A few weeks ago, I took a rusty Jeep named Project Redwood on a 3,500 mile road trip to and from the off-road Mecca of Moab, Utah. While the aim of the trip was to show that grand off-road adventures don’t have to be pricey, I did end up spending quite a bit more than the $800 I initially put down for the junker.
Part of my annual Moab cheap-Jeep build involves communicating with readers just how much the whole project costs. Last year’s 1948 Willys CJ-2A, which I had initially bought for $1,400, ended up sucking nearly $4,200 out of my wallet, and that didn’t even include fuel. The previous year’s 1995 Jeep Cherokee, which I’d purchased for only $600, ended up commanding about $2,000 all-in, also not including gas.
This year’s total, which I paid for out of my own pocket, comes somewhere between the cheap XJ and the extremely needy CJ-2A. Let’s begin by looking at the initial cost.
When I first saw my 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, it was sitting in a family’s backyard in Holland, Michigan, with its front tires sunken deep into the dirt. The seller, whom I had met over Craigslist, was asking $1,200 or “reasonable offer,” so I proposed $800. He agreed, and even helped me with the arduous task of getting the 4,500 pound paperweight into a trailer.
That trailer was one I’d borrowed from my friend, who was kind enough to tow my new project with his brand new Ram 2500 Cummins. For that kindness, and the scrapes the come-alongs we used to yank up the Jeep put on his new trailer, I threw my buddy $120. Between that pick-up price, the initial purchase price, and the $113 registration fee, I had spent $1,033 before ever turning a wrench.
The great thing about this year’s project was that, unlike the Go-Devil engine in my 1948 Willys CJ-2A, the AMC 360 V8 in my Grand Wagoneer didn’t require any major mechanical repairs.
I simply rebuilt the Motorcraft 2150 carburetor, bolted on a new fuel pump, blocked off the EGR hole (the EGR valve had broken), and that was pretty much the extent of the mechanical bits the engine needed to run.
The spacer between the carb and the intake manifold had to be replaced as well, as did the serpentine belts. Plus, I added an intake duct between the air cleaner (whose filter I had sitting around the house) and the opening behind the headlight to facilitate cool airflow into the engine.
Between all that, some universal joints in the front axles, a u-joint in the front driveshaft and some differential gaskets, I spent about $173 on the engine, trans and driveline. Which ain’t bad.
While I was lucky I didn’t have to spend lots of money rebuilding my motor, what I did have to do was spend a lot of time on my ignition system, for it is what had kept the Jeep’s motor from running for the past 12 years.
The first issue was the starter relay, which was toast, and prevented the engine from even turning over. Even with that fixed, the engine wouldn’t fire, so I just went in and replaced most of the ignition parts including the plugs, wires, distributor cap, distributor rotor, ignition coil and battery.
The most important thing I swapped out, and the thing I think caused the motor to cut out over 12 years ago as the previous owner was driving, was the ignition module. Luckily, that was only $24, and the rest of the parts were cheap, too.
All in, I spent about $133 on ignition bits.
Steering and suspension were areas where I dropped some serious coin. As I had planned to tow a Willys Jeep with the Wagoneer, it was especially important that the Jeep handled predictably near its max trailer limit.
So I got some good, used Michelin tires from the junkyard, replaced the rotten sway bar bushings, swapped out the shocks, installed all new ball joints and tie rods, and even swapped out the steering damper.
It wasn’t cheap at $806, but the modifications I made in this area—especially the new tires and steering parts—made the Jeep feel safe at highway speeds.
Other than that little heater core hose failure during the trip, my cooling system was stout thanks to some solid preventative maintenance.
My friends and I threw in a new water pump, thermostat, radiator cap and fan clutch, plus a new fan shroud, which a reader gave me for free. This kept the engine ice cold throughout the trip (again, minus that one time with the heater hose).
The transmission also got some love in the form of a giant cooler from the junkyard as well as a slick temperature gauge mounted in my glovebox.
I snagged all of this cooling system goodness for the low, low price of just $99.
The brakes were an enormous pain in my ass, nearly putting the entire trip on hold when the rear drum hardware I bought from the parts store just wasn’t fitting properly.
But in time, I got it all dialed in. And with a new master cylinder, brake calipers, wheel cylinders, pads, shoes, hoses, rear lines, drums and even hardware, I was 100 percent confident in my braking system even on the steepest declines of Moab. That peace of mind was worth every penny of those $270.
It’s hard for me to quantify exactly how much oil and coolant I used working on this Jeep, but I’ve got a decent guess, and it’s a shit-ton.
Between the oil in the engine, trans and differential; the coolant; the penetrating lubricant; the brake fluid; the cleaners; and all the filters for various oils and for the fuel, these “little things” really do add up.
And by “they add up,” I mean that literally. To $288.
Admittedly, I didn’t keep meticulous receipts of every little part I bought, so to make sure I’ve added some little things that might otherwise slip through the cracks—things like bolts, hoses and fuses—to the miscellaneous section.
Between those estimates and things like a new fuel cap, which I bought after leaving mine on the roof at a fuel stop, wiper blades, a sensor for the rear tailgate and other small expenses, I dropped around $190, here.
Adding up the initial cost of buying, transporting and registering the Jeep to the actual parts costs as well as to the services like tire balancing and wheel alignment, I spent about $2,963 all in.
That doesn’t include the $30 in spare u-joints, the $35 radiator or the $20 alternator I purchased as spares in case something went wrong. Nor does it include the $800 in fuel costs or the $120 my copilot Andrew and I spent on the two nights we spent in hotels. It also doesn’t include the beer and pizza I bribed my extremely generous wrenching buddies with. So if you want to know the full cost of the adventure, it’s probably closer to $4,000.
My boss Patrick was kind enough to cover the gas and lodging, so I’ll only be footing the $3,000 it took to buy and fix the Jeep. And to be honest, that really isn’t bad. Not only was the experience worth every penny, but now I’ve got a reliable and stylish daily-driver. Which is good, because the rest of my fleet isn’t looking so hot.