I’m looking for some direction before I dive into a project. I’m 60 years old and once owned a 1984 CJ-7 with a 2 1/2-inch lift and 33-inch all-terrains. I’ve also owned three Jeep Grand Cherokees, two with V-8s, and the one I own now with a six-cylinder. The current Grand has no power but is clean and low mileage. I discovered Dirt Every Day with Fred Williams last winter and am seriously considering building a Jeep. Craigslist in Denver has plenty of CJ-5s, CJ-7s, and Wranglers for sale. There is a 1982 CJ-7 for cheap that looks OK. It is complete but sitting in a field. Rust appears fairly minimal.
Even though I’m in pretty good shape financially, I want to build a budget Jeep. I want power and the ability to handle any tough stuff I get into, but mostly mountains of Colorado and southern Utah, plus Moab of course. Can you make a suggestion as to the minimum cost it takes to drop a different engine from the straight-six, and to do the suspension upgrades needed to really have fun and be able to handle most situations? Again, not extreme, mostly trails in Colorado and Utah. Also, I would like to tow behind a truck or suburban and want to avoid a trailer if possible.
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We’re glad to hear Fred inspired you to build a vehicle to explore the backcountry. There are a lot of different ways you could go, and honestly, budget is relative. To one person, $5,000 is a budget build; to another, $25,000 is low-buck. Honestly, if your Grand Cherokee is a ZJ or a WJ, it could potentially be built to meet almost all of your requirements. Both platforms have good foundations, great wheelbases, and solid aftermarket support. The fact that you already have it is a bonus.
Like you, we see cheap CJ-5s, CJ-7s, and even YJs on Craigslist all the time. The problem with most of the really inexpensive examples is age and heavy molestation by previous owners. They usually have major mechanical maladies or serious body/frame issues due to rot or hacking by previous owners. Generally speaking, one that has been languishing in a field for 10 years is likely going to nickel-and-dime you to death, so it’s often wise to spend a little more on a running and driving example, even if it runs poorly. A runner gives you an opportunity to test the brakes, steering, electrical system, and more. Plus, you will likely get more for the takeout parts should you decide to swap stuff out.
It sounds like you’re open to which Jeep model to build, so we would focus on getting the right deal for your project rather than a specific model. That said, we personally would scratch CJ-5s and JKs off the list. While cool, the CJ-5 wheelbase is less friendly on hill climbs that are common in the mountains, and JKs still command prices outside most people’s definition of budget. The trouble with wanting more power is the domino effect. In most cases more power means a V-8 swap. When you do that, everything past the flywheel has to be beefed up to handle the added torque if you want anything reliable. The extent of those upgrades would kill any idea of a budget build. We agree with you that the extra heft of a Grand Cherokee makes the six-cylinder–powered ones sluggish; however, they are perfectly adequate in lighter CJs, YJs, and TJs. They can even be downright peppy with the right gearing. If we were in your shoes, we would focus on finding a good-running fuel-injected 4.0L Wrangler, or plan on adding fuel injection to an earlier CJ or YJ.
From there, focus on things that improve performance, reliability, and utility. Lockers, chromoly axles, bumpers, and a winch are all excellent additions. If you end up with a Jeep with a Dana 35 rear axle, just swap it out for an 8.8 and don’t waste your time beefing it up, but in most other cases you should be able to work with what you already have.
At the end of the day, here is the best bit of advice we can give you, and Fred would agree: Just go four-wheeling. Contrary to what you often read and hear, you don’t need the best of everything (or best of anything) other than a 4x4 to explore the backcountry. Sure, lots of components and products out there will get you farther off the beaten path more comfortably, but you don’t need anything other than some common sense and a desire to explore. You can have just as much fun in a beat-down, worn-out, carbureted four-cylinder Jeep with bald 31s as you can in a fully built, locked, fire-breathing big-block–powered JK rocking 42s. It’s not about the equipment—it’s about getting out there.