Believe it or not, this old, trail-hardened '79 Jeep CJ-7 was at the top of its game in the early '80s, and even part of the '90s. The Jeep belonged to Bob Beck, best known for being the Camel Man, portraying a rugged and adventurous outdoorsman. It is no wonder Bob was given that job, for that is exactly what his life was about.
Bob Beck was somewhat of an iconic figure in the Jeeping world in southern California, so when his son, Matt Beck, called to tell me that the Jeep was for sale, I jumped at the opportunity. Bob was the reason I bought my Jeep back in 1984 and a large part of my having an extraordinary life of off-road, backcountry travel and adventure. I did not want this Jeep put out to pasture or bought by someone who would never know of its rich history. The plan was to bring this old iron back to life once again.
Aside from being emotionally attached to this CJ and wanting to keep it around, an alternate purpose of the build was to illustrate the advancement of aftermarket parts and accessories as well as their availability and cost effectiveness. You don’t have to spend $40,000 to have an extremely dependable trail rig. This Jeep was bought for $3,000 and the aftermarket parts will cost another $10,000 or so. That’s no small amount of money, however, this type of build does not need to be done all at once, and in the end the owner will be left with an extremely dependable trail rig that will bring years or off road travel and adventure.
The CJ had given Bob Beck many years of faithful service and the frame was still in good shape. The T-18 manual transmission and transfer case had been well taken care of and would be left untouched. The straight-six engine had a Paxton supercharger, which was hot stuff at the time, however this would be changed out and replaced with the new and reliable Howell fuel injection system.
The rest of the build would be along the same lines, replacing outdated technology, and questionable parts with high tech, innovative products. The goal was not to make this Jeep an eye catcher. On the contrary, every bump and scratch has a story and will be left alone. The goal was to build a dependable, go anywhere trail rig. Something the family can take into the backcountry with confidence.
After much conversation with friends and fellow wheelers, we came up with a parts list that would address the inherent weaknesses in this vintage CJ and enhance its off-road capability. The parts list encompassed many manufacturers. Fortunately, all but a few are available from Quadratec, the Jeep parts and accessories specialists. Just about any part you can think of for Jeeps, new and old, can be found at Quadratec and shipped anywhere in the country.
Unfortunately, one of the premier Jeep aftermarket manufacturers that we wanted to use, Gen-Right, was not listed in the catalog. So we contacted this company separately in regards to their replacement gas tanks, fenders, and body protection.
Getting Down To Business
The mail order thing worked out well. All of the products arrived safely and even sooner than expected. The rest was left up to me.
My first move was to replace the old suspension in order to gain more clearance for obstacles on the trail and better articulation. This would be accomplished using a Rubicon Express 4.5-inch Extreme Duty kit. This kit has absolutely everything needed to get the job done. Rubicon Express left nothing to chance when they planned out this suspension kit.
Once we poured over the parts we were pleased to see that we would not be making any additional orders or trips to the local auto shop. The kit’s instructions were very comprehensive, making the installation as simple as possible. The most difficult part of the install was the removal of the pitman arm, since the first puller committed suicide. As you know, having the right tools makes all the difference.
With the springs, shocks, and shackles replaced, the CJ is now equipped with a pleasant, dependable ride and plenty of clearance for the trails. Not to mention making room for the new Dick Cepek Mud Country 35x12.50R15 tires.
Dick Cepek has been around since 1963, and they were a mainstay in the off-road industry for as long as I can remember. The 35-inch Dick Cepek Mud Country tires along with Spidertrax 1.25-inch wheel spacers were the ideal fit for this particular CJ.
The Mud Country tire has a great tread pattern for an all around trail rig, and the 35-inch tire mounted on the old 15-inch Bandit rims will have just the right amount of sidewall. The Spidertax 1.25-inch wheel spacer offers the right amount of clearance for a better turning radius up front and less rubbing in the rear. The Spidertax wheel spacers came with good instructions and were simple to install.
To help turn the new tires and prevent breakage on the trail, Superior Axle and Gear were called upon for a set of replacement hardened axles and gears. The original 3.54 ring and pinion gears were replaced with a 4.56 ratio. Both front and rear axle shafts were replaced with Superior replacement axle shafts. These axles are up to 35 percent stronger than the originals and come in complete kits with bearings, studs, and more.
This Jeep had already been equipped with lockers front and rear, however those lockers would not accept the 4.56 gears, and so were changed out to Detroit Lockers. As you know, the Detroit Locker is a positive locking differential, which maximizes traction by delivering 100 percent of the torque to both drive wheels. This was the one aspect of the build that I knew wouldn’t be accomplished in my driveway. The install of the new Detroit Lockers, Superior Axle and Gear ring and pinion, and axle shafts, would be best left to a professional shop.
