Project Redwood—my $800 Craigslist Jeep Grand Wagoneer that hadn’t run in 12 years when I purchased it—just drove 1,700 miles from Michigan to the off-road trails of Utah almost flawlessly. I say “almost” because in the middle of nowhere, Colorado, the big Woodie left me and my copilot stranded.
Jalopnik Reviews Editor Andrew Collins and I were chatting about the meaning of life just west of Denver when I glanced down at my temperature gauge and shrieked in horror. It was pegged in the red. “Oh god oh god oh god,” I exclaimed, shutting the engine off, and slowly coasting the Jeep to a rest on the shoulder of I-70. Steam billowed from the hood, and I went into crisis mode.
This was all very surprising, as up to that point, the Jeep had performed flawlessly. After chugging along from Michigan to Missouri without issue, on Sunday Morning Andrew and I headed west from our roadside motel in High Hill, Missouri, first stopping at a rest stop to check fluids. Everything seemed great, and I was optimistic.
Missouri and Kansas, two beautiful states covered in vast fields and lovely lakes and creeks, flew by our window at 65 miles an hour, with the Wagoneer’s AMC 360 quietly humming under the hood and the roadway roaring from under our nonexistent driver’s side floorboards.
As night fell, so did visibility, but we pressed on into Colorado through soupy fog.
As the Easter Jeep Safari was the next afternoon, Andrew and I decided to skip sleep and just grind through the night. So we drove past Denver, and then quickly entered the scariest section of the trip–the Rocky Mountains.
Despite the Jeep being rather slow, the torque from that big V8 meant maintaining speed up the grade was surprisingly easy, and looking down at the gauges, the coolant temp never even went past the middle of the gauge. The transmission, too, shifted well, with the aftermarket cooler keeping oil temps below 200 degrees Fahrenheit for almost the entire drive.
Things were going fine, and after going over major passes (over 11,000 feet above sea level) in the middle of the night, Andrew and I pulled over into a Valero. “We didn’t stay there long because it stank of gas,” Andrew just told me. “So while you were snoozing I went ahead and moved us to a cleaner rest stop, only to realize the odor was actually coming from the Jeep.” Despite the smell, he and I got a solid two or three hours of sleep, before continuing on through the mountains for the final stretch to the off-road Mecca that is Moab.
We finished our drive through the mountain passes without any problems. But after leaving the Rockies, tragedy struck in the form of the aforementioned pegged temperature gauge.
My mind rushed at 1,000 mph as I thought about what to do next. I knew I had to get us off the highway, as dozens of enormous semi-trucks were blasting by only feet away. I had seen enough news stories about roadside repairs ending in disaster to know this wasn’t a safe spot to be. “Let’s call a tow truck,” Andrew suggested.
“Hold on, let me try something,” I responded. I popped the hood, and ran to the front of the Jeep. Steam billowed from a burst heater core hose as I racked my brain trying to figure out what had just gone wrong, and how it had happened so quickly.
“Why had that hose burst?” I wondered. The radiator was ice-cold, leading me to think that perhaps the thermostat had gotten stuck. But why didn’t the radiator cap just lift? Plus, I had changed the thermostat before leaving Detroit. Not to mention, the water pump was also brand new, and I’d inspected the radiator, finding it to be in great shape.
Andrew handed me his knife, I cut off the section of heater core hose that had burst, and I plumbed everything back together. VROOM a semi-truck roared by as I sprinted to the back of the Jeep to grab two gallons of engine coolant. I poured them into the radiator, and, immediately upon entering the engine, the coolant turned to steam, shooting up like a geyser from the radiator fill port.
I stepped back, let the steam subside, and continued filling the radiator until it had swallowed all two gallons of our coolant reserves. I put the cap back on and tried cranking the motor. It was too hot, and wouldn’t fire. After a while, the engine cooled down, but by then, the battery was toast.
I was deeply concerned. Had I seized the motor? Did I crack the heads or blow the head gaskets? After all, there was clearly steam coming up from near the cylinder head-block interface.
After spraying a bit of starting fluid into the carb, hooking up my portable battery jumper, and letting the engine cool down for a bit, the motor finally came to life, and I watched as the coolant temperature dropped as the water pump circulated the antifreeze through the radiator.
White smoke shot out of the exhaust pipe, so Andrew and I limped the Jeep to the random town of Parachute, Colorado, where we were lucky enough to find a NAPA Auto Parts where we could assess the damage. The Jeep sucked up another 1.5 gallons of coolant, indicating that every drop of the 3.5-gallon cooling system had evacuated, leaving the engine bone-dry.
With the hose patched up, and the cooling system topped off, Andrew and I drove around the town of Parachute to figure out what sort of permanent damage this incident had caused, and checked to see if the system would overheat once more.
But everything seemed fine. The oil was clean, the motor made plenty of power, and the coolant temperature stayed just near the thermostat set-point. Plus, the exhaust was now clear.
So we decided to go for it. I pulled the Jeep to the highway onramp, and accelerated to 65 mph. Everything seemed fine, and for the next three hours, I watched over that coolant gauge like a hawk, as the Jeep moved closer and closer to the off-road promised land.
The Jeep drove just as well as it had prior to the “thermal issue,” leading me to conclude that the cause was simply a bad heater core hose. We drove a few hours on I-70, turned onto 191, and eventually made it to Moab. The Jeep, which I had only driven maybe five miles prior to this trip, and which had been struggling with mechanical issues until late on Friday night, had done it.
Once in Moab, Andrew and I headed down a light off-road trail towards the Jeep Concept Drive. Off-roading the Wagoneer with 35 psi in the tires was truly bone-jarring. The ride was awful, nearly shaking our teeth from our skulls, and because of the lack of ground clearance and two-wheel drive, making it through the trail took a bit of finesse.
In the end, we arrived at the Jeep Concept drive 30 minutes too late. Still, we got to see the only concept vehicle we really cared about—the Jeep Wagoneer Roadtrip—and Andrew managed to snag this awesome shot of it next to Project Redwood:
The plan for today is to bolt up that gas tank skidplate that Indianapolis-based reader Alex donated, and then to get low range back up and running (I fixed the 4x4, but low-range is still giving me grief). After that, Andrew and I will try to limp this big, ground clearance-less Waggy through a trail called Seven Mile Rim.
Even though Seven Mile Rim isn’t one of the harder trails in Moab, it’s going to put the Wagoneer to the test. The big luxo-Jeep just doesn’t have the approach, departure or breakover angles it needs to be an off-road beast, and the ground clearance is pretty sad, too.
Some of my friends have told me they’re not even sure it’s possible to get Project Redwood through that trail, and since I, unfortunately, have to get back to Michigan by Sunday to fly to a funeral in Germany, I may have to take it easy.
Either that, or I’ll just “send it,” and fly out from a local airport. We’ll see.