Ok, I've had this truck now for about 5 years. I picked it up in December of 2010 for the astronomical sum of $600 from a little shady used car lot that doesn't exist anymore here in New Jersey. I had just crashed my daily driver/off roader 1994 Ford Explorer and needed something to get to school and back. I was unemployed, I had $0 to my name most of the time, and I needed to be able to drive to college and back. I only had the cash I was able to scrounge by selling bits off of the Explorer, so my budget was essentially non-existent. It was either the Wagoneer or one of those indestructible Buick grandma cars.
Being an irresponsible 19 year old, which one did I logically pick? Oh yeah. The Wagoneer baby.
When I first saw it, my mildly-mechanically-experienced-self thought that the truck was in sad shape: the paint clear coat was gone, the headliner was tattered and dusting the inside of the truck with gross moldy foam, the radio was gone. It had 200+k on the clock and the title read as 290k, not sure if it was a titling error or an odometer error. But, all of the basics were there. It ran, it drove, it steered and stopped. We paid the man and brought the truck home.
It died on the way home. Gas gauge lies. Still does 5 years later...I think I should fix that. Meh.
So began my love/hate relationship with a truck that has thoroughly become part of my family.
Being completely financially destitute, I had to plan what I did to the truck very carefully. At first the only parts purchased were ones that I needed anyway, or could justify that way. We did a full tune-up on the old Wag with new wires, plugs, fuel filter, carb rebuild, etc. It seemed to run good. The truck already had new 235/75/15 Pep boys Mud Terrains, so in that department we were set. It was, however, missing a front driveshaft. After calling around local salvage yards, we managed to find one for the grand total of $35 and lunch for my buddy who drove me to get it.
With the front driveline in, it was now time to do what any responsible 19 year old would do with his only means of transportation: Get in touch with the local Wagoneer owners and take the truck out in the woods.
It hissed, it coughed, and it died numerous times. The rebuilt MC2150 was not up to the task for some reason. But we had a blast wheeling in the snow. We limped home and parked the truck, and it was time to start planning the build. Around this time I also got a full time job at a local convenience store chain named Wawa, so the budget went from $0 to about 90% of my paychecks. As any responsible 19 year old would.
My first steps were to try and get the truck running better and with some more power. To that end, I installed a Skipwhite HEI distributor with some Accell wires and standard copper plugs. I also picked up an Edelbrock Performer Intake Manifold and a used Eddie Performer 4-barrel carburetor. We chopped the exhaust to ditch the rotted out muffler and tossed a $30 Thrush Turbo in its place. I felt like a hot rod with my tired old 360 ripping around the block. Around this time we started to notice the body rust in certain spots, and the moisture bubbling behind the woodgrain. To save the body panels from any more rot caused by trapped moisture behind the vinyl; we made the decision to de-wood my Woody. Like any budget-minded frugal teenager, I spent $100 on an old Rhino grille setup and tossed that on too.
Now that the truck was at least running decent and looking the part, it was time to get working on the important parts: The off-road parts.
I did my research and planned my build in what I think was, surprisingly, a semi-responsible fashion. Instead of haphazardly ordering parts and slapping things together, I put down a set of goals that still stand to this day. I wanted a truck that could:
Comfortably/Safely carry 4 people and all their gear for a weekend
Drive to and from the trails (30 min to a maximum of 3~hrs) on its own
Keep up with any other truck on the trail
Be able to at least attempt any obstacle and safely back out if necessary
Now these goals started to dictate how the truck would shape up. My local off-road park (Rausch Creek Off-road Park in PA) had their own “suggested” limits for certain trails. 33” tires for certain trails, 33” tires and a locker for other trails, etc. So with that in mind, I set my sight on a minimum tire size of 33” and started planning how to get my truck high enough to fit those 33s.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to lifting Wagoneers. The SOA guys and the spring lift guys. I did my research and compared my findings to my expected budget. A 6” spring lift would provide the needed height to fit my tires, but would ride harsher and provide less than ideal articulation off road. The SOA setup would be more expensive overall, but had the potential to ride like a stock truck and provide maximum flex due to the flatter springs. But the cost of the SOA steering was going to be a killer for me and my still extremely limited college kid budget. But my mind was made up. I was going to go SOA with a shackle flip in the rear end. We had to plan the build in stages to minimize vehicle down time so I could still get to work and school; we couldn’t have the truck down for 4-5 days while we did it all at once.
