In the January issue, we showed you our new section of the Staff Garage, where you get to check out what we do with our own rigs and how we do it. We've also shown you the start of our Cheap Truck Challenge (July, Aug., and Sept. 2004), where we buy a rig and make it ready to wheel for $1,500 or less. This month, we're doing a little of both and decided to combine the two sections to give you more bang for your buck. As your humble editor of this magazine, I figured that making a $1,500 beater wheeler was a cinch for me, especially since I had so much Jeep crap hanging around just waiting for the chance to agglomerate itself. Heck, a weekend or two with some buddies and beer would result in a killer 4x4 that would whup my staffs' rigs - and I could do it cheaper. That meant I could afford more, like a winch, helicopter support, and that sort of stuff, and still have a little budget left over for beer.
You see, I had made a great deal on a rolled 1978 CJ-7 years ago, and I had less than 200 bucks in it by trading it for a bald set of tires. That meant I had $1,300 to spend, and I figured the Jeep wasn't in that bad a shape, so it couldn't cost that much to fix. True, the sheetmetal was totally trashed, the tires were bald and flat, the frame was bent, axlehousings were pretzeled, and it had been sitting uncovered for 15 years in the mountains of Southern California, with an open hood. So, even though it has an AMC 304 with a fancy Edelbrock intake and a four-barrel Holley and headers, who knew if it would actually run? The TH400 tranny coupled to the Quadra Trac transfer case looked OK, and even the rear axle seemed somewhat straight. The CJ had laid upside down off the side of a cliff after the original roll, so I didn't know what fluids were left in any of the gearboxes. The worst deal was the missing lid off the master cylinder, which meant the brakes probably might not work.
The first step was to haul the Jeep home from its resting place, which entailed airing up 20-some-odd tires and moving at least five or more Jeep carcasses to get to it. Fifteen years of oak leaves and rat turds in the open interior meant that I asked for a slow tow home from my buddy with a big tractor, and to prevent any further damage to any mechanical component. Once in the front yard, we figured the easiest way to clean it out was to roll it again, which sure made hosing it off easy, and it couldn't hurt it any worse than it was. And since nobody works or helps for free, my first of many payment installments on this Cheap Truck Challenge vehicle went for a box of cold Corona, at $15.99 plus the redemption value. So far, so good. So was the Corona. So watch and read about this work in progress, which so far is cheap, and see if it really wheels.
Once in the front yard, we rolled the Jeep over with a tractor to dump out 15 years of rat turds, oak leaves, and various assorted parts and debris, and to check out the underside more easily. Although the frame was a bit tweaked, it looked straight enough for me, and just the whacked-out front axlehousing caused concern. Not much fluid leaked out of any open orifice, which was good for the environment, but bad for the Jeep. I fired up my Craftsman pressure washer and made sure I wouldn't catch any disease from the rat leftovers, which left a muddy mess in the yard.
The best part of this '78 CJ-7 is the components. The AMC 304 has an Edelbrock intake, a Holley four-barrel, and fenderwell headers. Power steering, A/C, cruise, tilt, AM/FM cassette, power disc brakes, chrome spokes, automatic, Quadra Trac with low range, and chrome valve covers and air cleaner round out the Renegade package. Too bad all the sheetmetal is crunched, the radiator and fan are smashed, and the cassette player is broken. We checked all the fluid levels, and most had something in them. My buddy bet me a box of Corona that the engine wouldn't even turn over, so I hooked up an Optima battery and jury-rigged some cables, and won my $15.99 back the first day. Corona is good.
Now that I knew I had a driveable Jeep, I tore out the entire interior, took off all the body accessories, and pulled the gas tank. The filler hoses were toast, as were all the rubber fuel lines. I ordered new filler hoses from The Off Road Connection, since, according to manager Leah Light, it's not smart to skimp on safety items. The gas tank was clean but needed a new O-ring and filter, but I found good used ones off a discarded DJ tank. With all fuel lines blown out and cleaned, I cleaned and tightened all of the electrical parts. All the gauges now worked, and after a fresh oil change with used oil (better than the former sludge in the oil pan), I pulled the spark plugs and cleaned off the rust, then pulled off the valve covers to beat on the valves until they were free. That took another can of JB-80, but it was successful.
Bodywork didn't seem too important yet, but a day with a torch and a big hammer got most of the side panels somewhat straight. I offed the twisted rollbar, which made the body a little straighter, but knew much more was ahead of me. Three body-mount nuts were rusted away, so taking off the body was not a choice. Nor did I have the beer or energy to accomplish said task, so I figure it will happen eventually. I concentrated my energy on fixing the brakes by using more JB-80 and a bigger hammer, which finally worked. The original fuel pump was fine, and even after 15 years the Holley works without being rebuilt. Who needs bodywork?
The maiden voyage was back to the neighbor's, where the frame-straightening escapade ensued. I found a wrinkle in the framerail just forward of the rear tire, just behind the leaf-spring pivot. We figure that if we put a block under the frame just forward of this point and tractored down the rear, it would straighten out. Too bad the front of the Jeep went skyward when we did that.
With the front of the heavy M715 over the front bumper, we tried again and lifted the M715 and the Jeep off the ground, but did make the frame somewhat straighter. Our next step is to cut the frame at the bend, repeat this operation, and then weld it back with some plates. Check in next month and see how cheap the Cheap Truck Challenge can be!
In any project like this, rust is a big factor. Fortunately I had a box of Justice Brothers chemical products from a previous project, and decided to use them all. JB-80 is billed as "twice as good," and is probably the best penetrant we know of. Let the stuff set on a frozen bolt, then come back later and it can be spun off by hand, almost. I used a case of that stuff just to disassemble the Jeep. I also used every conditioner and cleaner JB makes, from the engine oil treatment to the transmission and power-steering fluid stuff. In each case the product worked as expected--cleaning, sealing, and making everything work. Even the brake calipers broke free from the brackets after a liberal dousing of JB-80. Brakes are a good thing. The tire beads got a coating of Safety Seal bead sealer, which worked incredibly well. Too bad the air still escapes through the sidewalls.
The only open orifice, other than the carb, was the master cylinder. After filling the old unit and beating on it for a few weeks, I decided to swap it out. Being the cheap bastard I am, I went scrounging in my neighbor's yard and came up with one off a 1978 Jeep Cherokee carcass. While the ports were reversed, the inside was clean and the chrome cover was in the same dilapidated shape as the valve cover and air cleaner. I was happy.
So were the brakes, and they eventually self-gravity bled as the front calipers were persuaded to break free with a five-pound sledge. Before I started to spend real money or do anything serious, I decided that if the engine wouldn't fire, the whole deal would be too expensive. I salvaged a coil and coil wire from an abandoned 1976 Thunderbird, and made sure the engine and tranny, as well as this cool power-steering reservoir, were topped off with some strange mixture of various half-full bottles of fluids from the storage cabinet. With a used radiator from a J truck ratcheted on the front and the smashed front sheetmetal removed, I filled up the carb with gas and turned the keyless ignition switch...and the engine fired! After the tranny converter filled up, the Jeep also idled over my foot, so I knew the tranny was fine.