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1998 Jeep Wrangler TJ - Die Hard

Posted in Project Vehicles on June 17, 2008
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As I rolled into the parking lot of the Moab La Quinta for my week-long '08 Easter Jeep Safari stay, I noticed a conspicuously unloaded TJ on a trailer in the parking lot. The next morning as I unloaded the tow rig and did a few last-minute odds and ends to my M-715 in the sleet and snow that was falling, I noticed a guy quietly working away under the TJ. Lying on his back on the cold trailer deck with nothing but the occasional tink of a wrench on steel to accompany him, I absent-mindedly thought, last minute preparations, and then went about my business. But then he was still there after lunch. The crossmember was off and most of the drivetrain was lying beside him. By evening nothing was visible but driveshafts hanging off the diffs. Bummer, that dude is really broken, I thought, and then it was off to a dinner with the guys from Jeep and Mopar Performance.

The next morning, as I loaded the trail rig for the day, there he was again, quietly working away. A couple buddies were standing around the trailer, so I figured he was taken care of and headed off for a day on the trail. That night I noticed the crossmember was back in, so at least he was making progress. The next morning, as I welded up a broken motor mount on my M-715, I heard his rig fire up and drive slowly around the parking lot.

As it turns out, Rick Logan had spent a bunch of nights thrashing to 3 a.m. to get a new NV4500 and Atlas II T-case swapped into his '98 TJ before heading to Moab from his home in Dumas, Texas. He got it done, but as it turns out, the supplier sent him the wrong pressure plate. I admired his determination and dug a lot of the modifications on his Jeep, so I told him I'd like to shoot a feature on it for the magazine in a few days when the weather got better.

A few days later, I got a phone call from Rick. "Uh, Christian-I'm sorry, but I sort of totaled my Jeep." Apparently, while driving down Highway 191 in the center of Moab, one of the control arm rod ends fractured and peeled open. When this happened, the front axle rotated under the Jeep, bending the shocks, ripping off the track bar, and spiking the front driveshaft into the pavement-all of which pole-vaulted the Jeep off the road. Thankfully, Rick must be a pretty good driver, because he and his wife didn't roll and tumble into the Colorado River.

But then a few days later, I ran into Rick in the parking lot. "Well, I didn't come all this way not to wheel, so we fixed it," he said. My instant response: "Cool, let's go shoot a feature."

PhotosView Slideshow

It all starts under the hood, where the factory '98 4.0L engine breathes a little better with a cold air intake and a Banks header, but otherwise the engine is stock. Like you read in the intro, the Jeep now sports a newly-swapped NV4500 transmission from a '98 Dodge truck and an Atlas II T-case with 4.3:1 low. Rick used an Advance Adapters bellhousing to mate the tranny to the engine and a pair of shafts from Tom Wood's Custom Drive Shafts with 1330 U-joints connects the power to the axles.

Twisted Fabrications in Dumas, Texas, built the front and rear axles using Spidertrax Spider 9 housings. Heavy-duty Dana 60 knuckles were used up front and Moser cut a pair of 35-spline inner and outer shafts. A True Hi9 centersection with 5.38 gears and an ARB Air Locker rounds it all out. In the rear, another Spidertrax Spider 9 housing and True Hi9 centersection with 5.38s and an ARB got the nod. And again, a set of 35-spline shafts put the power to the tires. Both the front and rear axles run Chevy brakes for ease of availability.

As for the suspension, up front a set of Rubicon Express long-arm radius links pushes the front axle forward by about 1 inch over stock and connects to the Rubicon Express skidplate. A pair of 6-inch-lift Rubicon Express coils provides the added height.

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Out back, the Rubicon Express long arms were ditched in favor of a custom triangulated four-link built by Twisted Customs to do away with the factory rear track bar. In a really nice touch, Twisted Customs frenched the rear frame rails in order to cleanly mount the rear coilover buckets. A pair of 14-inch Fox coilovers suspends the rear of the Jeep and the resulting 7-inch rear stretch combined with the 1-inch front stretch translates into a 104-inch wheelbase.

Naturally, because the rear axle is now where the stock fuel tank should be, a custom 17-gallon fuel cell was mounted in the rear of the Jeep. However, since Rick wanted to retain the use of his back seat for his grandkids, he commissioned Twisted Fabrications to build a cell that would utilize the factory fuel pump/sending unit assembly and that would still allow the rear seat to be installed.

All of this clears room for the 38.5x14.50-16 Maxxis Creepy Crawler tires mounted on 16x10 Champion Baja C3 bead locks with a 3.5-inch backspacing.

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A man after our own hearts, Rick didn't dabble too heavily in niceties when it came to adding flash. Inside, the stock seats received a set of seat covers and the steering wheel got a parts-store cover to hide the cracked and peeling leather. Otherwise, the interior, roll cage, and instruments are just as they were when Rick bought the Jeep brand-new back in 1998.

Outside, however, certain allowances had to be made in the name of survivability and off-roadability. For starters, the factory bumpers got axed for the pair of home-built ones you see in the photos. An 8,000-pound Ramsey winch hangs from the front, and the fender skins were replaced with a set of Poison Spyder Customs tube fenders for bashability. Likewise, some Poison Spyder Crusher Corners with Crusher Flares adorn the rear body skins. The whole shebang was lifted with a 1-inch body lift to clear a little room for the big NV4500 tranny, and it was then sprayed in new black paint by Tony Jimenez of Jimenez Auto Creations in Dumas, Texas.

Most of the Jeep is pretty burly, but there are a few areas that Rick is still going to address. For starters, he'll be swapping out all the rod ends on the vehicle for some top-quality chromoly pieces to ensure he never relives his harrowing experience of losing the front axle at road speeds. And, while the ram assist Rick built using an agricultural cylinder works well at low speeds, the volume of fluid it sucks from the pump creates a lag in the steering that is unsettling. Again, Rick is planning on going with a more realistically sized ram from PSC.

Rick really likes the elimination of the rear track bar and claims the triangulated four-link was a great addition. And there's just no beating the quality and looks of those Champion bead lock wheels.

PhotosView Slideshow

I gave Rick's Jeep a brief once-over while it was still on his trailer in pieces. I really dug the thought put into the mounting of the rear coilovers, the Spider 9 axlehousings, and the overall quality of the build. However, had it not been for Rick's tenacity in getting his Jeep fixed, I probably wouldn't have tracked him down to talk with him about the TJ. Seeing a guy lying in a wet pool of melted snow in miserable 30-degree weather for the better part of a day and a half so he can hit the trails is one thing. But to take a second hit on the chin and come back swinging, fixing the mangled front suspension after losing the axle on the road, is something else. You just gotta admire that kind of never-say-die spirit.
-Christian Hazel

Vehicle: '98 Wrangler TJ
Engine: Stock 4.0L
Transmission: '98 Dodge NV4500
Transfer Case: Atlas II, 4.3:1 low
Axles: Twisted Customs-built Spider 9 (front and rear)
Wheels: 16x10 Champion bead lock, 3.5-inch backspacing
Tires: 38.5x14.50-16 Maxxis Creepy Crawler
Built For: Family fun and hard trails
Estimated Cost: $30,000

PhotosView Slideshow

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