Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ: Bushwacker Flares, Maaco Paintjob

Dec. 23, 2013 By Photos by Josh Burns and Scott Rousseau
This is our stock Jeep at the start of the build. The ’99 WJ was in decent shape but has a long way to go before it’s trail-ready by our standards.

It's almost hard to believe the Grand Cherokee has been in the Jeep lineup for over 20 years now, as it was first officially introduced in 1992 as a 1993 model. The first incarnation of the Grand – the ZJ (1993-98) – was created to compete with the popular Ford Explore. The unibody-designed Jeep was actually in development for many years before it was finally introduced, and it played a huge part in the massive growth of the SUV market – and Chrysler’s success.

In 1999, Jeep completely redesigned the Grand Cherokee for the second-generation model that is tabbed the WJ (1999-2004). Aside from the body and interior changes, Jeep also updated the inline six-cylinder to increase its horsepower output by 10 to 200 horsepower. It also got rid of the pushrod V8 motors with its new PowerTech V8, which didn’t produce as much horsepower but were lighter and boasted improved fuel economy (though later proved to not be the most reliable engine). After a major redesign in 2011, Jeep surprisingly made some more changes in 2014, including the addition of a 3.0-liter diesel motor and a host of exterior and interior features. Although the new Grand Cherokees have come a long way in offering luxurious features while still retaining the Jeep adventure theme, some felt the third-generation Grand Cherokee (WK, 2005-2010) marked a major shift away from off-road ability when it shifted from a live-axle in the WJ to independent wishbone suspension up front.

In a way, the WJ Grand Cherokee might be considered by some Jeep purists to be the last Grand Cherokee that’s still a “Jeep.” There are tons of WJs still out there, and most importantly they can be found relatively inexpensively. It’s with this in mind that we set out to begin our WJ Project. Having owned a TJ where space is a premium, the WJ looks like a bus in terms of storage and passenger space compared to the small cab of the TJ. The idea of added space is a great prospect, but in comparing the WJ to the a TJ Wrangler, that space comes at the price of off-road ability on the trail.

For our project, we wanted to build a capable WJ Grand Cherokee that still could be used as a daily driver. Getting it trail-ready is a more daunting task, however, as there are some considerable limitations to the road-friendly Grand Cherokee WJ. We found a 1999 Grand Cherokee in pretty decent condition. We purchased one with the stout inline-six 4-liter motor compared to the often trouble V8s on the WJ. We wanted to lift the WJ but while still keeping a low center of gravity for good on- and off-road handling characteristics. We turned to BDS Suspension for its 4-inch WJ kit, as we’ve heard great things about the company’s products and were exited to try them firsthand (we’ll highlight the lift more in our next phase of the project).  The downside to this and any 4-inch lift is that it can only realistically fit 31-inch tires. That was still too small for us; on the other hand, we didn’t want move up to a 6-inch and sactifice our low COG. We found the perfect solution in Bushwacker’s WJ Cut-Out Fender Flares, which would allow us to fit 33s with our 4-inch BDS kit.

To start the Bushwacker Cut-Out Flare install, we lifted the front end of the Grand Cherokee and put it on stands. Then, we pulled off the wheel and tire, as they will get in the way of marking and cutting the wheel well.

The side cladding on the Grand Cherokee needs to be removed next. There are two screws and on the inside and it then pulls off with a firm snug. A pry tool can help with removal.

Next, the rocker panel needs to be removed. Using a pro tool or flat-head screwdriver, pull the retainers along the top of the panel.

Remove the factory fasteners with a pry tool or something similar for the wheel well splash shield.

The Bushwacker Cut-Out Fender Flares are designed to add up to 1.25 inches of tire coverage. The kit is not a simple bolt-on application though; it is much more detailed, as the “cut-out” portion of the name refers to the actual cutting of some sheet metal. Since our WJ only cost us a few thousand dollars, this made us much less worried about trying our first Bushwacker install.

Following the detailed Bushwacker instructions, the front bumper needs to be loosened and pushed forward. After doing this, measure out marks following the directions, and then set the front flare in place to mark cut lines.

After the marks are made, it’s time to make the cuts. Although any suitable cutting tool can be used, we did like using a cut wheel for accuracy and ease of cutting the sheet metal.

After making the notched horizontal cuts, the bottom fender pinch is the only piece that gets removed completely. The rest of the horizontal cuts need to be bent back and hammered out flat.

Bushwacker includes detailed instructions on every step of the process with each kit. Included in our WJ kit were OEM-quality textered black front and rear bumpers constructed of UV-protected Dura-Flex 2000 TPO (Thermoplastic Poly-Olefin), complete stainless-steel hardware, fender trimming, a torx nut fitting (for the flare screws), edge trimming tool, molding, double-sided tape and all of the additional hardware necessary for a complete installation. Bushwacker also lists the suggested tools needed for installation:

- Grease Pencil or Scribe
- Heavy Hammer
- Reciprocating Saw/Cut Wheel
- Pliers, Sheet Metal Pliers
- Electric Drill
- 3/32”, 3/16”, 1/8”, 1/4" Drill Bits
- #2 Phillips Screwdriver
- Utility Knife
- Angle Grinder/Sand Paper
- Urethane Caulking/Sealant
- Measuring Tape
- Heat Gun
- Socket Wrench, with 3/8”, 5/16” and 10mm Deep Socket
- 3” Socket Extension
- Torque Wrench/Impact Wrench
- Masking Tape
- Pry Tool
- Car Jack Stands
- Awl

Once the rear cuts are made, another small section is cut out of the front of the wheel well near the bumper.

