It was at Easter Jeep Safari 2010. No, actually it was after Easter Jeep Safari. Most people had already gone home, but I was going to hang out for a few days and see what kind of rigs rolled into town after the crowds were gone. I was heading out to grab some breakfast when Hazel called, Hey I found this nice Jeepster, but I’m on my way out of town, would you mind if I gave him your phone number? I said, Sure, even though I was sure I’d find some weird orange thing with a slew of rare, haven’t-been-seen-in-fifty-years drivetrain parts, and no gauges or electrical beyond the alternator and battery.
Sam Coolbaugh called me in short order, and when I caught up with him, what I found was the total opposite of what I expected. It was mostly home-built, really clean, and almost stock-looking with a killer and reliable drivetrain hidden under the skin. I knew in a flash I needed to bring it to these pages.
Rather than ditch the chassis for something wider, Coolbaugh decided to keep the stock chassis and modify it to work. He stretched it front and rear with some 2x4 square tubing and ended up with 107 inches of wheelbase for his troubles. The front leaf springs are Deaver units intended to run in the back of a Jeepspeed XJ and damped by a pair of Rancho shocks. Out back, a three-link was fabricated by Shaffer’s Offroad in Carson City, Nevada, and the Jeep rides on Radflo coilovers. The coilovers sport 250- over 350-pound Eibach springs. The narrow frame was notched for transfer case clearance and raised so that a flat belly skid was able to be fabricated to cover both the transmission and T-case. Up front a PSC ram-assist power box was added to the frame extension.
It all starts with a GM Performance Parts ZZ4 crate engine that has a 10.5:1 compression ratio and a 670 cfm Holley Truck Avenger carburetor providing the fuel. Fumes are scavenged thanks to a pair of Summit Racing headers with 158-inch primaries dumping into two 2-inch collectors. From there Jim Farley Fabrication takes the exhaust out with a custom single 3-inch system. Both an engine-driven fan and an electric pusher fan help the dual-core aluminum radiator keep the engine cool.
The engine is backed by a TCI-built TH400 with a B&M shift kit and a B&M 1,750 rpm-stall torque converter. A B&M Supercooler is mounted under the body, above the rear axle, and is plumbed in with braided stainless lines and AN fittings to keep the transmission cool. A 4.3:1 Atlas II transfer case hands power off through a duo of 1350-equipped driveshafts.
Front and rear Dana 60 axles are stuffed with 5.13 gears and Detroit Lockers and spin 39x13.50/17 Interco Iroks wrapped around 17x8.5 Walker Evans beadlocks. The whoa comes from Chevy calipers and rotors at all four corners and a Vanco-ported hydro booster pushing on a stock ’87 Chevy diesel truck dual-pot master cylinder.
Body and Interior
Coolbaugh lopped the rockers off the body along with the sheetmetal rear overhang. He then replaced the rockers with 2x3 square tube. The rear fender openings were opened up 4 inches (all to the rear) and raised 6 inches. The front grille is actually from a CJ-7 with the Jeepster wings added to it. After his father-in-law was done painting it in the single-stage metallic blue, Coolbaugh wrapped the rockers with a rocker cover that was more Jeepster-like.
Inside, a custom tonneau cover made by Johnny’s upholstery in Carson City, Nevada, provides shade for the Corbeau-sourced front thrones and OE Jeep rear seat. The custom six-point roll cage is tied into the frame and features plenty of gussets and angles to keep everyone safe. An ARB fridge keeps things cold behind the rear seat, and the dashboard, along with the glove box door were very cleanly modified to clear the front down tubes of the cage. The floor was hosed down with Al’s Liner, and the Auto Meter gauges are housed in a random-ground aluminum plate which matches the replacement door panels.
Good, Bad, and What It’s For
We didn’t get a chance to check out how Coolbaugh got the Atlas II to clear that narrow frame, but we sure hope that he reinforced the area he had to cut out. Larger T-cases normally just don’t fit between the framerails of a Jeepster. The engine is simple, as is the transmission (for an automatic), and front and rear 60s and 1350s make for a larger parts interchange which could come in handy if something pops on the trail. Coobaugh tells us he would like to add fuel injection, which would surely improve drivability but would also add a level of complexity. For the trails he runs, we think a winch is a must; if he ran a fan shroud, there might be no need for the pusher fan.
Why I Wrote This Feature
I have a soft spot for Jeepsters. While they are becoming more popular, there still aren’t that many out there on the trails and seeing one built to this level is still quite rare indeed. Throw a V-8 in it, restore the body to stock-like condition while getting rid of the stupid rear fender skirts, and you’ve got a winner. Coolbaugh has a Jeep that could possibly win car shows, but he built it to wheel and has no problems doing so.
Vehicle: ’69 Jeepster Commando
Engine: ZZ4 GM Performance Parts 350ci V-8
Transmission: TCI TH400
Transfer Case: 4.3:1 Atlas II
Suspension: Leaf spring (front), three-link (rear)
Axles: Dana 60 (front), Dana 60 (rear)
Wheels: 17x8.5 Walker Evans beadlocks
Tires: 39.5x13.50-17 Interco IROKs
Built For: To replace a tired ’68 CJ-5.