I’ve known Chris from U-Joint Offroad for a few years now, but have never gotten a chance to check out his shop outside Asheville, NC or really get to know the ins and outs of his 4×4 van business. As I travel and live out of a 4×4 van myself, his drool worthy creations have always caught my eye. Luckily, I was in the area recently and got a chance to see the shop firsthand and sit down with Chris to learn more.
Where does your passion for 4×4 vans stem from?
I spent most of my time in school daydreaming about cars and reading Punisher comic books. He had a van called the Battle Wagon and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I would sketch van layouts in class and I was always attracted to the freedom and adventure of a van. My life has always revolved around cars and trucks, but I just like 4×4 vans more than anything else! In my opinion, they’re the best all around vehicle.
How and why did U-Joint Offroad come about?
I moved to California in 2001 to pursue my dreams of playing music and doing something in the automotive aftermarket industry. In 2002, I landed what I felt was my dream job at Off Road Unlimited in Burbank. I became a sponge and learned everything I could. We specialized in solid axle conversions for GMs and had a full product line for full size trucks: SAS swaps, steering, etc. The job was demanding that playing music slowly moved out of the picture.
I had an old ’78 Pathfinder 4×4 van and when I started mountain biking & traveling more, the van just wasn’t setup for any long trips. It was too loud and obnoxious! We were staring to go up to the Sierras more and more so I decided to start a new build, Vanaconda. There were no restrictions, all the way! I ordered that van new and began the build immediately. I had the resources to build what I considered to be the most bad ass 4×4 van ever so why not? Vanaconda went to SEMA in 2006, which was a life long goal, and I traveled all over California in it and made several cross-country trips.
When the economy started to nose dive, I had to plan for the future and everything always came back to building vans. In 2007 I made a small run of spring hangers. I had no plans to make a business out of it. I told everyone to come and get ‘em as this was a one-time deal! A the time I had a clothing line with my brother called Ujoint Clothing. It was something we did on the side that never made a living, but we had fun with it. As the first batch of 15 kits sold slowly, I was surprised at the amount of interest it generated.
The gears began turning and I decided to move back to North Carolina and hit the reset button of life. I packed up Vanaconda and headed east! I built my own website and started adding product one piece at a time. I stayed with the U-Joint name since that’s what everyone knew me as on forums/etc. I didn’t really have an option as no one would have given me a loan and I wasn’t even sure that a 4×4 van conversion kit would ever pay the bills. I always knew that there were plenty of guys who wanted a 4×4 van, but couldn’t afford something new or didn’t have the resources to build one themselves. These are the guys that I love to help! As of right now, there are almost 200 vans with our kit on them! You can find them across the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Russia, even China and Argentina! Forums like Expedition Portal were key to growing the business. I saw the power of these forums early on and embraced them. The internet keeps you on your toes and you have to keep people happy! When I started, I was on the 3rd results page of Google. We’re now #1 for 4×4 vans!
We’re currently in our second shop here in Asheville. We outgrew the first place pretty quick. We’re still relatively small and I prefer to grow that way instead of carrying a ton of debt to show off being a big bad shop. We have 2 lifts and 4 employees, which is perfect in my opinion. I have a great crew and can keep the work flowing smoothly with this setup. Anything more and I would be stretched too thin.
What products and services do you offer?
We have a full line of parts for the 4×4 van conversions, and we’re always developing more to make the conversions easier. Besides that, we do a lot of bumpers, lights, engine work, etc. We help you through the entire conversion process for the DIY guys and always answer the phone on weekends, etc. We don’t want customers mid conversion on a weekend needing answers they can’t get! There are also install videos on our website that we’ve added too.
What makes U-Joint unique from the other 4×4 van conversions out there?
Besides being the only ones that sell a DIY kit, we will convert any ’92 to current E series. From E150’s to E450 Ambulances and motor homes, we’ll do it! We have many options too. From 4” lifts up to extras like onboard air, lockers, etc. We also custom tailor each build to the customers’ needs to what he specifically needs and nothing he doesn’t. I don’t like to be too restrictive like other companies. We build our vans to work so you can drive them across the country, beat on it, and then drive it home. We also consider the long-term use and repair of the van. All of our wearing components are readily available at any auto parts store nationwide. I like to say, “Do it nice or do it twice.”
Why do U-Joint vans seem to have a more aggressive looking stance than other 4×4 conversions?
Because they’re meaner! I designed the system to fit the largest tire with the least amount of lift and still be able to flex the suspension without fender mods. We move the axle forward 2” to do this and it gives them a more aggressive stance at the same time. It’s a win/win situation!
What does it mean to “De-Quiglify” a van?
