4x4 Australia drive review
It is certainly the most customised 4x4 on the planet and, even among all the hot rods, street machines and customs of SEMA, it could well be the highest represented vehicle at the show. This is why it continues to win the most popular 4x4 at SEMA each year and why we’re expecting this year’s new JL Wrangler to be huge.
A consequence of the JK’s massive popularity is that to stand out among the throngs your Jeep must be something special. So many SEMA builds are just rigs with catalogues thrown at them, using every bolt-on piece of bling possible with no account for functionality or good taste. The show floors are full of cars like this, and their show lives are short-lived.
So how do you make your Jeep stand out? We reckon Synergy Manufacturing’s Dave Schlossberg got it right with his JKC that debuted at SEMA 2017.
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The C stands for Commando, as Dave re-bodied a JK Rubicon with a supercool Jeepster Commando body. But there was a lot more to this build than a simple body swap.
“I’ve always been a fan of the 1966 to 1971 Jeepster Commandos, but wasn’t a fan of the old technology,” Dave told us. “We swapped in a brand-new Jeep JKU frame under the Commando body and shortened up the wheelbase to 101 inches to match the factory (Commando) wheelbase.”
Thankfully for Dave the task was made a bit easier with the help of his business, Synergy Manufacturing.
Synergy is a Jeep specialist company and manufactures suspension systems, components and accessories for many Jeep models and sells them around the world. Synergy products are available in Australia through local stores such as Double Black Off Road and SBR Off Road.
The wheelbase of a stock JK Unlimited is 116 inches, so that chassis had to be shortened 15 inches to match the Commando body.
After the chop, the Rubicon-spec Dana 44 axles were refitted on a Synergy Stage 3 suspension kit, using 50mm raised front and 25mm raised rear coils and Fox Racing 2.5-inch DSC shocks. The stock Rubicon e-lockers and 4.1:1 gears were retained as they were more than deemed up to the job, while custom 1350 driveshafts were used front and rear.
The chosen powertrain owes more to General Motors than any Pentastar brand, and it starts with a 6.0-litre LQ4 small-block that has been tweaked with aftermarket cylinder heads and a cam to produce around 400hp.
The V8 is backed by a GM 4L80 transmission beefed up by GearStar Performance, while an Atlas transfer case fitted with a 4.3:1 low range controls the all-wheel activation with deep crawling ratios.
Dave admitted that adapting the 1971 Jeepster body to the modern chassis was one of the more testing aspects of the build. “Getting the body to fit right on the JK chassis and the extensive amount of bodywork required was a challenge,” he recalled. “We did a ton of body work to the floor pan, rear bed area, rocker guards and firewall to get it all to look and fit well, and still be functional.”
Again, having your own manufacturing business helped here. “Special thanks to Kevin Burk and Dustin Boyack in our engineering/fabrication departments at Synergy Manufacturing. These guys were the blood, sweat and tears behind the build and it could not have been done without their hard work and top level skill sets,” Dave added.
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The team nailed the look, and the bright red paint applied by San Luis Autobody in Synergy’s home town of San Luis Obispo, California, sets the retro body alive. The original Jeepster badges and stripes, as well as the old-school rollbar, complete the retro look.
We weren’t the only ones taken by the Commando at SEMA, where it picked up a swag of accolades. The Transamerican Auto Parts (TAP) “Life is Better Off-Road” award is contested between only the best off-road vehicles at SEMA, and the Commando scored first place. It also ranked Top 40 in the Battle of the Builders competition, including Top 10 in the Off Road Class.
In awarding the Synergy Commando at SEMA, TAP President and CEO Greg Adler mimicked our thoughts on the vehicle when he said: “There was clearly a lot of thought, effort and skill put into this build, and with so many over-the-top trucks and Jeeps on display at the show, this simple, clean and well-executed project represents exactly what this award is all about.”
It seems the simple things in life are so often the best, and what could be better than tearing up the Californian dunes in this retro Jeep?
A Closer Look
1 - If the sound of the V8 doesn’t float your boat, there’s an Alpine sound system.
2 - Wood-rim wheel and timber cargo deck add to the old-school style of the JKC.
3 - Classic-look gauges from AutoMeter maintain the retro theme of the Jeepster.
4 - Twin sticks control the Atlas transfer case to 4x4, 4x2 and low range activation.
Under the Bonnet
1 - An aluminium radiator keeps the engine cool when powering through the dunes.
2 - The 6.0L LQ4 breathes in through a pod air filter and out via Hooker Headers and a dual 2.25-inch exhaust.
3 - PSC remote steering pump reservoir helps keep the big Jeep aiming true.
4 - Finned rocker covers look better than the factory LS coil packs.
Gear Made Right
THE suspension used on the JK Commando is indicative of the quality components made by Synergy Manufacturing.
The Stage 3 kit is a bolt-in system and includes front and rear track bar relocation brackets; flipped drag link (also available for right-hand drive); progressive-wound coil springs; heavy-duty fixed lower control arms and adjustable upper control arms; front and rear bump stop extensions; front and rear sway bar links; and front and rear extended stainless steel braided brake lines.
The lower control arms manufactured from high-quality crush-resistant 1¾-inch x 0.188-inch wall tubing for durability and feature Synergy’s dual durometer bushings with Teflon bearing surfaces for a maintenance-free design.
Most of the Synergy Manufacturing products are made in the USA and are available for RHD Jeeps. Check them out at www.synergymfg.com
Second Opinion: Jeep Girls' review
Dave Schlossberg’s hot-rodded Jeepster Commando is one of our favourite Jeeps, so when the Jeep Girls, told us they were taking it for a drive, we asked them to share the experience.
by: Ashley and Brittany Hill
THE Cuesta Pass that crosses California’s Santa Lucia Mountains is no joke. Climbing from just above sea level to an elevation of 1522 feet, it threads Route 101 over the steep range connecting the town of Santa Margarita with the Pacific Coast north of Los Angeles.
