Stand and fight, or run away? That's not a question most of us face each day, but big boy toymaker VWerks wants to make sure you'll have what you need to choose the former. Namely, a flame-throwing Dodge pickup and a .50-caliber-topped 1-ton Jeep. I got to drive both of them.
(Full Disclosure: VWerks wanted me to drive their new trucks so badly they put me up in a motel in Moab for the night. They also shot some video of me in their toys and put awesomely cheesy rock-like music over it. — Ed.)
The Adrian, Mich.-based company showcased a small lineup of custom trucks at last week's Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, giving me a firsthand glimpse of their versions of fight and flight.
Caballo Diablo, an ominous looking Dodge DS 1500 crew cab pickup, has a number of features designed to strike fear into the hearts and minds of everyone who isn't riding in it. Once you get past the devilish low gloss black paint job and dark red metallic offroading wheels, Caballo has the heart of a marauder as well. Fitted with a 390hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8, 6-speed automatic transmission, and independent front suspension, the truck's pugnacious exterior belies its true purpose: Getting the hell outta Dodge (no pun intended).
"We designed Caballo Diablo for places where you might need to get someone out of harm's way in a hurry," said Pat Muldoon, VWerks' vice president of product development, pointing out that while they're in bad guys' company, the truck's passengers are surrounded by Dragon Skin ballistic armor capable of stopping a 7.62mm AK-47 round.
Although Caballo is designed for flight, it's not about to flee without scaring the crap out of whoever it's fleeing from. It's also fitted with two side-mounted, gasoline-burning flamethrowers.
Each nozzle blasts face melting fire 30 feet on either side of the vehicle, unless — as Muldoon found out last week — it's windy. In that case, the windward torch has a tendency to come back toward the driver. So if you've ever been told not to spit into the wind, the same is doubly true for flame thrower use.
It's really more of a Baja truck than a rock crawler, but after Muldoon told me to drive it like I stole it in Moab last week, Caballo's 14 inches of suspension travel proved just as handy for crawling over boulders as it was for ripping through sandy S-turns. As with any large pickup, overhang was an issue, but a high steel front bumper and massive skid plates protected the nose, while a trailer hitch kept the chrome exhaust tips from being crushed on the red rock.
Stand and Fight
So you've decided to make a go of it and give the baddies what for. Why not do it in a beefed up Jeep Rubicon with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the roof and a 5.56mm M249 Squad Automatic Weapon hanging on a swivel bracket outside the passenger door? Then, if all that goes to hell, the thing has the same 390hp Hemi V8 as the heavier Caballo to get it moving quickly.
Meet the VWerks Recon, which began life as a 4-door Rubicon, then, with the JK8 Wrangler-to-pickup conversion VWerks makes for Mopar, becomes an open topped military pickup. I tried it in Moab. It was very fast on flat spots (and with dual Flowmaster 40s, made a delightful roaring sound at full throttle), and on rocks, it didn't even need to be put into low range to crawl up some pretty steep pitches. But just in case the Hemi's brute strength isn't enough, it comes with a twin stick Atlas transfer case for slow brute strength.
"People have been saying you can't turn a Jeep into a 1-ton truck, and that's what I did," Muldoon said, adding that along with including Kevlar armor and a shell casing drain in the bed, he reinforced parts of the Jeep's frame so that it can handle a much heavier load than a normal Rubicon. It also feels much heavier than a normal Jeep.
Recon's axles are high clearance Dynatrac models typically used in much larger trucks — a ProRock 60 in front, and a Pro 80 equipped with a Detroit locker in the rear — and the little black beast sits on 39-inch BF Goodrich Krawler tires.
Muldoon said he had to study up to figure out the military machine gun mounts, which aren't always as simple as they look. But they give the Recon a decidedly threatening appearance, and even got him pulled over by the Moab police when he first got to town.
"[The police officer] asked me one question," Muldoon recalled. "Is that a real machine gun? When I told him no, you could see the tension drain out of him. Then he asked me if he could get his picture taken with it."
Not everything VWerks builds will be exactly what military customers need. (Have you ever seen an army truck with red metallic painted wheels, cruise control and power seats?) But Muldoon said that VWerks concentrates on creating "buzz model vehicles," or trucks made to garner attention and get people thinking about possibilities.
As someone who headed up engineering at Chrysler's accessory division — the venerated Mopar — from the late 80s until last summer, Muldoon has been happy to have the opportunity to turn his creative streak into shredding, growling steel monsters. That and he's amped on creating jobs in a region that has seen 18 percent unemployment since the great Detroit meltdown of a few years ago.
"Not everyone's going to be able to afford extreme machines like this, but we designed them so that people can buy pieces," Muldoon said. "If you like the Diablo lift, you can get it. If you like the bumper, you can get that, too. But part of the energy of our company is to put people back to work in our home state by building high quality products."
Who knows, maybe Hillary Clinton will want a flame-throwing Caballo Diablo for her next State Department trip to the Middle East. The federal government has spent money on stranger things.