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Hazel’s Harem - When Being Married to Multiple Project Vehicles Goes Wrong

Verne SimonsPhotographerChristian HazelPhotographer, Writer

I have a habit of getting in over my head when it comes to project rigs. Not in scope or complexity, but in terms of sheer volume. I’ll start doing many different things to many different vehicles, and the next thing I know I wind up not having time to accomplish anything. Buckle down and git ’er done? If by that you mean, “Ignore what I need to do and instead search Craigslist to buy something else than needs a ton of work as a time-sucking distraction to the pit of project quicksand I’ve intentionally waded into,” then yes! I sort of imagine it’s what life would be like if I were a Maharaja with a harem full of wives. “This one has become difficult—leave it in the garage and fetch me a new one to play with.”

Anyway, I’ve been doing better lately. I no longer carry a dozen vehicles and a whiteboard checklist with a thousand to-do items on it. In fact, I think this current crop of projects in need of attention is my smallest in over a decade. So, here’s what I’m working on lately . . . but I did see a cool 1965 International Travelall on Craigslist this morning. Hmm.

1989 Jeep Wrangler
I like Wrangler YJs. There, I said it. It’s out and I can’t take it back. I bought this particular one from some skinny chick in a rundown meth neighborhood for $500 back when I was at Jp magazine. I had something like nine vehicles at the time and didn’t know why I bought it, hence the catchy project name, “Why-J.”

I’ve done a lot to it, but I also think I’ve shown remarkable restraint. It’s just a little four-cylinder puppy dog that makes moderate trails really fun and gets 17 mpg putting around town. At some point in time I thought I was going to install a 600 hp LS3, so I rebuilt the NP231 to 3/4-ton specs. I installed an AX15 with an Advance Adapters conversion kit and bolted on the 2 1/2-inch Rubicon Express suspension. And for some reason I tossed every available upgrade from Superior Axle & Gear at the stock Dana 30 and Dana 35 axles, including 30-spline chromoly axleshafts, 4.88 gears, and Eaton ELockers. Otherwise, a GenRight ’cage here and Bestop low-dollar vinyl seats here and it’s mostly just another lightly modded YJ that’s a hoot to drive. Heck, it doesn’t even have power steering!

At some point I need to start thinking about an engine transplant because the stock 250,000-mile 2.5L is getting tired, but I’ll most likely swap in a slightly more powerful four-banger. Maybe an all-aluminum LTG from Chevy Performance or a Toyota 2.7L.

Tech Specs
1989 Jeep Wrangler
Engine: 2.5L TBI 4-cylinder
Transmission: AX15 5-speed
Transfer Case: NP231 with JB Conversions 32-spline Super Short SYE, 1 1/4-inch Wide Chain Kit, and 6-pinion planetary
Front Axle: High-pinion Dana 30, 4.88:1 gears, Eaton ELocker, Superior chromoly 30-spline axleshafts
Rear Axle: Dana 35 non–C-clip with factory drum brakes, 4.88:1 gears, Eaton ELocker, Superior 30-spline axleshafts, Superior truss system.
Springs & Such: Rubicon Express 2 1/2-inch standard-duty springs, 5-inch shackles, Bilstein 5100 shocks
Tires & Wheels: 31x10.50R15 Mickey Thompson ATP3 on 15x8 Summit Racing Equipment Series 50/51 aluminum
Steering: Factory manual, stock linkage, track bars and sway bars removed
Lighting: Cheapie flush-mount trailer taillights
Other Stuff: GenRight weld-yourself cage system, Bestop front and rear vinyl seats, SpiderWebShade, Tabor 9,000-pound winch, Smittybilt rear bumper, Quadratec aluminum rocker armor, Firestone electric air compressor, Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts 1310 ’shafts (1310 front, 1310 CV rear), Optima BlueTop

1953 Willys DJ-3A
I found this 2WD Willys on recycler.com back in 2000 and paid $400 for it. It wound up being one of only a couple DJ prototypes built in 1953, but when I got it a previous owner had already butchered it with a Chevy 305/Powerglide swap and had put a 1972-1975 Dana 44 from a CJ under it.

