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2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited - Wheel A Deal

Posted in Features on August 9, 2013
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We generally agree that if a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is. When James Macklin, a diesel mechanic from Riverton, Utah, found this ’04 LJ for sale, he realized that the good deal was just that and quickly scooped up this super-clean Wrangler. To say we are jealous would be an understatement, but hey, the good news is that not only does James love his pretty LJ that he got for a steal, he wheels it, and wheels it hard.

We generally shy away from high-end, shop-built Jeeps because some schmo saying, “I called them up, told them what I wanted, and left a blank check!” does not make for a good story. We like Jeeps with stories to tell and owners who like to use their Jeeps. James certainly likes to drive his Unlimited TJ, and while his story with the Jeep is not too long, it is different.

The story goes something like this: While in the middle of building a custom CJ-7 with 5.3L Gen III GM power, Dana 60s, 4L60E transmission, and a 4:1 Dana 300, James kept seeing this solidly built LJ pop up on a couple of forums for sale all ready to go. At first the asking price was too high to get many bites, but James instantly knew he would like to own the Jeep if it could be had for the right price. He figured someone with deeper pockets would pick up the red Wrangler before it would come down to being affordable to him. As time continued to pass (as it usually does), the Jeep kept showing up with a lower and lower price. Finally James decided to make an offer, and the seller took it. The good news is James was able to sell off most of his unfinished CJ project to help offset buying the Wrangler. This means that a couple of weeks after James bought the Wrangler, he was out on the trail with us rather than back home spinning wrenches and running to the parts store to get his CJ running.

They say horse breeding is a great way to make a small fortune…out of a large one. Apparently the same can be said about custom Jeep building. Let’s just say that the price James paid for the ’04 Wrangler Unlimited does not really reflect the cost of the sum of the Jeep’s parts by a long shot. Either way, it’s hard to hate James for the deal he got on this Jeep. He seems to be a nice guy, and boy, are we glad this beautiful Jeep went to someone who uses it as it should be used.

The chassis of the Unlimited Wrangler is basically stock with exception of a 1-inch body lift, welded-on custom tubular rocker guards, and various custom brackets added to house the LT1, 4L60E, and Atlas II. Suspension lift on the Unlimited comes from a 4-inch Full Traction long-arm conversion. This system converts the rear suspension to a three-link with an upper wishbone, eliminating the need for a rear track bar. Bilstein 5150 shocks control the bounce while the vitals are all protected by a high-clearance belly skidplate.

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The drivetrain of the ’04 LJ is where this beast really stands out from the crowd. Sunray Engineering cleanly installed a fire-breathing LT1 V-8. The engine received a set of ported and polished heads, an LT4 cam, roller rockers, Mahle pistons, chromoly pushrods, and 24lb/hr SVO injectors. Exhaust leaves the engine through a pair of custom one-off ceramic-coated headers and on through a sexy exhaust that tucks and dives around the suspension. An Edelbrock muffler emits a pleasing rumble followed by an angry rappp if the throttle hits the wood. Behind the healthy V-8 rests a 4L60E slush box bolted to a 3.8:1 Atlas II with a 32-spline front output. The Atlas deals out horsepower via 1350 U-joints to two Sunray Engineering 609 fabricated axlehousings. These axles hold 35-spline shafts, Detroit Lockers, and 5.13 gears, with a pair of massive 1550 U-joints in the front shafts. Sunray built these axles with kingpins, ’78 Chevy calipers, and ’78 Ford rotors so despite the huge U-joints and 35-spline shafts the Jeep still has a 5-on-51⁄2 bolt pattern. Warn locking hubs allow the front axle to easily be disconnected at the end of the trail when the Atlas II is in 2WD. GM Hydroboost from a ’00 Chevy truck helps whoa the ponies via disc brakes bolted on all four corners. At time of shooting this feature black steel beadlocks hold 38x12.50-15 Super Swamper TSL SX tires that have been siped. A Via Air 550 CI compressor supplies plenty of compressed air to refill tires after a day on the trail.

Body and Interior
The body of the Unlimited is protected front and rear with a pair of Warn bumpers with the front housing an XD9000i winch in case a tug is needed. Aforementioned tubular rocker guards sit under the body tub and provide ample protection from any angry rocks that may try to leap up and scratch that red paint. These rockers even kick out a touch just in front of the rear tires to help the big Jeep slide past any large rocks. Both the rear corners and rockers of the LJ are also wrapped in steel 1⁄8-inch armor that has been painted black. Xenon TJ fender flares provide a touch more clearance than stock units. The interior sheetmetal is coated in Line-X in lieu of carpeting while the stock seats are wrapped in water resistant seat covers that match the black on red theme of the Jeep. Engine vitals are relayed to the driver via a group of AutoMeter gauges cleanly mounted in the LJ’s dash. Passengers are protected from any possible flops with a Poison Spyder Customs full rollcage. Since we went wheeling with James, he has dropped the fender flares and did a little body trimming in order to fit some 40x13.50R20 Pro Comp Xterrain in competition compound mounted on Pro Comp aluminum beadlocks when on the trails. Daily driving duties fall to 325/70R17 Toyo ATs on Walker Evans wheels. Future plans include high-line front fenders, re-working the rear wheel openings for the larger tires, and maybe some coilovers.

Good, Bad, and What It’s For
The first thing that comes to mind with this LJ is that it is pure Jeep eye candy. The combination of parts that make up this Jeep is something everyone can dream about, and few would have the cojones to wheel hard. James uses this Wrangler to drive to work and hit the rocks of Utah and the Southwest, and the Jeep has power, strength, and plenty of room for his wife and hound doggies. The combination of big parts, big power, big tires, and shiny red paint make this LJ just sexy.

Why I Wrote This Feature
Honestly, when I first saw James and his Unlimited I figured this guy was just another credit-card-wheeler in a pretty Jeep. I won’t lie, I was jealous of what was clearly a spendy Jeep. Once I saw James wheel his Wrangler, I’ll admit I liked his style. He wasn’t afraid of hitting hard obstacles on Hells Revenge and Poison Spider Mesa in a Jeep that most would only dare rub with a cloth diaper. Once I heard the story of how James had built a few rigs in the past while working as a diesel mechanic and then got an amazing deal on this Jeep, I thought maybe this guy was okay. When I heard James was currently driving the Jeep to and from work so he could afford the payment on it and had driven (not towed) four hours to be a part of the trail ride, I respected that. After wheeling with James for a few days, I realized he knew his stuff and that I actually liked the guy. I am still jealous of his Jeep, but I can’t blame him for scooping up a great deal on a stunning Jeep and then having fun with it.
—Verne Simons

Hard Facts
Vehicle: 2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
Engine: LT1
Transmission: 4L60E automatic
Transfer Case: Atlas II 3.8:1
Suspension: Full traction long-arm
Axles: Sunray Engineering 609 front and rear 35-spline
Wheels: Black steel beadlocks
Tires: 38x12.50/15 TSL SX
Built For: Rocks

PhotosView Slideshow

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