1,000-mile $1,000 J-truck recovery
'73 Jeep J-20: The Long Road Home
I didn't need another Jeep; I wasn't even looking for one. If I was, I didn't know what I was looking for. I really didn't even want another Jeep. Unfortunately for me, Tech Editor Hazel has an addiction. Like some kind of crack junkie, he religiously searches out Jeeps for sale on the computer and in free print ads. You'll often find him pecking away on CollectorCars.com or Recycler.com, and when we go on road trips, he's always grabbing the free local papers to look for the best deals on some wonder of a Jeep. He doesn't have the cash to buy 'em, the space to store 'em, or a significant other who will let him have 'em, but he still looks anyway and parades his precious junk Jeep discoveries to several of us around the office. I say "junk" 'cause that's what most of 'em are. I'm convinced his key search words are "broken," "missing parts," "doesn't run," "major rust damage," and "ran when parked."
That's how all this started. During a late night writing binge, Hazel e-mailed me an online ad. This one even had a photo. It read, "'73 Jeep J-20, four-speed, 4WD, power steering, power brakes, rebuilt 304 V-8 and T-98 transmission, Edelbrock manifold, cam, lifters, and valve springs, Holley carburetor, $1,000." So I started thinking about owning a J-truck. Nowhere in the ad did it say "not running" or even "runs rough." It looked like the guy had actually spent some money on the motor and drivetrain, leading me to believe this J-truck was a driver. The T-98 mention confused me since it should have been a T-18; it said it was a four-speed, so that seemed close enough. The venerable T-18 was the only four-speed available that year with a V-8, and the T-18 and T-98 are almost identical anyway. I started crunching numbers, but there was one problem: The Jeep was in Aurora, Oregon, 940 miles away.
A few phone calls between Hazel and the seller and 32 hours later, we were on our way to pick up a Jeep truck that I hadn't seen in person, and at this point, I hadn't even talked to the owner. At first, we thought the smart thing to do would be to take Hazel's tow rig and trailer, but the lack of overdrive and slow top speed meant we'd get there a week later. I hadn't made any other smart decisions recently, so I figured we'd hightail it up in the Jp test Cherokee, JR, and I'd just drive the J-truck back.
When you drive some 900-plus miles to look at a Jeep for sale, you can't expect to pay a nickel less than the asking price. However, we were worried about losing a whole hell of a lot more than a few bucks while driving onto the guy's property. We passed by several rickety wooden houses straight out of the movie Deliverance, houses that had been overgrown with vines and moss. The road kept going, and so did we, puckered to our seats, until we reached a much more modern-looking home and the camper-shelled yellow J-truck. We found out the owner's family had purchased the land during the Depression and he'd just left the original houses there.
The first thing we noticed was the 360 and Quadra-Trac logos emblazoned across the fenders. Somehow, this Jeep ended up with a swapped-in AMC 304, a T-18, and a Dana 20. No big deal. Ol' George (the owner) claimed the engine was rebuilt; he had several receipts but only for the valve springs, cam and intake. We figured that in Oregon maybe this was considered a full rebuild.
Around the office, we often joke about old-man engineering. It's basically just making due with what you have on hand. The term really has nothing to do with age; it does seem, however, that the most interesting quick fixes come from old men who have no problem using things like household fixtures in their Jeeps. This J-truck was full of old-man engineering. From the two ignition switches and the broken electric choke (that had somehow been converted to a cable-operated manual unit) to cross-threaded pipe fittings on the cooling system that somehow didn't leak (I didn't even know it was possible to cross-thread pipe fittings), this Jeep had old-man engineering written all over it. It didn't run quite right, and what really scared us was when George asked us if we wanted the complete Holley carburetor jet kit he had. Of course we took it, but more to see what was missing from the kit to try and figure out what was in the engine now. We slowly learned that not only is a '73 a hodge-podge year for Jeep trucks, but this J-2000 had been literally vandalized with repairs. Hazel dubbed my new truck "Hot Dog," because you have no idea what's in it. In the rear is a good Dana 44 with large axle tubes and flanged axles, but up front is the real bummer: a closed-knuckle Dana 44. It's basically a Dana 44 with weaker Dana 27 axle tubes, knuckles, brakes, U-joints, stubs and hubs. Oh yeah, the frame is bent in the middle, too, adding to the overall hot dog theme. However, we didn't notice all of this until the next day. Upon closer inspection, it looks like the Jeep was rearended pretty hard, maybe with a trailer in tow since there's no apparent or repaired damage to the rear of the Jeep. There's some repainting in the front, so it may have taken a hard front hit with a heavy trailer in tow, but either way it's bent in the middle, and I wasn't exactly going to take it back to the guy. It was kinda starting to grow on me. Not the bent frame--the truck.