Once all the cuts are made, grinded down and sanded smooth, we marked off the cut areas with tape and newspaper to paint the exposed sheet metal with primer to prevent rust.

After the primer has dried, put the Bushwacker flare back in place to mark the screw holes, which will need to be drilled out with a 3/16”drill bit. Since our vehicle would be getting painted after all of our cuts were made, we marked the holes, cut them, and then would install the fenders later after paint.

Bushwacker provides a limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects (with provided proof of purchase), and the kits are made in the USA.

Before we started the installation of the Bushwacker flares, we were faced with a decision. Although this would be a weekend adventure vehicle, it still would be driven during the week as well. Being that our 1999 lived its life near the California coast, the salinity in the air can eat up paint jobs pretty quickly, and the paint on the driver’s side was starting to oxidize. We wanted to potentially paint the vehicle to freshen up its look, but we also didn’t want to break the bank so early in the project.

For the rear wheel wells, the factory cladding needs to be removed as do the splash shield (shown), which is connected to the rear bumper.

Referencing the Bushwacker directions, we mark the body and bumper cuts. Once part of the bumper is cut and removed, some of the sheet metal behind the bumper will also need to get cut – but it should be done so in two stages.

After marking our cuts and double checking our lines, we cut the Grand Cherokee bumper first. Once we finished cutting the plastic bumper, the sheet metal behind it was cut. Note: There is a bumper support bracket that needs to be trimmed off at this point.

As we did in the front, horizontal and vertical lines are cut into the sheet metal to create tabs that are pulled back and not removed.

The aforementioned tabs in the previous photo are not removed but are instead bent back and flattened to serve as a backing for the new Bushwacker flares.

We hunted around at quite a few paint and body shops, getting approximate quotes in the $2500 to $5000 range, which was way out of our budget. We decided to to get a quote from our local Maaco. The company has been in business providing auto body repair and paint since it was founded in 1972, though each location is individually owned and operated. We spoke with Ryan Capdevielle, who owns and operates both the Costa Mesa locations in Southern California. We explained our situation that we wanted to get a decent paint job but didn’t want to break the bank, and Ryanand his staff were receptive to our situation and didn’t try to oversell us.

Maaco offers a number of different paint options, going as low as about $400 (or even $300 when they're running promotions) for a non-clear-coat paintjob and then going as high as $2500. Although this would be a trail vehicle that is sure to get some dings and knicks over the coming years, we didn’t want something without clear coat that would nick and scratch easily. So, we opted for the $999 option, which is a base coat and a clear coat finish on top. The price is actually $1199 for our vehicle, though, since it's an additional $200 for our larger SUV (the $999 quote is for traditional sedans). Although the Jeep has a few minor dings and knicks, we didn't need any addtional body work but went with the chip and scratch repair ($100), and we also opted the additional sealant to help protect the paint (also an extra $100). There are a number of options available, including getting the door jams painted, hood and rear door latches, color sand and polish. For our needs, however, the clear-coat option seemed to be a good fit, and it wasn't going to break the bank at $1400.

We were surprised to see the number of vehicles heading in and out of the Maaco - everything from vintage cars to modern tuner cars, trucks, sedans and full restorations. Since the shop does both body work as well as paint, Capdevielle told us that his customers range from simple jobs to extremetly complex ones.

“I get people who come in who don’t want to do any prep on their car, and with the special that we have airing right now, they say I just want to spend $300 like the offer says and that's it," he explains. "Then I have other people who want to do it right, want to do the color sand and buff, and then it’ll be closer to $2000 for that type of job. Sometimes we’ll get people who come in and want parts of their car shot, or maybe just the bumpers shot. Basically it’s almost like a Subway sandwiches type of option – however you want to order it, we’ll do it that way. We do framework, restorations, metal work and replacement. You name it, we do it all the time."

The Bushwacker rear flares needs to be put together at this point and lined up to the rear wheel well to check for a proper fit. At this point, if it’s not fitting properly, make adjustments as necessary. If the fit is correct, the fenders will aid in measuring the next mark for cutting. Hold the flare in place and made a mark along the door seam. Then, using the supplied paper template (shown), line up the cutout with the aforementioned line and make the remaining marks for cutting.

The first cut made is to remove the edge of the wheel well.

After the rounded outer edge of the wheel well is removed, draw lines for making horizontal cuts. The forward cuts on the rear wheel well come close to the cab, so do not overcut this section. If anything, you can always under-cut this section and then grind away any additional material.

