J-Wagen

Originally Published: June 2006 Words: Tim Gibson Pictures: Steve Taylor
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Iwan Jenkins’ Jeep Wrangler is one of TOR’s all-time favourite modded off-roaders. When we got a phone call telling us it had recently been fitted with G-Wagen axles, therefore, we jumped at the chance to pay a return visit.

If you’re an off-road enthusiast, this job is brilliant. You get to spend your day driving around the UK, meeting fellow enthusiasts and ogling some of the best off-road hardware currently available. It’s like getting paid to smell your own farts.

In fact, it’s better than that, because the chances are that everyone involved in an average Total Off-Road working day will be having a really good time. After all, you’re not going to invite the magazine along to photograph your truck unless you’re a really avid off-road fanatic… and if that’s the case, you’re likely to gain the same pleasure as we do from a day spent chewing the 4x4 cud.

Look at Iwan Jenkins, for example. He enjoyed the whole TOR experience so much when we featured his Jeep Wrangler in September 2004 that he invited us back last month to have a second look.

There was a bit more to it than that, in fact, because Iwan’s Jeep has continued evolving in the 18 months since we last saw it. It’s now very different to the vehicle we saw back then, and we couldn’t wait to make a return visit.

What hasn’t changed is the fact than the Jeep is an off-roader par excellence. Iwan runs a BMW X5 as his daily driver, so he can afford to go as extreme as he likes with the Wrangler’s specification. In fact, the truck needs to be fairly heavily modified because it has one of the toughest existences imaginable, even for a 4x4.

Iwan organises the annual Ras-y-Dafftodil off-road challenge in South West Wales and spends a lot of his time setting up the various stages that make this such a highlight of the off-road calendar. It’s a non-competitive charity event that pushes drivers and navigators to their very limits, and it is consistently over-subscribed. Indeed, the Ras-y-Daff is so popular that a waiting list for the following year’s event is usually in operation long before the current one has drawn to a close.

In addition to its duties scouting land for the Ras-y-Dafftodil, Iwan’s Jeep is utilised during the rest of the year in connection with his off-road holiday business. He offers enthusiasts the chance to experience some of the most severe terrain imaginable during a holiday in Cardiganshire – and once again, it is the Jeep that gets used for the hard work of identifying new sites and laying out routes.

If any vehicle needs to be prepared for a life of extreme off-roading, then, Iwan’s does. It is for this reason that he has invested so much time and money in making sure it is up to the job. And because he gains as much pleasure from dreaming up new modifications as he does from driving the Jeep, it is hardly a surprise that it changes on an almost daily basis.

‘There’s always something that I think could be done to improve it,’ Iwan explains. ‘As long as that remains the case, the car will be in a state of continuous evolution.’

Despite his own love of the workshop, Iwan has not performed the latest round of modifications himself. He decided the job of replacing the axles was best left in the hands of professionals and called on Lee Bond of Team MCS to get the job done. As you’d expect, Lee has completed the work to an exceptionally high standard and Iwan is delighted with the results.

Iwan was so pleased, in fact, that he contacted the Total Off Road office to tell us about the upgrade soon after the work was finished. And given our love of all things modified, it wasn’t long before we pointed our cars Cardiganshire-ward to see the fruit of Lee’s labour for ourselves.

The big news surrounding the Jeep is that the original axles have been replaced with components from a 1984-registered Mercedes G-Wagen. These were chosen because of their legendary strength and durability – two characteristics that Iwan thought were conspicuously absent from the Wrangler’s standard axles.

The decision to perform the modification came while Iwan was competing in the Three Peaks Challenge in Ireland. The Wrangler’s axles could not take the strain of the severe conditions, and he was forced to withdraw from the event. ‘We got talking in the bar that evening,’ recounts Lee, ‘and I told him that he should fit a pair of G-Wagen axles. Next thing I knew, I was agreeing to do the job for him!’

In many ways, the combination is a match made in heaven. After all, between the two of them they possess a wealth of experience, no small amount of off-road and mechanical know-how and a genuine enthusiasm for 4x4 modification. Given this, it is hard to imagine that the project of entirely overhauling the Wrangler’s axle and suspension set-up could possibly have failed.

‘It wasn’t all plain sailing,’ admits Lee, who has recently launched Team MCS with business partner and competition team mate Steve Lloyd. ‘For a start, G-Wagens have differentials on the opposite side to Wranglers, which meant that the short side of the axle was in the wrong place.’

The solution to this problem involved flipping the axle over so that it rotated in the correct direction. Lee also had to lengthen the Mercedes radius arms and panhard rod so they would work in conjunction with the Jeep parts surrounding them. All of this was made more straightforward by the fact that Lee has become well-practised at building hybrid off-roaders over the years – but there were still moments where he was forced to work through some fairly difficult problems.

One such difficulty involved the vehicle’s steering configuration. Because the axles were flipped over, the position of the track control bar was adjusted. This meant that Lee had to make some serious changes to the set-up – a job which took a total of 270 man hours. ‘It’ll be a lot quicker if ever I have to do it again,’ he remarks.

G-Wagen axles are fitted with differential locks as standard. In addition to their increased strength in comparison to the Wrangler components, this was a major factor in Iwan’s decision to have them installed. ‘The whole configuration appears to be fairly bomb-proof,’ he opines, ‘which is exactly what is needed for the kind of off-roading I do.’

Complementing the Mercedes axles are G-Wagen progressive springs at the rear and custom-built JKS Performance springs (imported from the USA) at the front. The result is about two inches of extra lift (the Wrangler was running with a 3.5-inch Rubicon Express kit before the axle transplant). Rancho RS9000 air adjustable shock absorbers ensure maximum articulation is achieved.

The shocks came from Fort Collins in the States and they are mounted on turrets beneath the bonnet. This modification reduces the limit they inevitably place upon the extent to which the springs flex, because they are mounted lower in relation to the axles.

When combined with a three-inch body lift, there is enough room (with some adjustment to the wheelarches) for a set of 36x12.50R15 Simex Extreme Trekkers. These are the tyre of choice among extreme off-roaders, and nothing less would be expected to adorn the Matt Lee alloy wheel rims Iwan favours.

The new axles brought with them Mercedes discs instead of the old Wrangler braking set-up. ‘The new brakes were easily plumbed in to the existing system,’ Lee explains. ‘In fact, that was one of the most straightforward elements of the whole thing!’

It may have taken a lot of hard work, but both Iwan and Lee are extremely pleased with the result of the axle change. From Lee’s perspective, working on the Jeep has given him the chance to add another modification project to his impressive CV. And for Iwan, it has meant that a good truck has become a great truck – capable in every way of keeping up with his hardcore off-roading lifestyle.

It is for this reason that TOR was so excited to see the Wrangler again, and the trip to Wales was certainly worthwhile. Not only did we get to spend the day in the company of two of the country’s foremost extreme off-road enthusiasts; we also got the chance to have first-look at a genuinely exciting modified vehicle. Like I was saying, this really is one of the best jobs you can think of…

TJ, SIMEX EXTREME TREKKERS, WARN 8274, MERCEDES G-WAGEN AXLE CONVERSION, JKS PERFORMANCE SPRINGS, RANCHO RS9000 SHOCKS, WRANGLER

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