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Cool Jeepster Buildups

Posted in Project Vehicles on November 1, 1998 Comment (0)
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Cool Jeepster Buildups

In the past few years the '67-'73 Jeepster Commandos have become popular. They are stylish and have proven to be a good Jeep platform for mods, from near-stock to full-gonzo.

Where the Jeepster began: This restored '49 Jeepster is a two-wheel-drive model, as were all '49-'50 Jeepsters. It's not unusual to see these early rigs retrofitted with a period Jeep 4x4 system, but they are generally regarded as too rare and valuable to cut into a trail brawler.

The earliest Jeepsters were built between 1948 and 1950, and were two-wheel-drive rigs. The concept was good, but they didn't sell well. In 1967 Kaiser Jeep resurrected the Jeepster, but added four-wheel-drive, a powerful V-6 engine, and a host of other goodies. This proved to be a more successful formula, and the Jeepster Commando sold reasonably well, with a little more than 57,000 units going out between 1967 and 1971, and a little more than 20,000 units sold between 1972 and 1973.

The Jeepsters came in two basic models: the '67-'71 models that were marketed during the Kaiser Jeep era, and the '72-'73 AMC-era Commandos. The redesigned '72-'73 rigs were less Jeep-like, but they had a few options that weren't offered before-namely the 232- and 258ci six, or the 304 V-8. With clearly Jeep-like design cues, however, the '67-'71 models are more popular today.

From 1967 to 1971, the top-of-the-line Jeep was the Jeepster model. It came in two-tone paint, had an optional power-operated convertible top, a continental spare tire kit, and a lot of extras. Roadster models had a snap-on soft top. A full-length hardtop came on the station-wagon models, and a half-cab pickup was available in hardtop or soft top. The '72-'73 AMC-inspired models had the same basic lineup, except for the upscale Jeepster convertible.

The Good, Bad, & Ugly
The most popular engine choice for the '67-'71 Jeepsters was the V-6 that Jeep purchased from Buick in 1966. This 225ci unit shares a bellhousing pattern with the later 231 Buick V-6 and the 300-, 240-, and 350ci Buick V-8s. The 231 and the '70s-era Buick 350s are popular swaps in this genre.

Style and performance was Steve and Sharon Jackson's goal with this '67 Jeepster convertible that was pieced together from two rigs. A comfortable ride on the highway, this Jeepster can also wheel with the best-at least to the limit of its body clearance.

Buick bought back the 225 from AMC and developed it into some of the light V-6s GM offers today. All of the Buick V-6s come in two types: odd-fire and even-fire, but only the 225 odd-fire was used by Jeep. The odd-fire engines were developed from V-8s, so their firing order is, well, odd. While the odd-fire engines run a bit rougher than the even-fire, the odd-fire engines are considered to have a much stronger lower end, due to the crankshaft design.

V-8s are a bit of a tough fit in the early Jeepsters, because they have a short nose, and some fabrication skill is required to slip them in. Keeping the OE V-6 is a good option, because it offers adequate power, and hop-up parts are available. Another possible option would be the 4.3L Vortec engines. The F-head four is pretty anemic and not very common. With the weak drivetrain that originally accompanied it, you'd be starting from scratch with one of these.

In 1972 the 232 inline six became the standard powerplant, with the 258ci and 304 V-8 optional. All of these engines are durable and powerful, so it's purely a matter of taste. As with the '70s-era CJ, the AMC sixes and V-8s interchange with having to replace just a few bolt-in pieces, and the longer nose of these later rigs allows more flexibility in engine choices. That means that AMC V-8s in 290, 304, 343, 360, 390, and 401 ci become potential bolt-in swaps. A good number of soup-up parts are available, but not like the availability of more common engines.

If you like automatics, the Jeepsters came with a great one: the legendary GM Turbo 400. The bellhousing was made to the Buick pattern. When the AMC engine debuted in the Jeep lineup for 1972, an adapter plate was used to mate it to the Buick pattern bellhousing. Chevy pattern TH-400s are a direct swap if you want to drop in a Chevy. If you lust after an AMC 6 or V-8 for a V-6-powered Jeepster, the AMC engine adapter pieces were also seen on Wagoneers in late 1971 and 1972, before the pattern was altered, and are generally cheap at the wrecking yards.

The three-speed manuals are ho-hum from a trail-performance standpoint, but the T14 (V-6 engine only) was the best of the '67-'71 bunch, and the nearly bulletproof T15 was tops in the '72-'73 rigs. The close-ratio T18 four-speed (4.02 First gear) was optional in '72-'73 six-cylinder Commandos. With a few minor mods, the wide-ratio T18 (6.32 First gear) can be installed in these rigs.

View Slideshow

The transfer case throughout the entire run was the bulletproof Dana 20. Though hampered by a tall 2.03:1 low range, it's still a good choice. Dana 18 or early Bronco gears can be swapped in to give a 2.43:1 low range.

