Jeeps have always been a part of me, going way back to when my ride was a Big Wheel. From those days of riding shotgun in my dad’s plow Jeep, on up to grade school where I had a healthy collection of Jeeps in my box of hotwheels, Matchbox, and Stompers and up to junior high when my driving days were within reach, the hunger was always there. My first actual ride was Dad’s ’84 Dodge Ram, and after a year of powering around in that and saving up my money, I was eyeballing Jeeps.
Sometime in junior high, I came across a couple of old Jeep brochures from back when my parents were considering a new Cherokee Chief with the Snow Boss package.
That never came to pass, but the brochures stuck around. And man, did I ever pore over them! I carried these brochures just about everywhere, burning the images of the good times that would eventually roll once I had my own Jeep. I was focused on these older models since I knew a brand new rig was obviously way out of reach. My parents aren’t the types who drop a brand spanking new vehicle on a 17-year old. So I set out to find a nice clean used one. I buried my head in these old ads and let my mind and desires run wild.
Who wouldn’t want a few campfire tunes with a buddy, the ladies, a gorgeous backdrop and a couple of Jeeps that got you there? Or powering thru snowdrifts in an orange CJ5 with a blue Levis top and interior? Imagine THAT color combo in 2015! I actually knew a guy back in the early 90s who had a Jeep similar to this but with the full Renegade stripe package in blue, jacked up on 40″ Super Swampers and with a built 401. One of the more impressive Jeeps I’ve come across.
Jeep was all too happy to show you all of the activities you could enjoy in your brand new ride. The possibilities were limitless. These CJs with their sheer ruggedness and versatility as well as 70s style just appealed to me far more than the more modern and ‘softened’ YJ Wranglers that were new at the time.
While a CJ was at the top of my list, the J-10 pickups had always appealed to me as well, and the brochures kept that image fresh.
Or a Cherokee would be nice too. These had a certain ‘pull’ for me that the Broncos, Blazers, and integrated roof Ramchargers never had for me.
Now, with all of these images of shiny, brand new ’70s era Jeeps in my head, as well as a healthy addiction to the offroad magazines such as Four Wheeler and Petersen’s 4 Wheel showing off nicely restored Jeeps, lets just say that my expectations skewed a bit unrealistic.
Truth is, West TN is far from a mecca of Jeep enthusiasts. Kindred gearheads are few and far between, and anything older tends to be GM cars or pickups. Jeeps when you can find them at all have been rode hard and put away wet. Bleeding rust holes, body work attempted with beer cans in one hand and no skill, and drive trains that are thrashed beyond belief are the norm. I started looking at Jeeps with my dad towards the end of my sophomore year, when I had about $2K saved up. My dad said he would match me so I could get something decent and for $4K in 1991, a solid Jeep wasn’t out of reach.
Trouble is, I looked at a LOT of rusty, wobbly, beat up deathtraps for more money. Takes a LOT of patience to be a Jeep fanatic with any kind of standards in TN. Now don’t get the idea that I was afraid of doing some wrenching. There’s a huge difference between a project that needs some love, vs. a worn out pile.
Clean ones did exist. I found an ’84 Renegade near identical to this beige one for about $4500. It looked to have been pampered, drove like a dream and had the coveted 258 I-6 and strong (for 1984) T-176 4 spd trans. But once out and warmed up, the oil pressure dropped off alarmingly. I had to walk away but as it turns out 2 later Jeeps had the same problem due to some wonky factory electric gauges. Even with over 100K, 258s are near immortal.
So in November of 1990, the first half of my junior year in H.S, my buddy Michael tells me his dad has a co-worker at UPS who had a Jeep for sale. It was a ’78 with a factory 304, 3spd manual and a hardtop. I didn’t get my hopes up since he only wanted $3000. I met the guy, and his Jeep wasn’t nearly as clean as the pic above. The hardtop and doors were transplants from another Jeep and (sort of) repainted to look factory. This practice of top and door musical chairs is VERY common on Jeeps.
It had some rust-thru on the rear quarters and a little hole under the drivers seat but it wasn’t super awful. The paint and stripes were in fair shape…it wouldn’t win an beauty contests but it had a certain character. 33″ Super Swampers on rusty white ‘wagon spoke’ wheels rounded out the package and with no lift, it threatened to eat the fender flairs.
The seller, Richard took me for a quick spin. He was driving gently, but then asked if I wanted to give it try. Holy flying monkey, this thing was an absolute MONSTER!!!! With quiet turbo mufflers, it wasn’t showing its hand right away. I wasn’t cowboying it by any means but it ran like a bear and I could tell the gears were deep. I wanted to try out high and low range 4wd, so Richard guided me down a little backwoods trail where he goes hunting. I had already stopped off to lock the hubs and was cruising in 4-hi until we hit a bog of thick snotty mud and sank it to the frame. I wondered if we’d pull out so he said go 4-lo and give it hell. I did as he said and stabbed the throttle in 2nd gear 4-lo. The engine roared and the swampers dug halfway to China as it hooked up and we slung baseball sized clods of mud and dirt for 50 feet.
Before I knew it we were looking at sky as we launched up a small hill. We crested that and continued on. Mud bog? WHAT mud bog? The drivetrain was quiet and smooth so with that flex of this beast’s muscles I was all but sold. I went home, told my dad what I found and we went for another ride, this time time doing a more thorough check of all the fluids, scoping under the frame for rust or mechanical damage. This Jeep was by no means perfect, but Dad and I shuffled off to discuss. “Well if you want a Jeep, there it is”, Dad told me. That was his way of giving this ‘Gade the nod. I had right about the $3000 asking price in the bank. No way I was going to pay that though. I figured if I could get it for $2500, that was fair and Dad said he and Mom would front $1000 of whatever I paid so I wouldn’t blow my savings. That would allow some coin to do what work this rig needed as well as do the tax/title/insurance. I offered $2100; Richard shot back $2700. I said lets meet in the middle, so $2400 was what we shook on.
