I spent the first two days of my Memorial Day weekend wrenching from sunup to sundown, but that doesn’t mean I actually fixed anything. In fact, I managed to seize (sort of) my Willys’ motor, initiate death wobble in my “holy grail” Jeep Grand Cherokee, and fail to make any real progress on two other cars. It was a bit of a shitshow, honestly, but in some ways, still a success.
With wrenching, you can’t really will your way into progress. Sometimes, you just hit snags, and no matter how focused you might have been when you first started the job, you could find yourself six hours in, with hands covered in grease and blood, and spirits crushed.
I know this because, when I woke up on Saturday, I was determined. I’ve been a bit “out of it” these past few weeks, and hoped wrenching could act as catharsis, as it often does. I invited some friends over, ordered pizza, and we all began cranking ratchets.
Just a few days prior, my brother Phil, his fiancee Aida, and my friend Brandon had come over, and we’d slapped together my 1948 Willys CJ-2A’s Go-Devil engine—you know, the one I flooded in a deep mud pit last year.
I’d picked up the crankshaft from a local machine shop, who had ground the journals (which were tapered and covered with ridges). The work wasn’t cheap, at over $300 with new bearings, but I didn’t care. I just wanted this Willys finished, as I had a buyer lined up.
The four of us installed new gaskets and seals, and buttoned the engine up in just a matter of hours.
None of it was difficult, really. We installed the crankshaft, making sure the timing marks on the timing gears were aligned, torqued all the bearing caps to spec, and dabbed RTV on the appropriate gaskets as we tightened it all up. My brother Phil did have to use a hand shovel and loads of brake cleaner to get all the dirt and sludgy oil out of the oil pan—that poor bastard.
Eventually, the motor was ready to go in, but I found that the throwout bearing was, unsurprisingly, filled with dirt and thus, it was shot.
I ordered up a new bearing, and the following day, the motor was bolted to the transmission and sitting on the frame’s engine mounts.
The rest of the night involved Brandon, my friend Steve, and me trying to figure out why the starter motor wouldn’t crank the engine. Brandon—owner of two beautiful flatfender Jeeps—snagged a spare starter from his house, we charged the 12-volt battery we were using to jump the starter, and then I turned the engine over by hand with a ratchet to see what was going on.
In the end, we concluded that the rear main seal that I’d installed is gripping the crankshaft too tightly—a common problem on these neoprene main seals, it turns out.
Right now, my plan is to just drag the Jeep around my neighborhood in gear, and try to “bump start” the motor that way, hopefully lubricating and wearing the seal (which I did oil prior to installation). Hopefully by the end, the engine will be loose enough to allow the starter to do its thing.
It’s a bit of a bummer, since I had someone at my house on Saturday who wanted to buy the Willys. But alas, I missed my window, and will have to find another interested party, provided the engine actually runs without knocking, and provided this silly method of loosening up the rear main seal works out.
The next bit of wrenching I did was replace shocks on my 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee “Holy Grail” (that’s the rare one with the manual transmission). I’d driven the vehicle from Colorado to Michigan in December, and while the Jeep drove well enough, the suspension did seem to pitch and roll a bit in odd ways when hitting bumps, especially in turns.
A quick look under the Jeep revealed the original blue Sachs shocks. Seeing as the vehicle has over 260,000 miles on it, I figured it made sense to replace those.
With the right extensions and an electric impact, I bolted up some Bilsteins (the fronts are new, the rears are lightly used from eBay—together, they all cost about $200) in an hour and a half or so. I then took the Jeep on a test drive to a friend’s house, and while the ride quality was excellent, I hit a bump on the highway while going 75 mph, and initiated one of the worst cases of death wobble I’d ever experienced—and believe me, I’ve dealt with some awful death wobble in my day.
The whole front end of the Jeep bucked up and down uncontrollably. I stabbed the brake pedal to get things under control, but the Jeep kept shaking. I had to slow to 5 mph on the highway just to put an end to the violence.
This death wobble, I should note, was never an issue before. I’d driven the Jeep over 1,500 miles with the old shocks, and not once did I feel such a terrifying earthquake of worn suspension bits. Since that long trip, I did replace one control arm, though things seemed okay after that. Only after installing the new shocks do I have this problem; I’m assuming this all comes down to some sort of resonance issue, but in any case, it’s annoying. I fixed one problem, but revealed another.
A new track bar made things much better, but there’s still something wrong with my front end, as hitting a bump in the middle of a turn still upsets the Jeep.
Next up was my 1991 Jeep Cherokee’s front axle. I bought this totaled Jeep in September of 2018, and have done absolutely zero with it, so I figured it was time. My friend Chris came over last week and helped me remove the bent front axle and replace it with one that I’d picked up from The Middle Of Nowhere, Colorado during my Holy Grail Grand Cherokee trip in December.
The job wasn’t easy, given that the Jeep Cherokee’s front axle probably weighs over 200 pounds, but using a little dolly, a creeper, a floor jack, and some brute strength, Chris and I bolted the replacement solid axle to the control arms hanging off the unibody.
The real trouble came on Sunday, when my friend Adam and I tried removing the old ball joints. They were seized into the axle to the point where, even with a ball joint press, they wouldn’t budge.
We actually broke a timing chain sprocket, shown above, into a million pieces trying to use it to force a socket into the bottom of a ball joint. We also bent a crappy adjustable wrench in epic fashion; check this out:
In time, Adam and I managed to remove I think just a single ball joint (maybe it was two). The rest were stuck in the axle “C,” and no matter how hard we hammered on them, no matter how much PB Blaster we hit them with, and no matter how cherry red we got those ball joints with a torch, they just wouldn’t budge. I’ll have to figure something out later—I assume a dremel or an angle grinder will come into play.
While struggling, Adam and I noticed some seeping on the driver’s side axle tube, so we figured we’d replace the axle seals. To do this, I pulled off the cover, and yanked out the differential carrier.
We never really finished this job. I wrapped the diff and the ends of the axle tube with plastic to keep moisture out, and that’s how it sits today.
On Monday, on my way to visit my coworker in North Carolina, I dropped by Adam’s house to help him bleed the brakes on his 2012 Jeep Wrangler JK:
Things didn’t go well. We couldn’t get the air out of the system. I assume the air is trapped in the ABS pump.
So basically, I spent all weekend wrenching, but now I’ve got a Jeep Grand Cherokee with new shocks, but terrible death wobble; I have a 1991 Jeep Cherokee XJ with a new axle, but stuck ball joints; I have a Willys with a semi-seized motor; and my friend Adam’s brakes are still total garbage.
Still, even though I wish the results had been better, there’s still something great about wrenching on a nice day with friends. Even if the projects kick your ass.