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The 500,000-Mile Jeep - 1987 YJ Wrangler

Posted in Features on June 19, 2016
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Photographers: Dan Eicher

In 1987, the AMC factory in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, began pumping out the new-model-year Jeep. The Wrangler had been born, and of the 45,053 new YJs produced that first year, one ended up in the piney woods of Pennsylvania. Twenty-nine years and 543,000 miles of bold character later, it has quite a tale to tell.

Dan Eicher of East Freedom, Pennsylvania acquired this Jeep as the second owner with more than 200,000 miles on the ticker back in 1995. The Jeep was pretty clean, straight, and a bone-stock runner, not to mention a steal for $2,700. The first few years of ownership were spent cruising around town, but it wasn't long before the tires saw dirt on the old logging roads and around the nearby abandoned coal mines. Soon enough the modifications began.

Powertrain
The original motor kept on ticking for quite a while after Dan started driving it, but it was definitely tired and was eventually replaced with an Advance Auto Parts remanufactured long block. After another 200,000-plus miles, the original motor was found to have a crankshaft that had been ground 0.030 under size but had 0.020 under-sized bearings. All things considered, it still lasted longer than some factory Chevys. Currently under the hood is a freshly built 4.2L I-6 put together by Dan in the living room of his house (check out the picture). It breathes through a Motorcraft 2100 two-barrel carburetor sourced from the local junk yard and rebuilt. The Yella Terra roller rockers are controlled by a Crower cam, turned by a Mopar double-roller timing chain, and lubed with a high-volume oil pump. A set of forged 0.030-over pistons do the up and down, and Dan even threw on the main bearing girdle support from a late-model 4.0L I-6 for a little extra support.

A TorqueFlite A904 three-speed automatic transmission was put together about 80,000 miles ago with a heavy-duty clutch pack and a shift kit for firmer, more reliable gear changes. This is the third unit that has sat between the frame rails—not bad when you consider the abuse that this Jeep sees on a regular basis. The original NP 231 transfer case (except for a drive chain replacement) still rests in its place to split the power front and rear. A budget-minded “hack ’n tap” slip yoke eliminator kit was used, but other than that, it still has the same bearings that rolled out of the factory.

Drivetrain
The front axle is a high-pinion Dana 30 out of an XJ that was fit with 30-spline RCV ’shafts, 4.56 gears, and a Grizzly locker. Before upgrading to this setup, Dan broke just about every other Dana 30 setup he tried. The last one held a Detroit Locker and lasted seven years but finally gave way due to yet another axleshaft explosion. That's when the new Grizzly locker and 30-spline RCVs came in. It has remained intact ever since.

Out back the Ford 8.8 is stuffed with 31-spline Yukon axleshafts and 4.56 gears spinning a Detroit full-case locker. When the 8.8 swap was first done, the stock axleshafts were retained. Spares were plentiful and cheap, so why not, right? That is until one fateful day when Dan forgot a spare and had to convince a buddy to drive 320 miles round-trip in the middle of the night. Dan broke a stock 8.8 axleshaft. They laid in 5-inch-deep mud in the dark and pouring rain removing the locker to dislodge the spline stub stuck in the side gear. The sun was coming up by the time it was all back together.

Chassis
The name of the game with this Jeep was to keep it simple and functional. For a quality ride and reliability, Dan stuck with an off-the-shelf set of Skyjacker 4-inch Rock Ready leaf springs. These military-wrap leaves are the third set of the same springs that have been used and abused on the Jeep. If it isn't broken, Dan doesn't fix it. This set up has proven itself well for the wheeling style and terrain the Jeep experiences. Why the third set, you may ask? Well, with the heavy crawling and flexing almost every weekend that this Jeep sees, eventually they just plain wear out and sag. With more than 300,000 miles on the YJ since the lift was first added, we’re not surprised he is on the third set.

To complement the suspension, an AGR steering box and Trail Gear hydraulic ram have been added to maneuver the 36-inch TSL's through the gnarly stuff. They are directed by good old-fashioned factory YJ steering linkage that always seems to get the job done. For the unpredictable, wet, sloppy, moss-covered rock terrain of Pennsylvania, the TSL's have always stood out in the crowd as an all-around performer for Dan.

Why I Wrote This Feature
This is one cool rig, and the ’87 model year was a milestone year for the Jeep brand with the “Wrangler” launch. There was a lot of redheaded stepchild in the YJ. However, it has lasted, and we’re now seeing a lot of very well built and capable YJs on the trail. This particular rig is all about driveway (or living room) wrenching, and a trailer has never been under the wheels of this Pennsylvania homegrown. This Jeep has always been driven to the trail, on the trail, and then home from the trail. We “Like” it!

