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Dave Harriton bought his first Jeep, a YJ Wrangler, in 1991. Two years later, while studying business at the University of Montana, he wrangled a 22-inch stretch for his 4x4.

By 1997, Harriton, then a college senior, won a university prize for his business proposal for a company that would modify Jeeps, as well as a loan from a Montana bank to start American Expedition Vehicles.

A year later, an off-road equipment supplier invited Harriton to display his stretched Jeep at the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show. Soon, AEV had so many orders Harriton needed more than the single-bay garage in which he’d been working.

Fast forward a few more years and it’s 2006 and AEV needs to expand again, now grown large enough that it’s time to take advantage of the design, engineering and manufacturing expertise and the auto supplier network in the Motor City. Harriton takes on a couple of partners. While Harriton and AEV headquarters remain in Montana, the work moves to Wixom.

In Montana, Harriton was building fewer than half a dozen Jeeps a year. In Wixom, AEV was doing that many a month. Now, after moving to larger facilities in Commerce Township (and getting ready to move again early next year, to new and even larger facilities back in Wixom), the company is turning out some 1,000 modified Jeeps — as well as Ram pickups — each year.

AEV employs 90 people, all but four based in Michigan.

AEV produces innovative Jeep accessories and also does complete “up-fit” vehicles, including the Hemi V-8-powered Brute Double Cab Jeep pickup, stretched 24 inches in wheelbase and another 16 inches in overall length to accommodate a pickup-style bed.

Who buys such a vehicle, which can cost as much as $100,000?

Some are people who need Jeeps that can push the extreme, exploring deserts, mountains and forests around the world (or at least in the Upper Peninsula or Montana ranchland).

“It may be someone who has owned exotic cars and is tired of them,” said Matt Feldermann, AEV marketing coordinator. “Their friends have them now (exotic sports and muscle cars) and they want something more exclusive.”

AEV vehicles are far from cobbled together. We did a drive in a Brute and even with huge, knobby BFG mud-terrain tires, its stretched wheelbase provided a smooth and surprisingly quiet ride on paved roads while the 6.2-liter Hemi provided plenty of power, though there was nothing unsettlingly brutal about its delivery.

One reason is the AEV suspension setup, which lifts a Jeep from 2.0 to 4.5 inches higher above the road (or lack of a road).

AEV produces its own front bumpers with all sorts of auxiliary lights and various Warn winches, its own Heat Reduction hood (to help reduce operating temperatures even in triple-digit desert driving), its own roof rack, wheel designs, interior trim and rear bumper.

A version of that rear bumper provides storage for 5 gallons of fresh water.

The company also has an AEV fuel caddy that fits between the rear spare-tire mount and the spare tire and holds 101/2, or a half-tank of additional fuel.

Up-fitted AEV Jeeps and Ram trucks are available through a network of some 100 new-car dealerships, including two in Europe. Its Jeep and Ram parts also are available through a retail network and AEV website, www.aev-conversions.com.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.

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