We've all heard the old axiom, everything's bigger in Texas. But just because it's from Texas doesn't necessarily mean it has to be bigger to be better. Think about it, would the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders be better if they were bigger? Probably to a few freakish Internet weirdos, but not to the rest of us. So in that spirit, we bring you Richard Hartgrove's better Tube-J off-road toy instead of a bigger one.
While Richard is a fully capable fabricator, he saw this '98 Wrangler in Moab shortly before embarking on a new buildup of a trail vehicle. A Colorado man by the name of Ryan Jensen had built it, including the boat-tailed and tubed rear section, the cage, and other elements. Then, three weeks later, when Richard saw the Jeep for sale on eBay, he decided it made more sense to buy this Jeep than to start his project from scratch.
|Vehicle: '98 Jeep Wrangler TJ||Axles:'78 Ford Dana 60 (front); '78 Ford Dana 60 (rear)|
|Engine: Stock 4.0L||Wheels:17x9 Trail Ready bead locks, 4.5-inch backspacing|
|Transmission: Stock Chrysler 999 auto||Tires:37x12.50-17 BFG Krawler T/A KX|
|Transfer Case: Atlas II||Built For: Fun in the San Angelo sun|
|Suspension: Rubicon Express Xtreme Duty long-arm four-link|
Chassis And Drivetrain
The factory TJ frame remains up front, but Jensen had back-halved the chassis just aft of the factory spring bucket locations as part of the rear narrowing. The rear tubework is integrated into the cage and ties the frame together into one solid, stable assembly. The suspension is mostly off-the-shelf Rubicon Express long-arm Xtreme Duty stuff, including the skidplate. Richard laid the factory coil buckets rearward and modified the rear control arms to add 10 inches of wheelbase out back and installed taller 7.5-inch front and 5.5-inch rear coils. A quartet of Pro Comp MX-6 adjustable shocks damp the axles. One key feature we really liked were the Delron front coil retainers machined by Machine Works in San Angelo, Texas. Richard says he had the parts built because, unlike limiting straps, the Delron pieces let the coils deliver their full droop without unseating and falling away. He says they also aid in stability and give a more predictable feel when off-roading.
Underneath all that suspension work lies a pair of unsuspecting eight-lug Ford Dana 60 axles out of a '78 1-ton pickup. The pumpkins spin 5.13 gears, while the high-pinion front runs a Detroit Locker and the rear is welded.
One of the things that really appeals to us about Richard's Jeep is the fact that the drivetrain was left untouched from the radiator to the back of the transmission in the interests of reliability. The stock Chrysler 999 automatic with a Mopar deep tranny pan backs the 3.8:1 Atlas II T-case, but the 4.0L is dead stock. Richard likes to be able to just turn the key and go. It's a sentiment we're beginning to appreciate as our carnage list of aftermarket parts grows.
On the doodad list are items like a tractor-supply sourced hydraulic ram for use with the West Texas Off Road-modified factory steering box for an inexpensive hydro-ram assist steering setup, a thick-walled CV rear driveshaft, and a high-flow muffler just because a stock-sized one doesn't fit anymore.
Body And Interior
When Richard bought the Jeep, it wasn't street legal. It was missing a windshield frame, wipers, turn signals, lights, and other things the local law enforcement tends to notice you're going without. In order to put a stock windshield frame on the Jeep, Richard first had to modify the cage, but eventually he got all the factory gizmos back where they belong and operating. The cage offers plenty of protection from the sides and top while still tucking up tight for a decent amount of interior room. A pair of el cheapo aftermarket buckets replaced the tattered factory jobbies, but the dash, shifter, and other controls remain just as Ma Mopar made 'em.
Since the repositioned rear axle required the fuel tank to be relocated, it was encased in tubing at the rear of the Jeep. As such, there's not much storage room in the back of the Jeep. Just enough for a Hi-Lift Jack, a few spare parts, and a tire if the trail calls for it. Toward the front, the factory fenders and front bumper were ditched in favor of some round and rectangular tubing, as it were, but the hood is a factory original. Between the lack of a rear body and the removal of the front fenders, there's plenty of room to swing the 37x12.50-17 BFG Krawlers mounted on 17x9 Trail Ready bead locks.
Good, Bad, & What's It For
Although at first blush it looks like just another tube buggy with a TJ front clip, we appreciate all of the reliable factory engineering that was left in place. Even the onboard air system employs the factory TJ A/C compressor. The suspension, although seemingly custom, employs a bunch of off-the-shelf parts, so replacements or even spares should be readily obtainable.
There's a nice Warn 9500 winch waiting up front and enough body armor to make it a fun wheeler since you won't constantly be worrying about dents and scratches. We do think the hydraulic assist hoses are a bit long and vulnerable and that the rig doesn't really need to sit so high to accommodate the smallish tires, especially since there's no body to speak of.
Why I Featured It
It's already been stated. It's a fun rig with factory reliability, big and beefy parts where they're needed, and a body and chassis that doesn't require any wasted brain power worrying about damage. Add the fact that it's a darn capable rig into the mix, and we feel it's something that our readers wouldn't be sorry to emulate.-Christian Hazel