How I Got My Free Jeep Grand Wagoneer Running After It Sat For A Decade

Photos by the author

Back in June, I used a 2020 Jeep Gladiator to tow a free Jeep Grand Wagoneer 250 miles from Dayton, Ohio to suburban Detroit. Since then, the Woody—which, as you might imagine considering its price, is a rodent-infested piece of crap—had languished in my backyard. But last weekend, the heavy SJ-platform machine moved under its own power for the first time in over a decade. Here’s how I pulled that off.

One of the greatest joys in the whole of automobile-dom is firing up a vehicle that hasn’t started in many years. It’s a great problem-solving exercise that teaches you how cars work, involves physical exercise, lets you hang out with friends to work towards a common goal, and appeals to whatever part of the human brain is so captivated by things like mysterious shipwrecks.

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And in many ways, that’s what this 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer is: a rusty, land-dwelling shipwreck filled with all sorts of mysteries that, as I wrench on it more and more, I have the pleasure of uncovering. The first and most exciting mystery is: What works if I hook up a battery?

The answer to that one was “nothing,” because I didn’t have a key that fit into the ignition. So I ran to my local auto parts store, rented a steering wheel puller and a lock plate remover for a combined $40, and yanked out my lock cylinder.

Removing the lock cylinder was remarkably easy; all I had to do was undo a single nut off the steering shaft and then use a puller to yank the steering wheel off. Then I used a steering wheel lock plate remover to take a little retaining ring off the shaft to release the lock plate. With that out of the way, I just had to move some bits around to give me access to the bolt (shown above) that held the cylinder in. With that out, the cylinder popped right out, and I put a new one (for which I had a key) into place.

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Before installing the battery and trying to crank the engine over, I filled all the AMC 360 V8 engine’s bores with automatic transmission fluid. I did this to lubricate cylinder walls and rings that might have lost their oil films from having sat for so long.

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Then I installed a battery, and cranked the motor over. It turned slowly, and with the spark plugs in, it barely cranked at all thanks to the cylinder compression. Eventually, even with a freshly charged battery, my key wouldn’t turn the engine over at all. I hammered the starter, and then the motor moved a bit, but it wasn’t exactly a strong crank.

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Luckily, a random reader had offered me via email the 258 inline-six out of his 1978 AMC Concord, and while I haven’t yet decided if I want that engine sitting in my backyard for who knows how long, I did accept some starter motors that he had laying around—one off of a 1982 AMC Concord and one off some sort of Jeep. He left the two motors on his porch, so I swung by in my postal Jeep, left him a Jalopnik T-Shirt as payment, and returned home to install the motor with help from another Jalopnik reader.

Even with the new starter in, the engine wouldn’t crank, so I simply bypassed the solenoid, and the AMC 360 spun over with vigor. I then changed out the solenoid, and that did nothing, indicating that there’s something wrong between my ignition switch and that solenoid.

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Anyway, connecting the battery cable directly to the back side of the solenoid, and spraying a bit of starting fluid into the carburetor yielded ignition. Listen to this(!):

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In keeping with the theme of this Jeep Grand Wagoneer’s interior, the tailpipe was filled with what appears to be a rodent’s nest, which shot out like a cannonball as soon as the first cylinder fired:

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As with every single vehicle I’ve ever had to revive from the dead after having sat for years, this Jeep Grand Wagoneer needed a new fuel pump. Luckily, they’re dirt cheap, and along with a new starter solenoid, only cost me $30. Here’s the new fuel pump installed:

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I also did an oil change, since oil is cheap, and I didn’t want to run the engine much with the questionable 12 year-old fluid in the crankcase. Naturally, the oil filter was on tight, so I had to resort to the messy Stick Flathead Into Filter-method, since I didn’t have an oil filter wrench:

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I then filled a jerry can with fuel, shoved the hose coming off the fuel pump into the can, and pressed the battery cable against the back side of the starter solenoid. The result surprised me. The motor idled beautifully!

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Generally, when a vehicle has sat for over ten years, like this one has per its previous owner, the fuel in the carburetor gets “gummed up,” and even if the motor fires, it struggles to idle since the jets are clogged. But this Grand Wagoneer idled just fine, and even created an enormous smoke cloud in my neighborhood:

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That cloud, by the way, is comprised of the automatic transmission fluid I’d poured into my cylinders. I should note that ATF is quite flammable. When I turned the engine over with my spark plugs out to clear the cylinders of the fluid, quite a bit of the lubricating red goodness landed on my exhaust manifold, which isn’t great. I had a fire extinguisher ready should something happen, but as has been my experience on previous projects, the ATF tends to just smoke and burn off. Be careful with that stuff.

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With the engine running and the brakes receiving vacuum assist, my brake pedal fell straight to the floor and my master cylinder emptied itself. The source of the leak appears to be my proportioning valve; it rendered my entire braking system useless.

Another issue I noticed was that my throttle return spring was too weak to act against my throttle cable, the sleeve of which likely has rust in it, making it hard for the cable to return. This caused my throttle to stick open when I revved the motor. Luckily, I made sure to inspect this before ever putting the car into drive; I replaced the spring with one I had sitting around (you can barely see it above). It’s a bit too stiff, though, so I’ll need to get a proper one at that point, and probably a new throttle cable.

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With the throttle return spring working fine, and the engine idling, I went for a little drive. Sure, I had no brakes, but I had a flat rear tire and mushy grass to slow me down, so this wouldn’t be an issue.

I tried putting the Chrysler 727 three-speed automatic into “drive,” but the linkage was seized. I had to work the column-shifter back and forth a bunch of times before I could get it to go into gear, and with that done, I managed to pilot the neglected Wagoneer about 20 yards to the spot shown above and below.

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My plan for this Wagoneer is to flip it so I can spend the cash on another venture, and while I did list this thing on Facebook Marketplace for a reasonably low $1,200, I deleted the listing, as I don’t feel comfortable selling something without functioning brakes.

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I’ll fix the brakes, yank off the carburetor and look closely at the throttle cable, then clean the rodent-infested interior, and then probably throw it back on the market.

I may try to fix the rust as well, as I think that’ll help me maximize profit to put into my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle’s engine rebuild, and give me a chance to hone my sheet metal welding-skills. But I’m not sure yet—I need to figure out how much time I want to spend on this shitbox, because to be honest, very little thought went into taking ownership of this Woody.

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It was free; what was I supposed to do?

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About the author

David Tracy

Writer, Jalopnik. 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle, 1985 Jeep J10, 1948 Willys CJ-2A, 1995 Jeep Cherokee, 1992 Jeep Cherokee auto, 1991 Jeep Cherokee 5spd, 1976 Jeep DJ-5D, totaled 2003 Kia Rio