Keen to bring more business into their small desert town and put Moab on the proverbial map, officials at the Moab Chamber of Commerce put their heads together and created first annual Easter Jeep Safari. Back in 1967 it was a humble one-day trail drive on the Saturday before Easter designed to attract off-road enthusiasts to the picturesque Utah city. Fifty-three years later, the annual event is now a nine-day celebration of all things off-road that brings together thousands of four-wheeling enthusiasts from across the globe.
The Jeep brand and Mopar Performance have become a larger presence at the event in recent years as well, using Easter Jeep Safari as a way to connect with Jeep enthusiasts, get a read on the latest trends in aftermarket modifications, and showcase the company’s latest hardware. The latter has become something of a tradition in and of itself, with Jeep not only bringing their newest production offerings, but an array of concept vehicles as well.
This year they brought long six concepts in total, ranging from production vehicles that feature heavy modification from the Jeep and Mopar parts catalogs to fully hand-crafted creations with extensive custom fabrication, and all of them are drivable. Jeep’s approach stands in stark contrast to typical industry standards, where concepts usually aren’t much more than rolling clay models that are designed to be eye candy on the auto show circuit.
“A lot of manufacturers build concepts and then put them behind velvet ropes under bright lights, and that’s pretty much it,” explained Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director for FCA North America, while introducing this year’s roster. “That’s not what these are. They are as functional as they are fun to look at.”
Along with the concept vehicles, Jeep also brought a fleet of JL Wranglers and Gladiator pickups, and they were gracious enough to provide the media with seat time in all of it over the course of two days. And as unlikely as it may sound, both the vehicles and the journalists made it out the other side largely intact.
Back in the early 2000s, Jeep was building concepts to bring to the SEMA show. While that put the company’s creative talent to work and their efforts were put in front of a lot of eyeballs at the show, Jeep’s current head of design, Mark Allen, was a bit frustrated by the situation. “I was working in the Jeep studio at the time, and I built a vehicle that was fully emission-capable,” he explains. “It went to the SEMA show in 2003, where it was parked inside of a building. The following year we brought the vehicle with us to Easter Jeep Safari, where it was sitting in a parking lot instead of sitting in a building.”
Allen decided to get behind the wheel, prompting Jeep’s PR staff to put a journalist in the passenger seat. “At that point, we basically invented the idea of the drivable concept car,” he says.
These it’s days the media that gets to hop behind the wheel, albeit in a tamer environment than what we encountered on the Jax Trax trail during our stints at the helm of the JL Wrangler and Gladiator Rubicon on the following day. Considering the fact that these concepts are essentially one-off vehicles the rationale is totally understandable, especially when you take a closer look at builds like the M-715 Five-Quarter and start to better understand how much fabrication went into the project. It’s kind of mind-blowing that Jeep is willing to put such irreplaceable machines on the trail at all, quite frankly. But actions speak louder than words, as they say. Here’s what Jeep brought to Moab this year:
Wayout: Showcasing the Gladiator’s versatility, this one’s designed for folks who are looking to get off the grid. While the drivetrain remains unchanged from the factory setup the Wayout is far from stock, sporting a full roof-tent, custom canopy, and a custom bed rack with an integrated ladder. Dressed in a new Gator Green color that will be available on production Gladiator models, the Wayout rides on 17-inch steel wheels that are wrapped in 37-inch mud-terrain tires, while a two-inch lift kit from the Jeep Performance Parts catalog provides additional ground clearance.
Flatbill: Touted as a “desert lifestyle” concept, the Flatbill is a truck dedicated to dirt bike riding. As such, the exterior graphics and overall aesthetic fall in line with motocross style, while custom fabricated wheel ramps that slide out for easy access and loading of the bikes have been installed. Custom body work is on hand to increase the vehicle’s departure angle for added capability, while an Off-Road Evolution custom four-inch lift kit and a pair of Dynatrac Pro-Rock 60 axles ensure the Flatbill is equipped to handle whatever the trail might throw at it.
Jeep Five-Quarter: Without question the centerpiece of the half-dozen concepts that Jeep brought to this year’s event, the Five-Quarter is a resto-modded ’68 Jeep M-715 military vehicle with the heart of a Hellcat and a chassis that blends both new and old. Custom fabrication is evident everywhere you look, from the carbon fiber front clip and the bobbed 6-foot custom-fabricated aluminum bed to the repurposed 8-71 blower that now serves as the housing for the transmission and transfer case shifters. A 3.5-inch chop to its convertible soft-top enhances the monster truck aesthetic.
