James Martinez found what he thought was the perfect Jeep in 2008. It was a ’76 CJ-7 set up on Scout Dana 44 axles with ARB Air Lockers at each end and a spring-over leaf conversion. He thought it was built just the way he needed it to run some tough trails and rocky washes. But, as so often happens, James pushed his Jeep onto harder and harder trails and started to outgrow the drivetrain hardware.
That’s when he started tweaking on his “perfect” CJ-7 and began making modifications to try to find the right balance between a highly capable rock crawler and a Jeep that he could still run around town in. Rubber size grew, as did the mechanicals to drive some bigger tires. Let’s take a peek at what went into building this rig.
The factory CJ-7 frame was a good base to start with but has been fortified and modified to accommodate the new 112-inch wheelbase. The Casa Grande, Arizona, resident plated the front half of the frame with 3⁄16-inch steel. After that, James fabricated a custom three-link suspension. Upper links are 13⁄4-inch diameter, 0.120-inch-wall DOM tubing and lower links are 2-inch diameter, 0.250-inch-wall DOM tubing. Currie Johnny Joints attach the links to frame and axle brackets at all points. A pair of 16-inch-travel ORI struts provides damping for the front axle, and Fox nitrogen bumps halt the last inches of upward travel.
While James chose a front linked suspension for an excellent approach angle, he opted for a simpler leaf-spring suspension in the rear. Custom Atlas leaf packs support the tail of the Jeep and an anti-wrap bar helps reduce any rear axlewrap under acceleration. Rancho RS9000 shocks are used as rear dampers, along with Daystar Stinger bumpstops.
Power is sourced from a 4.2L inline-six short block topped with a 4.0L HO cylinder head. Howell fuel injection meters the gas into the engine where it’s ignited with spark from an HEI distributor. A FlowKooler water pump, an aluminum three-row radiator, and Spal electric fans were added to keep coolant flowing efficiently on hot summer days and keep engine temps in check. Finally, James swapped from V-belts to a single serpentine belt on the engine and added an on-board alternator welder using a Ford large-case alternator on custom-fabricated brackets. Dual Optima YellowTop batteries sit paired under the hood.
Gear shifting takes place inside a TorqueFlite 999 auto transmission equipped with a deep-sump pan and commanded from the cab with a Lokar shifter. Power then travels to a Dana 300 transfer case stuffed with JB Conversions LoMax 4:1 gearing and topped with a twin-stick shifter. James used an Advance Adapters clocking ring to index the t-case for added ground clearance.
Remember those Scout Dana 44 axles we mentioned? Well, they’re gone now, and bigger parts sit in their place. Now, an ’85 Chevy Dana 60 occupies the front space. It’s been improved with the addition of 5.38 gears, a Detroit Locker, chromoly ’shafts, and Yukon hardcore hubs. An Artec Industries truss and Ballistic Fabrication diff cover complete the beef of the one-ton unit. Steering chores are handled by a PSC Motorsports Trail Series 2.5-inch double-ended steering cylinder driven by a PSC P-pump.
In the rear, James swapped in a Corporate 14-bolt axle from a ’05 Chevy truck and added 5.38 gears, a Detroit Locker, and a Ballistic differential cover. The brake system was completely reworked and now uses an ’85 Ford E-350 master cylinder pushing fluid through stainless lines to factory Chevy disc brakes at all four corners.
Rolling stock on the new axles are 16/40-17 LTB Super Swampers bolted to Raceline Monster beadlock wheels. To prevent the front suspension from unloading during steep climbs and for any needed recovery, a Warn 9.5Ti winch sits on the front bumper.
Body and Interior
The CJ-7 body has seen a few changes since it left the factory almost 40 years ago. James trimmed and tubed the front fenders. Beefy steel body plating has been added at strategic points, and low-profile sliders are tucked in at the rocker lines. James added a full rollcage built from 13⁄4-inch DOM tubing and topped it with an aluminum roof for safety and shade. Custom bumpers sit at each end, and the tail supports a swing-out cooler carrier. Paint maintenance is simple—just touch up the body with Rustoleum gloss Deep Blue and most everything else with Krylon semi-flat black.
James recovered the factory seats as he was pleased with their comfort, but they’ve been relocated downward 2 inches and rearward 2 inches. He also upgraded occupant restraint with Mastercraft five-point harnesses. Other additions include AutoMeter gauges, LED rock lights, and an internally baffled 20-gallon fuel cell James fabricated from 12-gauge 304 stainless steel.
Good, Bad, and What It’s For
Alas, nothing may ever be perfect in the world of off-road rigs. James thought he had found perfection in this CJ-7 but eventually longed for more performance. He wanted a rig that was reliable, capable, and still resembled a good-looking Jeep. Fortunately, he had the skills to make further transformations to bring it to its current state of high capability.
He’s trail prepared. Inside his storage box in the back of the tub, he carries tools, spare parts, and welding gear. As it goes with luck, if you come prepared, you seldom seem to need it. However, James is always ready to help his fellow wheelers and has come to be known as having the Go-Go Gadget Jeep. Not a bad nickname to be stuck with.
Vehicle: 1976 CJ-7
Engine: 4.2L inline-six
Transmission: TorqueFlite 999
Transfer Case: Dana 300
Suspension: Three-link with ORI struts (front), Atlas leaf springs with RS9000 shocks (rear)
Axles: Dana 60 (front); Corporate 14-bolt (rear)
Wheels: 17x9.5 Raceline Monster
Tires: 40x16-17 LTB Super Swamper
Built For: Southwestern rockcrawling
Why I Wrote This Feature
I like owner-built rigs and the pride that their owners can enjoy when they tackle hard trails and come out the other end successfully. Save for the transmission rebuild, James performed all the modifications and fabrication on this Jeep himself. He’s assembled a good-looking and trail-savvy CJ-7 with a thoughtful collection of parts aimed at conquering serious desert terrain.