Leaf-Sprung YJ Built Right
We love Wranglers, but after a while it seems as though they all start to look alike. We can’t blame guys for wanting to use a formula that works when spending their hard earned money, but it makes it difficult for us to showcase new and innovative ideas each month. Fortunately, there are still guys out there like Jeff Simon of Whitewood, South Dakota, who aren’t afraid to try something new in order to gain more prowess on the trail. It wasn’t particularly cheap or easy, and it took years to complete, but the end product is well worth the work in our opinion.
Jeff started with a ’94 YJ that was a rollover victim. YJ Wranglers can be picked up cheap these days, and if you are planning on swapping in a 1-ton drivetrain they make a great foundation to start with. The galvanized bodies and frames are significantly stronger than earlier CJs. Jeff’s intention was to keep the ride height as low as possible, while maximizing ground clearance. Alcan Spring made the 21⁄2-inch Wagoneer lift springs with 2-inch offset center pins that contribute to the 107-inch wheelbase and provide a smooth ride with gobs of articulation. The 14-inch-travel Doetsch Tech shocks are on custom mounts at all four corners and provide only 21⁄2 inches of uptravel, but nearly a foot of droop.
To keep the ride height reasonable, Jeff cut and flipped the front framerails and mounted boomerang shackles in front of the frame, instead of under them. A Scout steering box was used with a flat pitman arm facing forward in order to push the axle forward without the steering components hitting the frame on full compression. Out back, Jeff replaced the framerails behind the front seats with 13⁄4-inch and 11⁄2-inch, 0.120-wall DOM tubing that is bent to provide more uptravel for the rear suspension. All of the body mounts were cut and relocated up 1-inch, and the motor mounts were lifted 1-inch as well. This allows for a perfectly flat undercarriage that is 22 inches off the ground with 15/39.5-17LT Super Swamper TSLs.
Under the hood, Jeff is still running the factory fuel-injected 4.0L six-cylinder and AX15 manual transmission. “I have a 5.3L V-8 in the shop, but the 4.0L just runs too good for me to replace it,” Jeff explained to us. Behind the five-speed, Jeff had an NP241 RockTrac transfer case out of a TJ Rubicon with the factory fixed yoke and 4:1 low range. Note, that’s past-tense: had. While the RockTrac is arguably the best transfer case ever offered in a Jeep, you cannot put these transfer cases in front-wheel drive to maneuver around tight obstacles; a common occurrence in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It wasn’t long before the RockTrac was up for sale and Jeff had a 5:1 Advance Adapters Atlas II between the framerails. In the rear, Jeff used a strong and cheap GM 14-bolt and shaved the bottom for more ground clearance before adding 5.13s, a Detroit Locker, and brakes from the front of a 3⁄4-ton Chevy. There is even a truss on the top of the rear axle for a link suspension, but Jeff hasn’t found the need to ditch the leaf springs just yet.
In order to use front-wheel drive to maneuver through tight trails, you need a strong front axle. Attempting a “front dig” with a Dana 30 will quickly result in broken U-joints—or worse. Jeff swapped in a high-pinion Dana 60 front axle from a Ford truck, and added 5.13 gears, Moser axleshafts, and an ARB Air Locker. The axle didn’t have outers, so instead of sourcing factory parts Jeff used Spidertrax fabricated knuckles and unitbearings with Super Duty brake components for less than factory kingpin parts would have cost. The tighter turning radius is an added benefit. Jeff used Spidertrax steering arms that mount the tie rod behind the axle and the drag link up front in conjunction with a PSC hydraulic-assist steering ram. The tie rod and drag link are constructed from 11⁄4-inch, 0.250-wall tubing and 3⁄4-inch rod ends.
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Body and Interior
Jeff is a body man by trade, so it is no surprise that the sheetmetal on his Wrangler has many unique touches. Starting up front, Jeff shorted up the grille behind the MileMarker 12,000lb winch by 5 inches to match the new framerails. The hood was raised as well, but instead of buying an aftermarket fiberglass hood Jeff modified his stock hood for more tire clearance and integrated the fenders to save cash. Pat Halgeson made the rear corner guards from 1⁄8-inch steel and Jeff opened up the wheelwells and had Nate Oyler add a tubular rub rail to slide along obstacles.
The dash and seats are factory, but Jeff built a custom six-point cage with door bars from 13⁄4-inch, 0.120-wall DOM tubing for added protection on the trail. The door bars are removable, allowing Jeff to run the hardtop and doors for toasty winter wheeling. There are also Jeep logos airbrushed into the paint and Rhino Liner along the bottom of the tub. Behind the front seats, Jeff raised the floor to move the fuel tank upwards and even shortened up the rear sheetmetal. The hand-built tailgate is 5 inches shorter than stock to provide more ground clearance and a better departure angle, yet it still retains the distinctive Jeep appearance.
Good, Bad, and What It’s For
Jeff spends a lot of time wheeling with buggies, and his Jeep keeps up just fine. When it doesn’t keep up, he isn’t afraid to make changes, like swapping out the NP241 for an Atlas II. Unfortunately, it doesn’t currently have a rear seat, which means that Jeff’s kids can’t come along on his adventures. That is, unless they bring sturdy shoes and plenty of water. He plans to change that over the winter, though, at which point his Wrangler will be just about perfect for his needs.
Why I Wrote This Feature
It seems like most YJs we see pressed in severe trail duty are comp-cut and dovetailed with air shocks and four-link suspensions. It is easy to get caught up in the latest and greatest trends, but Jeff’s Jeep is a gentle reminder that you don’t need all of that to have an incredibly capable Wrangler. In fact, with some imagination and hard work, you can have a Jeep that is both capable and unique.
Vehicle: 1994 Jeep Wrangler YJ
Engine: 4.0L inline-six
Transfer Case: 5:1 Advance Adapters Atlas II
Suspension: Spring-over on Alcan leaf springs (front and rear)
Axles: Dana 60 (front), 14-bolt (rear)
Wheels: 17x8 Marsh Racing with Ruff Stuff beadlock ring
Tires: 15/39.5-17LT Super Swamper TSL
Built For: Rockcrawling in the Black Hills