Mike LeBlanc bought his '82 CJ-8 off eBay back in 2006 and had it shipped from Missouri to his home in Valley Center, California.
It's common for virgin sheetmetal to go from west-to-east, but it's far less common for Californians to import vehicles from the rust belt. But Scramblers aren't all that common, and Mike's purchase looked okay online. But when it arrived, Mike discovered the beauty was only skin-deep. The TPI 350 engine turned out to be a 305. The TH700R4 transmission wound up needing to be rebuilt. The 35x12.50R15LT "Traction Radial" tires were mounted on some of the fugliest wheels ever conceived. The front fenders were from a YJ and were fitted with color-matched TJ flares. And the body filler in some places was almost 3/4-inch thick. But Mike didn't really care because he had a plan and money wasn't a foremost concern. What he wanted was a Scrambler that could comfortably drive up to 50 miles to the trailhead, easily mob through any terrain west of the Mississippi, and then safely drive back. To make it happen, he took the Jeep to Jay Miller at TAG Motorsports in Escondido, California, for what would ultimately become a year-long, frame-up transformation.
The most surprising thing you'll notice when you stick your head under the Jeep is the stock frame still in one piece from front to back. Scrambler frames are fully boxed from the factory, so it made sense to retain it. Especially since the old-school Advance Adapters Chevy V-8 mounts were already installed. Otherwise, everything under the frame got the heave-ho.
Miller ditched the 2.73-geared factory Dana 30 and Model 20 axles, leaf springs, and spring mounts and ordered a pair of iron RockJock axles from Currie Enterprises. While the axles were being built, the frame was smoothed and prepped to accept a custom link-type, coilover suspension front and rear. Miller used a GenRight Off Road three-link front and four-link rear builder kit that included frame and axle mounts, 2-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall DOM tubing, weld-in bungs, and Johnny Joints, as well as top-quality 7/8-inch FK chromoly rod ends for the track bar. Once the axles arrived the suspension build commenced. Out back, the GenRight frame brackets worked with no problem, but up front Miller had to modify the brackets supplied with the three-link kit for clearance around the already-installed small-block Chevy engine. With the axles located, a quartet of 14-inch-travel, 2-inch-diameter King remote-reservoir coilovers were hung off the frame with some custom coil buckets. Miller liked the Currie Enterprise coil buckets, but they were about 4 inches too short for the build. He mooched some shop time from a buddy with a laser cutter and press brake and built his own copies out of 3/16-inch steel. A set of 175- over 350-lb coils up front and 200- over 300-lb coils out back dialed in the ride height for the planned 40-inch tires.
Starting from the bottom up, the 63-inch-wide Currie RockJock Dana 60 axles got the heavy-duty treatment. On the front, a Detroit Locker tickles 35-spline Superior Axle & Gear alloy shafts hugging 1480 Spicer U-joints. Miller checked the F-450 knuckle option to get the larger 35-spline stub shafts inside the Unitbearing knuckles. The gears dance to a 5.38 tune and monster 14-inch Wilwood rotors and four-piston calipers put the hurtin' on forward momentum. Out back, identical 14-inch Wilwood brakes flank alloy axleshafts, 5.38 gears, and a 35-spline spool.
Moving up the chain-o'-command, a JE Reel heavy-duty 0.250-wall CV driveshaft sporting 1350 U-joints connects the high-pinion axle to a 3.8:1 Atlas T-case mounted atop a custom crossmember built from square tube, angle iron, and 10-guage steel. On the front of the Atlas, another JE Reel heavy-duty 0.388-wall CV driveshaft with 1310 U-joints for transmission clearance was run to the front axle. The Atlas employs cable shifters and the larger 32-spline front and rear output shafts. A chunk of machined aluminum from Advance Adapters connects the Atlas to the TH700R4 that came with the Scrambler when Mike bought it. But before the final assembly, Miller sent the toasted slushbox out to Rapid Transmission in Escondido, California, for bombproofing. A five-pinion planetary from a Corvette was installed along with Kevlar clutches and bands, a high-volume pump, and an RV torque converter with a low 1,100 rpm stall.
The 305 TPI engine powered the beast for its first couple shakedown runs, but ultimately Mike deemed it didn't have enough power so Miller ordered up a Ram Jet 350 from GM Performance Parts. The Ram Jet was a bolt-in swap for the 305 and develops a solid 350hp and 400lb-ft from a very docile and drivable package. All the goodies installed onto and around the little 305 worked with the Ram Jet, including The Flex-A-Fit radiator and electric fan from Flex-A-Lite, custom-built headers by RPM Muffler in Oceanside, California, and the PSC Motorsports remote-reservoir power steering hoses and lines. The PSC pump was integrated into a new GMPP serpentine front accessory group slung on front of the Ram Jet, but that was about the only change before the new engine was slammed back between the framerails along with a few upgrades.
