Aftermarket equipment takes Jeeps' off-road prowess to the nth degree.
The Brute Double Cab, an extra-rugged four-door pickup version of the Jeep Wrangler from American Expedition Vehicles, in an undated handout photo. American Expedition Vehicles has become a leader in the Jeep aftermarket equipment industry offering an array of options and add-ons, including suspension modifications, lift kits, axle replacements, Hemi V-8 conversions and accessories.
In 1993, Dave Harriton decided to cut his Jeep in half to make it longer. Little did he know what the project would entail -- or that it would stretch into an enterprise that supplies aftermarket equipment for Jeeps and modifies the off-road stalwarts for even more extreme use.
''At the time, the Jeep was too small to carry around more than one other person," Harriton said, referring to the 1991 Jeep Wrangler YJ that he owned then. "The back seat in a '91 Wrangler is kind of a joke, kind of like a 911 back seat. The short wheelbase made it ride rougher than I really liked."
Harriton at the time was a business student at the University of Montana in Missoula and was taking up some adventure sports like kayaking. He decided to refit the Jeep -- it actually belonged to his parents -- to fit his lifestyle.
''I really wanted a D90 or D110, but that was out of my price range," he recalled, referring to versions of the Land Rover Defender. He also wanted to install a lift kit, to raise the suspension for a more rugged look.
''When I went to lift it, the increased driveshaft angles caused problems," he said. "So sitting around dreaming one night I realized that I could either sell the Jeep or stretch it to fix all the issues. I found a guy with a welder who would do it for $500."
He realizes now that was probably a dumb decision, particularly given his almost total lack of mechanical knowledge. But he bought a $40 socket set at a hardware store and set about taking the body off the Jeep.
''After I got done with it, a lot of people liked it," Harriton said of the 3-foot extension he added to the Wrangler's frame and body. "So, I thought, 'Maybe I'll start doing a few of these for customers.'"
By 1997, for a senior-year business school assignment, he drew up a mock business plan -- it received an A -- for a company that would build long-wheelbase Wranglers. He received a $35,000 loan from a local bank and started American Expedition Vehicles.
''I didn't know how I would ever repay that much money," he said. "It's unfathomable now how crazy it was that I did it on those numbers now. It was almost eight years before I started making a living at it. I really struggled."
For a long time, he added, his profits were so small, he survived by living in his shop.
''I was making fiberglass molds in there for bumpers and things, and smelling all that resin and spray-gun chemicals 24 hours a day," he added, grimacing. "It was absolutely horrible."
From that humble beginning, AEV, as the company is known, has become a leader in the huge Jeep aftermarket equipment industry. AEV now offers an array of options and add-ons, including suspension modifications, lift kits, axle replacements, Hemi V8 conversions and accessories. The Brute, a pickup version of the Wrangler originally designed by AEV in 2002, is sold by many Jeep dealers and is also offered as a do-it-yourself conversion kit.
''For whatever reason, I went the opposite of common sense," he said. "And it's led me down this career path that it turns out is exactly what I always dreamed of doing."
And Harriton, who still lives in Missoula, is still growing Jeeps. AEV's latest creation, the Brute Double Cab, is a pickup version of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. With a length of 216 inches, it is 63 inches longer than that original '91 Wrangler.
And after his long, slow start, the prices his creations now command -- $60,000 to $100,000 for a finished Brute -- are an indication of the esteem Jeep aficionados have for the AEV brand.
''We get to do things with Jeeps that the people at Jeep wish they could do," he said, laughing, "but maybe the types of things they can't do because of regulations, cost or marketing considerations."
'Like they came from Jeep'
A 2006, a partnership with Quality Metalcraft of Livonia, Mich., gave AEV the ability to make stamped-steel versions of its products, including reinforced Jeep bumpers.
''That gave us the ability to make parts with the level of quality we wanted," Harriton said. "They perform, and look, like they came from Jeep."
That's to say they look like upgraded Jeep parts might look if cost were no object at Chrysler -- which, of course, it is. Jeep has made continual improvements to the durable Wrangler, especially in recent years; a new V6 engine offered this year has received glowing reviews. But that is not to say that Jeep's improvements threaten AEV's ability to offer aftermarket accessories coveted by the cognoscenti.
''The production Wrangler still has plastic bumpers," Harriton said. "It still has no skid plate. The spare tire carrier isn't connected to the frame. They don't offer a V8. Jeep still leaves us plenty of room to play with the Wrangler."