In today’s fast moving world, too many people rush into things and opt for the path to instant gratification. Mike Wixom of Gilbert, Arizona, has had a passion for his trail machine for nearly 15 years. He’s wheeled it, built it, and wheeled it some more. Mods have been made, and parts added thoughtfully to enhance its trail abilities and take Mike exploring over thousands of backcountry miles.
In 1999, Mike stumbled across a well-kept 1985 Jeep CJ-7 Laredo, complete with hardtop and doors. The rust-free rig was soon sitting at home in his garage. His first modification turned out to be the installation of an Aero Tanks 26-gallon fuel tank when he found the factory one to be cracked and leaked when filled anywhere over the half-full mark. A Bestop soft top was swapped in place of the fiberglass top, and Mike hit some trails exploring in and around his home state of Arizona.
Since that time, the Jeep has been transformed over many years to get it to the current state you see here. Mike’s one regret was the money and work he initially poured into the Dana 30 and AMC 20 axles, only to replace them with stronger units two years later. But, alas, many of us have been down a similar upgrade route, and hindsight is always clearer than foresight.
The suspension, as one might expect, has evolved a bit over the last decade and a half. Mike originally installed a 4-inch spring-under lift a short while after acquiring the Jeep. Later, after upgrading to the current axles, he went spring-over. The front and rear suspensions now consist of BDS 2-inch-lift YJ springs with Crabtree shackles and their excellent billet steel shackle hangers. Relatively simple, but effective.
The front shock mounts were cut and extended to allow for the use of longer Bilstein 5100 shocks. Similarly, the rear mounts were relocated to accommodate longer Bilsteins and get maximum flex out of the BDS leaf packs. Tanner Lamb at LambFab in Gilbert, Arizona installed a Ruffstuff anti-wrap bar to help tame rear-spring wrap when Mike hits the accelerator firmly.
Anyone that’s spent much time in the dirt in an older Jeep CJ-7 knows their frames eventually fatigue and form stress cracks. Mike installed M.O.R.E. frame stiffening plates on the outside of most of the framerails to fortify the nearly 30-year-old chassis. The wheelbase sits at 94 inches.
Mike has built the drivetrain to his liking over the years he’s owned the 1985 Jeep CJ-7. The Jeep retains the venerable AMC 258 inline-six, but it’s been topped with a Howell TBI fuel-injection kit to keep fuel delivery consistent at odd angles on the trail. Other upgrades include a DUI ignition, Davis Live Wires plug wires, a Mean Green starter and alternator, and a Westside Performance aluminum valve cover in place of the troublesome factory plastic one.
The stock transmission and transfer case have been replaced with sturdier hardware. Now, a Muncie SM420 GM truck 4-speed manual with a 7.05:1 Granny First gear is tacked to the straight-six with an Advanced Adapters conversion bellhousing. A stock mechanical clutch and flywheel are used.
For deeper low-range gearing and an increase in strength, Mike installed an Atlas II transfer case with a 3.8:1 low range mated to the transmission with a Novak adapter. The Atlas is hung under the Jeep using a Barnes 4WD flat skidplate that’s been modified by LambFab, and the Atlas now has front and rear support mounts. Both ends are heavy-duty 32-spline outputs and connect to a pair of driveshafts from Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts, with a double cardan shaft in the rear and standard single U-joint in the front.
Mike upgraded both axles during his build, choosing for the front a Dana 44 from Tri-County Gear. The housing was designed to put the spring perches under the frame rails and the outer C’s rotated to correct geometry with the intended lift. The insides are stuffed with 5.13 gears, an ARB Air Locker, forged alloy axle shafts, and Longfield Super Joints. Warn Premium Hubs cap off the ends of the axle that measures 65 inches WMS-to-WMS.
Steering works through a tri-y high-steer setup and is pushed around with the help of a PSC hydraulic-assist ram driven from a PSC power steering pump. One-ton Chevy tie-rod ends and a Tri-County Gear pitman arm are used for the steering. A PSC steering box is further supported with a M.O.R.E. steering box bracket that relocates the box 1-inch forward so the draglink and tie rod play nice.
Out back, a custom Ford 9-inch is equipped with a Yukon nodular iron third member holding 5.13 gears and a Detroit Locker, which spins Moser alloy shafts. The housing has been further fortified with a Moser backbone truss and a custom ’skid welded to the lower portion of the 65-inch wide housing.
Front disc brakes are GM 1⁄2-ton truck units, and Ford drum brakes bring the rear axle to a halt. Rolling stock consists of 37-inch BFG Krawlers mounted on 17-inch-diameter Walker Evans beadlocks with a 5 on 51⁄2-inch bolt pattern.
Body and Interior
Extensive modifications extend to the body in the form of a custom rollcage constructed primarily from 13⁄4-inch, 0.120-wall tubing built by Hunter Offroad in Tempe, Arizona. Younger Brothers Manufacturing built both of the custom bumpers and the rear tire carrier, and Desert Fab Motorsports fabricated the front tube fenders. Poison Spider rock sliders and Crusher Corners complete the body armament. Body paint is the original tan enamel. Added tubework was shot from a matte black rattle can.
Creature comforts, safety, and storage were addressed in the Jeep’s interior. Mastercraft Rubicon seats secure the driver and passenger with Mastercraft seatbelts. A Tuffy center console and rear storage trunk provide places to keep valuables and spares out of the weather. Additionally, Bestop tube doors finish off the body enhancements.
Serious trail explorers get themselves stuck from time to time, so a Warn HS9500i winch with Amsteel Blue synthetic rope sits up front for extraction needs. A pair of Odyssey AGM batteries supplies electrical power using a Painless Wiring Dual Battery system. A York A/C compressor was converted to air-compressing duty using Kilby brackets and now supplies air to actuate the Air Lockers or for tire inflation.
Nighttime illumination has been supplemented with LED lighting, and Mike modified a pair of JW Speaker Jeep JK 7-inch LED headlights to fit in the stock CJ headlight buckets. What a difference!
Good, Bad, and What It’s For
The Jeep was purposely built to be driven daily and reliable as an expedition rig. It has seen trails all over Arizona, plus destinations such as the Rubicon Trail, Blanca Peak, Moab, and Johnson Valley. Mike just recently completed a tube buggy for more hard-core trails and uses his 1985 Jeep CJ-7 for plenty of hunting and exploring in and around his home state. The old Jeep is like a part of the family now, sitting quietly in the garage but always ready when it’s time to hit a trail.
Vehicle: 1985 Jeep CJ-7
Engine: 258ci inline-six
Transfer Case: Atlas 2 (3.8:1 low range)
Suspension: Spring-over leaf on 2-inch BDS springs (front and rear)
Axles: Dana 44 (front); Ford 9-inch (rear)
Why I Wrote This Feature
I’ve wheeled with Mike and his 1985 Jeep CJ-7, including tackling a 500-mile expedition trek. He’s methodically built a rig to suit his needs without over building it to some unwieldy extreme. It’s cool to see a classic leaf-sprung rig out doing what it was built for, but redesigned to do everything a bit better.