But it’s not just about the look. The Five-Quarter’s original leaf spring suspension has been tossed in favor of a heavy-duty link/coil suspension system, while a Dynatrac Pro-rock 60 front axle and a Dynatrac Pro-rock 80 axle in the rear help to modernize the drive train. 20-inch beadlock wheels are paired up with 40-inch tires, the latter of which we’re told can be fried on command by way of the 6.2-liter Hellcrate engine under the hood, which routes the power through a three-speed Torqueflite transmission.
JT Scrambler: Perhaps the most overtly retro of the bunch, the Scrambler rocks an early 80s-style graphics package that runs from stem to stern. A body-colored two-inch steel roll bar adds to the Tonka truck vibe, as do the two-inch lift, 17-inch slot wheels, and 37-inch rubber.
J6: Sporting the configuration of the venerable Jeep Honcho pickup, the J6 is a Rubicon that ditches the rear doors in favor of a conventional truck bed that’s a foot longer than the one found in production Gladiators while matching the 118.4-inch wheelbase of the current Wrangler. The design team looked to Jeep’s heritage for the custom Metallic Brilliant Blue paint while the Brass Monkey finish of the 17-inch beadlock wheels add a contemporary vibe to the mix. A Jeep Performance Parts two-inch lift kit and 37-inch tires enhance the J6’s ground clearance as well as its curb appeal.
Gravity: Like the Scrambler, the Gravity is a Gladiator-based concept that showcases what’s possible with a little creativity and a copy of the Jeep Performance Parts catalog. Mounted Mopar cross rails in the bed allow a cargo carrier basket to be attached, providing storage space for rock-climbing gear, and a secondary storage system with dual sliding drawers offers additional lockable cargo space underneath. A two-inch lift and 35-inch tires raise the Gravity’s profile, while a cold-air intake and cat-back exhaust system provide the 3.5-liter V6 with some extra grunt.
Attacking Jax Trax
Although tooling around the Courthouse Rock campgrounds in Jeep’s concepts was a blast, the real fun came on the following day. Jeep handed us the keys to a Gladiator Rubicon and aimed our convoy toward the Cameo Cliffs, a trail 25 miles South of Moab that was recently added to the Easter Jeep Safari roster.
Jaw-dropping scenery abounds in this area, with the La Sal and Abajo mountain ranges providing sorts of backdrops you’d expect to see in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, and the moderate pace of the dirt trails coming into the area gave us a primer for what was to come.
After catching our breath at an overlook, we jumped behind the wheel once again and headed toward Jax Trax. The name is a tribute to Jack Bickers, a Red Rock 4 Wheelers member during the early years of the club, the organization which has overseen the Easter Jeep Safari events for more than three decades.
In the early 1990s Bickers rediscovered a number of old roads that were once used for mineral exploration. Uranium mining was once big business in Utah, particularly during the Cold War era. The area was found to be rich in the silvery-white metal, triggering Utah’s version of a gold rush.
Now long abandoned, the trails that connected the mines now serve as a legacy of a different kind, providing off-road enthusiasts with some challenging pathways through the area. We saw descents of 23 degrees in some spots, where it looks like you’re about to drive off a cliff as you approach the hill. The Jeeps’ factory-equipped trail cameras come in handy here, allowing the occupants to see what’s in front of the vehicle before taking the plunge.
Jax Trax provided a true testament to the capability of the JL Wrangler and Gladiator Rubicon models. Sections that looked almost impassable were dispatched with ease. With the locking differentials engaged and the sway bars disconnected – both push-button features on these vehicles – the Jeeps handled the most demanding terrain on the trail without a hint of protest. It was clear that even on this trail, which the Red Rock 4 Wheelers club advises newcomers to steer clear of, we still hadn’t come near exhausting the capability of these machines. A 27-degree incline along the 16-mile trail goes by the name of El Diablo, and our Gladiator handled it like it was the parking lot at El Torito.
“People ask us what we get out of doing things like the Easter Jeep Safari,” says Mark Allen, Head Of Jeep Design. “What we’ve gotten out of years of doing this are things like the JL Wrangler. The high fenders, the metal bumpers, the hood, the way the top works, the way the doors can be removed – all the great stuff that we’ve been able to bake into the JL have come from not only testing in places like Moab, but listening to what our diehard enthusiasts have to say.”
It might be easy to dismiss the Jeep’s involvement in Easter Jeep Safari as nothing more than a promotional effort – to some extent that’s exactly what it is. But after experiencing not only the capability of these vehicles, but also the passion that Jeep enthusiasts have for these machines, it’s clear that there’s a bit more to it.
Jeeps are cool, and creating a mass-produced vehicle that’s genuinely cool is an incredibly hard thing to do in 2019. It also doesn’t happen by accident, Allen points out. “What we get out of this is a better understanding of what folks want, and what we need to do to deliver it.”