The first parts I ordered were two 70’s Wagoneer Dana 44 front flat top steering knuckles that I nabbed off of the IFSJA classified section for $35 for the pair. My ultimate plan was full high steer, but I knew that was beyond my means at the time. So, instead I aimed for a budget crossover steering setup. I sent both knuckles out to get machined and ordered a passenger side high steer arm, 1” spacer block, and the 1” extended hardware. I had that steering arm set up for the FSJ drag link taper, my plan being to use the original drag link with my new steering setup. More on that later.
Upon receiving my freshly milled crossover steering parts, I made the big purchase. I ordered 8” extended brake lines and a TTsFabworks SOA/SF kit from BJ’s Off-road. I had no idea what I was going to do with the shocks, but I figured that shocks were optional. When the parts arrived I scheduled some time with my buddy who has a garage and concrete pad (as opposed to the dirt I normally work on) and we got busy. We installed the new passenger side steering knuckle with fresh ball joints and while we were in there we welded the new spring perches onto the front axle. We buttoned everything up with the axle still SUA, but with our eventual goal one step closer.
It was at that time that I realized in order to use the stock drag link; we needed to make it longer. I measured the threads on the FSJ drag link and realized that they were the same as the common 7/8 tie rods that many off roaders use to build their steering. I ordered up two 7/8-18 threaded inserts and built a longer adjusting collar out of some DOM tubing. Wallah, we had our extension. Now that we had the steering figured out, it was time to get the springs over the axle and run into a whole bunch of other problems. We started on a Friday, setting up an EZ-Up in my mother’s driveway and pulling the tools out. We had the whole lift, minus shocks and driveshafts, done by Sunday.
We tossed some bald 35x12.50 BFG A/T’s on it to roll it around and then headed off to the local driveshaft shop. While the shop (R-Way Tooling in Vineland, NJ) did the shafts we went to the local NAPA and rifled through their boxes of shocks. Since I was a poor college kid, we had re-used the stock U bolt plates and simply flipped them upside down. The stock sway bar stud on the spring plate was now mounted towards the rear of the truck instead of the front and it just lined up with the upper shock mount oh so perfectly. So we grabbed some shocks that seemed to be an OK length and tossed those puppies on there. By the end of the week our driveshaft was done and I was just about done walking to work, so we picked it up and tossed it in there.
The beast was mobile again. Gosh; 2.73 gears and 35” of tire. Kill me now.
The bald 35s just weren’t cutting it, so I managed to craigslist a set of relatively worn out 33x12.50 Mastercraft Muds. They weren’t bald, and that’s all that mattered at the time. Those got tossed on my sweet freebie black steel wheels and we were on the road. I took the truck to my first Mid-Atlantic Full Size Jeep Club “Jeep-In” off-roading/camping trip. There was an absolute ton of water but we did well and the Wagoneer proved herself well.
It was around this time that I made my first stupid decision, that decision being that I wanted to regear my truck to 4.10’s and didn’t want to pay to do it right. I picked up some 4.10 thick gears out of Isuzu Rodeos and tossed them in my axles. They howled, but everything seemed generally OK. I also took the opportunity to replace my completely clapped out leaf springs with a wonderful new set from Team Grand Wagoneer. My truck went from barely 4.5" over stock with sad frowny-face springs to 7 or 8" over stock with big beefy 1" over stock springs! YAY! Now my rigged shocks were even more inadequate. I ran the truck that way for at least a year, and she did extremely well off-road.
Until it broke.
