Photo credit: Stephen Nelson

I’m tired. More tired than I’ve ever been. Turning a rusty hulk of poorly maintained metal into a running, driving vehicle without breaking the bank has worn me out both physically and mentally. Half of my body is covered in oil, my hands are pierced with metal shavings, I’ve gotten more chunks of rust in my eyes than I care to think about, and I’ve broken so many bolts, I nearly went out and found a therapist.

But there’s no time for moping, because today, I’m going to try driving 1,800 miles from Detroit to Utah as the culmination of my 1948 Willys CJ-2A off-road project. Yes, somehow, my friends and I have assembled a vehicle with enough power, enough forward gears, enough brakes, and enough structural integrity to actually start the journey. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d make it this far.

But this Jeep is never going to make it to Moab. I know there’s something to be said about taking on tough tasks with confidence, but confidence isn’t going to keep my main bearings alive. Last night, I took the Jeep on about a 20-mile drive, finally getting her heated up: the oil pressure at idle is just below 10 psi—that’s just too low, and this is after a rebuild. This could be a bad oil pump, theoretically, but I just doubt it; the way that first oil change looked after my drive was something out of a horror film.

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Either way, I do think this Jeep’s got a chance to get a decent clip down the road before anything goes wrong. Plus, last week, I bought a bunch of parts from a Jeep hoarder up in northern Michigan: I’ve got an axle, a spare oil pump, a spare fuel pump, a spare transmission and a spare transfer case—all of these will be hanging out in the bed of my support vehicle, a 2017 Ford Raptor.

Wednesday night, my friend Eric came over and helped me remove the transfer case from the transmission, which was lacking in the “second gear” department.

On Thursday, my friend Brandon and I hauled the spare spare transfer case and transmission to my indoor workshop that normal folks apparently call a “kitchen.” We unbolted the transfer case from the trans, and started scavenging for parts.

Since the transfer case was out, Brandon and I removed the main shaft, and Brandon worked his magic, replacing second gear, as well as a synchro hub (with a used one from that transmission in my kitchen) and a few sychro blocking rings.

Friday night, Freddy (Tavarish) Hernandez flew in, and we installed the transfer case back onto the trans, only to have the same damn problem I had a month or two earlier, where the new aftermarket rear bearing just wouldn’t go onto the shaft far enough, binding second and third gears when the transfer case was bolted up.

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Saturday was an epic day of wrenching. Brandon came over, and he and I rebuilt the transmission main shaft after I dropped some parts (the dogs in the synchro hub) into the case. Then we installed that main shaft back into the trans, bolted up the transfer case (but this time with an old bearing that actually fits), installed the driveshaft, and after attaching some clutch linkages: our drivetrain was done.

Next, Freddy cut some hockey pucks with my wonderful wrenching equipment—a kitchen knife—and installed them between the body and frame. Now, when we lift the body up, the suspension actually flexes (instead of the body just lifting off the frame)!

 
Once the drivetrain was buttoned up, my electrical engineering department (headed by none other than Mr. Steve) finished connecting my lighting, ignition switch and brake switch. Then Taylor installed the fender with self-tapping screws (since I’d broken all the bolts into the proper threaded locations), we bolted down the seats, and the vehicle was ready to drive.

My friends came over in their Jeep CJs to send me off.

Especially with the custom top in place, the Jeep feels like nothing else I’ve ever driven. The jerky bumps from the short wheelbase, the copious squeaks and rattles, the terrible homemade foam seats, that whirring Go-Devil under the hood, the dark and cavernous interior—I’m driving a cartoon.

That’s what this feels like: I’m in a big cartoon Jeep, headed west for the Jeep promised land, worrying every second I’m behind the wheel, and yet somehow, enjoying every moment.