Apparently, our recently acquired Jeep Wrangler YJ which we bought in Santa Margarita smoked its engine climbing the hill. At some points the twisting climb reaches a seven-per-cent gradient and can be quite intimidating; especially when you are driving someone else’s precious cargo such as Dave Schlossberg’s amazing Jeepster Commando.
But what were we doing driving this stunning Jeep here anyway? Let’s go back a few years to begin the story.
DAVE’S Commando made its debut at the 2017 SEMA Show in Las Vegas and I instantly fell in love with it. I jumped in the driver’s seat at the Las Vegas Convention Center and told my partner Fred Williams (of the online show Dirt Every Day) how much I loved it. It had undergone a complete transformation since I previously saw it, when Dave purchased the original vehicle.
Dave Schlossberg, founder of Synergy MFG, a manufacturer of high-end automotive performance components, found the Jeepster in the small town of Placerville, California, just outside the famed Rubicon Trail. I remember when he first got the yellow Jeep it even had a gold-miner hood ornament which is so iconic of Placerville, a town whose origins date back to the 1848 Gold Rush.
The 1971 Jeepster Commando didn’t run and sat with a cover on it at Dave’s shop on California’s Central Coast for a while. I would always ask him if it was running, because obviously I wanted to drive it.
I love the more unique vintage Jeeps such as the early Willys Wagon and the Jeepster Commando. For years Brittany and I have been talking about purchasing a ‘heritage’ Jeep; something iconic, classic and stylish, with a story. We really loved the idea of something cool from the 1960s or ’70s, but everyone we talked to warned us about the amount of work involved with maintaining a vintage Jeep.
When I first saw Mopar Underground’s 1962 Willys Wagon at the Easter Jeep Safari, I fell in love with the aesthetic and I followed the Wagon through Moab, Utah, in my JK Wrangler. The Willys Wagon had been updated with the original chassis, coupled with a Jeep Wrangler TJ Unlimited drivetrain. The idea was maintaining a vintage look, but for it to steer, stop and perform on road (and off) like a modern Jeep.
DAVE’S Jeepster follows a similar theme, with a classic yet restored vintage body on a modern chassis and driveline to improve its driveability and performance on- and off-road. In short, it’s a 1971 Jeepster Commando on a shortened JK Wrangler frame with an impressive powertrain.
The engine is a 6.0L LQ4 GM V8 backed by a 4L80E transmission custom-built by GearStar and an Advance Adapters Atlas 4.3 transfer case. The diffs are the donor JK Rubicon’s Dana 44s with the factory e-lockers. Naturally, the Jeepster rides on Synergy Manufacturing’s Stage 3 suspension kit, using 50mm raised front and 25mm raised rear coils and Fox Racing 2.5-inch DSC shocks.
I recently bumped into Dave and told him I wanted to take his Jeepster Commando on an adventure through California’s Central Coast. After twisting his arm – a lot – he agreed to let us take one of his favourite Jeeps to the beach and over the low mountain pass from San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles. Luckily my sister Brittany came out for the adventure, because it was like nothing I had ever driven before. As soon as I got in, I felt as if I was handed very precious cargo, as Dave said sternly: “Don’t mess it up!”
A short time into the drive, Fred called in a panic. He had no idea we borrowed the Synergy Jeepster and he needed us to rummage through a pile of parts in his shop, which is on the other side of town.
This meant one of two things: either I was going to have to tell Dave I was too scared to drive his Jeepster over the Cuesta Pass and take it back to him; or Brit was going to drive up the extremely steep grade.
Luckily Brittany isn’t afraid of going uphill, especially in a fully capable Jeepster with a powerful V8. Dave assured us he built the Commando to take on mountain passes and more, and that steep grades and sharp curves were nothing to be scared of. I shouldn’t have been worried. The refurbished JK chassis, Synergy suspension and 35-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers make the Jeepster effortless to drive, and the powerful 6.0-litre V8 climbed the pass without raising a sweat … but it did use a bit of fuel.
Instead of an intense grade like the eastern approach, the descent to the coast is gradual but much longer. As we went down, Brittany asked nervously how much longer the hill was, and told me that the fuel was running out. We made it to the service station and, when topping up, discovered one of the quirks of driving a vintage vehicle: they all have a unique way of being filled up. After finally figuring out that the pump handle needed to be upside down, we put in a few litres and headed onwards towards Synergy Manufacturing’s head office.
Dave sent us a text asking, “Did you wreck my Jeep yet?” I couldn’t wait to return it to him pronto as I had never been so nervous about being in someone else’s Jeep. As the sun was rapidly setting, we pulled off to take a breath and relax for a quick minute before driving back to Synergy. Our plan was to return it before dark, but the sun sets quickly in a USA winter, and about 10 minutes later it was completely lights out.
Pulling into Synergy in the dark, I couldn’t have been more excited to jump back in our rental car. We had a fabulous time, but we area learning that owning a heritage vehicle requires a lot of patience, flexibility and understanding. Just recently, as Fred was muscling in the replacement engine for our Jeep Wrangler YJ, he said, “no more Jeeps that aren’t running.” It’s true, because you really don’t know what worked, what has been replaced, or what type of surgery the vehicle needs.
I really love a stock classic heritage vehicle, but I also love the modern conveniences and power from a new vehicle. There’s really something to be said about the time and energy that engineers spend on crafting a vehicle the first time around. I wouldn’t say that I never want to own a heritage vehicle, but there’s so much more to learn in the meantime! Stay tuned as we continue to work on our version of a heritage Jeep … our 1992 Jeep Wrangler YJ.