The original '70 225 V-6 was retained with a few enhancements. This engine offers comparable power to the better-known 232 and 258 AMC sixes. Net power was 112 hp-about the same as the 258. With the tall tires and 3.73 gears, this engine delivers road mileage in the high teens and at respectable speeds.

Axle choices ranged from the wimpy to the decent. Up front, the earlier rigs used a Dana 27 closed-knuckle axle that's OK for low power use. The later open-knuckle Dana 30 had a little more beef. The Jeepster front axle had the same spring center dimensions as the CJ. Dana 44s are commonly swapped in for higher power applications.

In back, a rather spindly Dana 30 handled the four-cylinder rigs. A Dana 44 was optional for them, and standard for V-6s. Sometime in late 1969 the Dana 30 was dropped, and all Jeepsters thereafter had a Dana 44. Through 1970 the Dana 44 was a tapered axle setup. Afterward, the stronger flanged axle was used. The rear axle used an odd 36.5-inch spring center dimension that makes swapping a little more difficult. Drum brakes were used throughout the run.

The '67-'71 Jeepsters were built on a 101-inch wheelbase-the same as the CJ-6. The chassis is similar to the CJ, but quite a bit beefier. The wheelbase on the '72-'73 rigs were stretched 2 inches to accommodate the change of engines, and extra room was added to the front. The wheelbase seems to be a good "all-round" dimension that suits a variety of terrain. The major failing of the Jeepster body for trail work is its prodigious rear overhang and vulnerable rocker panels. Lift and big tires can negate some of this. A few owners have elected to do major surgery on the tail and rockers. Some have even "bobbed" them, which is done with some Scramblers.

The main thing to remember with regard to a Jeepster buildup is that you will be required to use (or develop) good fabrication skills. Not a lot of ready-made parts are available to fit Jeepsters beyond what just happens to fit other rigs. There is a fair bit of interchange with other Jeeps for mechanical stuff, but they may not be the right parts. That said, the Jeepster is a great 4x4 and can hold its own on any build-up level.

A Tale of Two Jeepsters To show you what's possible with the Jeepster line, we'll illustrate with two nicely done rigs. One is an enhanced stocker that shows how much trail bang you can get for not a lot of buck-and still retain the original flavor and comfort the Jeepster was famous for. The other rig is a no-holds-barred trail brawler, but one that was done without a lot of funding. The goal was great performance via clever choices and fabrication.

Resurrected Hailing from Parker, Colorado, Steve and Sharon Jackson's Jeepster is actually two made into one. Most of the mechanicals are '70 vintage, with the convertible body dating to 1967. It's registered as a '67. This is what happens when you have a rustbucket in great mechanical shape and a great body with no mechanicals.

Steve retained the 225 V-6, which he rebuilt and bored .030 over. The internals remained stock, although he added an Offy 360 intake, a 500-cfm Carter AFB four-barrel, and a custom air filter, as well as a set of Holley valve covers for looks. A '70s-era HEI distributor replaces the old point-style unit.

The Turbo 400 trans and Dana 20 are stock, with the exception of the higher stall 10-inch torque converter. The stock Dana 30 front and Dana 44 rear axles were retained from the '70 Jeepster, but Steve added 4.88 cogs with ARB Air Lockers front and rear. A set of 33x9.50-15 BFG Mud-Terrains completes the transmission of power to the ground. As is common in Jeepsters, rear fenderwell clearance is tight, so Steve opened the fender eyebrow 3 inches to accommodate the BFGs.

The OE springs were re-arched to give a 2-inch lift, and a set of aftermarket shackles were installed in the rear. In combination with Trail Master shocks, the Jeepster flexes well and gives a good ride.

With a custom rollbar, a CB and a Warn 8000 pound winch, Steve is well prepared for the trail. Favorite haunts are in the Moab, Utah, area, where size is not a huge issue, and the 101-inch wheelbase really works for him.

View Slideshow

Full Gonzo Jeepster
Lyle and Leona Schrader of Grand Junction, Colorado, started off with a pretty stock '69 Jeepster in 1980. It was badly wrecked, so Lyle, an industrial arts instructor, rebuilt it with a few enhancements.

The Dana 44 rear axle is a CJ-5 transplant, though the spring perches had to be moved outboard to accommodate the Jeepster's wider stance.

In front, an '88 Chevy 350 truck engine supplies more than adequate power and torque. The throttle body injection system makes the engine smooth, tractable, and reasonably economical. Stock big-engine performance was what Lyle was looking for, and the Chevy delivers.

The 350 is backed up by a Chevy TH-400 that is enhanced with an old Kenne Bell "Switch Pitch" torque converter. At the flip of a switch, the stall speed can be increased from 2,000 rpm to 3,000 rpm. This product is apparently no longer on the market, and Lyle finds it a bit of an overkill with the 350. It was a valuable tool, however, when he was still running a V-6.