Good, Bad, And What It’s For
Some might say sticking with the Dana 30 front after so many blowouts is a mistake, but this Jeep YJ Wrangler has been with Dan Eicher for so long and so many miles that it’s not “like” a family member; it is a family member. It’s a daily driver and a weekend getaway vehicle and does both very well. It’s sort of like a trusty old Swiss Army knife with a well-worn case: the miles show but the blades are still sharp. And we love the fact that this rig is “homegrown.”

Shortly after the ’87 YJ came into the Dan’s hands in 1995, the Jeep had just a little more than 200,000 miles on the odometer.

The winter of 1997 proved to be some good fun. Dan used the Jeep to ramble around some snow-covered trials. While this Jeep’s build may have started off a bit slow, the intent was always to get the tires off of the pavement as much as possible.

Each time the crew went out, it was a new opportunity to see what kind of trouble the YJ could get into and, more importantly, what sticky situations that it could be maneuvered out of. Getting rid of the factory sway bars and track bars was one of the first simple modifications completed on the Jeep.

There’s nothing like a few beverages on a sandy beach. This is at Assateague Island, Maryland, back in 1999. Stock in every way, down to the stripes that run the length of the body and over the fenders, the Jeep YJ was definitely a looker!

Dan took a keen interest in the sport of four-wheeling. The first set of TSL Super Swampers he had were not the 36-inchers that it currently rolls on. Back in 2001, Dan slowly started making the move toward a more off-road–oriented, but still street-friendly, Jeep.

Here Dan and the Jeep are seen crossing the Millersburg Ferry on the way to Rausch Creek Off-Road Park in 2007.

When it was time for replacement parts, no cheap replacements were used. Quality Moog joints were installed, and the work was done on the small concrete pad outside the back door of Dan’s house.

There is a lot of dedication and household understanding when the exercise equipment is moved to the far corner of the living room to make space for the engine block to be assembled indoors. Fresh from the machine shop, this 4.2L I-6 is a hot runner with some awesome internal parts. It looks like a box of Crower roller rockers in the pile there.

When the engine hoist won't go quite high enough, deflating the tires is a great trick to gain the extra clearance needed. Dan waited until the new 4.2L I-6 was all assembled and ready to be dropped into the YJ before taking the Jeep off of the road for the swap. Minimizing down time was always taken into consideration.

The early Chrysler blue looks pretty good, and we can’t help but drool over those banging roller rockers! No expense was spared on this motor build, except maybe fuel injection. This Jeep is still rocking a good old carburetor to keep things simple and avoid some of the electrical headaches that come with a more modern system.

Dan has participated several times in some of the rockcrawling competitions hosted by Rausch Creek Off-Road Park. Their man-made competition course is near the entrance to the park. These structures tend to have quite a but more traction than the traditional Pennsylvania mountain boulders that are often covered in slippery moss and mud.

Not all of the courses for the Rausch Creek Off-Road Park competitions are man-made. There is plenty of natural rock nearby that gets used for the events. In this photo, Dan is driving the course instead of fixing stuff in the parking lot because he drove the Jeep to the two-day competition and then drove it back home when it was all over. A 160-mile drive before any wheeling is a great way to shake down the rig before the pressure is on.

These innovative and homemade add-ons are a testament to the ingenuity that it sometimes takes to make everyone happy. These removable fender flares keep the Jeep street legal when traveling on pavement. Once at the trailhead, the flares are easily removed by twirling a few wing nuts, and since they are outfitted with hinges, the flares fold nicely to be stowed away.

While throttle-down may not be Dan's general approach, he still seems to finesse his way into the same precarious situation again and again.

While the stock stripes and straight panels may have been the hip thing back in the day, dents are a more fitting representation of how this Jeep gets used these days. Every dent was earned, as they say. With all of the dents strewn about this YJ, it is apparent just how much fun has happened since the YJ's old beach days.

This is Devil's Staircase at Doe Valley Off-Road Park in Windber, Pennsylvania. This 200-acre private facility is a hidden gem and one of Dan's favorite spots to rock out on the weekends. The rock rails are tied into the rollcage and both see plenty of use. This time around a little reverse gear set things back down on all fours.

There's nothing like some Nor'easter snow storm action bringing 18 inches of fresh snow to go blow through with some Jeep buddies up on the power line roads the mountains of Johnstown, PA.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: ’87 Jeep YJ Wrangler
Engine: 4.2L I-6
Transmission: TF A904 three-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NP231, “hack ’n tap” slip yoke eliminator
Suspension: 4-inch Skyjacker Rock Ready leaf springs
Axles: High-pinion Dana 30, 30-spline RCV axleshafts, Yukon Grizzly locker, 4.56 gears. Rear: Ford 8.8, Yukon axleshafts, Detroit Locker, 4.56 gears.
Steering: Stock YJ steering with AGR steering box and Trail Gear hydro assist
Tires and Wheels: 36x12.50 TSL Super Swampers on 15-inch steel wheels
Built for: Daily driving and trail fun

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