You ever hear that phrase "No matter where you go, there you are"? Well, in this case, it's more like, "No matter where you go, there Mike is." We've traveled all over the western U.S. covering wheeling events and it has gotten to the point that seeing Mike and his '88 Wagoneer is just kind of expected.
He's worked for Jeep building prototypes, at dealerships, and in various and sundry service positions and knows Jeeps. So when the time came for him to build one, instead of popping out the old credit card, he brought some ingenuity, some patience, and an encyclopedic knowledge of drivetrain components to bear. Mike would much rather spend his money on gas to get to the trail than on trick widget-bobs.
He's been running this Jeep on some of the most famous trails around for about nine years now, and more often than not when we see him, he is the trail leader in his much-abused white woody. So when we once again ran into him at Moab, we decided to stick our head under the hood and see just what a well-built, home-grown XJ needs to be successful through so many trips. We expected to see a lot of well-thought-out modifications using OEM components, and we weren't disappointed.
Many of the things that are on this Jeep have come together over the years of running it. Take for example the front short-arm suspension with Off Road General Store (ORGS) adjustable lower arms, Currie Enterprises adjustable upper arms, and Rubicon Express drop brackets. Elevation comes from Rubicon Express 51/2-inch-lift coil springs and Rusty's Offroad 13/4-inch poly spacers. Doestch Tech 121/2-inch-travel DT-3386 shocks attached to ZJ upper shock mount bushings with custom aluminum bumpstop extensions (3-inch top and 4-inch bottom) keep the tires out of the fenders. The front track bar mount was sourced from Rubicon Express but then modified to accept the custom-built track bar from JKS Manufacturing.
Out back is a another grouping of parts providing elevation such as Rubicon Express 51/2-inch-lift springs, Rusty's 11/2-inch-lift shackles and Rancho RS9000 shocks. ORGS bumpstop extensions are welded to the 1/2-inch-thick spring plates that locate the axle under the springs. They work with 41/2-inch-long MJ bumpstops up to keep the rear tires out of the fenders.
The well-used rock rails are homebuilt by Mike out of 2x6x3/16-inch tube and tie back to the Unitbody with four outriggers and about 4 feet of plate steel held on by 12 bolts per side. The belly skid/transmission mount from JKS mimics the stock unit, but adds a tubular skidplate for the transfer case. In the rear, the stock 20-gallon gas tank is protected by a stock Jeep gas tank skidplate and trailer hitch.
A set of 35x12.50-16 Maxxis Creepy Crawlers are wrapped around 16-inch Jeep Moab wheels from a Rubicon Wrangler and modified by OMF Performance to make them true beadlocks. Even with the 11/4-inch wheel spacers, they do rub the inner fender wells and lower control arms at full droop or compression, and during hard turns.
The stock 4.0L Renix-powered inline-six is still providing locomotion but an open style cooling system from a '91-and-up Cherokee replaced the oft-problematic pressurized bottle with a fully-welded, all-metal heavy duty radiator. An aftermarket coolant reservoir, '96 XJ electronic cooling fan (flows more than stock), HO-style heater hoses, a 180-degree thermostat, and a Turbo City high-flow housing complete the cooling improvements. A Gano coolant filter keeps whatever junk that might get into the system out of the radiator's cores. An Endless Air engine-driven air compressor provides compressed air for whatever might come up.
Shifting duties are handled by the stock AW4 automatic transmission but after that things get a little more interesting. The stock NP242 has been swapped out for a custom-built NP242HD out of a Hummer H1. The T-case has been modified with some Jeep NP242 parts to convert the full-time Hummer case to allow 2WD selection. The Hummer case nets a wider chain, 32-spline-output shaft, a six-gear planetary low-range gearset, differential side-gear needle bearings and a transfer case cooler, which isn't currently hooked up.
