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1981 Jeep CJ-5 - Reborn

Posted in Features on January 1, 2008
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"One only at this price," was the ad Tom Armstrong read when he was searching his local newspaper for a Jeep back in June of 1981. Hooked on what he saw in the paper, he headed down to the dealership and fell in love with this '81 Jeep CJ-5. After a bit of haggling over the sale price, Tom finally drove off in his new Jeep for a little less than $6,500.

You are probably asking yourself how Tom scored such a sweet ride for so little cash? Well, the Jeep didn't come with a top, rear seat, doors, spare tire, or radio. Something amusing about the early history of this Jeep is that the original build Tom did to the vehicle replaced all of those components, but with the final build he ended up losing all of those items again. The dealer was apparently right: It never needed those items.

So many trail rigs we come across these days have been bought and sold many times over, resulting in booger welds and jungle-gym 'cage work. In buying this vehicle off the lot, Tom didn't have to worry about such problems. He has built and rebuilt this vehicle himself using various lockers, different engines, lift kits, transmissions, and more. The CJ-5 you see on these pages is the result of years of trail abuse, product testing, and a lot of negotiating with Tom's wife, Lawana. You see, in exchange for Tom being able to dump the amount of money he has into the Jeep, Lawana insisted that she too get her own dream vehicle: a convertible Corvette.

In April of 1983, Tom, Lawana, and some of their friends founded the Social Climbers 4x4 Group. The group wheels eight to ten times per year and frequents events like Tierra Del Sol and the Hi Desert Round-Up. Over the years, Tom's wife has gathered trophies at the Hi Desert Round-Up games, including victories in the Wet Lap, Turtle Race, Women's Short Wheelbase Potato Slab, and the Women's Obstacle Course events. Another notable event occurred when their son Jason was born and at only 2 months was strapped into a car seat and wheeled in the back of Tom's Jeep at TDS. That year, they won the award for the youngest rider.

Under the Hood
Wherever he could, Tom wanted certain items on the CJ to remain Jeep ones. The engine he chose is an AMC 401ci pushing over 300 hp to the wheels. Keeping it cool is a stock three-row radiator with a Flex-a-lite cooling fan. Other modifications include an Edelbrock manifold, Holley fuel injection, Hooker headers, Super Trapp exhaust, a GM HEI distributor, and ACDelco batteries. A Summit Racing fuel cell has been custom-mounted in the back and holds 16 gallons of fuel, which, according to Tom, is sometimes just not enough.

PhotosView Slideshow

The transmission is a Chrysler 904 with a reverse valvebody, shift-kit modification, and an Art Carr shifter. The transfer case is a Dana 300 modified with a TeraFlex Low-range 4:1 kit and which has been clocked flat with an Advance Adapters clocking ring. All transmission work was performed by Remac Transmissions of San Dimas, California.

Both axles are Dana 44s with 4.88 gears and Detroit Lockers. Because of this CJ's radical suspension, Tom fabricated gussets around the rear axle to ensure it would stay put during extreme articulation. The gusset work was not only fabricated to add strength, it also provides points for the four-link suspension to attach.

There is a small portion of stock frame remaining, but you really have to search for it. As you can see, most of this Jeep has been completely rebuilt. 1 Day Paint in Pomona, California, laid down a fresh coat of white, and Tom Clark of Chino, California, did all of the custom pinstriping. An assortment of Auto Meter gauges litters the dash, and Beard seats with four-point harnesses are mounted firmly to the floor. The majority of the 'cage work was performed by 4Wheelers Supply; the rest was completed by the owner. One-and-a-half-inch DOM tubing was used throughout the chassis, cabin, and bumpers. Custom skidplates were also created for the fuel cell, transfer case, and transmission. Four X Doctor tube rocker guards are attached to both sides and aid in ingress and egress. Carrying all of this down the road is a set of 37x12.50R15 Goodyear MT/R tires on TrailReady 15x10 beadlock wheels. Although we wheeled with the windshield in place, most of the time Tom removes it to give an even better view of what's ahead.

Various lift kits and custom shocks have educated Tom a great deal over the years. He knew if he finally got the OK from the wife (which he did), he would need to go to full coilover suspension at all four corners. The adjustability and ride quality of a four-cornered coilover Jeep is second-to-none on the trail.

Tom decided to build a nice three-link suspension with the help of 4Wheelers Supply using King 2.5-inch coilovers in the front. Out back, 4Wheelers Supply helped him create a four-link suspension with Currie Antirock sway bars and matching shocks. We literally walked over everything in our path during the photo shoot because of this setup. All pivot points are connected with very strong, 1- and 2-inch Heim joints.

Tom refers to the current modifications on his Jeep as the final build, but as most of us know, our projects are hardly every truly complete. He already mentioned a possible larger motor and increase-capacity fuel cell to be installed in the future.

It seems that no matter how much we build or how far we travel, the enthusiast inside all of us is rarely satisfied.

PhotosView Slideshow

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