First Drive: VWerks Red Jacket JK8

JK8 Hero pose

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. 

JK8 Engine
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. 

JK8 axle front
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.

JK8 Trail 2
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. 

JK8 Pan Blur R
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 Trail 1

JK8 Instrument Panel and Center Stack

JK8 Int II

JK8 Rear Bumper and Axles

JK8 axle rear

JK8 6-inch Extension and Added Body Mount

JK8 frame ext

VWerks JK8 Kit with fender cutouts and 42-inch tires

JK8 Pan Blur L

Comments

That's pretty slick. I would love to drive one. But I'm sure someone will be along soon to tell me why it's a failure compared to a Toy.
Mark - Thanks for the write up.

Even if you go without the 30,000 paint job, this is a 70, 000 dollar trucklet. Ouch.
Is it just me, or is that a piece of wood between the frame and body on the picture captioned "VWerks JK8 Kit with fender cutouts and 42-inch tires". (picture #9)

We guna taek her dis geep an maek it to a teruk, it aint eva be dun be'fo.

It's a crime that Jeep doesn't offer a real pickup from the factory.

If you zoom in on that picture it's certainly not a piece of wood. It looks like beige paint or mud that didn't get washed off as there are scrapes in the beige showing the black frame underneath...odd but definitely not wood.

Pure fantasy. But on this subject, tell us again Jeep, Chrysler, Fiat why we don’t have a real Jeep Pickup. What possible focus groups and market research could prove that a Jeep pickup would not be a success? There just has to be another reason. Just thinking out loud here.

Pretty cool car.,.,,Very nice and power look.......

Mark.

prcompanionpr@gmail.com

www.prcompanion.com

I'll beat oxi to it and point out the this "truck" is obviously a poser because of the low hanging rear shock mounts. Who knows how many thousands of dollars of damage could occur if it ever left the safety of It's garage?

Looks nice but way out of place with that VWeek suspension articulation.

VWerks builds a huge jeep for Red Jacket, and doesn't use the Rubicon as a base? That's insane. Red Jacket is located in Louisiana; home of swamps and gumbo mud. That's like bringing a BB gun to a gator hunt. The Jeep will probably be a street queen running those 40's on a Dana 44 axle. The $30K paint job would have been better spent on a set of DynaTrac Pro Rock 60 axles. I'm kinda disappointed.

I love It !!

Nice looking piece of equipment but I'm longing for an article on trucks for the everyday working person. I know that the everyday working person isn't able to buy trucks right now and the super wealthy are but it would be nice if one day I came here and saw a new truck or conversion vehicle that was under $30k, with significantly improved fuel economy, and plenty of capability.

They could have taken a jeep. Removed the unnecessarily large gas hog under the hood and replaced with with something smaller and more efficient. Then added some ladder racks or other accessories to give the vehicle more utility than it currently has; which isn't much. And maybe some modest offroad enhancements. And then maybe it would be something the majority of us could save up for and buy one day.

I can't believe they didn't put a v8 in it

I'll have to agree with Crutch on this one, to build a one-off custom off roader with a mega$$ paint job is for a trailer qween!!! shouda spent the $$$ on real HD stuff. Then used a rattle can fopr paint, then when you go off an play, you can realy let it all hang out...just sayyyin

100K large for a Jeep! Really!...I'll pass!

is frank and lou the super trolls on here today?

Lou thats not wood its rust idiot! This jeep is pretty nice & ya 30k paint job aint worth it!

Seriously, for the money, it's very unimpressive. The "Sons of Guns" people should slap their head and say "I coulda had a V8... Raptor!"

I'm REALLY surprised that these guys, who seem to go for strength and substance, opted to get this morphed inadequate thing rather than a Raptor or a custom built. I could see 'em in an H1 Alpha (since we're talking vehicles that aren't even on the production line) for that much money but geez. And a $30k paint job? Who ripped 'em off for that much? There's a sucker born every minute.

This vehicle is an answer to a question best not asked. And NO, I can NOT see how this conversion can easily top $100k!!!! Was that a serious statement?!

Engine compartment looks cramped even with a V6 and somebody said a V8? Where you going to fit it and what about weight over the rear axle to counter the heavier engine up front?

Good luck working on that engine bay off-road in the middle of no-where...

For that amount of $$$ and it comes with hardly any skid plates and protection underneath?

Where is the spare tire supposed to mount? Looks like it would take up most of the tiny bed...