I made arrangements with Jim Cox of JC Fab & Design to do the installation. JC Fab & Design specializes in custom 4x4 fabrications and has more time working underneath Jeeps than most of us do behind the wheel. It was a good thing I did.
Jim has a great deal of experience, not to mention specialty tools everywhere, all of which seemed to be needed for this process. The job that lay before us looked daunting, but for the seasoned veteran, as Jim Cox put it, “it was a piece of cake.” The job took much less time than I had expected and was completed without any problems.
J.E. Reel Drive Line Specialists made up the drive shafts. These guys specialize in tough dependable drivelines for all types of off-road vehicles. Not only did the drive shafts need to be lengthened to accommodate the lift, but a CV joint was needed for the rear to handle the angle. Ordering the drive lines involved only a few simple measurements. From there it was an easy remove-and-replace process.
We then set our sights on the steering. The steering box bracket and the tie rods have always been weak links on CJs of this vintage. These were replaced with the extreme heavy-duty steering box bracket from Rusty’s Off-Road, and the Rugged Ridge heavy-duty tie rod kit. The steering box bracket from Rusty’s replaced the three, lighter weight, pressed-steel steering box plates with a one-piece unit made out of 3/8-inch-thick steel plate with welded gussets.
The Rugged Ridge heavy-duty tie rod kit provides virtually one-ton strength with factory-tapered ends. This is a bolt-on tie rod and drag link solution, and it is perfect for preventing a bent tie rod sustained from the rigors of off-roading and the added stress of larger tires. Both of these were easily installed.
While changing out what we thought to be common problems on the CJ, we also replaced the clutch rod linkage. This was done by using Rod Links clutch linkage. Rod Links replaced the worn clutch linkage with a new style rod end bearing linkage. This is a direct replacement for the factory linkage. The bearing ends are much more durable than the factory style and offer smooth operation. This was another straightforward remove-and-replacement process.
It was now time for the body, which had taken quite a beating over the years, to be addressed. The front fenders were swapped out for tube fenders with 3-inch flares from Gen-Right. The rocker panels, situated on either side and in the center of the Jeep, were fitted with the Gen-Right rocker guard set with bars. The rear corners of the Jeep were covered with a Gen-Right CJ corner guard set and Gen-Right 3.5-inch-wide rear tube flares.
The instructions are quite complete and most of work went without a hitch. The fenders were held in place with clamps and the holes were drilled. Some cutting and trimming was necessary, however, the steel is somewhat mild and was cut using a jigsaw. Once prepped for installation, the front fenders, rear quarters, and rear tube flares were painted and mounted.
Built from 1.5x0.120-inch-wall diameter tubing and plated with 1/8-inch-thick steel, there is little question as to how well this body protection will stand up to the punishment of the trail.
The gas tank was exchanged for a Gen-Right Crawler Enduro tank. This tank is made from 1/8-inch-thick aluminum alloy, has a heavy-duty 3/16-inch-thick skid plate, and holds 20 gallons of fuel. The most difficult part of the installation involved the sending unit. After much conversation we went with the original CJ-style sending unit. Although the new unit was a direct replacement, we still wired it up and tested it with the existing fuel gauge before putting it in to the new gas tank. Better now than later.
Once the sending unit had been set in the new tank we found that in order for the float to work the fuel lines would have to face the rear of the Jeep, and in doing so we had to notch the upper cross brace to make clearance for the fuel lines. Once the cross brace was cut out we covered the sharp edges with rubber to prevent cutting of the fuel line itself. The bolts on the shackles were trimmed to accept the size of the new gas tank and the tank was set in place.
The engine was equipped with a Paxton supercharger. Very cool, but an older unit, the parts would have been hard to find, and the original installation looked a bit questionable. In addition to this, the original straight-six was often plagued with carburetor problems. Often in extreme angles or rough terrain there would be difficulty with stalling out due to flooding or fuel starvation.
To address this issue we decided on the Howell Jeep EFI kit. This kit uses a new General Motors throttle body fuel injection unit from a 4.3L V-6 engine to replace the existing Jeep carburetor. It is fitted to the stock Jeep intake manifold with an adapter supplied in the kit, and controlled by a GM computer. Everything needed, including comprehensive instructions and diagrams, comes with the kit.
On this particular Jeep the installation would not be so easy. The intake manifold was a four barrel aftermarket product and there was no exhaust manifold. Instead it was equipped with a very old set of headers. All of this had to be brought back to stock. Wanting to keep costs down we went to a Jeep junkyard. We ended up at Jeep Only in Pacoima, California.
The owner, Sam, had just what we needed for a fraction of the cost of new. While we were there we also picked up other odds and ends that would be needed to complete the project.
