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T-Jay Miller-Bilt: 1997 Jeep Wrangler

Posted in Project Vehicles on November 1, 2010
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Sometimes we're a bit self-serving here at Jp magazine. It seems that if we're not bilking old ladies out of their bingo money we're talking friends into buying Jeeps they didn't know they needed so we don't have to. Jay and Ricki Miller's '97 TJ is a good example. Jay, a long-time friend, was gently persuaded into purchasing the then-fresh Wrangler shortly after Cappa took the reigns as Editor of Jp magazine sometime back in '00. You see, magazine folk are generally dirt poor and bad with money. So when it was determined a good Wrangler was needed on which the magazine could test parts, nobody on staff could afford to buy one. Thankfully, Jay is wiser with a dollar than we and infinitely more skilled with a wrench. He bought the TJ and over the course of the next 10 years treated it to countless build iterations, many off-the-shelf and custom-fabricated components, and a whole lot of real-world off-road testing. The culmination of all that effort is the Creamsicle-colored off-road machine you see here. Is it finished? Not by a long-shot. But JKs are getting pretty popular and the last time we checked our bank account we couldn't afford one of those. Hey, Jay....

Most Wrangler aficionados will notice certain key items missing from the factory frame. Foremost of which are the stock suspension mounts including the coil, shock, and control arm brackets. Jay ditched those long ago in favor of his (as we call it) Miller-Bilt front and rear three-link suspensions. Up front, a pair of long, burly lower links were fabbed up using 11/2-inch, 0.120-wall tubing sleeved with 13/4-inch, 0.120-wall tubing. The 0.250-wall links were capped with Johnny Joints at both ends and hooked to the frame side with custom brackets. A single upper control arm built from 13/4-inch, 0.188-wall DOM also sports dual Johnny Joints and allows better flex with less potential for binding than a four-link. Out back, similarly-stout lower links were built with 13/4-inch 0.250-wall tubing and treated to a high-clearance bend before getting capped with Johnny Joints at the axle end and M.O.R.E. Boulder Bushings at the frame end. The Boulder Bushings keep the bent links from flopping side-to-side as the suspension articulates. A custom wishbone upper link was built out of 13/4-inch, 0.188-wall DOM and treated to a Johnny Joint on the axle and Boulder Bushings at the frame.

At each corner resides a GenRight Off Road coilover shock mount. The mounts support a quartet of Walker Evans Racing 16-way-adjustable coilover shocks. Jay runs 12-inch travel shocks in the front and 10-inchers in the rear. Eibach coils hold up the armored body to the tune of 150lb-over-400lb springs in the front and 225lb-over-400lb springs in the rear. The resulting suspension gives the Jeep roughly a 3.5-inch lift over stock and, thanks to the rear shock's steep mounting angle of roughly 34-degrees, front and rear axles flex about the same.

To make it all go down the road without changing lanes by itself or rolling on the trail, Jay employed a pair of Currie Enterprises Antirocks with modified arms to clear his frame and suspension components. The antisway bars offer a great deal of stability on and off the trail without impeding flex to any large degree. To point the Jeep in the right direction, Jay built his own track bar and drag link with 13/8-inch, 0.188-wall tubing and rod ends. A PSC Motorsports heavy-duty tie rod/drag link kit was used to build the 13/8-inch, 0.250-wall tie rod assembly with large 1-ton GM ends which gets shoved side-to-side via a PSC Motorsports full hydro-assist steering setup including the company's steering gear, pump, remote-mounted reservoir, lines, hoses, and fittings.

Since Jay's Wrangler left the factory with a tried-and-true 4.0L workhorse, he was smart enough to leave it alone for the most part. An Airaid cold air filter connects to the factory ducting before spitting intake air through a bored 62mm throttle body sitting atop a PowerAid throttle body spacer. The stock ignition lights the mixture, which is then plumbed through the factory tubular header and catalytic converter before spitting out a little shortie Flowmaster 40-series muffler with a turn-down right beside the T-case.

Another durable and capable factory component, the AX-15 five-speed transmission flogs cogs without complaining, grinding, or buzzing. And its 3.83:1 First gear ratio isn't exactly a bummer because the four-speed Atlas T-case offers a super-duper-mega-gega-crawl ratio of 10.34:1 when both the 2.72:1 planetary crawler box and 3.8:1 Atlas are dropped into low range at the same time. Of course, they can be engaged independently for either 2.72:1 or 3.8:1 low range depending on trail requirements. The Teraflex BellyUp skid plate had to be modified slightly to cram all that drivetrain in there, but it works thanks in part to a 1-inch Currie body lift that ekes a bit more clearance between the skidplate and the floorboards. To deal with all the twist delivered from the deep T-case gearing, a pair of JE Reel CV driveshafts rides the roundy-round to the axles. The front is a 1310 while the rear is an extreme-duty 1350 balanced for freeway speeds.

Sucking up all that power is a JK Dana 44 front axle from Mopar Performance. The axle runs the factory electronic locker activated by a Mopar Performance wiring harness and switch plumbed into the cab, but the rest of the axle has been upgraded. The gears were swapped to 4.88s and a pair of Superior Evolution-series shafts loaded with Spicer 5-760X U-joints work with the older Solid Axle Spyntec hub conversion. The Spyntec runs a 5x5.5 bolt pattern to match the rear. Jay retained the stock JK lower and cast-in upper control arm mounts, but ditched the factory shock, bucket, and passenger-control arm mounts for simpler ones he built to work with his existing steering and suspension. A set of Dynatrac ProSteer ball joints keeps the knuckles attached to the housings, despite the factory joints' intentions to the contrary.

