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Dropping a Willys on a Wrangler

Red Wagon Body Swap

Fred WilliamsPhotographer, Writer

Sometimes a project requires hitting the restart button. I found this Red 1961 Willys Wagon in a garage where it had sat since 1978 with a blown Ford Y-block V-8 engine (by “blown” I mean blown apart, not supercharged—it literally had a hole in the side). I drug it home and did a new V-8 swap in record time for a video, but in doing so the Jeep could go but not really stop, as we had adapted a new V-8 to the tired old drivetrain. The steering wasn’t great, the gearbox was leaking, and both old axles were due for a rebuild. Plus there was a giant hole where the firewall had been because I didn’t have time to finish it. One night I was trying to move it around the workshop and it ran into another vehicle because of the lack of brakes. It wasn’t bad, but I was annoyed with this cool-looking Jeep with a nice new engine that was still undrivable. I parked it and stewed on it for almost a year.

I decided to start over. The V-8 was great but would require an all new drivetrain. If I was going for a new drivetrain, I might as well just swap a later-model Jeep under the Red Wagon. I’d seen it done by the Mopar Underground with a TJ Wrangler Unlimited frame and drivetrain, and the resulting 4.0L Wagon was a good all-around Jeep.

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I was soon on the hunt for an LJ or TJ but instead found a 1993 YJ that had been wrecked. The price was good, and it had a 4.0L, an AX15 five-speed, and an NP231 T-case. The YJ suspension is easy to upgrade with better springs and shocks to clear bigger tires and support the heavier Wagon body. The YJ axles aren’t spectacular, but I knew where to get axles better than new. As for that V-8 I was pulling out of the Wagon, well, I have no shortage of ideas for where that can live (hint: future projects!).

The Red Wagon was rebuilt in record time again with plenty of help from my friend and cohost on our web show, Dirt Every Day, Dave Chappelle. The result turned out better than ever. We now have four-wheel disc brakes. We have a rugged, reliable fuel-injected straight-six engine. And the leaf-sprung suspension is simple and rides well. The Red Wagon is ready to make up for all that time it was sitting in a garage getting dusty. Now it’s time to go get it dirty.