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Modern Classic - 1970 Jeepster Commando

Posted in Project Vehicles on June 1, 2010
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In 2002, John Omartian of Saugus, California, decided to build a Jeepster Commando. "I've been an old-school 4x4 and Jeep fan since I was a kid, and always liked unique models-the type you don't see very often," Omartian says. Problem was, he didn't have a Commando. And little did he know that it would take two years of hunting before he would find one that met his criteria. "I searched for a couple of years for a solid Commando. Most I looked at were mix-matched or completely cut up, so I kept looking. When I found this one," he says of his current ride, "I knew it was a great starting platform."

The 1970 Commando he purchased was super-clean and bone-stock, and he drove it that way for about a year until the drivetrain started to have problems. That's when things started to percolate. "I enjoyed it stock because the body was clean and it rode nice, but once the engine problems started, so did the project. I got a lot of grief from friends once I started tearing it apart because of the condition it was in, but I knew it would be more fun and used more if it was upgraded. I love all forms of four-wheeling, so the goal was to have a capable, multi-purpose Jeep that I could also drive on the street," he says.

The result of that vision is the rig you see here. This classic, unique rig boasts a modern, butt-kickin' powerplant, rock-solid axles, and a simple, flexy suspension. What is the rig used for? "The Jeep is used for rocks, dunes, dirt, snow, camping, fishing, and cruising on the streets. It will also be used as a chase vehicle for some desert races. Most of our trips are camping and wheeling trips. On the trips are usually my girlfriend Cindy and my 12-year-old son Blake," Omartian explains.

It's obvious that Omartian successfully merged old and new to create a functional modern classic.

One of the cool things is that the Commando's bodywork hasn't been carved up, or even repainted, for that matter. It's just as it was in 1970. The result is a rig that seems understated to the untrained eye. Wheelers, on the other hand, immediately notice the custom-fit Four X Doctor front winch bumper that holds a Warn 9.5ti winch and a pair of KC HiLites off-highway lights. There's also a Four X Doctor custom rear bumper with integrated tire carrier. The tire carrier is tied into the rollcage and the spare tire is mounted at an angle so that it matches the Commandos angled rear body. Mounted to the top of the rollcage is a Lucky Fab-created aluminum "roof skin." Omartian explains, "I like the hardtop off, but still want some cover, so instead of having a soft top to put on and off, I had Lucky Fab make an aluminum roof skin that is powdercoated black with gray vinyl underneath. The skin is in two pieces and mounted with Dzus fasteners so the panels can be removed if desired." The hardtop also fits over the roof skin.

Owner/Hometown: John Omartian, Saugus, California
Vehicle/Model: 1970 Jeepster Commando
Estimated value: N/A

Type: Chevrolet 5.7L LS1 V-8
Aspiration: Fuel injection
Output, hp/torque, lb-ft (estimated): 410/395

Transmission: TH 700R4
Transfer Case: Atlas 4.3:1

Front: Spring-over-axle with Alcan Spring leaf springs, shackle reversal, Walker Evans Racing piggyback-reservoir shocks
Rear: Spring-over-axle with Alcan Spring leaf springs, Walker Evans Racing piggyback-reservoir shocks, modified Currie Antirock sway bar

Front: Dynatrac ProRock 60, PSC hydraulic-assist steering/ARB Air Locker
Rear: Dynatrac ProRock 60, 35-spline axleshafts, disc brakes/ARB Air Locker
Ring and pinion: 5.13:1

Wheels: 17x9 Walker Evans Racing beadlocks
Tires: 37x12.50-17 BFG Krawler T/A KX

Under the hoods rests a 5.7L LS1 V-8 built by TurnKey Engine Supply in Oceanside, California. Omartian says there were a few challenges fitting this engine into the Commando's engine bay. "It looked like plenty of room until everything started filling the engine compartment," he notes. Eventually he won all the battles, and the fuel-injected engine sits on custom Four X Doctor engine mounts. The powerplant is cooled by an aluminum radiator with a 18-inch Spal electric fan, and it passes exhaust gas through a custom exhaust that was made by Morse Muffler in Burbank, California. Other underhood mods include a TurnKey wiring harness, Optima YellowTop battery, and ARB air compressor. The engine is bolted to a heavily modified 700R4 transmission that's Painless Wiring-wired. A Derale cooler with 8-inch fan keeps the transmission cool, and a custom Four X Doctor transmission crossmember with skidplate hold the trans in place.

