You may remember the Red Jacket VWerks JK8 at the 2011 SEMA show. At the time, we told the builders it looked pretty cool, but we’d need some time behind the wheel to get a sense of whether it drives as good as it looks.
That time finally came last week. We met VWerks’ kingpin, PT Muldoon, at a local off-road park to see the custom Red Jacket Jeep up close and to put it through a few “tests.”
The Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area is about an hour north of Los Angeles, and it offers a series of nasty 4x4 challenges all within 100 yards of each other. Meant to test local motorcyclists and extreme four-wheelers who want to know the exact limits of their toys — as well as their own driving and riding skills — the park would provide the perfect backdrop for a closer look at the VWerks JK8.
The vehicle itself is not gaudy or over the top, but the first thing you notice is the translucent quality of the Deep Candy Apple Red exterior color. Since this vehicle was going to be made for Muldoon’s good friends at Red Jacket Firearms (the stars of the Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns”), he spared no expense. Several deep coats of bright silver were sprayed on the Jeep before the red was sprayed. The result gives the Jeep’s color a depth you won’t see anywhere else, unless you have another vehicle with a $30,000 paint job. That little bomb of info made for some nervous driving on the trail when we started to get too close to some brush and tree branches.
Although the Red Jacket JK8 looks quite modified, for the most part the mechanical elements (at least in the powertrain) have been left alone. The engine is a stock 3.6-liter Pentastar, and the transmission is the factory 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited W5A580. The NV241 transfer case is also stock.
What has been modified is the suspension, which needed a four-inch Mopar short-arm lift kit, as well as a one-inch body lift to accommodate the 40-inch BFGoodrich Krawler tires. Since VWerks wanted to go with bigger tires and decided not to change out the existing engine — we’re told a 5.7-, 6.1- or 6.4-liter Hemi could have been swapped in if Red Jacket wanted — it had to address the ring-and-pinion by taking out the 4.10:1 gears and swapping in a 5.38:1 set.
The driving feel of the Jeep with the bigger tires and taller gears didn’t quite bring the vehicle back to the snappy feel of a stock 4x4 Wrangler Unlimited, yet there was a surprisingly nimble and agile feel to the Red Jacket JK8 as we navigated over miles and miles of dirt roads and river wash at the park. The new five-speed did a good job of allowing the driver to stay in the lowest gear possible, thanks to the select-shift that will hold the selected gear when shifted up or down (tapped right or left). The engine sounded like it had to work a little harder than normal, but then again the extra unsprung weight of the wheel and tires probably add a few hundred pounds.
We especially liked how VWerks handled the intake and exhaust mods. In both cases, only small changes were made, but each left a strong impression. On the exhaust, the slightly throatier Mopar kits help keep the engine from sounding overworked. On the intake side, VWerks’ composite hood offers a cowl induction upgrade (with the intake running through the hood to the outside to pull in fresh, cool air) and extra side-hood venting to allow any excess heat to escape quickly.
A key feature that makes the Red Jacket vehicle so cool is the expertly installed Mopar JK8 bed kit. We say “expertly” because the VWerks crew is pretty much the same team that designed and mapped out all the installation instructions for the Mopar dealer network. In fact, if you buy a JK8 kit or if you’re a dealership with any questions about the install, VWerks’ tech support line is listed in the factory instructions.
On this kit, VWerks has included its frame-rail extensions to allow the bed to be six inches longer. VWerks offers a 10-inch extension as well. “Anything more than that,” Muldoon says, “and the proportions start to look out of balance.” VWerks opts not to use heavier-duty coil springs to effectively give the JK8 more payload capacity because of the potential negative road feel and handling characteristics that are likely to change as well. Stock paylaod and GVW numbers for the JK8 are likely to be identical to the stock Wrangler Unlimited payload and GVW numbers.
You probably remember seeing a gun-turret-looking apparatus in the bed at SEMA. The truth is, it was a T-shirt cannon, but that didn’t stop local authorities from stopping the vehicle in just about every town the JK8 visited (with the rack sitting upright in the bed). “It usually doesn’t take too long before one of the local officials is up next to us asking us some questions,” Muldoon said.