Out back, a high-clearance Currie 9-inch housing is flanked by a pair of 1/2-ton Ford drum brakes. Between the binders lay a Currie high-pinion centersection with 4.88 gears strapped to a 35-spline spool. A pair of Currie 35-spline axleshafts cut to deliver 63 inches between the wheel mounting surfaces ensures shaft breakage won't be a problem. In addition to heading shops for 4-Wheel Parts, TAG Motorsports, and others, Jay is a Navy-certified welder, so attaching the upper wishbone and control arm brackets to the rear housing wasn't a big deal.

Body and Interior
The Jeep started out white. Plain, boring white. Disgusting, trailer-trash white. Eh, anyway, one day we dropped by the shop and didn't recognize the Jeep, save for the big 37x13.50R17 Nitto Mud Grappler tires wrapped around 17x9 Spyderlock wheels. Apparently, Jay ponied up the large coin for just enough House of Kolor Tangelo paint to slather the exterior. That's right: exterior only. The underhood area is still white, which gives the Jeep a Creamscicle vibe. But Jay is a friend, so we won't bring that up. Oops. Despite the high price for the actual paint, the color transformation was done on-the-cheap. Jay traded some gear work to his bodyman-neighbor, who sprayed the Jeep with very professional results.

Anyhoo, all that shiny paint is covering Poison Spyder Custom tube fenders up front and Crusher Corners out back. Jay ordered the Crusher Corners unassembled so he could cut the wheel opening higher up for more fender clearance. Once that was done, the tubes were welded on. On the down-low, a pair of Rocker Knockers originally ordered without the tubular slide were installed, but Jay fabbed up his own slides once he figured he wanted them. Flanking the ends of the Jeep are Warn bumpers that have survived hundreds of rock encounters and are still going strong.

Moving to the interior, a pair of PRP Daily Driver seats and PRP harnesses replace the factory buckets and belts and make a nice perch from which Jay can toggle his Foster's beer tap tranny shifter. The stock cage was yanked in favor of a Poly Performance Sports Cage made from 13/4-inch, 0.120 DOM. Once TIG welded, Jay sent the cage out to be powdercoated in the same gunmetal silver finish as the bumpers and other accents.

Either the factory soft-top or a bikini top keep the sun off of Jay's and Ricki's heads when hitting the trail, and a custom 1/2-inch plywood shelf covered with industrial-grade floor mat material holds their camping gear above the Tuffy Security Cargo Drawer. Trail spares, tools, and recovery equipment galore ride full-time in the Cargo Drawer.

Good, Bad, and What It's For
Jay's Jeep is fully-streetable, yet very capable off-road. Although the big Nitto tires howl like a drunken banshee on tarmac, they claw and grab like a demon off-road, especially at the single-digit pressures allowed by the Spyderlock wheels. Warn oil and fuel skidplating ensure that the fluids all stay where they should. The Jeep is also set up for any recovery job, save for welding. There's a Warn M8000 winch spooled full of Viking Offroad synthetic winch line all bolted to a MileMarker mount up front. Jay hid the solenoid packs under the hood, but the remote plug is still readily accessible in the front of the grille. A little custom wiring work goes a long way in clean lines and simplicity. A 10-pound Powertank rig waits for the tire patch kit to come out and a Hi-Lift jack is poised for whatever you can think up. Underhood, a Viair 350 compressor is mounted below the master cylinder with a chuck plumbed through the driver-side fender for quick access. Jay is pretty happy with the Jeep with a few exceptions. The SpynTec hubs don't really center the calipers over the rotor hats, so the inner pads rub when going down the road. One of these days, Jay plans on upgrading the JK axle tube strength and possibly finding a better solution to the knuckle outers. He also wants to upgrade the rear centersection to a True Hi9 so he can run some deeper axle gears. And then there's the much-desired Dodge 5.2L V-8 swap. But that's another story.

Hard Facts

  • Vehicle: '97 Jeep Wrangler
  • Engine: 4.0L
  • Transmission: AX-15
  • Transfer Case: Four-speed Atlas
  • Suspension: Three-link coilover (front & rear)
  • Axles: JK Dana 44 (front); Currie 9-inch (rear)
  • Wheels: 17x9 Spyderlock beadlocks
  • Tires: 37x13.50R17 Nitto Mud Grappler
  • Built For: Wheeling and Driving
  • Estimated Cost: $40,000

Why I Wrote This Feature
I consider Jay a buddy, but no matter how good a friend is, he's not getting a feature in this magazine if he drives a big, honking pile of crap. I like Jay's TJ. It's well-built, cleanly executed, and devoid of gaudy trinkets and baubles. The color is bold and pops oh-so-nicely whether in the sun or indoors. Like many of my faves, it's got it where it counts and leaves well enough alone. I appreciate the fact that Jay kept certain components like the AX-15 to better afford other higher-priority modifications like the rear axle upgrade and four-speed T-case. And it's pretty cool that every bolt, weld bead, and oil change has been done by Jay's own hands.
-Christian Hazel

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