I yanked the factory-installed 60/40 bench, Continental kit, and tube front axle and gave them to Rick Péwé. I gave the rear axle to Verne Simons, pulled the body off the frame, and built the whole thing in my garage over the course of a year. I cut out 1/8-inch steel to box the frame with a Craftsman reciprocating saw, and the ’cage was the second thing I ever used a tubing bender to build. I originally started installing a 1970 Cadillac Eldorado 500-cube V-8, but changed gears to a 4.6L Northstar before eventually getting the 3.5L DOHC Shortstar V-6 and shoehorning it in. I mated it to an SM420 and Spicer 18 with an Overdrive, but after wearing out two T-cases, I eventually installed a Dana 300 with 32-spline front and rear outputs. However, I do have another Spicer 18 and ATV Manufacturing Overdrive (hermtheoverdriveguy.com) that I’ll be putting back in because I miss driving it on the street.

It has been together and wheeling since 2002 and by now runs a lot of since-discontinued parts like the onboard welder system and other odds and ends. Other than the T-case swap and centered rear axlehousing, almost all of the build is the original stuff, from the Krawler tires to the Optima BlueTop battery.

Tech Specs
1953 Willys DJ-3A
Engine: 3.5L DOHC V-6
Transmission: SM420
Transfer Case: Dana 300 with twin-stick and 32-spline outputs
Front Axle: Currie 9-inch, 5.38:1 gears, Strange centersection, Detroit Locker, 35-spline inners, Super Duty outers, Wilwood brakes
Rear Axle: Currie 9-inch, 5.38:1 gears, TrueHi 9 centersection, 35-spline driveshafts, Chevy 1/2-ton calipers on TSM Mfg. brackets
Springs & Such: 5-leaf Wrangler YJ rear sprint packs spring-over, Bilstein 5150 shocks (front); Rubicon Express 4 1/2-inch Extreme-Duty spring packs spring-under, Bilstein 5150 shocks (rear).
Tires & Wheels: 35x13.50R15 BFG Krawler T/A KO on 15x10 American Racing with OMF beadlocks
Steering: Stock 3.5L pump, Delphi Saginaw variable ratio box, Advance Adapters box mount, Currie chromoly linkage with Aurora rod ends
Lighting: Hella 550 headlights mounted to radiator crossmember
Other Stuff: Full 8-point 1.75x0.120-wall DOM cage tied to frame, fully boxed framerails, custom crossmember, Wilwood triple master cylinders (front and rear brake and clutch), Centerforce flywheel and Dual Friction clutch, Ramsey 9,500 winch, Optima BlueTop, Powermaster onboard welder, Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts 1310 front, 1350 rear (both with offset trunions)

1971 CJ-6
I have a long-wheelbase CJ addiction. By now they seek me out. This particular former Border Patrol 1971 model still wears the optional Meyer’s hard top. Other than a rusty cobbled-together rollcage and a Saturn Overdrive on the Spicer 18, it looked to be factory-original when I bought it for $800 several years ago. I got the original Buick 225 to fire and run well enough to move it around my yard, but the Dana 27 front axle was sort of bent, the rare offset flanged Dana 44 rear needed a rebuilt, and the T-14 transmission grinds gears like mad.

A couple months after I bought it I got the brilliant idea to slap some Rockwell axles under it and enter it in Four Wheeler magazine’s Top Truck Challenge. And that’s as far as I got. I plunked the 2 1/2-ton axles on top of the stock springs with a perch and U-bolt kit from RuffStuff Specialties (ruffstuffspecialties.com) at my buddy’s shop and then dragged it back home with my 1972 J4000 pickup, and it has sat on my trailer pretty much ever since. I have only found time to install a Performance Distributors (performancedistributors.com) HEI distributor on the ratty Buick 225 and plumbed a Summit Racing Equipment (summitracing.com) fuel system between an old fuel cell I had left from a project to a Motorcraft 2150 two-barrel I nabbed from one of my AMC V-8s.

At this point the plan is to toss a full-hydro steering system from PSC Motorsports (pscmotorsports.com) on the front Rockwell, load up some lockers, make the factory 2 1/2-ton drum brakes work somehow, and mate an old SM420 I bought from a buddy for $100 between the Buick V-6 and Spicer 18. Oh, and if I get my way, the exhaust will be zoomie stacks straight up through the hood and I’ll run dualie NDTs on military-surplus wheels front and rear.