@ oxi A v8 fits pretty well actually. If you were as avid off roader as you claim to be you would know this. But you only care for Tacomas.
What are you going to replace out of the trail anyways? The fact that you even brought up skip plates shows just how out of touch with reality you are. 30k paint job and your worried about whats underneath?

@Jordan L,

I would focus on protecting what's underneath rather than a overpriced paint job...

Show vehicles do not belong on the trails...

Point is room to work on basics, a tight engine bay would require spending more time removing parts just to get to what you need to be replaced, etc...

I'd thought you'd know that?

I look at basic maint. and ease of access when choosing an off-roader, most just want things like big fat engine, boggers, cool paint job and wheels, etc...

Always remember the basic maint. and ease of access when choosing an off-roader...

@ oxi
"I would focus on protecting what's underneath rather than a overpriced paint job..." I agree.

"Show vehicles do not belong on the trails..." I agree

"Point is room to work on basics, a tight engine bay would require spending more time removing parts just to get to what you need to be replaced, etc..." I agree. But other than rad hoses and maybe a serpentine belt there not a whole lot you could replace on the trail.

I think your putting way to much emphasis on the little details considering this is strictly a show truck.

I think your putting way to much emphasis on the little details considering this is strictly a show truck.

Jordan L, Amen. I hate oxi's truck. He's got tons of skid plates but it is way over the top. I agree with protection but I also agree with aesethetics too. oxi's truck looks horrible. I would put this show truck up against oxi's crap truck any day.

@oxi When you have a vehicle that is a driving mural and advertisement, step one is to keep it pristine, step two is to make sure it's capable enough to not be a joke. This one can do what most casual off roaders would like, and it's focus is to represent Red Jacket, not compete with an ugly, heavily armored Toyota Tacoma. I think your bias causes you to miss the point: it's a pretty sweet little jeep, gets the job done, and looks great.

@ oxi
"I would focus on protecting what's underneath rather than a overpriced paint job..."

"Show vehicles do not belong on the trails..."

I might be missing something here, the only "show vehicle" part of this vehicle is the paint. Even the engine is stock for reliability. And as far as protection, WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT?!? It has serious bumpers front and rear, REAL rock rails, and skid plates under the vitals! What else are you going to protect? They probably aren't planning on crossing mine fields any time soon so I think they have their bases covered pretty well...

Hey Mr. Williams...FYI Jeep did not offer the 3.6 or the W5A580 auto in 2011 only the 2012's.
Are the tires 40" or 42" ?...you have both listed.

My 2 cents "street queen" you canot run 40's or 42's on a stock front Dana 30.

It's a shame that thing has anything to do with those red neck gun nuts and that goofball show

@Steve M: Go hug a tree hippie.

I would have liked to seen a test of a rig similar to this, but with something more attainable and useable, like 32 or 33 inch tires and a slight lift. Something you could use every day and wheel a bit on the weekend.

40 or 42 (says both? typo?) inch tires on a dana 44 = alot of busted up teeth specially with a locker WOW, this is definately a pavement princess show truck, good looking rig though !

Love this truck! Very very cool, and a perfect fit for the Red Jacket crew. Replace the candy paint with olive drab, and it would be perfect. Thanks for a cool story!

Nice truck, no doubt. But, what I think Jeep should really do is come up with another concept vehicle that they have no intention of building.............

Anybody know what kind of wheels those are? It's been years since I've seen aftermarket wheels that actually make the vehicle look better!

If chrysler is reading this post..... build us a Jeep truck.....now!

Nice Jeep I wish they would realese a factory option already!

But anyways I agree I would scrap the $30,000 paint job, for a show truck fine whatever but for off-road thats just stupid.

For a real off roader I would have spent the paint job money on some engine mods and cooling. Im speaking from experiance, Jeeps run hot and have a tendency to overheat, not saying thats a problem now but I have been stranded before in the hills will coolent dumping out from the engine bay in my old Jeep. BIG SUCK!

Overall though not a bad start.

All of you trolls going on about the paint job. See it in person and then run your mouths. I saw this truck at SEMA and there is not a picture of it I have seen that does the paint job justice.

Now whether that paint job belongs on an off-road vehicle is another matter entirely, but dont knock it until you see it.

It looks like Motor City Rod Shop built this Jeep for VWerks. Check out their Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/MotorCityRS). These pictures don't do it justice, but the ones on Motor City's page are much better.

You wrote "taller gears." The gear swap from 4.10 to 5.38 is actually going from a taller gear to a shorter gear.



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