Click for Coverage
Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

Project "Steal J" - 1997 Jeep Wrangler TJ - Part 1

Posted in Project Vehicles on July 21, 2006
Share this
The previous owner wasn't into aesthetics. The Jeep hadn't been washed, and the top hadn't been put up in over a year. The Bestop Sunrider top had mold growing in it from pooled water, and the Grizzly wheels were caked in brake dust.

If Four Wheeler Magazine can have its "Teal-J" project Wrangler, why can't Jp Magazine have its "Steal-J" project Wrangler? The difference is, where Four Wheeler took the high road and forked over big bucks to get its '97 Wrangler, we lie, beg, and low-ball some sucker who doesn't know what he has.

Monkey on My Back

Anybody who has read Jp longer than a year knows about the problem I have with buying Jeeps. It's really no joke. My wife thinks I need help; I think I just need more vehicles. I've honed my Internet searching skills to the point where I can find at least five Jeeps of any kind at nearly any price within a matter of minutes. So when I decided I wanted a cheap TJ right after the Winter holidays, the gods smiled on me and threw a $3,700 '97 TJ in my lap.

The Ad Process

My new favorite Web site is It's like eBay, but without all the scammers looking to steal your bank account information and dreamers thinking their junk is worth its weight in gold. For the time being, most sellers on are just looking to quickly and conveniently unload a vehicle they don't want. The only downside is that there's no phone number required for listing, so you're often at the mercy of waiting for an e-mail back from the seller.

The ad read, "'97 Wrangler 4.0L, air conditioning, rear axle broken, $3,700." Any fool knows a 4.0L TJ with air conditioning in running condition is worth an easy $5,500, even in sad shape, so I frantically tried to contact the seller. However, two days went by before I got a response. Apparently, the seller got hit badly with the flu and couldn't even make it to his keyboard to check his ad. By the time the seller got back to me, he had already received around 150 e-mails inquiring about the Jeep and said he needed to be fair and take the buyers in the order they contacted him.

The interior was disgusting. The carpet can't be saved. There's so much mold living in it that it may as well be a Petri dish. The plastic was brought back with a stiff brush and some 409 cleaner. Thankfully, the AC just needed a can of R134a to work perfectly. Just cleaning the interior and washing the outside probably raised the Jeep's value $1,500.

Fair is for Fairies

After much e-mail brow-beating, I finally convinced the seller to give me his phone number. Man, was that a mistake for him. I must have called him about a dozen times. I started slowly, insisting that I had e-mailed him right after the ad was placed (I didn't) and asking a few pedestrian questions to which I really didn't care about the answer. What color was the Jeep, how are the tires, did you have a nice holiday? I didn't even listen to his answers. Hey pal, I'm your buddy, sell the Jeep to me.

I then kicked it up a bit, commiserating with him about how deathly sick my wife had been over the holidays (she had a slight cold) and how she's always wanted a cute little Jeep to drive (she thinks I have enough Jeeps already) since she has to drive a crappy minivan around with duct tape on the seats and a coat hanger antenna (she drives a $40K Hemi Durango). It would really make her feel better and help save a lousy holiday season (she got everything on her Christmas list and then some) if I could surprise her with a Jeep in the garage with a big, red bow on the hood (I have so many tools, parts, and other Jeeps in my garage there's no way I could fit the spare tire in there, let alone find a silly red bow).

Then I started in with the, "Aw, just let me come over and look at it; you don't even need to meet me outside." Yeah, I'll just come look at it with a wad of $100s in my pocket and my trailer. When he said I couldn't because he had to go out and get some cold medication, I told him I'd pick it up on my way. Remember, I'm now his buddy. He finally capitulated, probably more to get me to stop calling than anything else.

The TJ has just about every factory option, including the insta-trunk. I inherited the previous owner's collection of poker chips, a dog brush, about $36 in pennies and dimes, and a bunch of other nasty stuff. At least the 30x9.50 BFG ATs are in excellent shape.

The Purchase

I pulled up to the guy's apartment to find the Jeep had been pushed out of its one-stall garage. He never put the top up, so the interior was incredibly filthy and the carpet had more life growing in it than most New York ponds. The rear diff plug had come out, and the vehicle had been driven without fluid until the bearings and ring and pinion toasted. He and his friends pushed it up the hill into the garage where it had sat for three months until he decided to sell it.

The battery was dead, so we had to jump start it to hear it run. It ran, the auto tranny didn't leak, and the AC didn't seem to work, but it was a cheap TJ and I didn't care. He said he really didn't want to be unfair to the other buyers, but changed his tune when he saw the wad of cash. I paid him his money, he signed over the title, and then even offered to help me push it onto my trailer. I laughed, put it in four-wheel drive, and drove it up onto the trailer on the front axle. He shot me an amazed open-mouthed look, as if to say how did you do that? As I finished strapping it down, he asked about his cold meds, which I hadn't bothered to pick up.
I hope there's no such thing as karma.

While the Jeep was on the rollers at the smog station I noticed only one taillight worked. A little investigating led to a faulty turn signal multi-switch in the column. Amazingly, the local Jeep dealer had one in stock for under $80.

The Aftermath

After getting it home, I grabbed a spare battery and threw it in, fired the Jeep up, and drove it up to my garage for a closer inspection. Even with about 115,000 miles on the clock there didn't seem to be any exhaust leaks, there wasn't any tranny or engine oil leaking, and the oil pressure was 25 psi at idle. The Jeep has four-wheel ABS, which is a bummer, but it has every factory option and looked like it had been professionally maintained with new brakes and a recent tune up. It was just insanely dirty and nasty.

It was as I contemplated whether to replace the carpet or do a spray-on liner in the interior that I noticed a cell phone on the passenger floor under a pile of dead leaves. It turns out the feverish seller dropped his work-issued $400 phone without noticing. It briefly flashed through my brain that I could charge him a couple of hundred for its safe return, but figuring I'd tempted fate enough for one day, I called him and offered to meet him at a mall near his house to return the phone.

My wife, son, and I headed down to meet him. I spotted him and drove over to give him the phone. As he looked through the window of the $40,000 SUV (not the dilapidated minivan), past my pert and pretty wife (not the frail, sickly creature I had described), I saw that same amazed open-mouth look come across his face as when I loaded the broken Jeep on the trailer under its own power.
I hope there's no such thing as karma.

The biggest hurdle was the taco'd rear axle. However, two days after buying the Jeep I found a TJ Dana 35 with the same 3.07 gears as the front Dana 30 on I bought it for $50, installed it in a few hours, and took the Jeep for its first drive a mere 72 hours after buying it.

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results