Once the parts from Jeep Only were installed (stock intake and exhaust manifolds, exhaust pipe, and cat and muffler) we continued with the Howell EFI kit. The kit took some time but was not too difficult. Staying up with the instructions was the trick. All the plugs and wires are well marked, and other than having to take some of the plug ends apart to fit them through the firewall, the install was straight forward.
We did just as instructed, turned the ignition, and the old Jeep fired right up. Some playing around with the timing and all was good. We were left with a dependable, strong, and efficient running engine.
Bumpers and More
Choosing a set of bumpers was the next task. There are many options available, almost too many. After much research, we decided to go with Rock Hard 4X4 parts. This decision was made even simpler after a phone call to the company. While talking with the owners, James and Lewis Barth, it was obvious that these guys have spent a lot of time traveling in the backcountry and have designed their products to fit that lifestyle.
Strong, rugged, and well thought out, the front bumper and the rear bumper/ tire carrier combination are just what the Jeep CJ needed. These bumpers are made of 3/16x2x4-inch tubing with ends that are boxed in. The front bumper comes with an integrated winch plate, roller fairlead mount, and holes for lights at the outer edge of the winch plate.
This bumper also comes with an angled forward hoop for the rock crawler look, D-Ring shackle mounts welded front and back for ultimate strength, and a mounting plate for a steering box guard. The front bumper was outfitted with a Superwinch Epi 9.0S winch with synthetic Superline. The Superwinch unit comes with 80 feet of 3/8-inch synthetic rope with a 10-inch rock guard sleeve and stainless thimble.
The Rock Hard 4x4 Parts rear bumper/tire carrier has two sets of holes that mount to the Jeep’s frame in a standard position, or can be raised one inch to increase departure angle and/or compensate for body lift. This bumper also comes with two D-Ring shackle mounts with tabs that are welded on the front, go through the bumper, and are welded on the backside too.
A CB antenna mount and horizontal Hi-Lift Jack mount with a padlock provision comes standard. This was also ordered with a Rock Rack and gas tank mounts. The swing-out tire carrier will hold up to a 38-inch tire. All needed hardware and comprehensive instructions are included, making the install as painless as possible. The job was completed with the mounting of the new Hi-Lift Extreme Jack and fuel cans.
A few items inside the Jeep were all that were left. The steering column had to be replaced. The original had seen its share of weather and was worn and tired. There were some options in the Quadratec catalog, but the one that caught our eye and looked to be the simplest install was the Ididit ignition tilt floor-shift steering column for the ‘76-to-’86 Jeep CJ. We were not disappointed once it arrived.
This is a direct replacement steering column. The instructions left absolutely nothing out and answered any and all questions. If there was a difficult aspect to the installation it was not with the new column, but with the existing steering shaft. The stock steering shaft had to be removed and then, with much persuasion, broken free of years of rust and dirt so that it could be collapsed to accommodate the length of the new column. Once that was accomplished the new steering column bolted and plugged right onto place.
To keep the nostalgic look of the early CJ, and to keep the build price lower, we changed out the torn up old seats with a new set from Bestop. Quadreatec has the Bestop TrailMax II classic low-back front seats and Bestop TrailMax II Fold & Tumble rear bench seat in vinyl in their catalog. The seats were great. They were the right height and comfortable.
Bestop did a good job. The front seats are a direct bolt-in replacement. The rear requires the drilling of a few holes, but it is a very simple installation. The rear can be folded out of the way or easily removed.
The last product to be installed on the “Camel Man” CJ-7 was the top. The Bestop Supertop soft-top with two-piece doors was hard to beat. It came with all needed hardware and a very comprehensive instruction kit complete with diagrams. With the addition of the two-piece doors and ease of removal this was another great fit and nice way to complete the build.
It was only fitting that I call Bob Beck’s son, Matt, to take the rejuvenated CJ out for its first shake down run. We went out to one of the trails that I had spent countless weekends on. All of the choices that were made paid off in the end. The CJ performed better than expected.
The Detroit Lockers and lower 4.56 Superior gears were just the right fit for the 35-inch Dick Cepek tires. The two most impressive modifications had to be the Rubicon Express 4.5-inch suspension lift and the Howell Jeep EFI kit. The Rubicon Express lift had much more articulation and was smoother than expected. So well, in fact, that some more trimming in the rear wheel wells was needed.
The engine ran without any hesitation, allowing the Jeep to idle through most of the trail. We were very impressed with the way all the products were handled by Quadratec.
We accomplished our goal of breathing new life into the “Camel Man” ’79 CJ-7 and got it back on the road where it belonged. The CJ had turned into everything we had hoped for. It was a strong and dependable trail rig that would have many more trips down tough trails and then deliver us safely back to the camp once again.