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Friday
Oct132017

AEV: Building Specialty Jeeps and Rams Like the Factory Would

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Tray Bed Edition Prospector XL is only one of 10, and imposing.Outside the front door of American Expedition Vehicle’s Wixom, MI design, engineering and assembly facility stands an AEV Prospector XL Tray Bed Edition, one of only 10 the company will build. Based on a concept created by company founder and President Dave Harriton, and first shown at the 2013 SEMA show, the Tray Bed is built off the Ram 2500 Regular Cab/Long Bed platform, and brings to mind images of the famed Dodge Power Wagon. The 41x14.5R-17 IROK tires on AEV Katia wheels make it look like a giant Tonka Toy, with its aluminum tray bed, industrial looking fender flares, intake snorkel, and commanding ride height adding to the fun. It is a massive vehicle that possesses all the subtlety of King Kong, and makes lesser high-riding 4x4s cower in mortal fear.

Just inside the lobby sits a Brute Double Cab, a vehicle that— by the time you read this — will be out of production, even though it is a halo vehicle for AEV. “When the JL Wrangler comes out,” says Matt Feldermann, Marketing Manager at AEV, “we didn’t want our dealers to have a bunch of JK-based Brutes sitting on their lots when everyone was coming in for the new JL.” One reason? The base price for a Brute is approximately $80,000, considerably higher than Jeep will charge for its factory pickup. Nevertheless, you’d think AEV wouldn’t like the fact that the factory is encroaching on its market, but you’d be wrong. “We couldn’t be happier,” says Feldermann. “The JL pickup will give us a second Wrangler platform to upfit without having to build it by hand.”

The perfect JK Wrangler accessory, a Hemi.Back behind the lobby, conference rooms and office space is a sizable assembly area that is as impressive for its space as well as its spotlessness. This is where the Wrangler, Double Cab Brutes, and Ram-based Prospectors and Recruits are built. There’s a paint booth for the chassis, and another for the stamped parts added to a vehicle, or for the entire truck if a color change is requested. A number of lifts across from inventory racks hold the parts that will be used to modify the vehicles on the lifts. Next is a garage where new projects, new ideas and new vehicle concepts first take shape. “We didn’t have that in our old facility,” remarks Feldermann, “and it meant we couldn’t take visitors on a tour of the facility when they came to visit without first hiding our advanced projects, which wasn’t always possible.” Now present and future can coexist without fear of spilling secrets.

Walk a little farther and you come to an open space where the Brute is made. Well-lit and spotlessly clean, the most dominating features are the lift near the outer wall in the assembly station, and a pair of fixtures that hold the Wrangler four door’s body on one side of a welding wall and its frame on the other. It is here that the factory frame is bolted to the chassis plate and cut, and a pair of stamped and boxed frame rails are welded in place. This increases the wheelbase to 139 in., and insures that the frame is geometrically correct. Meanwhile, the body — which features a cargo area behind the rear seats on the standard Wrangler — is cut out. “From the B-pillars back it’s all new sheetmetal, including a new roof panel that meets up with the factory Freedom Roof panels,” says Feldermann. “We don’t reuse anything that’s cut off, and we e-coat and powder coat our parts to maintain the structure’s corrosion resistance.” It’s something AEV does for every steel component it makes, from hoods to bumpers, and it takes place at a facility the automakers use. “Most of the time,” he says, “the parts go straight from the stamper to the coating facility to us.”

Big work requires a big fixture, but only minimal manpower.The Brute Double Cab undergoing final assembly at the time of our tour is fitted with a heavier duty differential, larger diameter axle shafts, different gearing, a stronger housing and more. It also has AEV’s Big Brake Package, as well as unique springs wound to AEV specs, and special Bilstein off-road dampers with unique AEV tuning. “Unlike a vehicle a customer might build using aftermarket parts,” says Feldermann, “our pieces are designed to work together, and are specific to the vehicle’s wheelbase.” To make sure it works like it should, AEV’s chief suspension engineer joined AEV from Chrysler where he worked on Jeep ride, handling and dynamics.