Maaco can paint just about any color imaginable, but if you’re looking for something specific for trying to color match, getting the color code from the manufacturer (by calling the dealership or looking it up online) will be your best bet. We decided to go with Anvil for the WJ, a color currently used on the 10th Anniversary Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. It’s almost like a deep primer grey, and we thought it would look nice offset with the black Bushwacker fender flares and other pieces we will install down the road. The turnaround time for most full paintjobs is roughly three to five days, depending upon the number of vehicles in the shop.

The pinch weld tabs inside the wheel well needs to be cut horizontally and then hammered back against the inner wheel well.

Using an angle grinder or wheel grinder, smooth out the edges of the cut lines.

After the cuts, sealant or caulking can be used to seal any exposed sheet metal. After doing so, we fitted the cut cover (shown) in place, marked the mounting holes for drilling, and then removed it for late installation after paint.

Once we had determined a realistic option for painting the Jeep, we were ready to move on to the installation of the Bushwacker flares. It should be noted that although our story outlines the gist of the installation, we still recommend following the company’s very detailed instructions (found here). There are quite a few steps that we breeze over for the sake of the story (otherwise we'd be here all day!), and we also followed a slightly different pattern since they vehicle was painted. The instructions feature the specific measurements and details of the step-by-step process needed to properly install the flares, and honestly Bushwacker did a great job with them to take out any of the guesswork (which isn't always the case with aftermarket kits). Our story is more of a recap of the process.

After marking the holes with the fender in place, using a 3/16” it’s time to drill the fender bolt holes for the top piece/bumper piece (if using the bumper section). Since this piece is not connected to the flare that runs along the door, it should be mounted first to aid in lining up the door flare.

The factory cladding near the rear wheel well needs to be removed so it can be trimmed to accommodate the Bushwacker door flare. The cladding is held in place with an adhesive, so patient, firm removal will get it off cleanly using a flathead to pull the separate the cladding from the door.

Once removed, the cladding needs to be cut using a reciprocating saw or cut wheel. Bushwacker includes new tape for re-installing the cladding once installation is complete.

We loosely reinstall the cladding and hold the new Bushwacker fender in place to mark the mounting holes, which we then drill out using a 3/16” bit.

Although the Jeep will head to the paint shop after the fender cutting, we did install the flares to make sure of a proper fit. You might notice the rear bumper missing. We realized halfway through the process that we planned to install an aftermarket bumper anyway, so we removed the rear bumper cover and therefore did not require the third piece that connected to the stock bumper.

A “before paint” picture showing the WJ after the cuts were made for the Bushwacker fender flares.

Here’s the Jeep at the Costa Mesa Maaco shop during the paint process. Although there are a number of options, we went with a paintjob that included a clear-coat on top to help protect it from the nicks and scratches it’ll get on the trails the next few years.

Our “Anvil” paint color come out great, and Maaco did a really good job working with us to find the right color – they even called us to come by and check a paint swatch to make sure it was the proper color. The paintjob gives the WJ some new life and it didn’t break the bank either.

Included with the Bushwacker kit is edge trim for the new fenders. After applying the edging trim to the outer edge of the flares, we then installed the rubber bushings along with the torx screws using the supplied torx bit.

It’s ideal to have an extra set of hands for the installation, as the fender will have the bolts and bushings already in place. Carefully line up the bolts with each hole and tighten them down until snug – but do not overtighten! The screws can then be tightened with a torque wrench to 24 in.-lb. (2 ft.-lb.).

An easy step for us to skip over since we installed the flares after our paintjob was to install the final screw to secure the flares inside the wheel well. We initially made a drill hole but had trouble finding it and decided to simply drill a new hole.

The new flares look great and will help us fit larger tires once we get the 4-inch BDS lift kit installed.

Moving to the rear fender flares, we started by installing the cut cover.

After installing the top rear bumper, two screws are secured underneath to help hold the bumper in place.

The rear door flare is set in place and the screws tightened. As we menionted before, don’t over-tighten these screws, as they are screwed into sheet metal and it can damage the body. Do the final tightening with a torque wrench to to 24 in.-lb. (2 ft.-lb.).

The rear flares fully installed and tightened in place. It looks slightly off since we took off the rear bumper, but it’ll look great once we add a new rear bumper.

The final touch is to cover the previously removed rocker panel holes using the include tape liner molding.

In the end, we couldn't be happier with the Bushwacker Cut-Out Fender Flares. The kit is not a simple bolt-on application, but the instructions outline the process very well and we are very pleased with the fit, finish and quality of the final products. Our experience with Maaco was also great. As nice as paint would be, honestly, it doesn’t make sense for some people to paint their rigs. We were on the fence with the WJ, but we were happy to find a cost-effective solution to painting our Jeep at the Costa Mesa Maaco, but most imporantly, they did a great job. It gives the Jeep a fresh new look, and we were able to get a quality paintjob that break the bank early on in the project. Next we'll look forward to installing our BDS 4-inch lift kit with Fox shocks, and look to fit some new 33-inch rubber underneath our WJ.  


Maaco – Costa Mesa
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