Even with the Poison Spyder heat-reduction hood insert throwing hints your way, it’s not easy to know that lurking under the hood of Mike Zeko’s 1998 Jeep Wrangler TJ is a whole lot more power than what came out of the factory. Yes, we’re talking about a V-8 engine swap, but not just another LS, Hemi, blah, blah, blah swap. We’re talking about a 5.2L V-8 Magnum.
Let’s not get carried away with that yet. We’re still talking about the outside. Mike has spent more than a handful of years upgrading, building, and rebuilding to get the rig where it is today, and he’s very happy with how it wheels and looks.
From nose to tail the Wrangler’s body is modified with a list of armor that begins with a Craigslist front bumper (Mike said it was cheap and fit perfectly); Poison Spyder front XC 3-inch fenders; and GenRight front panel guards, mini boat sides, and 4-inch stretch rear corners. A Hanson rear bumper and highly customized swing-out spare tire carrier (that’s very interesting) bring up the tail. Tucked under that tail is a GenRight 32-gallon stretch tank. We especially like the sliding hard upper doors and the tire carrier.
When on the trail or highway, Mike and his passenger ride in the supportive comfort of Smittybilt XRC seats and are surrounded by an OR-Fab bolt-in rollcage. Communications and navigation are apparently well handled too, considering an 80-watt 2-meter ham radio, Cobra CB radio, and Lowrance GPS unit are mounted within easy reach. Night driving is easier with a 50-inch lightbar secured to the top of the windshield through a Motobilt lightbar mount.
Mike really went to town on the undercarriage, or maybe we should say he went to the boonies. A Ford 8.8 rear axle from a 1998 Ford Explorer was picked and gone through for the tail of the TJ, and a front Dana 44 axle out of 1977 Ford F-150 was rebuilt and slung under the nose of Mike’s ’98 Jeep Wrangler build. Both are easy-to-find parts and fit nicely under the TJ. An Under Cover Fabworks truss supports the front axle, an Artec truss beefs up the rear, and both carry 4.88 ARB Air Lockers spinning chromoly shafts. The rear axle features 9-inch outers and a Black Magic parking brake flip kit that swaps the backing plates. The flip kit moved the calipers to the front side of the axle, freeing up room for outboard shock mounts and increasing parking brake holding power.
The frame was notched out to accommodate the GenRight rear shock mounts. Then using a custom blend of suspension builder parts from Artec, Barnes 4WD, Ruff Stuff, and Synergy Manufacturing, Mike constructed a 100-inch wheelbase suspension damped by 14-inch ORI struts up front and 12-inch ORI struts in the rear. A ported factory steering box, pump, and hydraulic ram help manage the massive Maxxis 37x12.50R17LT Trepadors mounted to 17-inch Raceline Monster beadlocks. That thing you see perched atop the winch is a power steering cooler.
The engine, transmission, and transfer case are all from a 1998 Dodge 1500. Mike told us that the swap was pretty straight forward, but he sourced out the custom 2.5-inch stainless steel exhaust system and engine management harness to avoid complications. Mike completely rebuilt the 5.2L (318ci) Magnum V-8 with new performance parts and said he learned a lot from the experience. Mike made all the brackets and mounts, except for the engine mounts he got from Advance Adapters. Any engine machining was handed to Ali’s Automotive Machine in Signal Hill, California.
Coming with the 5.2L V-8 was a 46RE that was in good shape. Nonetheless, Mike had Roy’s Transmission in Downey, California, go through it and add heavy-duty bands and upgraded servos. Interesting note on the transmission: The transmission cooler in the engine radiator feeds fluid to another cooler under the bed with a thermostat-controlled electric fan before it flows back into the transmission. The transfer case is the NP231 from the 1500 pickup truck, and it was kept for its wide chain and wider input bearing. Custom driveshafts from O.C. Driveline in Placentia, California, carry the power down to the axles.
Show ’N’ Go
Mike Zeko’s customized 1998 Jeep Wrangler TJ has been stretched, repowered, and tweaked over the years to create the ultimate trail vehicle that Mike wanted for exploring the mountains and deserts of Southern California. And although a 4x4 show/swap meet is where we bumped into him and his shiny, cleaned-up and gorgeous Bright Jade Satin Metallic TJ, as soon as we climbed underneath it to further learn of its trail qualifications, the scars of uncounted off-road adventures were clearly evident.
Why This Jeep?
As one of our industry friends recently noted, we (off-road media) have—after more than 20 years—still never shut up about how great the TJ is. That’s because it is. This one has a wheelbase that’s been stretched to 100 inches, so it has the ultra-maneuverable physical size of the TJ, but with the even more off-road–friendly longer wheelbase. Top that off with a simple twist on the V-8 swap and a 1/2-ton pickup transmission and transfer case, and you’ve got a winner.
Vehicle: 1998 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Engine: 5.2L V-8 (’98 Dodge 1500)
Transmission: 46RE automatic transmission (’98 Dodge 1500)
Transfer Case: NP231 (’98 Dodge 1500)
Suspension: Custom 3-link (with track bar) front and triangulated 4-link rear built with a mix of parts, ORI coilover struts front and rear
Axles: 1977 Ford F-150 Dana 44, 4.88 ARB Air Locker (front); 1998 Ford Explorer 8.8, 4.88 ARB Air Locker (rear)
Wheels: 17-inch Raceline Monster beadlock
Tires: 37x12.50R17LT Maxxis Trepador