When it first hit the market, some saw the Jeep YJ Wrangler as a softening of the brand. It had creature comforts never seen in the Wrangler-model precursors, the CJ-7 or CJ-5, and there were some folks—and admittedly some of us in the off-road enthusiast press too—that frowned upon it and labeled it the “yuppie Jeep.” And then there were those square headlights. In hindsight, especially considering the level of accouterments in the JK, the YJ hardly deserved the nickname.
In fact, today with YJs coming into the pre-owned marketplace in droves and selling for pennies on the dollar of their original cost, the first of the Wrangler-model generation has become a popular and very solid substrate for some truly amazing and hardcore builds. As proof of this 180-degree turnaround, we offer David Wallace’s custom ’94 Jeep YJ Wrangler. Looks pretty impressive, right? Well, let’s dig deep into this build and see what’s under the skin.
Long LegsDown under, David’s YJ now struts some very beefy logs. Gone are the Dana 30 and Dana 35, and in their place hang a king-pin-style Dana 60 from a ’88 Ford F-350 in the front and a full-floater 14-bolt GM axle from a ’86 Chevy 2500 pickup. Both are filled with 5.38 ARB Air Lockers. The brakes on the both axles have been upgraded with disc conversions. Capping the ends of both axles are huge Reid knuckles that help swing 17-inch Raceline Monster wheels (3 3/4-inch backspacing) wrapped with 40x13.50R17 Toyo Open Country MT tires. A full hydro PSC steering system can be plainly seen on the frontend and makes turning the massive meats a little less of a work out.
Just in case you didn’t notice, the wheelbase of the YJ was stretched using a Motobilt YJ Back Half Kit, moving the rear axle enough to take the distance between front and rear axles out to 112 inches. A little more than 4 inches of lift, and gobs of articulation, were created by scrapping the leaf springs in favor of a set of ORI gas-charged struts. The frame mods and massive custom axle trusses were done by Dirty’s Garage in Hesperia, California. David is a fabricator, so although he’s had help with some of the YJ’s build, much of it is his handiwork.
Good GutsWhile David kept the powertrain mostly stock, the 4.0L I-6 got an Airaid SynthaMax Dry Filter cold-air intake system to keep dust from gumming up the works, and a custom exhaust system. Polyurethane motor mounts help keep the I-6 firmly in its cradle. The ARB air compressor mounted in the engine compartment delivers pressure to operate the axle lockers, and bump up the tires after they’ve been lowered for a day of ’wheeling.
The five-speed AX-15 manual tranny and NP231 transfer case are sturdy and still hanging in there, but because the suspension augmentation, wheelbase stretch, and front and rear axle swaps changed distances underneath the YJ so radically, new driveshafts were in order. Custom spinners (joints up front are 1330 and 1350 in rear) from Tom Wood’s now push the power down to the pumpkins. A Motobilt belly pan protects the underside of the transfer case, and a Dirty’s Garage custom skidplate guards the front axle center and hydro steering assembly.
Cool CarriageThe ’94 YJ’s body hardly resembles anything you might call stock. Aside from the creative body carving done by Dirty’s, the YJ was graced with GenRight fenders (Highlines in front; Comp Cut Highlines in rear) and inner-well inserts, Poison Spyder hood, and Motobilt front bumper and rear bumper/swing-out tire carrier.
Custom rock sliders and body armor panels were created by Dirty’s, as was the full rollcage that’s integrated into the frame. Front seats out of a Jeep JK that have been re-upholstered in black and blue leather comfortably hold driver and passenger. Where the nearly unusable rear seat in a YJ would normally be, sits an RCI aluminum fuel cell.
The wrap is, well, interesting to say the least. It’s got that old-school pin-up girl appeal. We like it. Dirty’s Garage did the design and application, and although normally it’s not the wrapping paper that makes the gift, this ’94 YJ’s wrap is one of things that attracted us to the rig in the first place.
Good, Bad, and What It’s ForWhile David’s bigly built YJ seems like it deserves something more than a near-stock 4.0L I-6, he did tell us that he dreams of stuffing an LS in between the rails some day. Regardless, our day on the trail reminded us that the 4.0 (launched under the AMC banner in 1986) is, to this day, regarded as one of the most reliable engines found in a Jeep. It chugged along like the locomotive that won’t quit all day long over any section of trail we wanted to master without so much as a burp.
Why I Wrote This FeatureAs earlier mentioned, the Jeep YJ Wrangler has taken some verbal lashings over the years, but fully fledged into maturity, it has become a very economical and sturdy starting point for off-roaders wanting to build a beefy rig. We like it when underdogs kick some ass. This one was especially fun to wheel. Enough said.
Hard FactsVehicle: ’94 Jeep YJ Wrangler
Engine: 4.0L I-6
Transmission: AX-15 5-speed manual
Transfer case: NP 231
Suspension: Custom 4-inch 4-link suspension by Dirty’s Garage, OSI gas-charged struts front and rear
Axles: King-pin Dana 60, Reid knuckles, 5.38 ARB Air Locker (front); GM 14-bolt, 5.38 ARB Air Locker (rear)
Wheels: 17-inch Raceline Monster
Tires: 40x13.50R17 Toyo Open Country M/T
Built for: Trail rides and crawling