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'98 Jeep Wrangler

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 2002
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Close your eyes, and imagine the perfect Jeep, er no, don’t close your eyes, it’s hard to read that way, but still imagine the perfect Jeep. How would you build it in your mind? We don’t know about you, but we’re thinking of a Jeep with a super flexible suspension, low center of gravity, big gnarly tires grabbing the ground, V-8 power under the hood, powdercoated everything, nice looking, light weight, daily driveable, cheap or free Jeep buggy. Sounds good right? Well we recently ran into a Jeep that was damn near all of these things, except for the cheap or free part, but it’s still damn cool, and its owned by Jerry and Barbara Bruce of Farmington, New Mexico. This ’98 TJ has been built up a couple of different times, but the latest incarnation has everything just about right. Aluminum V-8 power, 37-inch tires, Ford 9-inch axles, a custom-built frame and body, tons of flex, and everything that ain’t either made of aluminum, glass, plastic, fiberglass, or cloth has been powdercoated—that’s right, the frame and body too. The best part is although there is a lot of time and money in this rig, Jerry actually beats the snot out of it off-road.

Chassis & Driveline

After rolling the TJ at the last ARCA event of 2001 Jerry decided it was time to put his TJ on a diet. The Jeep was torn down to the frame where S&S Engine and Machine of Farmington installed the aluminum Chevy V-8, the TH350, and 3:1 Atlas II Highlander. An aluminum Chevy block, which Jerry used for a previous car project, was outfitted with Eagle rods, a Lunati roller cam, Brodix heads, a Dart intake manifold, a 4DI Holley Fuel Injection System, and some block-hugger headers to name a few parts. The overall combination yields a 9.3:1 compressioned 409 small-block making a dyno-tested 425 hp and 487 lb-ft of torque. This motor was then bolted to a manual valvebody–equipped, TransGo-shifted TH350 with a soft-hit 1,800-rpm-stall Hughes torque converter. A 14-inch fan-cooled Perma-Cool unit does the transmission cooling.

Tire turning duties fall to a set of Currie-prepped Ford 9-inch axles. The front 9-inch turns 4.10:1 gears on an ARB via a high-pinion Currie centersection, while a Howe steering box and ram-assist steer the attached Ford F-450 knuckles. The rear axle spins like gears on another ARB Air Locker all housed in a Strange aluminum centersection. A Willwood disc brake slows each of the Jeep’s four corners while dual-line locks, front and rear, come in handy when winching others.

First the Jeep’s frame was lengthened by American Expedition Vehicles for a 104-inch wheelbase. S&S later rotated the steering box parallel with the frame, then 3 inches were removed from the front of the framerail to improve the approach angle of the TJ. A total of 13 inches were also chopped from the rear of the frame to help the departure angle. The front S&S custom three-link suspension uses 10-inch-travel Fox shocks and Explorer Pro Comp springs. The custom rear four-link suspension consists of 12-inch-travel Fox shocks and Explorer Pro Comp springs.

Body & Interior

The body of this Jeep was severely altered by Campbell Enterprises of Chandler, Arizona, who also fabricated the intricate rollcage. To start out, Nick and Shannon Campbell started cutting the TJ’s original body up to start the reconstruction. The only original parts of the original TJ are the cowl, part of the grille, and the windshield. Once these pieces were liberated from the rest of the TJ’s trail-mangled body, new Wrangler side panels were attached to the cowl. These side panels were then bent in slightly just behind the door resulting in a TJ with a body tub 16 inches narrower in the back than stock. Next some corners and a rear panel were attached between the two side panels to finish the outer portion of the Wrangler tub. Next the floor and trunk area of the tub were hand fabricated out of 1/8-inch aluminum. The aluminum floor bolts to the body, and in turn, to the frame through the frame-mounted rocker guards. Sandwiched on top of the body and the rocker guards is the Campbell Enterprise–built 1¾-inch, 0.120-inch-wall DOM-tubing cage.

This cage encloses the passenger compartment of the Jeep, and also extends to a hoop just behind the radiator to protect the radiator and engine. The frame, body, and cage are all bolted together so that if need be the entire Jeep can be disassembled for repair or replacement of any of the pieces. This also means that when apart these pieces were small enough to have been powdercoated. The results? The body, frame, and cage are all powdercoated. You can’t powdercoat Bondo, so all of the bodywork had to be damn near perfect and the attention to detail is remarkable. The front fiberglass hood was painted to match the powdercoated parts of the body and the rear of the tub was enclosed with an aluminum trunk lid for storage.

Inside the cage, the driver and passenger are held in place by vinyl and cloth covered Beard Street SR seats. The gauges are by Auto Meter, the wiring by Painless. The fuse box and control box for the Holley Fuel Injection are mounted to a drop-out panel under the dash to keep things clean yet readily accessible. Rock Gear, of Farmington, made the tight fitting canvas top.

Wheels & Tires

The 37-inch Goodyear MT/Rs are firmly held in place on a set of 15x8 Champion bead-locked Weld Outbacks. Jerry claims the Jeep can fit 39-inch tires without rubbing, but chose the 37s for this year’s Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah.

Good, Bad, & What It's For

Jerry and his TJ competed in all four ARCA events in 2001. By the end of the season the Jeep was in need of lots of TLC. Jerry decided to rebuild, but he did not want to have the same heavy 4,200-pound TJ, so the dietetic rebuild of the Wrangler was started. The Jeep now weighs 3,400 pounds, climbs any rock it wants to, and looks good doing it.

What We Think

We dig Jerry’s Jeep, but if you want one like it you’d better start casing some banks. When we asked Jerry how much he spent on the Jeep he said “Way too much!” Yeah, we know. But it’s definitely a one of a kind Jeep, and worth every dime.

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