ZJ is for Zebra Jeep
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By: John Mesko - 3/1/2002 

The Evolution of the Zebra - Part I

Author and completed Zebra ZJ

Research and planning to build my Zebra didn't start yesterday. The first thoughts of the 'Perfect SUV' came to me before the words Sport Utility Vehicle had even been invented. As a teen-ager, I was an avid trials motorcycle rider and needed to haul my Yamaha 250 trials bike to and from the meets. A trailer behind my '66 Ford Mustang just didn't get it and soon I had my first pickup truck, a 1970 Dodge 3/4 ton. The first few times I got stuck in the mud while all my buddies went flying through in their 4x4's I knew two-wheel drive was for the city boys. My 1978 Chevy Silverado 4wd 3/4 ton started a long love affair with 4wd pickups. For over ten years all I drove was 4wd trucks and I loved them.

Then came the kids... the rug-rats, the curtain climbers, the ankle biters. It became painfully obvious that the few vans and minivans we owned just didn't go well in the woods. But how to get those little "Mini-me's" and all their junk to and from the woods on those camp-outs, that became the question. 

The first Mesko family SUV was a used 1989 Mitsubishi Montero. We called it "The School Bus" because it was so big and tall, it actually sort of looked like a school bus. It was a perfect grocery getter but I soon found it had some flaws. First, it had the worst roll-over rating of all the SUV's in the Consumer's Reports ratings, and its sway on the highway was awful. As was my custom at the time, I took "the school bus" to the tire shop and said "put the biggest mud tires on this thing that will fit." He cranked the torsion bars all the way down and we were able to cram in some 33' Mud King radials. It looked awesome! But, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The added height caused the sway to become down right dangerous.

Stretching the Mitsu's legs.

No problem, we just added massive aftermarket sway bars and the sway was gone. That's when I learned about articulation. When I tried to 'wheel' the Montero with my buddies, I always had one wheel in the air! With essentially one-wheel drive, I didn't get up many hills. 

Guess what came next? That's right - lockers. But at that time no one made any lockers for a Montero, but ARB said they were coming out with one for the rear soon. We welded the front differential to create a 'Lincoln Locker' and installed the ARB air locker as soon as it came out. Wow!! What a difference!! The old 'School Bus' had become a pretty darn competent 'wheeler.' Those Mud King 33 inch radials really did bite, especially when I learned about 'airing down.'

Everything was just great for about six months. We went wheeling frequently and my fascination for what these vehicles could do just grew and grew. Heck, I'd never heard the saying "You know you've really got it bad when 35's are too short and 4.56's are too tall." In fact, I'd never even heard of 4.56's. Sure the other Jeeps in the area were prettier. And some of them had 34 inch TSL's which really did get a bite in our rocky dirt of the Ouachita National Forest. But the 'ol "School Bus" with its Mud Kings had character. It would mostly go everywhere they would go, and its 180,000 mile six cylinder had so little power that NOTHING EVER BROKE. That is, until we took it to Poteau, Oklahoma.

Wheeling the Mitsu at Poteau, OK.

Our first sign of trouble was when we drove up to the parking lot! Everyone had one-ton duallys and goose-neck trailers with what looked like monster trucks on the trailers. We drove the "School Bus" the 1 3/4 hours from Mena to Poteau. Before the day was over, we found out why they brought the trailers. To haul the broken carcasses home!! The smallest tire on the lot besides us was a 38.5 inch. Most of the guys were running 42's and 44's. We had heard that Poteau was tough, so I had prepared by installing a Mile Marker Winch the month before. But the sight of these monster Jeeps was frightening! I felt my stomach churning, but I didn't know why. I would find out soon enough!

They said that if it rained at Poteau, you might as well turn around and go home. The sky was cloudy, but it was only a 30% chance of rain. I was starting to have second thoughts when I spotted a Toyota pickup with 33's and a Land Rover with 31's. Yeah Baby! I wasn't the only wimp rig there! Maybe I could stay up with the Toyota, and for sure I could whip the old Land Rover. He didn't even have a winch!

We started up the base of 'TV Cable Hill' which by all reports was only slightly harder then 'Axle Breaker Hill.' After the first small incline, I noticed the Land Rover was gone but the Montero was still going strong! What a wimp! I didn't even notice that it was misting rain. At that time I didn't know about scoring trails. But I think this trail is rated level 4 when dry and practically un-climbable in the rain.

The second steep part of the trail was kind of a V-ditch that had to be straddled. No problem for the old "School Bus!" We thought ahead and used my brand new Oasis air down tools to lower the Mud Kings to about 8 lbs of pressure. Those 33 12.50's were clawing and grabbing at every rock and outcropping and I never even spun a tire. That is until I got to the rock shelf.