As anyone who has ever restored a car will tell you, the most important part of the process is taking the various parts and pieces off, and neatly stacking them in order in a place where they are both out of the way and safe. Each Brute Double Cab is disassembled, and its parts are placed on racks located directly across from the build area near the inventory racks. “Each area of the vehicle gets its own cart,” says Feldermann, “so that, when it’s time for reassembly, you match up the vehicle VIN to the cart with the matching number. And each cart is filled in reverse order to facilitate reassembly.” A common addition to the Brute is the Hemi drivetrain, which can add $23,000 for the 5.7-liter engine, and $29,000 for the 6.4-liter V8. “There’s a high take rate (for the V8) on the Brute,” he continues, “because you cross over into ‘I have money’ territory.” When spending a minimum of $65,000 (the Brute Double Cab in the lobby has an MSRP of more than $128,000), sticking with the Wrangler’s standard 3.5-liter V6 just doesn’t seem to make sense. (For those grabbing their chest at the price of the V8 conversion, AEV has a do-it-yourself kit for the Wrangler that starts at $6,350.)

Wrangler body requires significant modification to become a Brute.“All of our dealers have to maintain an inventory of at least two vehicles,” says Feldermann. Of the 150 AEV dealers, some only sell Ram, others only Jeep, and a few more both brands. The latter would be required to have one of each. “That gives the potential customer to test drive a vehicle. He may take the demonstrator, or decide that he wants different wheels, a V8 instead of the V6, more of this, less of that, and he can order that truck directly from the dealer.” Though a Brute takes at least 60 days from the time it comes through AEVs doors to the time it heads to the dealer, Wrangler modifications take 30 days or less, while just 15 days elapse when modifying a Ram into a Prospector or Recruit.

With 100 employees in Wixom (AEV also owns the lot next door in case it needs to expand in the future), 60% are focused on global part sales, while the remaining 40% are involved in the onsite vehicle modification. Branching out into international sales of modified vehicles is not on the cards, however. “Right now,” says Feldermann, “Chrysler ships U.S. Wranglers directly to our facility from Toledo, while those meant for international sales (this includes Canada) are sent directly to the port. However, if a Canadian customer is willing to drive here and fly home, we’ll call him when the vehicle is ready, and they can fly in and drive it back.” AEV could expand its operations significantly with international sales, however, “when you put it on a car carrier or send it to the port, it’s a completely different story legally.”

On the Road

Feldermann's personal Wrangler Rubicon is first in line.As much fun as the Prospect out front looked, driving a Wrangler made the most sense, as Jeep was the vehicle on which AEV cuts its teeth 20 years ago. It wasn’t until we headed out onto the roads near the plant that Feldermann mentioned that the 5.7-liter V8-powered JK I was driving was his personal transport. He drives it from his home in Grand Blanc, approximately 45 minutes north of Metro Detroit, to Wixom each day, and was heading to Moab for an off-road program the week following my visit. Our short drive loop on secondary roads and the freeway would give a good idea of whether or not an AEV modified Wrangler could stand up to everyday duties.

Though far from aerodynamic and pushing past 5,000 lb., Feldermann claims his Rubicon averages 15 mpg. Not bad for a vehicle with a ride height that demands occupants wear “relaxed fit” pants and have long inseams to make the leap, so to speak, from tarmac to driver’s seat. It is fitted with AEV’s black Savegre wheels, 37-in. BFG tires, and a 4.5-in. lift kit. Nice though they are, I could be swayed to specify the new dual-sport five-star Borah wheel that can run without a ring, as a full beadlock wheel for off-road use, or with a beadlock-look cast aluminum protection ring on the street.

Suspension and other modifications of Brute in final assembly is an example of what AEV can do.The premium black leather seat covers pull design cues from 60s muscle cars, and gives an upscale vibe to the interior. Nothing, and I mean nothing, alerts you to the fact that this vehicle did not come out of the factory in Toledo. If anything, the build quality is better than the last JK I drove, though — admittedly — that was in the DaimlerChrysler days.

Even more impressive are the ride and handling. The suspension and tire spring rates work in harmony, soaking up bumps and road irregularities, while the damping setup irons out the small stuff. Head toss is minimal, and the steering is surprisingly direct if a bit numb. Accelerating briskly — easy with the Hemi under the hood — or braking hard doesn’t induce uncontrolled lift or dive, and lean also is well controlled.

