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A 1997 Wrangler That Just Works

Posted in Project Vehicles on October 1, 2011
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Sometimes it’s funny how things work out. Most of the time we find features out on the trails, but this one we flagged down on Main Street in Moab, Utah, during the 2011 Easter Jeep Safari. After a week of tripping over cookie-cutter TJs and JKs, all we’d managed to rack up for feature Jeeps were a bunch of 50- and 60-year-old Willys. We were lamenting the lack of originality in so many of the newer rigs when this thing drove past.

If you had described it to us, it has all the stuff we don’t normally go for. It’s black, so shooting photos of it where it pops is difficult. It’s got a bunch of polished aluminum armor on it, which we normally find tacky (not to mention time consuming). And finally, it’s sporting an ’80s-era scalloped design on the side of it. Each element on its own would normally scare us off, but working together on this Jeep it is somehow okay.

Added to the cool retro-modern look is a drivetrain that wasn’t built by walking a credit card through a parts magazine—and to top it off, it works very well off-road. With all that we’d found our first Jeep of Easter Jeep Safari manufactured this side of disco that we really dug, and figured you would, too.

The chassis is the standard mandrel-bent 2½ x 4 x 0.120-wall square-tube TJ frame. In an effort to keep things simple, the sway bars were simply tossed in the junk pile. The factory upper and lower control arm mounts were razed off the frame to make way for the TeraFlex LCG 4-inch kit. The wheelbase was stretched out to 100 inches and a rear GenRight Off Road Crawler gas tank made room for the added wheelbase. The belly pan is a TeraFlex belly-up skidplate that is included in the LCG kit and the gas tank is the normal 3⁄16-inch-thick GenRight skid that is included with the gas tank. Shocks are the TeraFlex 9550 gas-charge units.

A PSC steering box was hung on the frame in the stock location and works in conjunction with a PSC pump, reservoir, and ram to push the tires around. A GenRight front bumper and steering box skidplate protect the box from damage and a GenRight rear crossmember provides recovery points and a place to mount the GenRight LED backup lights.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could be theme for this Jeep. The factory 4.0L inline-six is still bolted to the TF999 three-speed automatic transmission. The engine breathes easier thanks to a Spectre Performance cold air cowl intake system and a Magnaflow muffler. The transmission has a large cooler from Pep Boys mounted behind the grille to pull temps down. The NP231 is still there too, but it was opened up and had a TeraFlex 4:1 low range thrown in it with a TeraFlex slip yoke eliminator kit tacked on the back. From there things get non-stock.

A pair of JE Reel 1350-jointed driveshafts sends power down to the front and rear Dana 60 differentials. The 60s were yanked out of junkyard trucks and then stuffed with 5.13 gears, ARB Air Lockers, and RCV axleshafts and buttoned up with Crane differential covers. The front axle also benefits from Crane kingpin inner and outer knuckles. Power is put to the ground through a set of 17x9 Raceline Rock Monster beadlocks wrapped with 40x13.50R17 Goodyear MT/Rs with Kevlar.

Body and Interior
The body armor is one of the first things you notice about this Jeep thanks to the distinctive paint scheme. The rear corners are GenRight Off Road armor polished to a high shine while the scallops on the doors are GenRight’s door armor both polished and painted with mini-boatside rocker armor below that and GenRight windshield armor above. The front tube fenders are GenRight’s high-clearance fenders and a Warn Endurance 12.0 winch sits on the front bumper protected by a GenRight Trail Series stinger. The 40-inch Goodyear MT/R spare tire is on an aluminum swing-away GenRight tire carrier.

Inside, MasterCraft Baja RS seats front and rear provide comfortable thrones for driver and front and rear passengers and a weld-together GenRight rollcage rounds out the modifications inside. The factory gauges, dash, and center console are all still in un-modified use.

Good, Bad, and What It’s For
We like that the good factory parts were left alone as much as possible. There is often no faster way to make a good Jeep unreliable than monkeying with the factory drivetrain. It won’t win any drag races, but it will get there in the end. Unlike many Jeepers we actually like driving Jeeps, so ditching the sway bars isn’t something we can stand behind; we can’t imagine sidehilling in this thing, but we do like the K.I.S.S. thinking that is behind it. And pulling junkyard Dana 60s, rebuilding them, and tossing them under it is a play right out of our book.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: ’97 Wrangler Sport
Engine: 4.0L inline-six
Transmission: TF999
Transfer Case: NP231
Suspension: TeraFlex LCG 4-inch (front and rear)
Axles: Dana 60 (front), Dana 60 (rear)
Wheels: 17x9 Raceline Monster beadlocks
Tires: 40x13.50R17 Goodyear MT/R with Kevlar
Built For: Rockcrawling

Why I Wrote This Feature
Contrary to what many who meet me believe, I do like TJs and JKs. However, it just seems so hard to find any that have any personality. Unlike the older Jeeps, the new Wranglers have so much aftermarket support it is very easy to make them perform well. The problem is that with the ready availability of bolt-on parts a lot of the creativity I see in old Jeeps gets lost, and every Wrangler seems like a clone of the last one—just in a different color. Not the case here. Also, it seems so many newer Wrangler owners must have black credit cards to get a new Jeep with a swapped-in V-8 and swapped-in axles that cost more than every Jeep I own, and stuff that was stabbed in just because. Again, not the case here. “Keep It Stupid, Simple” is hard at work here, and it just flat works.

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