For the next 4 months, Dad and I went thru the Jeep pretty good. It needed more work than what we had thought initially but it was all just doing neglected maintenance and re-doing properly the work which was done on the cheap in the past. The brakes had been postponed WAY too long, and the rear drums had more mud in them than metal. We tore down the front hubs and replaced cheap Chinese wheel bearings with Timkens. One U joint was chirping like a canary so pulling it out revealed needle bearings that had turned to dust. The carb was the wrong one, so Dad took a spare off his old F-250 and we adapted it to the intake. It started hitting on 5 cylinders so plugs/wires/distributor were all replaced. The windshield gasket had a leak which started a patch of rust and rotted out the dash pad, so we replaced that.
My first topless run was after we pulled the hardtop and cut out the rust where the early style rollbar was side bolted thru the rear fenders. The too-quiet turbo mufflers were on their last legs and the exhaust from the headpipes back was dodgy at best, so I took it to the muffler shop and had a set of full duals ran thru 10″ Cherry Bomb glasspaks…the loudest thing he would sell to a rig driving on the street. Not exactly legal, but c’mon….C’MON!!! It had been said that you could hear me coming for a good 5 minutes before seeing me. Its probably true, and if you’ve never heard an AMC V8’s raspy battle cry when properly plumbed…its an experience I’d highly recommend!
That summer I purchased a brand new black fast back style softop from Kayline, who was at that time BesTop’s biggest competitor. I opted for the full view doors (which had the lower windows, increasing visibility and keeping the original CJ softop look) but ran with my steel doors until I sold the whole hardtop to another CJ owner. That Christmas I got a spankin new set of 10-hole chrome wheels and swapped my too-big Swampers to my dad’s buddy for a barely used set of 31″ Remington all terrains. I began transitioning from Dad’s ’84 Dodge to the Jeep as we chased the gremlins out of it and it actually became pretty damned reliable.
It wasn’t the perfect ride though. One night, my buddy and I had picked up a couple of ‘ethically casual’ young ladies. He chose the blonde, which was ok with me. The taller raven haired voluptuous one was more my style. Just as the deal was about to be sealed, I developed a miss and the lights started to dim. Damned alternator! I had to call a towtruck and the 2 floozies took off. No big loss. From day one, the carb seemed like it was choking the engine, and as per running into a guy who owned it some 5-7 years back, it turns out he and his dad had swapped in an AMC 360. A little poking around at the numbers on the block confirmed that indeed, this 304 which seemed WAY too strong had a dirty secret.
Now I’d driven quite a few 304 equipped CJs and when they’re in tune they make for a damned powerful Jeep. Once I got mine dialed in with the right carb and jetting, this thing was like driving Thor’s hammer! On many a night, I had quite a few idiots in their Mustangs and Camaros trying to race me. Well I quickly learned that if I was quick on the green I could easily put a car length between me and pretty much anything else on the road. Now once I wound it out and had to upshift, then it was all over…but for the brief moment I had the holeshot on a lot of shiny new ponycars.
One night, one of my co-workers tried to tell me his 4 cyl S-10 was faster. We went to a back road where we could open them up and I never saw the guy. By the time it was over, I hit 120 mph as I left him in my dust. Offroad, it was a BEAST. Granted, there’s little more than some muddy back roads in west TN but I explored everything within a 75 mile radius and it never once even hinted at getting stuck. I pulled a few buddies’ 4×4 minitrucks out of several mudholes also. Jeeps generally suck in mud/sand…but apparently Mazdas and Toyotas are even worse.
That summer, it was top down and often. It was a lot of adventures with friends, and a LOT of riding around with hundreds of scantily clad ladies who wanted to be in my loud fast Jeep. It was also the rearing of an ugly head. If the temp outside got much above 75 degrees, my temp gauge would start to climbing. If I was out on the highway it took a bit longer but on a hot day around town…it got hot quick. Dad and I practically tore that Jeep apart. We replaced every hose, flushed the cooling system, replaced the heater core, ruled out a blown head gasket since no oil/coolant contamination. I wasn’t losing coolant anywhere either so while that would’ve been a symptom, the dreaded cracked block seemed to be the only answer.
But then on a trip out west, Dad ran into a guy who’s shop specialized in Jeeps. They’d done the 360 conversion like infinity billion times, and as it turns out a 2 row radiator is plenty for a 6cyl, its marginal for the 304. A custom 3 row job is the only cure. After 2 full summers of having to drive in short stints, I was staring down starting community college, which was a 20 mile one way run. 8mpg was acceptable when staying within a close radius, but even with sub $1/gal gas that was a bit much. I put my Jeep up for sale and after 2 and a half years, I parted ways with the first vehicle that was every truly MINE. I pocketed $2800 with a bit of a lump in my throat. After all, this Jeep had become a part of me. My ‘stank’ was rubbed off on it, and its stank was rubbed off on me. I was selling over 2 years of my memories. Adventures, unspeakable debauchery, and a few summer flings had all happened with this brute as a centerpiece. I felt like I was parting ways with a friend as much as a truck. But I’d be briefly re-united with my dad’s Dodge as I began the search for Jeep #2….