Seventeen years. As I drove this Jeep home from Laguna Beach, California, where I finally stole it from, I remembered 17 years ago when I drove the first one. As I write this, I’m 36, but I still remember the first time I got to drive a 5.9L Limited up to camp one summer. It took me six years to talk the owners at Jeeps R Us out of this particular one. It was the old owner’s wife’s Jeep, and I’ve been lusting after it for that long—the Jeep, not the wife.
For the ’98 model year, Chrysler decided to put the 360ci V-8 out of the Dodge Ram into the ZJ. For those of you that don’t know, this is one of around 14,000 of these. It amounted to about 1 percent of the total ZJ production that year, and it was only offered as a ’98 model. It did 0-60 in 6.8 seconds and was the most powerful factory Jeep until the Grand Cherokee SRT-8. Last issue, I talked about my first V-8 CJ-7. This thing probably would’ve whipped my modified 304-powered CJ-7. I finally got a 5.9L, and it only took me 17 years. Mine isn’t totally stock—it’s got a Rubicon Express lift and 32x11.50R15 BFG A-T KOs—but everything else is stock.
I’ve already used it to tow a ’31 Ford Model-A cabriolet to a neighbor’s house after he blew the C6 in his F-150, but that’s not the point. I was at a buddy’s house down the street working on a 3K, 3-day ZJ story. He decided we needed to move the borrowed trailer so we can work in the shade. I know you are reading this when it’s 0 degrees out, but it was about 95 degrees that day. It was hot. Shade sounded like a good idea. My new-to-me 5.9L Limited got into trailer duty again for the second time in under a week of ownership. No worries here, that’s what it’s for. But what happened next would blow your mind.
Sorry, had to joke on those stupid click-bait videos. Anyway, I took the trailer over to another buddy’s ranch, literally two miles from my house. I’ve been there before. I’ve had my M-715 over there before. I tried to help him design steering for the swapped-in axle in his old Power Wagon. I know the dude, his wife, his kids, his wife’s brother, and so forth. The point is, I’m not a stranger, but as I’m putting the trailer back in its home, I see a slat grille just sitting there in plain daylight on his property.
Here I am in a one-of-14,000 limited-release ZJ, and I find a slat grille. I couldn’t believe it—a slat grille just sitting there in a yard. It was two miles from the house I’ve lived in for almost 10 years. Everyone in my town knows I’m the Jeep guy. There is a pristine sub-20,000-mile ’79 Renegade Levi’s edition CJ-7 here that the 90-year old original owner wanted to sell me and she never talks to anyone. The mail lady restored her MB, and I helped her find parts. There’s another guy down the road with a GPW that we were trying to park in my M-715.
I mean, I’m the Jeep guy. Whenever I meet someone near home, I tell them my name, and then tell them I’m the Jeep guy. And they immediately know who I am; everybody knows the Jeep guy. People in adjacent towns know there is a Jeep guy in this town. Strangers come from other towns to show me their Jeeps and ask me questions. So, how in the heck has no one told me there was a slat grill MB in town?
Answer: No one knew what it was until I was there with my 5.9L Grand. I went a little crazy at having found a slat grille, so to speak, in the wild. One of 25,000. Just sitting there and rotting. It’s got a Koenig hardtop on it and an M-38 windshield frame. Plus, someone at some point in its life replaced the door openings and most of the front floors. It needs work. But, it’s a script Willys slat grille, and I’m going to get it if I can.
As I was diving under it to check the crossmember and transmission to make sure it really was a Willys, they told me they saw a rattlesnake around it. I didn’t even pause. My keys were in the Grand, and it had plenty of fuel. They could haul me to the hospital in it.
I know what the rare Jeeps are like, and unlike some people who will remain nameless in this column, I’m not going to cut them up. I might not be Jim Marski, but I like old Jeeps and appreciate the rarity of the weird and low-production ones. If I can get that slat grille, I’ll restore it in these pages. I haven’t even talked to the owner about it, but I’ve already got the parts lined up to fix all problems with the body.
Speaking of these pages, we’ve got Bestop Trektop NX installation with two awesome Jeep chicks. Also, Verne blew up the motor in the Pig Truck and we have some more Wicked Willys action here. And Ali picked up a rolled XJ to bring back to life which will become the Disposable Hero. That’s all in addition to other Cherokee tech, and you finally get the feature for that cool ’70 CJ-5 that ran on the Aug. ’14 cover. I really do appreciate y’all reading and genuinely hope you enjoy the ride.