My truck had no oil pressure issues in all the time I owned it. Easily 40+ psi of pressure at warm idle. Driving home from that fateful 2012 trip, however, things started going downhill. The coil in my HEI distributor exploded which stranded us, necessitating a AAA tow home. Upon replacing the coil, the Jeep had no oil pressure. I had wisely procured a 2nd vehicle over the preceding months so the Jeep being sidelined wasn’t a terribly huge ordeal. We rebuilt the oil pump and that didn’t help. It seemed like the jeep just didn’t want to prime. We finally made the decision to drop the oil pan, and with the help of my then girlfriend (now wife) we got started.
And then the problems started, one after another in a wonderfully terrible chain of events.
We had to remove the exhaust Y pipe to get the oil pan to clear the oil pickup. In removing the Y pipe, we snapped a stud on the exhaust manifold. I said what the heck; why not just toss headers on since we broke the manifold. Well, in trying to remove the manifold we snapped a bolt off in the head. Now we were pulling the heads. We had the heads done at a local machine shop and then tossed them back in with new Hedman Headers. Our lack of oil pressure, which was the original problem, turned out to be caused by a clogged oil pickup. We replaced that and cleaned out the oil passages, which had some gunk buildup. We re-sealed the oil pan and bolted everything back together. We primed the pump and started the truck, and immediately noticed a massive oil leak and coolant mixing with the oil. We had botched at least one of the head gaskets and the oil pan gasket. Well BEEP.
Upon confirming my fears with a buddy, I ripped back into the engine. I broke down both heads again and meticulously cleaned all of the gasket mating surfaces. I was determined to not have to do this again. Once I was finished up top I tackled the bottom, dropping the oil pan again to figure out why it wouldn’t seal. I put that oil pan up there at least half a dozen times before I realized the lip was warped, making it impossible for it to seal properly. A little time with a punch and hammer on a flat surface worked that warped surface flat again, and the engine was finally buttoned up and leak free. We started it up and it ran great, it didn’t leak, and life was good. Somewhere around here we also went over the truck’s complete electrical system and half-assed fixed it, adding in a master circuit breaker to kill all power and a fuse block to replace the fusible links. Since we had the interior and carpet out to work on the electrical, we also bedlinered the floor.
It was a little after that (Fall/Winter 2012-2013) that I decided I was done exploding front driveshafts and wanted to upgrade to my full high steer setup. I ordered some 7/8-18 threaded inserts and some 1 ton Dodge tie rod ends and got to work, replacing my budget crossover setup with a much stouter 1 ton full high steer system. I was in the market for new tires, and we found those new tires on craigslist in the shape of 4 brand spankin' new 33x12.50x15 Procomp Mud Terrains. We also took the time to perform a cut-and-turn on my front axle, fixing my terrible caster angle and pinion angle all at once. My truck would now cruise down the road at 60mph in 4x4 and not shake. At all.
It was kinda scary.
It didn’t get driven much, but we took it off-roading here and there for fun on the weekends. We attended Jeep-In 2013 and life went on. The howling from the gears got progressively worse, until we finally decided to fix the rear axle gears so it would be quiet on the road at least. I borrowed a trailer from a friend and hitched the Wagoneer up to my daily driver Chevy G20 van and towed it up to my other buddy’s shop in the ice and snow of Winter Early 2014. It was downright scary. At one point we almost ate a small Honda when he decided to stop and turn left right over the crest of a hill. I have never panicked to hit the surge button on the brake controller like that in my life.
Ultimately we survived the whole ordeal and the jeep got regeared with a fresh set of 4.10 gears and a proper 3.92 and up open carrier for my Lockright to ride in. While we were in there doing the gears we noticed that one of my rear wheel bearings was completely shot, so once again the Wagoneer was sidelined until that could get fixed. We towed it home and it promptly snowed for a few weeks, limiting wrenching time outside in the dirt. Both rear wheel bearings were replaced, and the truck was back in action for the 2014 “Snowball Fun Run” with the MAFSJC. It was on the way home from this run, with the truck running quieter than ever now that the gears were taken care of, that we heard “The Noise” that would throw a wrench in our plans forever. The engine had a rod knock. It was slight at first, only showed its face over 2500 RPM, but it was there. Like an ominous cloud constantly hanging over me whenever I drove the truck. Considering that by this point it had 209k on the odometer and according to the title potentially 300k+, I knew the time was coming sooner or later.