We get 2-3 emails or call a week from Quigley van owners that either want more lift or they aren’t satisfied with the performance of their suspension. They have very limited suspension travel & their coil suspension is prone to “Death Wobble” which is no fun. So, we have DeQuiglified quite a few vans. Some have been modified Q vans, which are usually very scary! Their suspension is not easy to modify and I don’t recommend doing anything but adding good shocks to them. When backyard Joe starts messing with a Q van it never goes well. I have a few examples on my Facebook page in the “bad/poor work” album. Our solution is to remove all of the Q suspension and install our system. It works every time and everyone is happy with the results. They handle & ride MUCH better!
Can you share some general build pricing for someone who wanted to lift and/or add 4wd to their Ford E-Series Van?
If you’re a DIY and source your own axle, our kits start at just under $4K. We sell axles for mail order too. It just depends on the budget & time frame of the customer. A turn-key conversion at our shop starts at about $12K, but there are many variables like model year, engine, mileage, etc. We have lots of goodies too, so most builds go over $20K.
The U-Joint V4 build got a lot of press at the 2012 SEMA show. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and what has happened to the build since?
I’ve always thought that flat beds are way cool. I also thought that building a van flatbed van was a great idea to do something different and think outside the box. I began to search for the right donor. It took me a while to find it, but I finally did at a local scrap yard. It was destined to be parted out so we “rescued” it! We built it over the span of a year, finding time here and there to get it done. It was a mad rush to finish before SEMA 2012, but we made it. Since then, V4 has become the shop workhorse hauling axles, crates, pallets, or anything we can fit on it. It was recently shot for FourWheeler magazine along with 3 other U-Joint vans. I have some plans for it this year. You’ll have to stay tuned….
Justin at HD-RV.com has an ajoining shop and builds some pretty trick offroad RVs. His “MegAmbo” build is quite the creation, utilizing many U-Joint parts. What is the relationship between U-Joint and HD-RV?
Justin was a customer. We converted MegAmbo in the summer of 2012. When the rig arrived we were blown away at how he did the interior and some of the engineering involved. It was really tricky stuff and he has set the standard for all Ambo builds. I showed him the rendering for V4 and he said that he could build an awesome bed for it. The rest is history! He stayed at the shop for quite a while and we built the bed, which is probably the coolest part of V4. He now does all of our custom aluminum fabrication and has helped me with other projects and designs too. Justin moved up here from Florida and he’s an asset when it comes to problem solving. He loves it and is not scared to get dirty. It’s good to have great minds around when designing and coming up with improvements and changes. I don’t run U-Joint like a dictatorship. Everyone is involved and we all come up with solutions and ideas. U-Joint & HD-RV are separate companies, but work together on a lot of projects.
What is the most insane mod a customer has asked for? What is the most insane mod you’ve actually built, for yourself or a customer?
Hmmmm. That is classified info! Sometimes I just say no to things. I’d have to say that the craziest one so far is the locking cage we put in the back of a van with no windows that went overseas.
Is there anything you regularly get questions about that you’d like to clear up here and now?
This year I want to prove that our suspension isn’t just for hard-core use. It’s not! The definition of “hard core” is subjective anyway. A lot of guys say “I don’t need a rock crawler.” My answer is that wheel travel is your friend, both on and off-road. I spend a lot of time defending our leaf spring suspension so I plan to make some videos with tests on handling and ride quality. Our vans work well in all conditions, on road and off. Our emphasis is on durability and to be reliable for the long-term. We use the best components that are hand-picked or manufactured specifically for this use.
What was the idea behind the one day live online streaming build you did recently?
I had planned a one day conversion with another van a few months ago. That build had to be rushed so we postponed. My goal was to show how it can be done quickly if you had all of the parts ready to go. We ship a lot of complete “kits” just like this, so why not? The live streaming idea was actually from a Facebook commenter. We wound up with over 500 views and at any given time we had 25-30 people watching. If I were stuck at a computer all day I would watch too! We made really good progress on the van, way better than I expected. My guys really whooped ass that day. I planned to have the van on the ground and ready for driveshafts by the end of the day. We set the van down to measure for shafts before lunch! Since we were so far ahead, we started to prep for other parts of the build that we scheduled later like rear skid system and AMP steps. We don’t expect everyone to be able to do what we did. Our shop is specifically setup to build 4×4 vans and we know the size of every nut/bolt and what tool to use. However, accept the challenge if you want!
Good question! With the E series leaving us in 2015 and the cab chassis in 2019, the future is wide open. I see us doing more restoration work and continuing to build vans as we do. The 7.3 rigs will always be popular and I think demand will continue to grow. We’ve started to stockpile E series parts and I see a market for that in the future too. I really respect what the ICON brand has done for the FJ’s, Jeeps & Broncos. Can it be done with a van? I want to find out.
Thanks so much for the time and tour of the shop Chris. Love the products you’re putting out and look forward to seeing your amazing creations, on and off the road. Any parting words from the man quickly becoming known as the King of offroad vans?
Ha, thanks! Just a big thanks to all of our customers and supporters, wouldn’t be here without them!