To test the JK8’s four-wheel-drive capabilities, we slammed it through some harsh offset holes and an extreme rock garden. Muldoon’s VWerks JK8 performed exceptionally well, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise because he left the stock Dana 44 rear axle with the factory electronic locker, and the front has sway-bar disconnects to allow the taller coil springs to articulate to all sorts of extreme angles.
Only once did we see the driver get into a sticky section where he lifted the front driver-side tire more than a foot into the air, just before it looked like he was about to roll down the hillside. But that didn’t happen. The big tires grabbed the rock and loose dirt and pulled the Jeep right back upright over the worst section of the rock-strewn trail.
From behind the wheel when trail driving at slower speeds, you can hear the factory steering pump working pretty good, but we didn’t feel it had any trouble moving the big tires through the obstacles at all. (All tires remained at full inflation during our time with the Jeep.) We would offer a note of caution here: If you’re building a custom vehicle, always pay close attention to tire interference from full right and left lock. This lifted JK8 needed quite a bit of wheel-well modifications to open up a large area for the big tires. And don’t be surprised if the turning radius feels a touch larger; it is.
In case you were wondering, the bigger tires do affect the software measurements that monitor and record inputs based on wheel rotations. The great thing about Jeeps, though, is that the engineers built in quite a bit of flexibility into the program because they know some Jeeps will eventually get modified with bigger tires. Also, there is quite a bit of difference between the smallest tire that Jeep offers on the stripped base model and a fully loaded, fat-tired Rubicon.
On the trail, the Red Jacket JK8 molded over nasty rocks and scary-looking holes with ease as the sway-bar disconnects allowed the axles to do quite a bit of flexing and twisting. The only thing holding back the rig was the fact that with the bigger tires and a normally geared transfer case (the NV241 with a 2.72:1 low range), the engine had to work a little harder to move the Jeep through the obstacles. We’d recommend opting for the Rubicon’s NV241 or RockTrac Package to get the 4.00:1 low-range ratio, making a crawl in 1st gear a slower, more controlled option. This could limit the amount of “throttle rocking” we saw when climbing over horribly uneven terrain. Still, having a crawl ratio of 55.54:1 (1st gear multiplied by axle gear multiplied by low range) is pretty good, but 77.26:1 would be better.
The total price of this rig is pretty tricky to calculate. “This was basically a labor of love for the team at Red Jacket,” Muldoon said. “They didn’t call us and ask us to put it together, but I knew they’d love it, so we put it together.”
Still, even if we add up the $5,499 for the JK8 kit, include about $7,800 (VWerks’ number) for the installation and frame extension and add $30,000 for the paint job, we’d still need to deal with all the other VWerks options: front and rear bumpers; front and rear diff covers; body mods; bigger wheels and tires; full suspension and body lift; new hood and fender wells; all the interior leather; the new cowl induction hood; and a host of smaller Mopar pieces. You can see how this pickup conversion could easily top $100,000.
Still, Muldoon tells us he’s taken about 10 orders from people who saw the Red Jacket JK8 at a trade show and ordered one on the spot.
We should also mention that VWerks caught the eye of Jay Leno. In fact, Muldoon told us about a recent visit to Leno’s garage, where — after driving the vastly under-utilized JK8 around the streets and neighborhoods of Burbank, Calif. — the talk show host and auto geek decided to call his TV crew to shoot a segment for his website, jaylenosgarage.com. That’s something Jay has never done with a four-wheel-drive vehicle before. There’s no word on when the segment will appear on Leno’s website, and Muldoon wouldn’t tell us if Leno was going to buy one of the VWerks creations, but there’s no doubt he could afford it.
When speaking about upcoming VWerks projects, Muldoon said he hopes to have a new creation or two every year for the next few years, most likely debuting at places like the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, or at the high-glitz venue of the SEMA show in Las Vegas. He wouldn’t tell us exactly what vehicle would be next, but he did say he was pretty happy about how much foot-dragging Jeep is doing with its coming pickup. “There’s plenty of room out there for a real full-size pickup,” he says.
JK8 Instrument Panel and Center Stack
JK8 Rear Bumper and Axles
JK8 6-inch Extension and Added Body Mount
VWerks JK8 Kit with fender cutouts and 42-inch tires