Obi-Wan’s Tow Rig

During the summer of ’99, I started looking around for stouter axles to put under my newly-lifted ’95 YJ. Front Dana 44’s from a narrow-track ’80+ Jeep (Grand) Wagoneer are popular swaps, so when I heard a friend had an ’83 with a dead engine, I nearly bought it. At the same time, I noticed another ’83 with a good engine and dead tranny for sale cheap in the paper. The gears in my head started turning, and I figured I could combine the two to get a good tow rig and beefy axles for the sum of $600. That deal fell through, but it got me thinking about having a tow rig. With our first baby expected to arrive just three months before the 2000 Moab Easter Jeep Safari, we got to thinking that we really didn’t want to drive 13 hours with a baby in my trail-built YJ. We both liked the idea of an SJ (full size Cherokee/Wagoneer/Grand Wagoneer) for use both around town and on the highway, so we began looking for a suitable model.

The first place I started gathering info was the IFSJA web site. Then I started hanging out on the FSJ-List mailing list. Both are excellent sources of info on these classic beasts. Since our main reason for getting an SJ was to tow, I kept my eye out for something with a 401 V8 and good gearing. Around Lincoln, those are very rare birds. After looking for over a month, we found our truck in the Thrifty Nickel. 401 V8, 3.54 gears, very little rust, decent interior. It wasn’t pretty and needed a few things fixed right away, but overall, it was just what we were looking for. I was the first of 20-some people to call about it on the first day, and we brought it home Friday, 29 Oct 1999.

I had to promise not to touch it until after I finished remodeling our first baby’s bedroom, so it mostly just took up space in our driveway initially. The Moab trip fell through, fortunately. 2.5 years later, I still haven’t been back, and the Wag is still a work in progress. I tore the engine out of it in June 2000 to fix the low oil pressure, and didn’t get it back in until August 2002, so it just took up space in my garage for over two years. Now that it’s back on the road and I’m nearly done remodeling our second baby’s bedroom, I’ve got lots of little things to fix on it before my wife can start driving it frequently. It will eventually be her daily driver, since our family of four is already cozy in her Honda Accord, and a very tight fit in my Wrangler.

I’ve half-affectionately been calling this thing a basket case. Here’s a list of the things that were broken or otherwise needed attention, and what I did to fix them. These all existed when I bought the rig; I have yet to cause any new problems myself.