It was so tall that on my initial attempt the front bumper slammed into it and stopped me dead in my tracks. I backed up and tried a different line. This time the bumper cleared so I backed up and hit it hard! PPPSSSSSSSSSTTT! The sound of rushing air made it clear that 8 lbs was not enough pressure for slamming rock ledges. The sidewall of that Mud King had been pinched against the rim and it took 8 or 10 plugs to fill the gap. It was air tight and the CO2 tank we had brought filled the tire in about 2 minutes. We aired them all up to about 12 lbs and tried to rethink our strategy. Some of the 'Big Boys' commented that they had never seen a tire fixed so fast. The whole thing took about 5 minutes. Somehow I didn't feel very proud and that churning in my stomach was getting worse.

At times, ARB lockers can be inconvenient.

My new line involved going AROUND the rock ledge (in a V-ditch) and sure enough the Montero ended up on its side. It miraculously righted itself and I got a hero's welcome of whoops and high fives at the top. I couldn't enjoy the jubilation because that churning in my stomach had just turned into a 4 alarm cramp. I was digging through my stuff desperately looking for the toilet paper when the rain started pouring down.

That first roll-over on my side was the best part of the day. I only got one small dent above the rear fender and that hill only caused one bout of diarrhea. The rain only lasted about 30 minutes but dropped about a half an inch. The remainder of the day consisted mainly of the same kind of stuff. Dent then diarrhea- dent then diarrhea- dent then diarrhea. Several times I begged my spotter to let me turn around and go back. He said it was too steep and slick and we had to go up to get out alive. At the top virtually every panel on the Montero had dents in it and I weighed about 10 lbs lighter. However, I learned more in that one day about what an extreme Jeep IS NOT than all the lessons since. Here are some pictures of just how big the rocks are at Poteau.

Lessons I learned from the "School Bus"
John in the rocks.

John's XJ on 35's

I purchased my next jeep already built. It is the XJ shown here. It had everything I wanted except I wanted 35's and it had 33's. It also had ARB lockers which were great because you could turn them off to make tighter turns. I raised it from a 5" lift to 6 inches and put 35's on it.


Lessons I learned from the XJ

This is a picture of me changing a fuse in the ARB compressor circuit in the most inopportune of places.
Author and his Zuk.

My next vehicle was a Suzuki Samurai with a God only knows how high lift.

I only learned two lessons from the Samurai. You can lift a vehicle dangerously high and ruin its road and trail worthiness. Also with no power steering it's real hard to turn. It was these lessons that helped etch on my mind my wish list for the ultimate 4x4.
My wish list

This is a big list of things to try to squeeze into one vehicle, but the Zebra ended up fulfilling almost all of these wishes.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important wish. It's got to be a chick-magnet!! That's where the zebra stripes come in.
John's XJ

As is the usual case in my life, most good things start out as something BAD. This principle held true for my ultimate dream 4x4. It started one day when we returned from visiting family in Colorado and had been doing some Elk hunting. Of course I had towed my 1988 XJ behind the motor-home to use while hunting.

That trip was different though. I had hit a 'dip' while turning around to get a McDonalds hamburger. Unknown to me at the time, the transfer case lever had shifted into gear while moving. When I unhooked the ZJ from the motor-home, it started rolling while in park. I put on the emergency brake and got out to inspect the undercarriage. No words can express my feelings of horror when I saw what happened. The rear driveshaft was GONE! The transfer case was mostly GONE! There was a spiral crack the length of the transmission, and the bell housing on the engine was cracked. We found out later the engine crank was bent. This episode later became known as the 1-800-CALL-ATT disaster. (dial up the center) I had destroyed everything on the jeep 'Right Down the Center.' The engine, transmission, transfer case and driveshaft would all have to be replaced. Even my coveted Tera Low 4:1 reduction gears were missing. Presumably they were lying in the road somewhere near that McDonalds! My Slip Yolk Eliminator kit was also 'missing in action.' This horrible turn of events actually led to the start of my Dream Machine. 

The Zebra ZJ before he got his stripes.

It started with a conversation with one of my wheeling buddies known as the 'Junk Yard Dawg.' He owned a local salvage yard and had a pretty awesome XJ with TSL 36's on it. A lot of his fabrication had been done himself with junk yard parts. The insurance company paid $4,600 damages. We replaced the engine, tranny and transfer case, for $600, with used salvage parts. Wow! I now had $4,000 towards my dream machine and I still had an XJ to sell.

Stripes and all ready for the major build-up.

In the mean time, I bought and sold a Suzuki Samurai and cleared $2,000 profit. Then with the sale of the XJ, I had $10,500 towards the project. Would it be enough? The 'Junk Yard Dawg' said YES! In fact we found a 1998 ZJ Limited roll-over at the salvage auction for $2,400! It had every whistle and bell imaginable on it. By the time the 'Junk Yard Dawg' was done with it, we had an additional $2,600 in it. $5,000, not bad for a 1998 ZJ Limited!!

This is how it looked the day it came out of the shop. We easily could fit 32 inch tires on it after all the fender trimming.


Next month >> Building the Zebra ZJ

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