Grey Thunder

Originally Published: August 2012 Words: Glyn Bardsey Pictures: Steve Taylor
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We’re forever preaching that the key to a successful project is to plan it out in advance. That’s just what Bob did when realising the lofty goal of building a Grand Cherokee the likes of which had never been seen in Britain before, and the results speak for themselves.

‘Top tip,’ he says. ‘Have a plan and stick to it. Any short cut and it will look tacky.’

Here, you can instantly tell, is a man who won’t have anything to do with the make-do school of off-roading. But if you’re winding yourself up to dismiss him as one of the loadsamoney brigade, stop right there. He’s been at the sharp end of off-roading for more years than most of us have had hot dinners, and when he set out to build himself something that would stand out from the crowd, he didn’t just do it by writing a big cheque.

Yes of course, when you’re creating a truck like this you’re bound to be spending proper money on it. But as we all know, there’s more than one way of doing that. You can blow a huge wad of cash on some eye-catching gear that looks sexy as hell on the supplier’s website but ends up turning your 4x4 into an undriveable embarrassment, or you can do what Bob believes in: spend it once, spend it right. And besides, aside from the specialised stuff like building the bumpers, he did it all himself on his drive.

Having got that off our chests, let’s look at how the project progressed. First, Bob did his research, and how. Having identified potential suppliers from the USA, he went to visit them, joining a bunch of Jeep guys on the Rubicon while he was there. Rude not to.

This was part of a process in which every element of the car was considered. He was after a 6.5” suspension lift, which was obviously going to have a knock-on effect on the steering, axles, engine and driveline. The tyres he was after would need extra-large wheelarch flares, and these meant major mods to the bodywork. Front and rear bumpers needed to be the real thing, but he couldn’t find what he wanted in the UK so he went looking for someone to build a custom set. Every single bit of it needed planning, and it all had to work together. No place for changing horses in mid-stream.

Having worked out exactly what he was going to do, Bob chose US outfit Iron Rock as his build partner (the company is unusual in that it develops products for RHD markets, giving it instant appeal for UK Jeepers). Then at last, he was ready to actually buy a vehicle.

It was as recently as March this year that the Grand came into his life. He ran it standard for a month to make sure it was basically sound, then got down to some serious work.

First, the lift kit went on. This wasn’t simply a question of fitting new springs and shocks, because the whole system uses long arms whose mounts have to be welded to the chassis. Finally, the axles were attached back on with steel eight-spokes shod with 315/75R16 Hankook tyres riding on 1.5” spacers, and the Jeep was ready for its next appointment.

This was to have its bumpers made; a job Bob awarded to Landy Spares in Redditch. He’d created the design he wanted, but they needed the car itself to work on in the process, something that tied it up for five weeks. But the result, we think you’ll agree, was worth it.

No sooner had Bob got his truck back than he was sending it off again, this time to Slinkys Spray Shop in Barnsley. They specialise in bodywork there, and had the skills to reshape the Grand’s complex panelling around where the new wheelarch extensions attach. If you’ve ever cut up an old conveyor belt with a set of garden shears and lobbed it on to the arches of a beaten-up Land Rover with pop rivets, you’ll be shaking your head at this, but the amount of work required, particularly at the back where the arches eat into the door aperture, is immense.

Another fortnight passed, then the Jeep came home looking much as it does today. It still needed a front prop, however, which Bob had custom made by Tom Woods in the US, and while he was waiting he fitted a roof rack and wired it up with Warn spots and work lights.

There you are. Easy, huh? Of course, there were other jobs. Like remapping the engine ECU and fitting a three-inch free-flow exhaust and K&N 57i induction kit, and treating the axles to a set of chromoly halfshafts. But by planning how it was going to come together, and therefore breaking the overall project down into manageable steps, Bob has made it look easy. Which is, of course, the mark of someone who knows what they’re doing. A couple of months before these pictures were taken, this Jeep looked like it did when it left the factory, and you’re not going to make a transformation like that without being totally in charge of what’s going on.

One area that’s not changed, though, is a surprising one. See those rock sliders? Standard fit.

That was a benefit of starting with an Overland model, which came with rock rails as part of its spec list. Its diffs are supposed to achieve the same effect as a pair of full lockers, too, though one sort of verdict on whether they do or not is that Bob’s currently having a new Dana 4x4 front axle built with an ARB in it.

He’s got a new transfer case coming, too, and says he’d have liked to use a custom roof rack instead of the off-the-shelf job in these pics. So you see, even the best planned projects are never really finished.

Talking of unfinished business, a primary reason for building this vehicle was to lead the 2013 Arctic Heroes Challenge, a hugely ambitious expedition to the northernmost point of Europe in the depths of winter. Bob has done a lot of overlanding in his time, both as a personal hobby and a business, but he describes this as ‘beyond anything I have attempted in my travels.’

You can find out more about the Challenge at www.arcticheroeschallenge.co.uk, and we’ll be keeping tabs on the team’s progress in the run-up to the event as well as bringing you the full story. Several well known names are already signed up, and they’ll be making the trip in an extraordinary variety of vehicles – as you’ll be able to read next month.

The most extraordinary of the lot, however, is sure to be the Grand Cherokee at the head of the convoy. Whether Bob’s efforts and expense will inspire a new generation of off-roaders to experiment with the potential locked up in one of Jeep’s most under-rated vehicles is open to question, but one look at it should be enough to provoke feelings of lust, envy and, most of all, respect. It’s a pioneering vehicle, this – and a 4x4 that deserves to lead the way in every sense of the word.

ADJUSTABLE TRACK ROD, IRON ROCK SUSPENSION, DOETSCH TECH SHOCKS, WARN 9.5TI, TOM WOODS PROPSHAFT, LANDY SPARES BUMPER, K&N FILTER, GRAND CHEROKEE

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