Anyway, I paid my $1,000 J-truck entry fee. We inspected and tightened the loose steering linkage bolts and a squeaky fan belt. I hopped in and then smoked, popped and sputtered on about 6 ½ cylinders down the dirt road past the spooky overgrown houses with Hazel following in the Cherokee. The Jeep wouldn't idle. The gas was so bad, it almost had a sweet smell to it and probably wouldn't even burn if you lit a match to it. The fuel in the tank was likely only days away from sprouting life--heck, the rest of the truck looked like a rotten log with all the moss growing out of the windows and molding.
By this time, it was dark and I was surprised to find that the headlights actually worked using the original switch. I even got the truck up to 60 mph. I pulled into the nearest gas station and had the attendant fill it with 91-octane gas to try flushing out the nasty. For some reason, you aren't allowed to pump your own gas in Oregon, and the attendant looked at me like I was a moron for putting 91 in my new piece of crap.
The one thing I really dig about the J-truck is the huge secondary fuel tank in the bed. It must be close to a 50-gallon capacity. I didn't even bother filling the main tank; who knew what was growing or had made a home in there. At the time, I felt kind of stupid filling up the huge auxiliary tank, since the engine was running so poorly that the possibility of J-truck abandonment was high. I wouldn't want to leave behind a truck with a full tank of gas.
Luckily, it started up again, and away down the highway we went. The J-truck was backfiring so badly that flames were coming out from underneath. Still, I was able to get it up to 65 mph, but speed quickly dropped down to 45. The engine almost died as we hit the offramp for the hotel, then it just stopped as I made the turn. I apparently had the tank switched to the crappy empty stock tank the whole time. After some fumbling and figuring out that it wasn't getting any gas, we flipped it over to the full auxiliary tank. Fuel was still just barely trickling out, so we used a Power Tank to blow the line clear with compressed CO2. It started and ran almost as crappy as it did before, so we drove the last 100 yards to the hotel and parked it until the next morning.
We left the truck and hit the local parts store early to pick up new fuel filters, an air filter, gear oil, spark plugs, carb cleaner, brake fluid, a radiator cap and a bungee cord to hold up the broken E-brake pedal. We worked on the truck until noon and actually got it running fairly well. However, it was still missing and wouldn't idle. No biggie--we grabbed some grub, turned up the idle and sputtered on.
A couple hours later, the upper radiator hose gave up the ghost in a rusty Titanic-like spray of steam at nearly 70 mph. The split in the hose was close enough to the end so that I could cut it off and reattach it to the radiator. We poured in every bit of liquid we had to refill the system, but it wasn't enough. Fortunately, Oregon is full of lakes and rivers. Hazel drove a mile or so down the road until he found a small pond and refilled the water jugs.
With fresh radiator pond water, we drove down I-5 to Drain, Oregon where we stopped to check out some stainless steel flatfender bodies we'd spotted on the way up. A NAPA parts store was right down the road, so we stopped in for an upper and a lower radiator hose and some coolant, just in case.
The J-truck wouldn't start when we tried to leave. After messing with it for a while, we figured out it wasn't getting fuel again. The NAPA didn't have the fuel pump we needed, so we bought an electric pump just as it was closing up shop. Unfortunately, this pump needed a regulator because fuel just poured out of the carb bowl vents and down into the intake. We experimented with a pair of locking pliers on the fuel line as a makeshift regulator. This idea was canned after Hazel's comment about getting all my valuables out of the truck to keep them from burning when (not even if) the truck caught fire. We left the truck in the NAPA parking lot that night with the hope of finding the right parts the next morning.
Tired of messing around with a faulty fuel system, we decided to replace everything. We brought the old pump to a different parts store and found out that the J-truck's 304 is of '72-'75 vintage. We bought a new pump, filters and a new polished Holley 1850 carb to replace our problematic one. We probably could have spent a couple hours trying to figure out what was wrong with the old carb, but it seemed like it had more problems than it was worth. With our new fuel system parts in place, the J-truck ran quite a bit better but not perfectly. We blamed the points ignition and timing. Without a timing light, we had to wing it and set it as best we could.
From there, the truck took us straight home and got about 12 miles per gallon, but it spit out about 1 quart of oil from the rear main seal every 250 miles or so. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. The J-truck sped along at about 70 mph and we finally made it back late Friday night.