It’s hard to figure out why you love something. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw a Jeep Wagoneer. I don’t know anyone who’s ever owned one. I got into cars because my dad liked them, but he always hated SUVs. Said they were a waste of a car and not as useful as a truck. He also watched someone die in a Jeep CJ when it rolled over on them, so that probably had something to do with it. As far as I remember, my obsession with full-size Jeeps (FSJs) began when some friends were planning to road trip to Wyoming to go camping one summer. I found a razor-grilled Wagoneer for sale locally on Craigslist, and begged my dad to go with me to look at it. When he finally relented, I called the owner, only to find out it had just sold. Before you ask why I didn’t just buy it myself, remember I was in college and didn’t have the sweet balance of discretionary income and storage space needed to acquire an additional vehicle. For completeness’ sake, I will point out that the trip to Wyoming never happened anyway.
Fast forward a couple years, and I’m driving down a little no-lane country road by my house. There, behind an old, white farmhouse, sits a dark green Jeep Wagoneer with a razor grille. I had been by the house before, but the Jeep was a new addition to the yard. I didn’t see anyone at home, so I came back another day and saw the owner sitting on his porch with his dogs. I stopped and asked him about it, and if he would sell it. He was quick to say he wouldn’t, so I told him to have a nice day and went on about my business. The next time I went by the house, I noticed the back wheels were off and the Jeep was sitting on blocks. I wondered if he thought I was going to steal it. Over the next few years, I kept periodically going by the house to be nosy, but I didn’t catch him at home again. The Wagoneer didn’t move. I was still holding out hope when I took my grandad for a ride in my Challenger Scat Pack on Memorial Day weekend last year. I drove by the house to look at it again. It was still sitting in the same spot with the rear wheels off.
A few days later, my mom told me one of the local pawn shops had a Wagoneer for sale. I knew the shop’s owner, Paul, from the local cruise-in, so I dropped by on a Saturday afternoon on the way to another cruise-in. I pulled in the parking lot in my GTO and saw a dark green Wagoneer facing away from the road. “Hmm,” I wondered, “the hubcaps are off the back wheels. I bet they were just put back on!” I walked around to the front of the Jeep, and confirmed my suspicions. The razor grille was the final piece of evidence I needed to know this was the same FSJ I lusted after for years. The pawnbroker walked out of the store about this time and recognized me, or at least my car, and I yelled at him, “I know where you got this Wagoneer!” He looked a little surprised, then I asked him if it was the same one that used to sit behind that farmhouse. Paul said that it was, and explained that the owner had done business at his pawn shop in the past and that the Wagoneer was his prized possession. Sadly, the Wagoneer’s owner had been severely injured in a tractor rollover, and later died from his injuries. His estate sold the Wagoneer to Paul, and I was interested in helping Paul turn it around in a hurry.
I came back a few days later for another look, and was surprised Paul offered to start it up for me. After he located the “key”, the Wagoneer cranked up. I was shocked that it ran at all, but it fired up with relative ease. However, to say the exhaust leaked would be an understatement. All that remained of the exhaust system were a couple short pieces of rusty pipe hanging sadly off the manifolds. It wouldn’t have mattered how much exhaust pipe was in place, anyway, since the Buick 350 was belching exhaust straight out of the heads into the atmosphere. The manifold gaskets were completely gone. We took a quick spin around the block, checked out the four-wheel drive, startled residents on a quiet Saturday morning, and I decided I had to have it. The frame, floorboards, rocker panels, and quarter panels were in decent condition. Unfortunately, the worst rust is around the drip rails on the roof. I’m still having nightmares about trying to fix that.