From there, power goes to the stock front Dana 30 high-pinion housing which has been stuffed with 4.88 gears, a Quick-Lok, and later-model shafts modified for full-circle U-joint retaining clips. Power then flows out to the WJ knuckles with '00-'06 TJ unit bearings. The brakes get a boost in the form of WJ twin-piston Akebono calipers and 12-inch-diameter vented rotors. The WJ knuckles lend themselves well to a high-steer setup obtained by flipping the tie rod to the top of the knuckle, and a WJ tie-rod end bolted to the ZJ pitman arm (which provides 1-inch of drop from stock). The axle gets some beef from JKS in the form of mini-skids for the lower control arm mounts and an Over-Axle track bar bracket welded to the axle.
Out back, a shaved high-pinion Currie 9-inch heavy-duty axle got Torino-style large bearing housing ends, 11/2-inch 35-spline shafts, a Detroit Locker with 4.86 gears, Explorer disc brakes with 48mm twin-piston calipers, and custom 11/4-inch-lift axle spring pads. A WJ master cylinder and dual-diaphragm brake booster with a proportioning valve modified to account for the rear discs round out the braking upgrades.
Body and Interior
Mike left well enough alone when it came to the body, and that theory has served him well. A lot of the modifications he has done are so subtle and contribute to the stock-like appearance, so you could mistakenly underestimate this rig's capabilities. The front Warrior bumper was moved back 11/4 inches for less front overhang and better approach angle. By moving the bumper back, the ends had to be trimmed for tire clearance and the factory tow hook mounts had to be moved back as well. The factory rear bumper was left alone, aside from the occasional rock impact.
The front and rear wheelwells were trimmed for tire clearance and the stock flares were moved up and/or stretched out to cover the opening and maintain a stock appearance. The somewhat uncommon grille isn't your normal XJ fare, but part of the Wagoneer package, which also included the faux wood trim that is still gracing the doors of this Jeep.
In the back of the Jeep and located in the grocery compartment is a recovery/tool/spare parts kit that makes your head swim. Not that there is a kitchen sink and a vise, but there's just enough to cover what he's likely to encounter. One of the big things you learn by wheeling the same vehicle hard for years is what breaks, what tools you need to fix it, and what spare parts you need. Mike not only has the tools and parts, but also has a spill kit to mop up and a tire plug/patch kit in lieu of a spare tire.
In the cab you'll find a Garmin 3006c Marine GPS with a 6.4-inch color screen and a tuned Uniden CB radio. Both units have antennas up on the roof, with a Wilson 1000 feeding the Uniden. Seats and dashboard are factory Jeep parts.
Good, Bad, and What's It For
Many of the modifications Mike has made you won't find in some build manual or text book, and the things that we'd want to change are on his short list of regrets with this build. Frankly, we are amazed that he's been able to wheel this thing for so long without it coming apart. There are stress cracks in the body here and there, but it's still straight. For any of these unit-body Jeeps, a cage is high up on our list once we start wheeling it with any regularity. Also, even with the Cherokees, once lift height gets up over five inches, we try to reach for a long-arm kit. By not doing so, Mike has kept costs down, and kept wheeling this thing, but he tells us that's one of the things he wished he'd done differently.
Why I Featured It
A lot of the XJs you see look like they've raided the Lund, Con-Ferr, or Steel Horse catalogs ,and never see any real wheeling, just dirt roads and fire trails. Mike's Wagoneer is the exact opposite of that. It doesn't scream, "Look at me!" but it goes anywhere Mike points it. And thanks to the money he's saved building it, he has gotten to wheel it like no one's business. We envy him that. -Pete Trasborg
Vehicle: '88 Jeep Wagoneer
Engine: '88 4.0L inline-six
Transmission: '88 AW4
Transfer Case: Custom NP242HD
Suspension: Short-arm five-link (front), leaf sprung (rear)
Axles: Dana 30 (front), Currie 9-inch (rear)
Wheels: 16x8 OMF-modified Jeep Moabs
Tires: 35x12.50-16 Maxxis Creepy Crawlers
Built For: To spend as much time as possible away from the daily grind.