I continued to drive the truck off and on until Spring, when I had a catastrophic rear wheel bearing failure on the road at about 35mph. I was coming home from Walmart when all of a sudden there was a pop, followed by a hiss, then a bang as the truck dropped down.
Time to call AAA again.
The truck was taken off of the insurance and completely sidelined this time as I started to realize it was slowly nickel and diming me. It sat, for almost 14 months as life got ahead of me. I moved out and got my own place, my girlfriend turned into my fiancé who turned into my wife, bills started to pile up and my little job at Wawa wasn’t cutting it now that I was out of college. I ended up buying a 1996 F-350 Crew Cab Dually with the 7.3 Powerstroke as a daily driver/eventual tow rig sometime during the Fall of 2014.
Then I got a phone call which turned into an interview which turned into a legitimate salaried adult job! SCORE! MORE JEEP PARTS!
I had a deadline now. With the new job starting June 1st of 2015, I set the goal of having the Wagoneer road worthy and offroadable for the 2015 MAFSJC Jeep-In, which would be the last weekend of August. Both rear axle shafts were replaced and new bearings installed. The front axle was completely shot out from my hacked together gear job, so it needed to be rebuilt. I picked up a Yukon ZIP locker and a fresh set of 4.10s and handed the whole axle housing off to my CJ7 buddy to rebuild. While he had the axle I worked on the rest of the truck, removing my rigged up shocks and replacing them with proper offroad shocks mounted to proper shock mounts. I drilled and tapped both axles for NPT pipe fittings, creating strong, permanent breather line solutions. Things got delayed and the front axle wasn’t ready until the week before the Jeep-In.
It was crunch time.
I would work until midnight, sleep until 6am and then get up to turn wrenches. It took the entire week and an extra unplanned day of my vacation to get the truck ready. But we got it ready. My Wagoneer was sadly absent during the 2014 Jeep-In, but we returned with a vengeance this year. I had a massive stupid smile on my face as I pulled into the campground with my busted old Wagoneer, and at least one other club member cheered that I was able to pull it off. We offroaded all weekend, my Jeep not delivering any unexpected surprises. She did well, but that engine knock was not to be ignored anymore. Even with 20w50 and a big jug of Motor Honey, the knock was readily apparent even at idle. Every time I took it through a puddle I half expected a rod to make a guest appearance.
This would be my Wagoneer’s last trip on the stock motor.
But the Waggy got me home, and now she’s sitting comfortably in my Apartment Complexes parking lot.
We needed a plan. Even with the new job I wasn’t made of money. My budget is still almost non-existent with Student Loan repayment and credit card bills. A motor rebuild is not compatible with my current financial situation, nor is it really possible considering my Apartment lifestyle.
Adult life sucks. Can we go back to those awesome 19 year old irresponsible days?
It was at that point, as if directed by the Jeep Gods above, that a good college friend of mine called me. He had a problem and needed my help. His dad had this old 1970’s Dodge Motorhome rotting away in the front yard, and the dad passed the property on to him. He wanted the motorhome gone and asked if I wanted the drivetrain. Upon further inspection, that drivetrain turned out to be nothing other than a Mopar 440 big block backed up by a 727 transmission, both of which have a whopping 17k original miles.
The price? Free. Come get it.
So that’s it kids, the story of my Wagoneer from purchase until now. From here on I’ll be documenting the process of swapping the 440 into the Wag and any other projects that arise. Pull out the popcorn and sit back in your seats, because this is going to be an entertaining show.