It’s the pinnacle of many automotive professionals’ careers to have a build at the SEMA Show, the automotive specialty equipment show akin to a mechanic’s Disney World. It’s a bustling show full of miles of sparkly race cars, the newest must-have products and the coolest modified vehicles you can witness in one place.
Thanks to the SEMA High School Vehicle Build Program auto students are getting the SEMA build experience before they even graduate high school. C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, is one of five schools modifying completely customized Jeeps with the help of SEMA.
Last year SEMA unveiled its pilot program for high school automotive programs: SEMA High School Vehicle Build Program. The idea was to give back to the schools and allow them to create a sustainable student build program. SEMA gave Santa Fe Early College Opportunities (ECO) High School’s automotive program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a Jeep to completely customize with the help of sponsor-donated parts and then the school auctioned off the vehicle, with all the funds going right back into the school to help fund student builds for years to come. The 2015 4WD Jeep Wrangler Unlimited sold for more than $56,000 through the Bring a Trailer Auction.
“Many auto tech programs have limited funds and are unable to provide students with the type of experience that we’re giving them,” said Wade Kawasaki, SEMA chairman of the board, in an official SEMA release. “We’re happy to be able to provide students with this unique opportunity to get them excited about the customization lifestyle. It’s encouraging to know that these kids will be contributing to the industry’s future.”
This year, SEMA upped the program and partnered with five high school auto programs across the country. C.D. Hylton was one of 90 schools who applied for the program and one of five schools who made the cut.
The last week of February 2019, SEMA shipped a 2002 Jeep Wrangler TJ Sport to C.D. Hylton to completely customize. The forest green Jeep wasn’t quite up to par for a SEMA build, so the school got to work completely updating the vehicle in true rock-crawler fashion.
Featuring the original 4.0L 6-cylinder engine and 32 RH automatic transmission, the students touched almost every piece of the car. C.D. Hylton was the only project to complete a frame off restoration in addition to cosmetic and performance modifications. The program documented the entire process on its YouTube series Bulldog Builds, named after the school’s mascot.
Eighteen aftermarket companies supported the build and the program’s mission by donating $16,000 worth of products to the school making this a one of a kind customized Jeep.
“I think it’s very interesting how we bring all these different companies together and basically form our Jeep,” says auto student Jeffrey Zheng.
“Working on the suspension was my favorite part,” says student Braxton Tate. “Putting the lift kit on was challenging.”
“There was nothing to offer resistance while putting together so it was a big challenge without the weight of the vehicle to help,” adds instructor Ed Stevens. “We had to get creative to install it safetly and correctly.”
In just five months the students completed the Rancho lift kit, repainted the entire vehicle white and black, including the frame and roll bar, as well as a laundry list of other modifications. New leather seats were installed, engine mounts, a brand new Sony radio, as well as some performance modifications like tires and headlights all were done by students.
“We all kind of worked in different areas of the vehicle, say from suspension to the engine to the interior,” says student Jonah Smith.
Time was a crunch with a June deadline for the July auction and students worked during school time, after school and during their spring break to get the Jeep auction ready.
“ I learned a lot,” says student Amanda Neff, who had the most contact time working on the Jeep. “Sanding the body before priming and painting was my favorite part.”
With a completely new look, the Jeep sold at auction for $26,000 – money that will all go back into a new project at the school.
“Seeing the progress was really a huge factor to me,” says auto student Jeffrey. “From where it was to what it is now, you can really see the huge changes and the differences. When I look at the Jeep we have now it makes you think ‘oh my gosh I put in the work for this and made this what it is now.’ It’s pretty awesome.”
Follow Hylton Automotive on YouTube to watch the entire Bulldog Builds series, which includes the SEMA Jeep and other project updates every Thursday!