I went back the following Monday to pick it up. I made it about 50 feet when the engine died and wouldn’t start again. The 10-year-old battery had finally given up the ghost. After borrowing a couple wrenches from the pawn shop and getting my mom to take me to the auto parts store, I came back with a new battery. The Wagoneer cranked right up and made it home without a single problem. Well, the people I drove by might’ve suffered hearing loss, but the Jeep was fine. I made a victory lap of the field when I got home, then parked in the driveway. I saw the coolant coming out of the overflow hose as expected, but I was not expecting to see a second stream of fluid pouring out from the front of the Jeep. “Why are there two?” I said to no one. Then I laughed. This is what old cars do. Somehow, the front differential cover had sprung a leak and was slowly draining the putrid fluid onto my driveway. I was grateful it decided to wait until I got home to do this, as I don’t imagine the Spicer 27 (pre-Dana 30) front axle would enjoy going 50 miles an hour with no fluid in it.
My parts list grew faster than kudzu in July as I looked over my FSJ. I ordered new seals for just about everything, full rebuild kits for the Warn lock-out hubs and front drum brakes, an actual key, and every other maintenance item I thought it would need after spending several years in someone’s backyard. The tires were also made when Al Gore was still a household name, so I started hunting for a decent used set. I finally found some slightly used BF Goodrich KOs that came mounted on XJ wheels. I snatched them up and started the immensely difficult challenge of removing the old tires from the 15″ steel wheels so I could repaint the wheels. After three hours of sweating, straining, and my mom’s help (she’s the real hero of this story), I had 4 petrified tires removed from 4 rusty wheels. I learned the next day that a friend who lived five miles away had a tire machine. Great. I repainted the wheels, then took them and the new-to-me BFGs to my friend to have my tires mounted.
My neighbor, Jeff, likes cars is a general helpful, nice guy, so he offered to help me with my project. He had no idea what he was getting into. We needed to remove the front drums to service the brakes. The passenger drum came off with a few taps of a hammer, depositing two large dirt daubers’ nests onto my garage floor. The driver’s side drum was a little more persistent, to put it lightly. Ball-peen hammers, sledge hammers, air hammers, oxy-acetylene torches, and whatever else I could find would not motivate this drum to remove itself from the hub. I gave up and removed the lock-out hub, then found a brake drum puller. I cranked, and I cranked, and I cranked on that puller. Finally, I got an impact wrench and hit the puller with a heavy dose of ugga-duggas. POW! I heard as the cast iron drum warped and dislodged from three of five wheel studs. I came back the next night and repositioned the now-bent puller, but had to knock it back into position with a hammer after every quarter turn of my ratchet. I have never been so relieved to hear metal fall onto concrete as I was when that drum finally came off.
My battle wasn’t over. The reason the drum wouldn’t come off was that the wheel studs had deformed into a shape similar to a mushroom. This meant they would not drive out the backside of the wheel hub. The studs couldn’t be reused because they got mangled by the drum when I wrestled it off. Jeff and I removed the hub, broke out an antique Dremel I didn’t know we had, and ground the knurl on the studs into a small enough diameter that they could be pounded out the right way. Then came the hardest part: finding new studs. Maybe the studs in my Wagoneer were not factory, but I could not find the same size anywhere. Seriously. I tried looking through multiple manufacturers’ parts lists and never found the same size. I found one made by Crown Automotive that looked similar, but the dimensions were not available. After calling multiple off-road shops and parts retailers, I finally got the dimensions from Oconee Off-Road in Athens, Georgia. They weren’t exact fit, but they were the closest I could find. After waiting in backorder purgatory for three weeks, I got the studs in the mail. Because they weren’t exact fit, Jeff had to put the hub in a vise and chisel the lip of the stud opening to get the studs to seat firmly. It’s probably not the best solution, but I don’t intend to take the Wagoneer land speed racing. We put everything back together, and drove the Jeep out into the sun for the first time in a couple months.
This is where the project has been for several months now, as I bought a house right after I bought the Jeep. Am I crazy for getting a project car and a house at the same time? Probably. I had to put the Wagoneer on the back burner while moving, then we had a winter cold enough to keep me inside for several weeks solid. It’s hard for me to get motivated to go freeze working on a project car that is just for fun. Spring is here now, and it’s time to get back to work.