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1983 Jeep CJ-7 - Verne’s First 4x4

Posted in Features on December 15, 2014
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Sure, it sounds pretty fancy, but it really wasn’t. My first 4x4, and first car, was an ’83 CJ-7. My parents bought the Jeep new off the lot of Morgan AMC, Jeep in Durham, North Carolina. I still remember the day they brought it home. It had a few options from the dealership like a hard top, 258 I-6, and a back seat, but what I remember more vividly was what it did not have. The Jeep came with a radio delete. It had a spots for a radio and speaker grilles, but nothing there but plastic fillers and air.

Over the years between 1983 and when I turned 16 in 1992 the CJ had been used and abused (it did eventually get a radio or two). Somewhere along the lines it was painted, going from the factory Olympic White to a Ford Fiesta Red. Either way the paint job was marginal, and the guys who did it not only sprayed the fiberglass hard top to match but did not paint inside the Jeep, so it was red on the outside and white on the inside complete with the original fake denim vinyl fabric on the seats (no, it wasn’t a Levi’s edition). Nice. Other features were a four-speed manual, an AMC 20 rear axle (that blew up despite the small tires and fairly light-duty usage), a Dana 300, and a Dana 30 front axle. It was a definite 20-footer Jeep. It looked great from far, but far from good when you got a look up close.

A young Verne stands with his sister Cornelia (the giving sister) in front of the Jeep. Thanks again, Nelia! Is that a 16-year-old Verne?

When my sister turned 16, she inherited the Jeep from my dad, who, bless his heart, has never been very good at caring for or maintaining vehicles. He is a very smart man, just not at all interested in cars or trucks. When my sister got it, my mom splurged and bought a black Bestop soft top, an in-dash tape deck, and a set of aftermarket wheels for the Jeep to make it look and seem a little bit cooler (it still had the white stamped steel wheels that it came from the factory with before that). This update of the Jeep made it look pretty darn cool, but the lack of maintenance meant that the Jeep was not terribly reliable. I’m pretty sure we helped keep the auto club in business.

At the time, I figured that because my sister got the Jeep when she turned 16, that I might be so lucky and get a car too—but no such luck. My parents couldn’t afford a fourth car so I got no car. I started to save up cash when my dear older sister, Cornelia Seiffert (Simons at the time), gave me the hand-me-down Jeep. Yes, that’s right. She gave it to me in a truly selfless and awesome gesture. Of course, she had just started college and as a freshman could not bring a car on campus, so it wasn’t much use to her. So she said I could have the Jeep as long as I would give her rides to and from college and let her drive the Jeep whenever she was back home from school. Fine with me!

By the time I got it, the Jeep it would not idle. Now that I know way more about vehicles, I suspect that it had a gnarly vacuum leak at the intake manifold and head, possibly due to a warped head or intake. The likelihood that my dad overheated the engine and warped the head is high. Either way, considering the paint job, vacuum leak, computer-controlled Carter carburetor, and a cold start issue, the thing looked great but was about as reliable as…well, a questionably maintained 10-year-old AMC product would be. Let’s face it: It wasn’t Jeeps finest hour. One thing is for sure. The issues with the Jeep taught me to drive and started me down the path to becoming a self-taught mechanic and all-around Jeep nut.

My Jeep after a trip to the North Carolina Mountains where Christmas trees were cheap. I guess it was reliable enough that I was comfortable driving it on a road trip that was 180 miles one way. Man, it looks stupid with those little tires. The 31s were soon to follow this image.

The Jeep had a four-speed transmission. Once you got it going it ran great, but take your foot off the gas pedal and it would stall out. Driving it to school was an experience. When you came to a stop light you had to push the clutch, put the transmission in neutral, release the clutch, break with your left foot, and feather the gas pedal with your right foot or heal-toe the brake and throttle while pushing the clutch with your left foot. One stoplight on the way to school was on a pretty steep grade—uphill. At this light a 16-year-old Verne had to heal-toe the brake and gas pedal to keep the Jeep running. If it stalled when the light turned green I’d usually miss the light and piss off other drivers (as well as fellow classmates).

The other wonderful thing about the Jeep was that the starter and battery were pretty tired as a result of the frequent stalling. This meant that occasionally after school let out, the Jeep would not start on its own. It might have also gotten flooded, I don’t know, but it would not start. This meant that I frequently would have to wait until the parking lot cleared, push the Jeep out of the spot it was parked in, and push it through the parking lot. I would then run around to the driver door and jump in, put her in Second or Third gear, and pop the clutch, then the unreliable 258 would growl to life—and, as expected, continue to refuse to idle.

Our ’83 CJ-7 in the original Olympic White.

At some point the Jeep got a set of 31X10.50R15 all-terrain tires and I was suddenly the off-road hero of my high school (at least in my own mind). I tore up the ditches in and around a few local mud holes—and got stuck a bunch. Still I had fun, and probably installed a few sets of el cheapo driving lights to help give the Jeep that ’90s off-road look. The Jeep was fun but annoying all at the same time. I later sold it for $3,000. At the time I thought I was lucky to get that much for it. Now looking back I wish I had never sold the Jeep because chasing a vacuum leak and repairing all the other problems the Jeep had now seem a very minor price to pay to still have my first Jeep.

Anyway, if anyone out there knows about a red ’83 CJ-7 with white paint inside the tub, under the hood, inside the fenders, and inside the hard top from central North Carolina, please let me know. I’d love to think that this Jeep is still out there somewhere making someone happy.

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