-8.
While it doesn’t get the J-8’s beefed up leaf spring suspension, the JK-8 Kit includes components such as the 1120x1270mm steel bed, inner and outer bed-sides made from stamped sheetmetal, panel assemblies, removable fibreglass hardtop with sliding rear window, side windows, fibreglass bulkhead behind the seats and JK-8 badges.
The JK-8 is a permanent conversion and requires significantly more skill to put together than the average handyman could muster. The installation requires several spot welds in the body to be cut, as well as the B-pillars and sections of the existing roll bar. The kit’s new body panels then have to be welded in place. The whole shebang also has to be engineered for compliance, which includes weighing all four corners to make sure there’s no variation from standard.
If you don’t feel confident in performing a JK-8 conversion yourself, no worries – there are several companies in Australia who have already fitted these kits, including Wayne Bernhard’s Autobody Prestige in Victoria and Murchison Products in Queensland.
As it is a six- to eight-week job to properly install the JK-8 kit, it’s unlikely that the original purchase price of the kit from Mopar will be the most costly part of the exercise. And once it’s all put together, there’s still a lot of work to do if you want a rig that looks as spectacular as the one gracing these pages: paint, suspension, wheels, tyres, front and rear bars… but hey, you’ll end up with one hell of a great looking ute.