Featured Vehicle: Overlanding Brute

There are fundamental elements of a good overland vehicle: the combination of serviceability (or ultimate reliability), capacity (payload and cargo volume), capability for when the terrain gets technical, and enough comfort to keep driver fatigue at bay.  For the last 15 years, American Expedition Vehicles has been trying to pull the Jeep Wrangler into the range of a functional overlander. Nearly two decades ago, AEV’s first conversion was a long wheelbase Wrangler, and then their widely coveted TJ Brute with high fenders. For this feature vehicle, we are showcasing a highly modified TJ Brute, assembled by passionate traveler Pete Ricci.

The Brute 
Pete purchased the base Brute from an authorized AEV dealer in spring of 2017. It was based on a salvaged (water damage) 2005 Rubicon that was restored and converted to the Brute in 2014.  Pete had been following the Cummins repower development program since the release of the R2.8 and knew that the AEV truck was the perfect platform for him to use with the diesel motor.  The original Jeep motor died shortly after ordering the Cummins, so the timing was perfect for supporting the repower with the new engine.

At Expedition Portal, our experience with the new Cummins is stellar, including testing the powertrain in numerous donor vehicles like a Land Rover Discovery and a Land Cruiser 80 Series. You can read Bryon Bass’ report here: “Old Dogs, New Tricks.”

If the Brute was not drool-worthy enough, the diesel takes the cake. I particularly enjoyed driving it with the manual transmission, which is a difficult combination to find.

For suspension and axles, Pete wanted the Brute to survive the apocalypse and nearly any trail in Moab, which resulted in a call to Currie Enterprises for their 9-inch Ford axles. His choice was based on the goals of strength, interchangeability (front and rear), and the extensive range of gearing options. Currie will construct custom housings, so a 2-inch wider track width was specified, along with Dana 60 outers, and a full-floating rear. The third members house 35 spline air lockers and 4.11 gears.  Axis designed the long-arm suspension system with a 4-link in the rear and a 3-link in the front supported by monster 2-inch diameter billet aluminum arms. The coilovers are King, and the springs are from Pac Racing, who spent days dynoing and revalving the shocks to match the spring rate. To handle the additional weight of the camper, larger diameter front and rear anti-sway bars were installed.  Particular attention was paid to the overall weight of the Jeep, and the final scale reading showed 5,700 pounds with 24 gallons of fuel on board.

The attention to detail is notable, with custom-tuned springs and valving for the application with King coilovers. Pete’s goal was to increase the robustness of the entire drivetrain with a factor of 2x over stock. 

 The axle outers are massive, suitable for a Mac truck. The Currie housing is also impressive, with particular attention paid to ground clearance and trail use. 


Pete wanted to use his Brute for remote camping adventures, so he began researching pop-top campers that could be custom fit to the Brute bed. He finally settled on the Snap Outfitters Treehouse shell and wedge camper, as they agreed to size it to the Brute at no additional cost. Pete and I deployed the tent on one of our local trails, and I was impressed with how quickly it set up, and the overall quality of the unit.

“I tried to adhere to the philosophy that when you go away from OEM, you better have a plan, From the frame to the mechanicals, I increased strength by at least a factor of 1 or higher. Also, this truck REQUIRES attention to beyond routine maintenance. You can’t drive it 25,000-50,000 miles and not service your suspension points etc. But maintain it regularly and will go for a good long time. My first major, multi-day trip will be the BAJA XL in January 2019. This is a 3,000-mile rally that runs the full length of Baja and back. It is a 10-day race with nine special stages. The vehicle and drivers must be 100 percent self-sufficient with no support allowed.”
Pete Ricci

What We Liked
This vehicle is perfect for the challenging tracks of the desert Southwest and Baja, combining excellent capability with camping comfort.

What We Would Do Differently 
The vehicle is exceptionally complex, with extensive integration of electronic systems and expansive aftermarket wiring. When combined with the dozens of one-off parts, service in the field or remote locations (particularly internationally) will be difficult. The vehicle is extremely durable, but the complexity will challenge reliability.

Engine installation date, May 2018
Overall length, 190 inches
Width, 78 inches
Height, 90 inches with topper
Wheelbase, 120 inches
Wading depth, 42 inches
Front axle clearance, 14 inches
Rear axle clearance, 14 inches
Front wheel track, 64 inches
Rear wheel track, 64 inches

Build Summary
Cummins R2.8 diesel
Axis diesel conversion adapters and install
Brute body, AEV conversion parts
6-speed manual transmission, NSG 370
F9 differential housings, 1-ton full floating, Currie/Axis fabrication/solid axle
35 spline axles
Nodular steel third members, Currie/Strange/ARB lockers
Woods drive shafts
Axis 3 link/4 link, coilover fabrication
Howe/Borgenson hydro assist steering
King coilover shocks
PAC Racing springs, sway bars, shock valving PAC Racing
GenRight 24.5-gallon fuel tank
Walker Evans Racing beadlock wheels
Toyo 35-inch X12.50X17 tires
Modified JCR bumpers and sliders
Recaro 6-way adjustable rally seats
Instruments: Autometer
Dual Optima batteries
Lizard Skin/3M insulation
Poison Spyder roll cage
Warn dual 10K winches
Snap Outfitters wedge-top camper

Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona IG: @scott.a.brady Twitter: @scott_brady