  • A/C didn’t work. I knew this when I bought it. This could have been the biggest expense, and is definitely not optional for us on long road trips. At least we had a few months before we’d need it. After spending a little quality time with my multimeter underneath the dash in June 2000, this turned out to be just an unplugged wire and a corroded blower fan switch that needed cleaning. Blows ice cold now.
  • Electric motor that raises the rear window didn’t work. The switch had even been removed from the dash, but I got a replacement from a friend who was parting out a similar truck. This is a common malady for these rigs. The motor had been removed from the tailgate, and all the wiring had been snipped. Replaced the motor & all the wiring, readjusted the safety switch that prevents raising the window with the tailgate open, and now all is well.
  • Exhaust was missing behind the muffler, and what remained was pretty beat up. With the windows down, the fumes were pretty bad. This was replaced in January with a custom 2.5″ exhaust from Exhaust Pros. I also tightened a few exhaust manifold bolts to eliminate the last of the exhaust leaks. 2.5 years later, some of them have returned.
  • The first time we gassed it up, we found a bad gas leak right at the mouth of the filler tube. Unless you held the nozzle just right, gas would pour down the inside of the outer body panel and onto the ground behind the rear tire. I had to replace the filler hose.
  • Old 2-post AM/FM/Cassette radio didn’t work. Turned out the wires were all snipped at the door hinges by a DSPO, and the radio was missing the speaker wire adapter. A couple of the original speakers failed an ohmmeter test anyway, so they’re shot. I installed a new DIN-sized CD player and speakers to replace them.
  • Cardboard glove box is falling apart. Plastic replacements are $25; cardboard ones from the dealer are $12. At least removing it makes replacing the radio wires easier. Got a new one from the dealer, but am waiting til after the new stereo’s in to install it.
  • The suspension felt kind of squishy, as though the shocks were starting to die. Replaced them with Rancho RSX’s.
  • The inner support for the center arm rest for the front seats was broken. Had to remove the cover and padding and weld it back together with some angle iron for additional support.
  • The right shoulder of the driver seat started leaning back the more I drove it. I took the wrong approach to repairing it, but got it done.
  • The negative battery cable connector fit pretty loose even when completely tightened. Needed a new one. The battery wasn’t secured to the tray, either. A bungee cord fixes that for now.
  • TH400 auto tranny seemed good at first, but after a few months, went belly up and needed a complete rebuild for $1000. The root of the problem was a clogged filter that burned up the pump. At least now I know I have a like-new tranny that shouldn’t ever trouble me again.
  • The starting system developed problems the spring of 2000. It would start fine when cold, but if you tried to start it hot, it would crank twice & then the battery would die. This was the result of three problems combined. The starter/solenoid cable was shot, the starter needed replacement with a rebuilt unit, and the battery needed replacement with an Optima red-top.
  • The engine oil pressure was low. Very low — 5 psi at warm idle. A mechanical gauge in the engine bay verified these numbers. I wish I’d noticed this before I bought the truck, or even before I had the tranny rebuilt. An oil pump rebuild didn’t help. While checking on the main and rod bearing clearance, I opened a whole Pandora’s box of engine problems. The end result was that it sat in my garage for two years while I rebuilt the engine myself (it actually only took a few months to rebuild it; the rest of the time I got sidetracked).
  • Both front wheel bearings were shot. The driver side bearing was noisy enough that I could hear it while driving. Upon further investigation, I realized the passenger side was nearly as bad.
  • The steering shaft U-joint practically crumbled in my hand when I removed it to paint the engine bay during the engine rebuild. Replaced it with a Spicer 5-103X U-joint.
  • Discovered a pin-hole leak in the rear side of the top part of the radiator after the rebuild. I’m gonna see if some of that stop-leak liquid fixes it. Stupid me didn’t have the radiator checked while it was out of the vehicle.
  • Immediately after the engine rebuild (during the cam break-in), my corroded ammeter connections let all the magic smoke out from under the dash. I was able to turn off the engine before flames appeared, then bypassed the ammeter by snipping the yellow wire that runs from the starter solenoid to the dash and re-routing it to the positive terminal on the alternator. The red wire that originally ran from the alternator to the dash board stayed in place to provide power to the instrument cluster, ignition switch, etc. The ammeter is now inoperable, but at least I don’t have all the current from the alternator passing through the dash and back out again en route to the battery. While I had the instrument cluster out, I replaced a handful of burnt out gauge lights and secured one of the plastic faces that had always been loose.
  • Cruise control doesn’t work. Haven’t looked into why. I might be missing a control box.
  • Headliner is gone. The remaining backing is the same color as the rest of the interior, so it really doesn’t look bad as is. Someday I’ll put a new one in.
  • Horn doesn’t work. As with the radio, the wire inside the steering column was snipped by a DSPO. Gotta pull the entire wheel to replace it.
  • Speaking of the steering wheel, the center insert that holds the horn “button” is held on loosely by two wood screws rather than the threaded machine screws that it came with. Not sure if the thread holes are repairable, so I may grab another one from a junk yard.
  • The lower seals (called “wipes”) on all the openable windows were shot and in need of replacement. Funny how rubber does that after 25 years in the sun.
  • The body is structurally sound, but … well … ugly. It’s dark brown with a badly-cracked 4″ tall woodgrain decal running the length of it. The paint is showing its age. The rocker panels are badly rusted, and there are some spots missing from between the grille & front bumper. The left rear quarter panel is also wrinkled. I got some replacement body panels in a trade with a friend, and another local friend went to school for auto body work, so I’ve got the resources to fix this some day.
  • The full-time 4WD BW1339 Quadra-Trac has a Mile Marker part-time conversion kit on it. I haven’t checked yet to see if it has the 16% overdrive, but I think it does. While the part-time kit gives better gas mileage in 2WD, I’d really prefer the original full-time operation, which would require swapping the existing t-case and manual hubs with stockers. The same friend mentioned above gave me an un-molested Quadra-Trac with only 36,000 original miles on it, so I can switch that over some day, too.
  • The heater box was clogged with leaves and crud which prevented much air flow. I dismantled it to clean it out, installed a screen to prevent it from happening again, and replaced my leaky radiator while I was at it.
  • One thermostat housing bolt had an object in it that prevented the bolt from gripping well, and it leaked slightly. Trying to fix it snowballed into installing a new Edelbrock Performer intake manifold.
  • My original steering stabilizer was shot, so I decided to go all out and replaced it with with a Trailmaster 4-Way coil-over stabilizer. The problem turned out to be a bad ball joint, but the stabilizer doesn’t hurt.
  • The gas mileage wasn’t great after the engine rebuild, but I’m working on improving it.
  • The gas gauge never registered “full” and there were gas fumes in the cabin during long trips, so I dropped the gas tank to fix these problems.
  • In an effort to improve gas mileage, power, and idle quality, I upgraded the ignition with an MSD 6T and Motorcraft distributor.

High-priority list of things to fix first:

  • Inspect rear brakes
  • Track down rough idle (valves? exhaust?)

In November 2002, I bought a ’78 Wagoneer from a junk yard that I’m now parting out. In August 2003, I bought an ’87 Grand Wagoneer that I’m also parting out.

The FSJ Invasion in Ouray, CO, (15-17 Aug 2002) was a blast. 94 vehicles showed up to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the full-size Jeep.


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