Body and Interior
With a tub full of body filler and some hardcore wheeling in its future, it was a given that some heavy-duty armor needed to be hung. Miller knocked all the filler out and then used GenRight Off Road front tube fenders, rocker armor, and blank rear corner armor to transform the Scrambler into a trail tank. Miller cut the wheel openings in the rear corner armor as needed and then welded on a pair of GenRight metal flares, which can be bought separately.
With the armor done, Miller got to work with the tube bender and fabricated a dual cage system that would allow Mike to run his half-cab without chopping holes in it. First, an internal cage was built that fit underneath the half-cab. Mounts were integrated to hold the PRP Daily Driver-series seats in front of the quick-release steering wheel. A plethora of Auto Meter gauges, a high-definition Garmin navigation system, and a CD/satellite stereo were mounted on a custom-built flat aluminum dash. There's even a Vintage Air HVAC system under the dash to keep the Jeep frosty-cold in the summer and toasty-warm in the winter. The electrical system to run all these electrical gizmos was frightening, but no more than the logistics of where all the switches and fuses go. Miller employed Hot Rods and Customs in Escondido, California to help build the vehicle wiring harness and run it through the 13/4-inch rollcage tubing and into a control panel mounted above the driver's head on the rollcage. There, the controls for every electrical component in the Jeep (with the exception of the turn signals) are housed, including the twin redundant Holley fuel pumps, backup lights, headlights, horn, electric fans, and more.
For the rear cage, Miller bent tubing to miss the 32-gallon Fuel Safe cell mounted below the spare 40-inch tire. He also built mounts for all of Mike's trail spares and recovery gear, ranging from his Hi-Lift Jack, shovel, fluids, cooler, and anything else he may need for up to a few days on the trail. The antennas for the satellite radio, GPS, HAM and CB radios sit atop the cage. Flanking the Jeep, a pair of GenRight YJ bumpers were modified to fit the CJ frame. Miller needed to do some extensive modifications to the front bumper hoop and mount to get the Warn PowerPlant winch to fit, but Mike uses it to air up his 40s all the time and finds he's frequently called on to winch out other stuck Jeepers.
Once the body armor and cage work was wrapped up, Miller sent the Jeep out to a local body shop to have the sheetmetal smoothed and a slightly-darker shade of red paint sprayed than the Jeep was wearing when Mike purchased it. The end result is a tastefully classy shade of red, with the top, tubing, and rockers done in black. The half-cab can be removed for open-air wheeling if desired.
Good, Bad, and What It's For
When he heard they were changing the tread design, Mike went out and bought two sets of 40x13.50R17 Goodyear MT/R tires to mount on his 17x9.5 Spyderlock wheels. It was probably a good move, but like most men, Mike has a wandering eye and he's been on the lookout for a set of extra-sticky competition tires for use in Moab slickrock. And with all that tire and wheel to push around, it's little wonder there's a 1 3/4-inch PSC Motorsports hydro-assist ram on the front heavy-wall tie rod.
On the trail, even with no antisway bars the Jeep is stable and predictable. We're sure a lot of that is thanks to the vehicle's 106-inch wheelbase, but that's not to say there aren't areas for improvement. Despite the massive 14-inch rotors, the braking system just isn't able to prevent vehicle creep when the T-case is in Low range and the tranny is in First gear or Reverse. Mike has a Dave's Custom Unlimited dual-diaphragm booster in front of a Wilwood dual 11/8-inch-bore master cylinder, but it's just not enough. We're sure the massive off-idle torque of the Ram Jet isn't helping matters, but we think a converter with a slightly higher 1,800 rpm stall speed would help the situation.
Also, the steering column is a factory Scrambler part and is getting worn out. Mike loves his column-shift, so Miller recently commissioned Ididit to build a custom column-shift replacement steering column for the Jeep. To us it seems an extravagance, but Mike has long-term plans for his Scrambler. He fully intends to be wheeling it hard for years and years to come, so why not build it the way you want it. Budget be damned.
Vehicle: '82 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler
Engine: Ram Jet 350
Transfer Case: Atlas, 3.8:1
Suspension: Custom three-link coilover (front); four-link coilover (rear)
Axles: Currie RockJock Dana 60 (front & rear)
Wheels: 17x9.5 Spyderlock beadlock. 3.5-inch backspacing
Tires: 40x13.50R17 Goodyear MT/R
Built For: Wheeling anywhere and having fun
Estimated Cost: $90,000
Why I Wrote This Feature
I used to frequent TAG Motorsports a lot for installation articles and to just plain pop in and see what they were up to. During my visits, I got to see this Scrambler build evolve and unfold. At first I couldn't understand why you'd start with such a relatively complete Scrambler if you were just going to tear it all back down to build up, but I guess Mike's vision was clearer than mine. Since the build has been finished, Mike spends every free weekend and vacation wheeling the snot out of his CJ-8. Despite the slinky coil suspension, it still retains the character and soul of a vintage Scrambler. The body isn't bobbed, the fenders aren't crazy-cut, and the whole rig is proportional and aesthetically pleasing. And it just plain mows over obstacles like they're not even there.