The TH-400 is mated to a Dana 300 transfer case via an Advance Adapters piece. The 300's 2.6:1 low range goes nicely with the 3.73 cogs that are fitted to a pair of Dana 44s. Up front, the Chevy Blazer 44 axle is fitted with five-bolt Ford 1/2-ton hubs and rotors to match the Jeep wheel pattern. Chevy brake calipers are used.

Lyle fitted an ARB Air Locker up front, but uses an Eaton-Fuller range control switch to engage it. He converted a GM rotary A/C compressor to pump air, and, combined with the cowl-mounted air tank, he has air for the ARB as well as for tires and air tools.

In back, the '74 CJ-5 Dana 44 (this Jeepster originally came with a rear Dana 30) has been beefed with a Detroit Locker and another pair of Moser axles. Currently, the rear axle is using drum brakes, but will use a disc conversion in the future. A Corvette master cylinder is already bolted up for this.

Suspension-wise, a set of custom-designed Alcan springs gives a 4-inch lift, but remains nice and flexible. A single Black Diamond AT shock at each corner provides dampening. Up front, the old-style shock mounts were torched off and replaced with the mounts taken from a "wide track" Jeep Honcho pickup. Early on, Lyle converted the steering to the ever-popular Saginaw type, and had beefed up the tie rods with angle iron.

Spartan and functional, the interior is still recognizable as a Jeepster. The air valve from a big truck two-speed rear axle was fitted to the transfer case. This controls the engagement of the front ARB Air Locker.

Lyle likes the 33x12.50-15 BFG Mud-Terrains, and fitted them on 15x8 American Racing chromed steel wheels. In addition to the suspension lift, a 2-inch body lift and a fair bit of fender trimming was required to fit the big meats. They clear, but barely.

The Jeepster body got more than just a light trim in preparation for its trail-brawler role. Four inches was taken from the lower part of the body, front to back, even though this required some reinforcement in areas like the lower part of the door openings. A diamond-plate reinforces and protects the cut area. To accompany the body lift, Lyle had to reinforce the floor of the rear area. He also fabricated a new tailgate.

The Jeepster still wears its original-style convertible top, although making a rollcage fit under it was not an easy task. The interior remains mostly Jeepster with a few additions for practicality.

The Schrader's Jeepster has proven itself on almost every tough trail in Utah and Colorado, including the notorious 21 Road, Rattler, Holy Cross, Iron Chest, and Mount Blanca, as well as slickrock spots such as Pritchett Canyon and the Golden Spike, among others.

Factory Jeepster Running Gear
ENGINES
Type CID Power Torque CR Years Offered
four-cyl., F-head 134 72 at 4,000* 114 at 2,000* 6.9:1 '67-'71 (std.)
four-cyl., F-head 134 74 at 4,000* 117 at 2,000* 7.4:1 '67-'71 (opt.)
V-6, OHV 225 160 at 4,200* 235 at 2,400* 9.0:1 '67-'71 (opt.)
six-cyl., inline 232 100 at 3,600 185 at 1,600 8.0:1 '72-'73 (std.)
six-cyl., inline 258 110 at 3,500 195 at 2,000 8.0:1 '72-'73 (opt.)
V-8, OHV 304 150 at 4,200 245 at 2,500 8.4:1 '72-'73 (opt.)

TRANSMISSIONS
Type 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Rev. Torque Capacity Years Offered
three-speed, T14 3.10 2.61 1.00 - 3.10 230 lb-ft '67-'71 w/V-6 '72-'73 w/six-cyl. (1)
three-speed, T86cc 3.39 1.85 1.00 - 4.53 150 lb-ft '67-'71 w/F-4 (2)
three-speed, T86aa 2.88 1.68 1.00 - n/a n/a '67-'71 w/V-6 (3)
three-speed, T15 2.97 1.55 1.00 - 2.99 325 lb-ft '72-'73 std. V-8 (4)
four-speed, T18 4.02 2.41 1.41 1.00 4.73 340 lb-ft '72-'73 opt. six-cyl. (5)
three-speed, TH-400 2.48 1.48 1.00 - 2.07 400 lb-ft '67-'73 opt., V-6, I-6, V-8 (6)

TRANSFER CASE
Type Low Range High Range Years Offered
Dana 20 2.03 1.00 1967-1973

FRONT AXLES
Type Std. Ratios Opt. Ratios Ltd. Slip Years Offered
Dana 27AF 4.27 5.38 none '67-'71 F-4 engine
Dana 27AF 3.73 4.27, 4.88 none '67-'71 V-6 engines
Dana 30 3.73 4.27 none '72-'73 I-6, V-8

REAR AXLES
Type Std. Ratios Opt. Ratios Ltd. Slip Years Offered
Dana 30 4.27 5.38 Powr-Lok '67-'69 F-4
Dana 44 3.73 4.27, 4.88 Powr-Lok '67-'73 opt. & V-6, I-6, V-8

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