One of the challenges to fit the LS1 engine in the Commando was the air intake, so this custom intake was made. Omartian says this about the intake, "The space available from intake opening to radiator was exactly four inches. I couldn't get any elbows that would fit, so I had Rick Jameson at Lucky Fab create an intake curving off to the passenger side. It's located high enough not to inhibit ground clearance, it gets enough airflow, and it's off to the side away, from the heat of the radiator and engine."

The interior of the rig is a study in retaining the stock Commando patina, while still adding functionality. "I wanted to keep the dash as clean as possible, but I still needed the necessary gauges and switches," Omartian says. Those gauges he's referring to include an array of Auto Meter units, and the variety of switches control everything from the ARB air compressor to the electric engine fan. Omartian says Dennis Hogue at Wiretec in Burbank, California, designed the layout and rewired the whole rig, plus he fabricated the custom gauge panel. Other cool interior mods include a rollcage that was built to fit under the original steel hardtop; a Grant removable steering wheel; TriCounty tilt steering column; and modified stock center console to fit the Art Carr and Atlas shifters.

"When it came to axles, Dana 44s were the first choice, but my fear was regret-not going the extra mile and having to redo what breaks," Omartian says. With that said, he installed beefy Dynatrac ProRock 60 axles front and rear. "I knew there wouldn't be any weak links," he notes. Up front, the high-pinion ProRock 60 has been fitted with 35-spline outers, 5.13:1 gears, and an ARB Air Locker. It's mounted to a suspension consisting of Jeep YJ-length Alcan Spring leaf springs with a shackle reversal and Four X Doctor springover conversion. This arrangement moved the front axle forward three inches. To help steer the big 37-inch BFG Krawler T/A KX tires on Walker Evans Racing beadlock wheels, he added a Borgeson steering shaft, Four X Doctor custom tie-rod made from 13/8-inch, 0.188-inch-wall chrome-moly material with 1-ton ends, and a PSC hydraulic-assist steering kit. The steering box is braced via a Four X Doctor steering box brace.

At each corner of the suspension is a Walker Evans Racing piggyback-reservoir shock. "Picking shocks was a tough decision, but knowing the uses of the Jeep, I decided on these Walker Evans shocks because they're 16-way adjustable," Omartian notes.

One of the challenges Omartian ran into was that the Atlas 4.3:1 two-speed transfer case he wanted to use didn't fit between the framerails. "The frame had to be notched and a body lift added to make some more clearance," he says. The t-case sprouts a pair of CV driveshafts from General Driveshaft in Monrovia, California. It's protected by a Four X Doctor crossmember skidplate. As a side note, adding the 2-inch body lift ended up being a good thing because it worked in conjunction with the spring-over suspension to fit the 37-inch tires. "The plan originally was to run 35-inch tires with Walker Evans beadlock wheels. After seeing the clearance with the spring-over and the body lift, we tried a 37-inch tire on the Jeep and the decision was made to run 37s," Omartian notes.

The rear Dynatrac ProRock 60 has 35-spline axleshafts, 5.13:1 cogs, an ARB Air Locker, and disc brakes. The suspension is similar to the front in that it uses Jeep YJ-length Alcan Spring leaf springs. Lucky Fab, Inc., of Agua Dulce, California, modified a Currie Anti-Rock sway bar to fit the Commando, as well as the custom bumpstops. The custom fuel tank skidplate that's visible in the foreground is a Four X Doctor unit, and it protects a custom 32-gallon aluminum fuel tank that was made by GenRight.

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