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1987 Jeep YJ Wrangler - Low Down And Stable

Posted in Project Vehicles on October 5, 2007
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Every trend has its highs and lows. As it happens, when talking about Jeep trends, those highs and lows are quite literal. Thankfully, we're seeing fewer and fewer circus wagons built so tall you need a step ladder and a boost from a friend to climb into the passenger seat. More to the point, we're noticing an increasing number of Jeeps being built with a low center of gravity that maintain the ability to run 35-, 37-, and even 40-inch tires.

So when we spied Kevin Hawkin's super-sano '87 YJ from across our hotel parking lot during the '06 Moab Easter Jeep Safari, we thought we had stumbled upon a Jeep builder who had recently come to his senses and had surrendered to the happy embrace of moderation. As it turns out, Kevin had actually built the Jeep smack in the heady days of calliope music and jungle-gym suspensions. When it was hip to have a tall, multilink, coil-shod monster, Kevin's Wrangler outclassed them all with what the untrained eye would see as a mundane leaf-spring setup. And while others were busy putting coils back in their buckets or welding spit driveshafts back together, Kevin was walking up ledges with no drama. Sometimes to go forward you've got to look to the past, and therein lies the rub for a lot of folks.

Although it seems like just a simple leaf suspension, Kevin actually has put quite a bit of work into his setup. For starters, the stock '87 frame was reinforced and plated in strategic areas, namely below the firewall, steering box, and around the rear spring area. With a rigid, stable platform upon which to build, Kevin ordered a set of National Spring packs to lift the Jeep about 4 inches.

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The fronts are 8-leaf packs built for a spring-over and shackle reversal. They flex extremely well, yet resist pinion dive thanks to their half-snail-wrap second leaf. Out back, a pair of spring-under 10-leaf packs built 5 inches longer than stock were hung outside of the framerails for increased stability. Custom-built spring mounts put the spring eyes flush with the bottom of the framerail for snag-free wheeling. The rear shackles were cleanly tucked up and into the rear crossmember outside the frame.

To the springs, Kevin bolted a pair of Currie Enterprises 9-inch axles loaded with 4.56 gears and Detroit Lockers in the high-pinion centersections. The housings were high clearanced, reinforced, and trussed to resist flexing and bending. Currie Enterprises spring perches keep the U-bolts out of the dirt in the rear. The front axle employs GM steering knuckles, GM disc brakes, and high-steer arms that keep the drag link up and out of harm's way. Out back, a set of Currie disc brakes put the whoa to the go when needed.

Just a few of the cool tricks Kevin built into his ride are custom 2-inch square tube crossmembers for the T-case and tranny that have been clearanced for the driveshaft yokes at full droop. The crossmembers run a single aluminum skidplate that mounts to the framerails and protects the Jeep's vital underbelly. Other doodads you may notice on and around the frame and suspension are the Currie Rock Jock antisway bar with aluminum arms, body mounts that have been cut and welded 1-inch higher, and an aluminum fuel tank skidplate.

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Because Kevin started with an '87 YJ from a salvage yard, it should come as little shock that none of the factory drivetrain remains. After all, who would want a carbureted 4.2L, a Peugeot five-speed, or an NP207?

To replace the trusty but sputtering 4.2L, an '87 TBI-injected Chevy 350 was outfitted with HPC-coated headers and dropped into the chassis with a pair of M.O.R.E. motor mounts. The engine is controlled via a Howell Electronics computer and exhales through a 3-inch exhaust. Otherwise, it's a dead-nuts stock truck engine.

Backing the reliable engine is a GM TH700R4 auto with an Art Carr manual shift reverse pattern valvebody so Kevin can grab Reverse when he's in a hurry to back down an obstacle. Further improvements thrown into the fully rebuilt transmission were an 1,800-rpm stall converter and high-performance clutch packs. The tranny uses Advance Adapters components to mate it to the Atlas II 3.8:1 T-case. A pair of Tom Wood's Custom Drive Shafts 1310 CV shafts mate the T-case to the axles.

Body And Interior
Just looking at the outside of this Jeep gives no clue to its hard use over the years. Kevin added the TJ flares, built the custom tube bumpers and winch mount, and mounted up the stainless steel rocker and aluminum rear corner guards once Kim Hogan of Salt Lake City smoothed the body and shot its liquidy black paint.

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For finishing touches and a little added function, a Warn 9500 winch was added to the front bumper, and Hella sealed beam lights were inserted into the powdercoated grille.

A pair of comfy Mastercraft buckets position the driver and passenger squarely within the protective confines of Kevin's homebuilt rollcage. Some RCI harnesses complement the factory seatbelts and there's an aftermarket gauge here and a CB there, but for the most part, the interior carries on with the Jeep's understated sleeper theme.

Good, Bad, & What's It For
The 35x12.50-17 Interco Truxus tires mounted on 17x9 Mickey Thompson wheels with 4 1/2-inch backspacing and OMF bead locks, the Be Cool radiator, and the steering-box brace are all stuff you'll find on virtually any Wrangler hitting the trail. What really trips the brain out is the tiny details-stuff like a fuel-pressure gauge mounted in line just in front of the tank so the pressure can be monitored from time to time. Or the way the factory seatbelts were retained into Kevin's custom rollcage. Or the copious use of aluminum armor to save weight. Each little thing has a purpose and a place. There's no superfluous gidgitry added for the sake of gidgitry, and it has been hitting the trails long enough that virtually all the bugs have had a chance to be worked out.

Why I Featured It
Every yin on this Jeep seems to have a yang. You can tell it's a purpose-built Jeep put together by an experienced guy who knows what he wants and is an extremely competent and skilled fabricator. As a lifelong guitar player, I'll make the analogy that in a world of pointy-particle-board-neon-monkey-grip-whammy-bar, flash-in-the-pan wonders, it's the precorporate CBS Strat or '57 Les Paul Gold top. It's understated and nonchalant while at the same time forward-thinking and utterly capable.
-Christian Hazel

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Hard Facts

'87 Jeep YJ Wrangler

TBI Chevy 350

Chevy TH700R4

Transfer Case:
Atlas II 3.8

National Spring leafs

17x9 Mickey Thompson with OMF bead locks

35x12.50-17 Interco Truxus

Built For:
Driving on the freeway, then doing hard trail rides

Estimated Cost:

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