Jeep purists took a while to warm up to the YJ. The square headlights of the “Yuppie Jeep” caused it to be seen as an inferior successor to the beloved CJ. Thirty years after it was introduced, the YJ has successfully won over many bang-for-your-buck Jeepers. For one, first-gen Wrangler frames are stouter than their predecessors. Less demand for these ’87-’96 Jeeps also typically makes their prices lower than the earlier Flatties, CJs, and later TJs and JKs.
Gary Wainwright of Bradford, Arkansas, initially bought his ’94 YJ from its original owner when his oldest kid turned 15. “Kristen had her permit, and we wanted a car she could drive to high school,” he told us. “I figured she couldn’t get in too much trouble in a four-cylinder Jeep with an automatic.” Subsequent birthday presents included mud tires and a mild lift kit. “She and I installed them in the garage,” Gary proudly added.
For her 18th birthday, Kristen asked to go to the Ouachita Jeep Jamboree, which was held at the Hot Springs ORV Park. “We got hooked,” Gary said. Dad and daughter were soon adding air lockers, axle gears, and a TeraFlex 4:1 transfer case kit. They also joined the Arkansas Crawlers, the host club at the Hot Springs ORV Park.
Gary calls the YJ “just a basic rig.” It’s actually fairly interesting from the frame down. This Jeep was used for product development back when Superlift was title sponsor of the Hot Springs ORV Park. The suspension company acquired the Black Diamond line from Warn and was looking at ways to broaden its appeal.
Black Diamond’s original claim to fame was the XCL coil conversion kit for YJs and CJs. Superlift prototyped a second-generation Black Diamond kit, called the X2, a 7-inch-Glift suspension system designed to conquer challenging trails but also handle predictably on the road. Front coilovers were chosen for significant wheel-travel gains, and a spring-over rear setup helps control body roll during cornering on the road. Kevin Dill designed the X2 kit, and his résumé also includes the Atlas transfer case for Advance Adapters.
Gary is in the car-lift business (he owns Weco Inc., a company that installs and maintains commercial two-post hydraulic vehicle lifts), so his YJ was a natural X2 lift test mule. Since the job required cutting off spring hangers, Gary decided to significantly increase the wheelbase from the stock 93.4 inches to 110.5 inches. He accomplished this by extending the frame 13 inches in the rear and adding a ledge. It somewhat resembles the OE front area between the grille and bumper.
Instead of doing the rear spring-over on the tired Dana 35 rear axle, Gary swapped in a Ford 8.8 from an Explorer for better durability and factory disc brakes. The SOA job involved welding the rear spring mounts and pads on the axle to get the proper pinion angle. The premium leaf packs were engineered specifically for the kit and use nine thin leaves, Teflon inserts, and military wraps on the main leaves. The result is a relatively soft rate, but with good body-roll control. Bilstein 5100 shock absorbers control the un-sprung weight. The front suspension is a long-arm/coilover configuration. Installing it required cutting off the factory suspension mounts. Welded-on DOM hoops serve as the upper mounting points for Bilstein coilovers with remote reservoirs. The lower mounting brackets bolt to the axle.
The control arms use easily sourced OE bushings as opposed to Heim ends. Each arm is two pieces, connected by a threaded joint. This allows the arms to swivel during suspension travel. Arm length can also be adjusted to set optimum caster. The lower arms are contoured to clear chassis components during suspension travel and to not rub on the tires at full steering lock. The belly pan/skidplate has integrated control arm mounts. Gary installed the lift kit in his garage. At the same time, he decided to make his own high-steer linkage using beefy bar stock.
The factory 2.5L four-banger has logged more than 120,000 trouble-free miles, as has the 30RH automatic transmission. Gary added a MagnaFlow muffler and does routine maintenance, but that’s the extent of the work. The NP 231 transfer case still has the YJ’s original upgrades: a skip-yoke eliminator and a TeraFlex 4:1 low-range kit.
The stock Dana 30 front axle remains in service. However, it received an ARB Air Locker and 4.88 gears. The rear Ford 8.8 runs a Detroit Locker and 4.88s. Custom Tom Wood’s driveshafts run between the axles and transfer case. This drivetrain has held up well with the 38-inch TSL/SX Super Swampers. Gary mounted the tires on Hummer H1 beadlocks he customized by welding on rings from Copperhead Fab.
Body and Interior
Interior upgrades are minimal. Gary added Tuffy center and overhead consoles. He also started with an aftermarket cage kit, that welder Randy Smith customized, tying it into the frame. Gary removed the OE carpet kit and then coated the interior with DIY roll-on bedliner material.
The stock tub is still alive. However, Gary gave it the “competition cut.” (He helped organize the Gorilla Run at Hot Springs ORV Park, one of the first rock-bouncer competitions and a predecessor to the SRRS.) Other add-ons include tube doors and a set of tube fenders and rocker bars that Randy Smith fabricated. Maxxima LED taillights are significantly brighter than stock, and Gary upgraded the nose of the YJ with a Warn 9.5ti winch.
Good, Bad, and What It’s For
Once purists look beyond the square headlights and stainless brightwork, this YJ provides about as much fun as humanly possible for the amount invested. It is also an integral part of the Wainwright family. Gary says, “My wife almost gave birth to our youngest child in it on her first trip out!” That kid, Cordell, is driving in these photos.
Why I Wrote This Feature
Gary Wainwright’s TJ-based portal-axled truggy is an elite machine, and it was interesting to see his son, Cordell, follow his dad most places in Moab in this YJ. It proves that incredibly capable Jeeps can be built for the low five figures.
Vehicle: ’94 YJ Wrangler
Engine: 2.5L I-4
Transmission: Chrysler 30RH three-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NP 231, SYE, TeraFlex 4:1 kit
Suspension: Prototype Superlift/Black Diamond X2 kit, long-arm front with Bilstein coilovers, SOA rear
Axles: Dana 30, 4.88 gears, ARB Air Locker; Ford 8.8, 4.88 gears, Detroit Locker
Wheels: 16.5x8.25 Hummer H1 double beadlocks, Copperhead Fab rings
Tires: 38x12.50R16.5 TSL/SX Super Swampers
Built For: The kids to learn to drive
Estimated Cost: $14,000