Vance DeMars’ Jeep Gladiator
Photography by Harry Wagner
When Jeep introduced the four-door JK Wrangler with its 116-inch wheelbase some purists scoffed that it was way too long for serious trail use, but we see ten four door JKs for every two-door out on the trail. The same was said about the Gladiator and its 137-inch wheelbase, but that didn’t deter Vance DeMars from building the ultimate JT for wheeling and hunting. WFO Concepts built his Jeep with a wish-list of parts including Ultimate Dana 60 crate axles, 39-inch-tall BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain KM3 tires, Fox shocks, and more.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Jeep has used the Gladiator nameplate. The original Jeep Gladiator was a J-series pickup trucks based on the Jeep Wagoneer platform from 1962 to 1971. The original Gladiator had a similar wheelbase to the JT, with a 120-wheelbase for the shortbed truck and 132-inch wheelbase for the long bed. Other similarities included the Dana 44 axles and six-cylinder engine, but where the 230ci Tornado straight six in the old Gladiator generated 140 horsepower, the 3.6L Pentastar V6 in Vance’s Gladiator makes over twice as much at 290 horsepower. The Dana 44s aren’t exactly the same either. While the original Gladiator had drum brakes front and rear, two-piece rear axle shafts, and an 8.5-inch ring gear, the Dana 44 axles on the new Gladiator use 32 spline axle shafts, disc brakes, and an 8.8-inch diameter ring gear. These axles are capable of reliably supporting 35-inch-tall tires in stock form and 37-inch-tall tires with upgraded axle shafts, but Vance went straight to one-ton axles with full floating chromoly axle shafts, 5.38 gears, and Eaton E-Locker differentials since he is running 39-inch-tall tires.
Vance has owned plenty of built rigs in the past, from a solid axle Duramax to a full blown Ultra4 race car. While he enjoyed racing in King of the Hammers, hunting near his home in Northern Nevada is his first love, and the Gladiator was built to tackle backroads at speed with room in the back to bring home whatever Vance has a tag for. The suspension uses Synergy coils and 2.5-inch Fox Elite Series shocks in front with dual stage compression (DSC) adjusters. The rear is even more high-speed oriented with the factory coils and links replaced by trailing arms that use a 2.5-inch diameter Fox coilover shock and an additional 2.5-inch diameter Fox Elite Series shock with DSC adjusters. When you are out in the middle of nowhere far from help and cell reception, reliability is even more important than when you are out on the trail with your friends. For this reason, Vance left the engine, transmission, and transfer case stock. With selectable lockers and a supple suspension, the end result is just as home on the Rubicon as it is out on hunting trails or on the drive home on the interstate.
The factory axles under the JT Rubicon are adequate with 37-inch tall tires, but for the 39-inch BFGoodrich KM3s that Vance wanted to run he went straight to Ultimate Dana 60 crate axles. The front axle has a 256mm ring gear, 35-spline 4340 chromoly axle shafts, 0.370-wall 3.5-inch axle tubes, and SPL-70 u-joints. By comparison the factory axle uses a 210mm ring gear, 32-spline axle shafts, and 2.75-inch diameter tubes that are 0.282-inch thick. The Ultimate Dana 60 also adds locking hubs and larger brakes than the factory axle.
Out back is another Ultimate Dana 60 crate axle with full floating hubs, disc brakes, 5.38 gears, and an Eaton E-Locker. A 39-inch tire wouldn’t fit under the bed but Vance didn’t want to take up the entire bed of the Gladiator with a spare, so a 37-inch KM3 was stuffed under the rear and Vance carries tire plugs and an ARB Twin Air compressor to get him out of most situations.
Vance has had vehicles in the past with hydraulic assist and even full hydraulic steering and he did not care for the slow steering response when weaving his way down hunting trails. The JT uses the original steering box but has a 2-inch, 0.25-wall DOM tie rod and matching drag link built by WFO Concepts using the factory ends. A Fox steering damper smooths out the feedback through the wheel.
Artec full belly skidplates are available for the diesel and gasoline-powered JT as well as JL and JK Wrangler and protect the oil pan, transmission, gas tank, transfer case, and exhaust. Aluminum skidplates cost more than steel but only weigh half as much. The tradeoff is that aluminum is more susceptible to gouging than steel, so if heavy rock crawling is in your future we recommend steel.
The suspension on Vance’s Gladiator is a combination of off-the-shelf parts and custom fabrication from WFO Concepts. The front uses Synergy 4-inch lift springs and Fox 2.5-inch shocks with DSC adjusters and the rear uses trailing arms built by WFO Concepts with a 2.5-inch Fox coilover and 2.5-inch smooth body shock. The advantage of trailing arms is that with the shock mounted up the arm rather than over the axle a 12-inch travel coilover can still deliver 18 inches of wheel travel.
WFO Concepts color-matched the brackets that hold a KC Hilites Pro6 LED light bar across the top of the windshield of the Gladiator. This light bar generates 18,400 lumens while only drawing 13 amps of power. That is less than one traditional halogen light! And the Pro6 can throw light 1,637 meters down the trail so you never have to worry about outrunning your lights.
The Rage 4th PRO76 Series Front Bumper is manufactured from 1018 cold rolled steel designed to complement factory body lines and allow for increased approach angles. It is made in the USA and includes an air compressor mount thoughtfully hidden inside the front bumper for practical access and providing a solution to the space issue found under the hood of the JL.
The Dee-Zee Combo Tool Box/Liquid Transfer Tank doubles the range of the Gladiator and provides a place to securely store recovery gear, spare parts, and tools, while still leaving the rest of the bed open for wild game that Vance brings home from his hunts.
Power comes from the factory 3.6L Pentastar engine and 8-speed automatic transmission. This combination produces plenty of power to spin the 39-inch-tall BFG tires with the 5.38 gears in the axles. Vance spends most of his time in the remote backcountry of Nevada so the simplicity and light weight of the Pentastar engine made it an easy choice.