Pointing the Wrangler down the freeway entrance ramp and stomping on the throttle produced a wonderful V8 roar that is complemented by a soft burble when driving at around-around-town speeds. AEV worked with Roush to design the exhaust layout, and discovered that muffler choice had a major impact on interior sound levels when the Hemi switches into economy mode. Pick the wrong design, they discovered, and that soft, sweet burble becomes a B29-like drone, drowning out both passengers and audio system.

Brute Double Cab's high line seat covers mimic the look of Ferrari seats.The overall impression is that the AEV Wrangler has a from-the-factory look and feel. Which is even more surprising when you consider that the company doesn’t get any sneak peeks from the folks at Chrysler. It has to buy each new iteration of Jeep and Ram as it goes on sale, and do its measurements the hard way. Even now, though it has many ideas in mind, it still doesn’t know much about the JL Wrangler set to debut after the first of the year. Though AEV claims many friends within the Jeep design and engineering community, Feldermann deftly deflects questions about who or what is the roadblock to greater cooperation between the two companies. And while it would be easy to point the finger at Mopar, which sells its own competing line of aftermarket kit for both the Wrangler and Ram, it would be just that, speculation. Let’s hope that the wall between AEV, Jeep and Ram crumbles for the benefit of all.

Who is AEV?

American Expedition Vehicles. The name evokes images of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the charge up San Juan Hill, or of a young Lieutenant George S. Patton chasing down Pancho Villa’s men as part of the U.S. Army’s Mexican Expedition in 1916. It is a name evocative of hard work, long hours, unexplored locations, and adventure. So what is it doing in a tech park off Twelve Mile Road in Wixom, MI?

Wixom production facility is clean, well lit, and spacious.“[Company founder] Dave Harriton still lives where the company started (Missoula, Montana),” says AEV’s Marketing Manager, Matt Feldermann, “where he and his brother — with the help of a couple more people — do prototyping, R&D and some testing.” They were never going to leave Montana, but it was necessary to move the rest of the operations if Harriton’s plan to move to metal parts and OEM-level fit and finish was to be realized. That move coincided with the 2006 launch of Jeep’s JK Wrangler, and Harriton’s partnership with Mike Chetcuti of Quality Metalcraft and his friend and business partner Mike Collins, both of Detroit. Together they brought the financial, manufacturing and personnel resources AEV needed to grow, with Quality Metalcraft, a company that specializes in low-volume flexible production and assembly methods, providing the desired metal parts and assembly know-how. Within a year AEV moved into a 20,000 ft.2 facility in metro Detroit. Unfortunately, soon thereafter the Great Recession brought the world economy, and the auto industry, to its knees.

“Our growth hasn’t come without its struggles,” says Feldermann, “but the recession helped us tremendously.” As strange as it may seem, the downturn made it possible for AEV to gets its foot in the door of OEM-level suppliers who never would have talked to the company in good times. “The entire automotive supply base was in need of work,” recounts Feldermann, “so when we said we needed 100 wiring harnesses or 500 bumpers, they were ready to listen. And when the economy started to come back, we were established partners, and they continued to work with us as the industrey recovered.”  

According to a July 7, 2012 article in Automotive News, the relationship also was beneficial for the Chetcuti family’s company, Quality Metalcraft. It had seen its employment number drop from 475 pre-recession to 61 by June 2009. The production of parts for AEV helped the company survive the downturn, but it was the death of Chetcuti’s father that eventually led to the sale of the company to the privately held Watermill Group in 2015, and forced AEV to expand its stamped metal part supply base. There was only one stipulation, the parts had to continue to be made in America. “In general,” says Feldermann, “all of our products, aside from our wheels, are made in the U.S., and that’s because there are no U.S. casting facilities that are willing to handle our relatively small production run at a reasonable price.” So, while AEV may sell many thousands of wheels each year, that pales in comparison to production runs for major automakers that run into the millions of units. Which leaves China as the only source for its SAE J2530-certified alloy wheels. “The company that we are working with is U.S. owned, has American engineers onsite to oversee the process, and supplies VW, BMW, and others,” he says. Should high quality/lower volume wheel production become feasible in the U.S. again, a prospect enhance by China’s elimination of export wheel credits and subsidization of tooling, AEV, says Feldermann, “will be there to take advantage of the change.”

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