It seems that whenever we set out to build something big, we end up encountering some kind of stumbling block-we can't get a big motor, or the giant axles we had lined up fell through, or the 40-inch tires we thought would fit did nothing but rub the body while crossing an intersection.
Well, Mark Hixson of Vail, Arizona, didn't have any such problems. He got a huge fire-breathing motor, big axles, and 39.5-inch tires, all shoehorned under his '82 CJ-7, and it not only works well, but is a ton of fun to drive. For some people, adding bigger parts and more power really is The Answer.
We ran into Mark at the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, in the spring of 2007. We almost walked right past his Jeep. There are no flashy graphics on it, it isn't orange, and Mark himself is just a really laid back kind of guy. It wasn't until we noticed the quarter-elliptical rear suspension and looked closer that we started asking questions.
As it turns out, this Jeep is the very clean end product of about two years of work, money spent right the first time around, plenty of patience, and a Ph.D. in buttering up the wife.
Let's start with the big ol' Buick engine that Mark stuffed under the hood. This 455ci monster was home-built with TA Performance connecting rods, pistons, oil pump plate, and camshaft. It got chromoly rings and all-new bottom-end bearings, and the stock heads were rebuilt with new valve guides and seats. Final compression ratio is 9.5:1.
It was then topped off with an Edlebrock Performer intake, an 850cfm Quadra-Jet carburetor that sucks the custom 15-gallon fuel cell dry, and a Mallory Ignition. Exhaust is kicked out through some TNT Customs one-off headers with 17.8-inch primaries and 2-inch secondaries. The spent gasses then dump into a TnT Customs 2 1/2-inch exhaust, which was such a pain to figure out that they actually scrapped more tube than finally made it into the Jeep.
A TH400 automatic transmission serves as this engine's whipping boy, but with steel sleeves, a B&M shifter and shift kit, a low-stall RV torque converter, and an 8x10-inch Be-Cool transmission cooler, this whipping boy can take the punishment. After the slushbox has taken the brunt of the power, a Dana 300 transfer case sends it on to the axles.
Up front is a Dana 60 with 5.38 gears and an ARB air locker running the stock 1-ton brakes. Out back is a high-pinion Dana 60 modified with 14-bolt axle tubes, 5.38 gears, a full spool, and custom disc brakes.
A set of Rancho fullsize Chevy Blazer lift springs provide elevation for the front end of the Jeep while a pair of 14-inch travel Rancho RS9000 shocks serve damping duties.
Out back is just a little more complicated. A custom quarter-elliptic spring pack provides the elevation with matching Ranchos providing the damping. The axle is located through a triangulated 4-link, and the whole thing is hung from a custom rear tube frame. The Jeep frame is still there, up to the third body mount under the door, and then a TNT Customs rear tube frame takes up the slack, provides clearance for the springs and shocks, and holds up the rear of the Jeep. This all combines to yield a 104-inch wheelbase.
The rear corners and belly skid plate are also TnT Customs parts. The stock steering bx was modified for a ram assist setup, and no steering stabilizer is needed to control the grooved 15/39.5-16.5LT Super Swamper TSLs wrapped around TnT Customs Dubba Loc 16.5x10 rims.
A '78 Postal Jeep grille provides plenty of under-hood clearance for the big Buick motor, while a competition cut rear corners provide clearance for the 10-inch stretched wheelbase. Custom front and rear bumpers keep the turquoise green paint free of scratches and dings from any trail hazard.
A pair of Procar black reclining buckets make up the front seating, while the stock CJ rear seat still hangs tough out back. Autometer Sport Comp gauges residing in a TnT Customs dash panel tell Mark what he needs to know about the Jeep's vitals, a Grant GT steering wheel gives him something to hold onto, and a Sirius Radio takes the humdrum out of waiting to get to that next obstacle. A custom 6-point rollcage protects all the occupants in the event of a rollover, and a CJ-style black bikini top keeps the sun off the front seat occupants.
It's been a while since we've seen a quarter-elliptic suspension under a Jeep, and while it wouldn't be our first choice for suspension, it sure does work well. The big Buick motor is big, powerful-did we mention big?-and not a Chevy so that was nice to see. The rear high-pinion axle obviously drives on the coast side, which is less than ideal, but Mark has yet to break so much as a single tooth.
Like I said at the start of the article, at first I just about walked straight by this Jeep. But one thing led to another, and soon I was crawling around under it in a McDonald's parking lot. There is a lot of really clean work done on this Jeep, from the rear tube-frame section, to the rollcage, to the belly skid, to the entire custom built exhaust. Add into the mix that big Buick engine, the vacuum canister to keep the brakes happy, Mark putting up with my asking an hour's worth of questions about it in that parking lot, and how well this Jeep works out on the trail, and I was sold.- Pete Trasborg