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

1988 Jeep Wrangler YJ - Hammer Down

Posted in Project Vehicles on November 1, 2008
Share this

Most of the time, the guy who comes up to an obstacle and gives it too much gas is a guy who is new to wheeling, and hasn't yet learned about how lower speed means more control and fewer broken parts. That guy is not Mike DePalma.

It isn't that Mike is new to wheeling, or doesn't understand. He understands the whole slower-means-more-control-thing. It just bores him to no end, and he has a lot more fun wheeling when he can get into the skinny pedal. Maybe it is our affinity for train wrecks, but there is something about a guy who understands slow speed control and chooses to do the exact opposite.

We keep expecting a spectacular rollover or at least some exploded drivetrain parts. He'll always clear the obstacle, so far without damage, but if you blink you'll miss it. We think he pulls it off because he knows when to get out of the throttle.

Even though the fancy airbrushed paint might lead you to believe that this is a $100,000 '88 Wrangler, such is not the case. Under the fancy skin is a relatively simple, homebuilt Jeep that takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

Chassis And Driveline

The stock YJ frame and body are about the only parts left from when this Jeep rolled off the line in '88. The stock leaf springs were tossed in the scrap heap and replaced with a TnT Customs High Clearance Y-Link Coil Conversion and high-clearance belly pan. The front springs are from Pro Comp, while the rears are Old Man Emu units with damping provided courtesy of Rubicon Express shocks. This all works out to about 5 1/2 inches of lift and longer control arms provide a wheelbase stretch to about 98 inches.

The front high-pinion Dana 44 axle was yanked from a '73 Ford F-150 and was trussed with a TnT Customs truss that allowed the axle to be bolted in like any TJ frontend would. Then it was stuffed with 4.56 gears, an ARB Air Locker, and the Ford brakes got rebuilt and reinstalled. Out back, a Ford 8.8 from a '90 F-150 got tapped for abuse reception. It too got a TnT Customs truss to accept the triangulated 4-link rear suspension of the coil conversion kit; then it was packed with 4.56 gears and a spool. Long braided stainless steel brake lines get the brake fluid to the axles and handle the droop that the coil conversion offers.

Locomotion comes from a '75 AMC 360 V-8 that ended up needing custom home-built mounts that located the engine 1 inch up and 1 inch forward of where the adapter mounts put it. It needed to move for clearance between the transmission and the high-clearance belly pan while running no body lift. TRW pistons, a Comp Cams camshaft, an Edlebrock Performer Intake Manifold, and a Holley 600cfm carburetor give the engine a kick like it never had from the factory. Redline Performance and Muffler in Loveland, Colorado built the custom 2 1/2-inch exhaust to clear the link suspension and the stock distributor and ignition ignite the mixture with help of an Accel Super Coil. A two-row aluminum radiator keeps the engine cool under any circumstances.

An '88 TorqueFlite 999 automatic transmission with a 2.72:1 First gear takes everything the V-8 can dish out and a two-row B&M Supercooler helps keep the heat under control. From there, power flows into the NP231 that the Jeep came with, which was modified with a slip yoke eliminator. From there, power is transferred to the axles with a pair of owner-built driveshafts that still have the stock 1310 size U-joints in them.

A 37-inch set of Goodyear Wrangler MT/R tires wrapped around Eagle aluminum rims with 3 1/2 inches of backspacing gets the power to the ground and they only rub the rear inner fenderwell under full articulation.

PhotosView Slideshow

Body And Interior

The first thing that most people notice about this Jeep is the airbrushing. We'd call it purple, but Mike tells us that the black is actually a metallic black base, and the "purple" is actually "amethyst reflections". All of the paint and airbrush work was done by Chris Lewis at 3 Deuces Customs in Cheyenne, Wyoming

The front bumper and rear crossmember are both custom pieces, but the front tubular fenders, rocker guards, rear corners and rear tube fenders are all TnT Customs parts. Mike did a lot of grinding, filling, and sanding to get them ready for paint. We'd have just shot color on them, but Mike wanted it to be "right" and so all of the normal tubular fender welds and seams are now gone resulting in a really clean look. A MileMarker winch sits atop the front bumper ready for the off chance Mike gets stuck.

Inside, the stock seats still remain with the fronts receiving a pair of Bestop seat covers. The seats are bolted to a TnT Customs roll cage kit which was welded in by Mike with some added custom trussing and tubes here and there. A Kenwood CD player provides the tunes when the horses aren't let loose and running free. Recovery gear, tools, and the Hi-Lift jack go behind the rear seat while the spare axle shafts and driveshafts are behind the front seats, where Jeep thought the rear passenger's feet should go. A space-saver CB is mounted under the dash, and on longer trail runs, a soft sided cooler gets console duties between the two front seats.

Good, Bad, & What's It For

Normally 37-inch tires with a Dana 44 front axle and a Ford 8.8 rear axle shouldn't work together. Throw in a V-8 and the axles should liquefy. With Mike's devil-may-care attitude with the gas pedal, any weaknesses should have already given up the ghost. Yet the undersized axles live day in and day out, and he keeps on giving the crowds a show. Also, somehow the transmission puts up with the abuse and wacky angles that it is regularly subjected too also seemingly without a complaint.

Considering the number of Jeeps we see, it is still rare to see a full-bodied Jeep with the seats mounted to the roll cage. Given the usage this Jeep gets, we figure that was a very prudent move.

Hard Facts

Vehicle: '88 Jeep Wrangler
Engine: '75 AMC 360
Transmission: TorqueFlite 999
Transfer Case: NP231
Suspension: TnT Customs Coil Conversion
Axles: Ford high-pinion Dana 44 (front), Ford 8.8 (rear)
Wheels: 15x8 Eagle Aluminum Mod
Tires: 37x12.50R15 Goodyear Wrangler MT/R
Built For: One Jeep to drive on extreme trails and on the road
Estimated Cost: $16,000

Why I Featured It

Michael is a cool guy who, aside from theatrics has no problem lending a hand when someone breaks down and has a good amount of mechanical know-how. Put him in a Jeep with a V-8, axles we'd typically expect in a Jeep with a six-cylinder and 35s, and then watch him drive with more skinny pedal than typically needed because it's more fun that way. Somehow the Jeep stays together and rubber side down, and I just have a good time watching Mike's unique driving style. Don't get me wrong. He isn't all gung-ho with no style or no driving skill. He's got both, and uses them. It's just that he uses them with a liberal application of throttle.- Pete Trasborg

PhotosView Slideshow

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results