4x4 For Less
I think some readers are often surprised by the 4x4s in my personal fleet. Maybe it’s that they expect me to have really expensive rigs with all the latest gadgetry. Am I supposed to be wheeling something that the detailer stops by to wash and wax weekly? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not the case—not by a long shot. I’m way too practical and I like beaters.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a nice 4x4, but in order to keep it nice I’d never get to use it because I’d be too worried about scratching the paint and dinging the sheetmetal. And it’s not that I enjoy being behind the wheel of total piles of crap either. My 4x4s have to be extremely reliable and versatile. You won’t find a bunch of bailing wire and duct tape on my rigs, at least not on the essential components. In some aspects you could consider most of my 4x4s to be sleepers. On the outside they look weathered, abused, and sometimes incapable. Internally you’ll typically find a well-oiled machine, and I’m not just talking about the oil leaks.
Rather than spend a bunch of time and effort beautifying my 4x4s with chrome wingdings and the latest in fancy parts, I set to work on making them perform. I typically like to use simple, strong, and easy-to-find components. Ideally, I’d like to be able walk into just about any parts store or wrecking yard in America and find a replacement if need be.
Several years ago I had been looking for a shortbed ’74-’75 Jeep J-truck. I wanted the newer, more-common suspension and stronger open-knuckle Dana 44 front axle that came in the ’74-up models, but I didn’t want the biannual California smog inspection that came with the ’76-and-later models. I had been looking online all over the western U.S. and I was willing to travel several hundred miles for the right truck. Eventually I found a decent J-truck less than 40 miles from my house. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough. It was a ’73, so it had the less-desirable post-mount suspension and weaker front axle, but it did have a 360ci V-8 and a T-18 tranny.
The previous owner envisioned a fresh bright orange paint job with polished wheels and moderate-sized tires. Mechanical repairs were done only as needed. When something broke or simply wore out, it was replaced or rebuilt rather than upgraded. One of the first things he set his sights on was the bodywork. He never finished, and I never even began to finish what he started. Personally, I wish he had simply left the factory weathered paint alone. I also wish he had left the factory bench seat in place rather than attempt to install the uncomfortable bucket seats pilfered from a later Wagoneer using a few hack spacers and brackets.
Anyway, for me it started as a fairly stock ’73 Jeep J-2000 rolling on 33-inch BFG Mud-Terrain tires. I drove it around for a while just as I bought it and realized it needed some mechanical improvements long before it needed paint. The truck was an absolute slug, but it got great fuel economy. I found out that the vacuum secondaries in the carburetor were not functioning. I also found out that the mechanical advance of the distributor wasn’t working. The truck was significantly down on power. Knowing that the ignition and fuel systems of this particular model 4x4 were inadequate from the factory (even when new), I ditched both. I slapped in a Davis Unified Ignition (DUI) to improve spark output and reliability. I then pulled the wonky carb and topped the motor with a simple 20-year-old two-barrel Holley Pro-Jection system. It’s not designed to make a ton of power, but the V-8 starts much more quickly and now it runs at any angle.
I wanted to keep it as low as possible while still fitting the largest tires that made sense. I bolted up some Hell Creek 4-inch front lift springs and then simply flipped the shackles in the rear for additional lift. I measured for proper shock length and slapped on some Rubicon Express monotube shocks all around for damping duties. I actually started with some 40-inch tires but even with gratuitous trimming they were gonna be a tight fit. I ended up cutting off the factory flares and installed 37-inch Goodyear MT/R tires wrapped around some old 15x10 Champion beadlocks that I had laying around.
I fabbed up some tubular rocker guards for added side protection in the limited rocky terrain I had planned for the truck. I also put a locker in the rear only, knowing good and well that the axleshafts in the puny front axle would shatter at even the thought of a locker and 37s (eventually, I’ll swap this front axle out). Ironically, I tore up the factory rear Dana 44 axle first (shaft, ring gear, and locker all at once) so I went to the junkyard and scavenged a Ford 9-inch from an early ’80s F-150. I filled it with a Detroit Locker and 4.10:1 gears to match the factory frontend. I also ditched the Waggy seats for some much more comfortable PRP low-back seats, installed a Warn 8274-50 winch, bolted in a bed-mounted toolbox and fullsize spare tire, and added disc brakes to the original front axle.
It may not win any beauty awards but my ’73 J-2000 has been a great 4x4 overall. I can drive it on the street to the trailhead and it does well in the snow, mud, and sand. Regular 4x4 trails are a blast, and it can even maneuver through some difficult rocky sections. Perhaps the best part is that I don’t really have a lot of money wrapped up in it. If I get a small ding or two in the body panels, it doesn’t bother me. I can have a lot of fun in my truck over the weekend without worrying about a car payment come Monday morning.