THERE’S no such thing as too much grunt, whether it’s that Pro Comp street machine you’re building, that ultimate off-roader you dream of, or something that combines the two like this fire-burnt orange, six-pawed custom brute of a Jeep JK Wrangler dual-cab ute.
There’s really no easy way to describe this thing. The end result of Russell Simpson and his team’s 1000-plus man hours (and close to 18 months) toiling in the Exotic Custom Motorsport (ECM) workshop is really in a world of its own when it comes to not only impressive engineering but also the fact that something so monstrous was even an idea to start with.
That’s not a complaint, either. Shoehorning a big-power engine into a 4x4 is not new – hell, we’ve featured more than a few in this mag – but all the rest of what comprises this simply brilliant example of 4x4 engineering art is what ups the admiration levels. That may be a lot of superlatives in one paragraph, but read on and you’ll understand why we don’t need an excuse to jabber and rave.
Not for us to question why
FOR YEARS Jeep fanatics have banged on about the potential for a Wrangler-based ute, with the iconic US brand having a history of producing workhorse vehicles way back in the 1960s with the J-Series (also known as Gladiator).
However, since that model finished production in 1988 Jeep has left any Jeep ute variant to the custom vehicle market. Well, until this year’s announcement of the new JL Wrangler-based Gladiator.
Why the history lesson? Well, when Russell started building this behemoth, there was no word on when the Gladiator would arrive – and there was certainly little chance it would be powered by a 6.2-litre Hemi ‘Hellcat’ supercharged V8, pulled from Chrysler’s Challenger muscle car. And doubly certain was the fact it wouldn’t be driven by six wheels.
However, the ‘fun’ part of this build really began with the – excuse the pun – big problem of how to go about shoving an oversized donk into the Wrangler’s relatively small engine bay (this six-wheeler is actually build number two; the ECM team had previously built up a Pentastar V6-powered version). Yeah, it presented more than a few problems that needed solving.
Looking under the Wrangler bonnet you would be forgiven for thinking this vehicle came stock with the Hellcat, as it looks so neat and factory-finished. The truth behind that under-bonnet tidiness is a lot of work dedicated to ensuring the engine was aligned (and balanced) correctly to fit, plus a number of components needed shifting around the engine bay.
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Then there was the rewiring that, combined with a custom-built transmission mount (the vehicle still runs the stock JK eight-speed auto), bell housing and custom engine mounts, left the mighty powerplant with the smallest of clearance margins all around it.
Compounding the headaches was the merger of engine management system and electricals – a key part to ensure a successful engine transplant. Complicating matters was the fact Russell was determined to keep all the functionality of the donor vehicle – think: electronic disconnect swaybar, diff-locks – which kept the team busy for many, many hours as they worked toward a solution. Again, the end result is an as-stock operational experience.
Stretching for six
IN ANY other vehicle the mighty growl and thump from that big Hemi would be a main attraction, but even that mighty donk struggles to take attention away from the stretched chassis and six wheels rolling underneath.
As with anything involved with this build, the stretch and additional wheels took time and started with the donor JK being totally pulled apart. From here the Exotic Custom Motorsport team chopped the chassis and added 910mm to the overall length, before adding in the custom fabricated rear window/C-pillar panelling (which includes keeping the donor vehicle’s rear-opening window) and the custom tray, all of which is fabricated in-house. Towing capacity is upped from standard and is now around 3500kg.
The 6x6 setup offers the best of many worlds. For one, it is a true six-wheel drive system that functions perfectly, thanks to the custom pass-through differential out back. The original Dana diffs (with 4:1 final drive) were kept and are supplemented by a custom-fabricated diff that acts as the pass-through unit, with a yoke on its front and another on its rear that ensures the pass-through shaft pushes the grunt to the rear Dana diff.
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It’s a bit of mechanical black magic that ensures all the functionality of the Jeep’s axles is retained, including the diff locks (on all three diffs), with the result being you can have a fully locked-up six wheels if you ever need off-road tractive enhancement for the Federal Couragia M/T 35x12.5 R20LT rubber.
Reining it all in is a set of stock Jeep Wrangler brakes, with the addition of an extra set, of course, for that third axle. Keeping all this mechanical mayhem well clear of the ground is a sweet five-inch lift, courtesy of a set of Rough Country Vertex remote-reservoir adjustable shocks and springs.
Keeping up appearances
ALL OF THIS mechanical work and the attention to detail is impressive and it’d be quite easy to say ‘job done’ if you were the ECM team. To do so would be to ignore all the ‘smaller’ things (and we only say ‘smaller’ in relation to those engineering feats) that make this Jeep the complete package.
From the paint colour (a twist on a House of Kolor orange/red) to the fact that any and all fabrication – whether metal or carbon-fibre – has been done in-house, and the final outcome is of a ‘complete’ custom vehicle.
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Custom rigs are often overtly focused on either the drivetrain, suspension or even the interior, but this six-wheeler combines it all very well. Starting up front, the front bar, fabricated by Russell and his team, houses a Warn 10,000lb winch and blends in brilliantly with the custom front guards and that schmick carbon-fibre grille (again, done in-house).
The cut-and-stretch job is seamless, as is the tub and roll bar at the rear, with the TIG-welded metalwork faultless. The nifty add-ins, such as the opening rear window that allows you to fold down the rear seats and create a long tray, are brilliant, as are the custom rear bar, tail-lights and bespoke leather interior that features diamond stitching and an overall understated but clean appearance.
The standout is that it all blends together to work – and work very well. Not only can this 6x6 Jeep light up the tyres on the bitumen, it can clamber up and over most off-road obstacles and do it in comfort thanks to that drivetrain/suspension combo.
There’s little doubt the asking price for one of these monsters – a cool US$289K (AU$400K approx.) for this one; around US$150K (AUS210K approx.) for a Pentastar-powered variant – is way out of most of our leagues, but at least we can dream.
We can even dream in Australia. ECM has, oddly, built a right-hand drive 6x6 using a US Postal Service vehicle (they are RHD) as a donor rig. And no, we can’t think of a better way to deliver the Christmas mail, either.