Tech Specs
1971 Jeep CJ-6
Engine: 225ci V-6
Transmission: Stock T-14
Transfer Case: Stock Spicer 18, Advance Adapters Saturn overdrive
Front Axle: 2 1/2-ton Rockwell, 6.72:1 gears, open differential (for now)
Rear Axle: 2 1/2-ton Rockwell, flipped hubs, 6.72:1 gears, open differential (for now)
Springs & Such: Stock, bent CJ-6 leaves, spring-over (front and rear)
Tires & Wheels: 9.00-20 NDT on 20-inch military split rim
Steering: Power steering pump bracket off Buick 231ci even-fire V-6, PSC Motorsports full-hydro Rockwell setup (not installed yet)
Lighting: Factory sealed beam incandescent
Other Stuff: 20-gallon aluminum fuel cell; Summit Racing Equipment pump, filter, and lines; Motorcraft 2150 carb; Performance Distributors HEI distributor; Saturn Overdrive; Meyers hard top, rat turds everywhere, lots of rust, old nonfunctional Warn Belleview 6000 winch

1978 Jeep Cherokee Chief
I bought this 360/TH400/Quadratrac-equipped Cherokee Chief with a fried wiring harness and holes in the fuel tank and T-case for $800. It is the most poorly built vehicle I have ever owned, and so far I have had to replace virtually everything. No, really. Everything. Even the factory welds on the front shackle hangers and steering box mount were so riddled with porosity they snapped off. I ground out most of the factory welds and rewelded them with my Millermatic, rebuilt a spare BW1339 Quadratrac T-case, replaced the entire brake, fuel, and electrical systems, and have gone through every part of the cooling system and axles. I installed a BDS 4-inch suspension system and some 33x12.50R15 Mickey Thompson Baja Claw TTC tires on 15x8 Sidebiter wheels, but after the engine blew a head gasket (for a third time according to the previous owner’s paperwork) I parked the Cherokee on the side of my house until I can get the 5.3L GM engine and a new 4L60E transmission installed. Plan on seeing this one in some 4WOR tech stories in the not-too-distant future.

Tech Specs
1978 Jeep Cherokee Chief Drivetrain
Engine: 360ci V-8
Transmission: Rebuilt TH400
Transfer Case: Rebuilt BW 1339 Quadratrac
Front Axle: Stock Wide-Trac Dana 44 with 3.55:1 gears, open differential, MileMarker hubs, stock discs
Rear Axle: Stock Wide-Trac Dana 44 with 3.55:1 gears, open differential, stock drums
Springs & Such: BDS 4-inch spring packs and hydro shocks (front and rear)
Tires & Wheels: Currently P265/16R16 Michelin on 16x7 Toyota steel
Steering: Factory pump and box, BDS dropped pitman arm with stock linkage
Lighting: Stock sealed beam incandescent
Other Stuff: MSD billet 1-wire alternator and MSD coil, Edelbrock Performer manifold and Off Road Thunder AVS carb, MTS poly fuel tank, Rocky Road Outfitters bolt-on rocker guards

2001 Toyota Tacoma
My dad bought this 2001 SR5 Tacoma 4x4 new and put just over 321,000 miles on it before he passed away and I took custody. It was a New England truck its whole life, and when not submerged in winter road salt it received a constant salt spray bath from the Atlantic since my parents lived three doors up from the ocean. As a result, the frame is completely hammered with rot. For some unknown reason, he never took the truck in for the free frame replacement that Toyota offered under a recall program, and now the truck is too old and the recall too long gone for Toyota to help. But it was my dad’s truck and I’m not gonna let it die, so I’m currently looking for a good donor frame to swap all the stock parts onto.

For now, I had Auto Rust Technicians in Cranston, Rhode Island, install a set of Safe-T-Caps on the rear framerails so the truck wouldn’t fold in half during the drive from Massachusetts to California (search for “Epic XC” on fourwheeler.com). Once the frame swap is complete I plan on upgrading the suspension with better struts and shocks, adding some bed utility, and building or buying some aluminum bumpers. Oh, I’ll probably add some additional exterior lighting to bolster the PIAA RTF LED light bar I hung on the stock front bumper, but otherwise I’ll leave the rest as stock as possible and see how close to 1,000,000 miles I can get it.

Tech Specs
2001 Toyota Tacoma
Engine: Stock 2.7L 4-cylinder
Transmission: stock A340F 4-speed auto
Transfer Case: Stock
Front Axle: Toyota IFS
Rear Axle: Toyota 8-inch, 4.56:1 gears, 2-pinion open diff
Springs & Such: All original
Tires & Wheels: 265/70R16LT General Grabber AT2 on 16x8 XD-Series XD128 Machete
Steering: Stock
Lighting: KC
Other Stuff: Gibson after-cat stainless exhaust, factory plastic bedliner, lots of frame rot, nonworking factory AM/FM/cassette