Through some stroke of pure luck from the Jeep gods, I was able to get my $500 1976 postal Jeep running and driving, but my god was the only 6.6 mile trip I took terrifying. Here’s why this Jeep DJ Dispatcher is going to need lots of work before it’s ready to drive 1,700 miles from Troy, Michigan to Moab, Utah.
The last time I wrote about my 1976 Jeep DJ-5D Dispatcher postal Jeep, I was pointing out all of its copious flaws, including a giant 18-inch rust hole in the frame, a rotted-out body with wood instead of body mounts, a sketchy suspension setup with a terrible makeshift lift, tons of steering play, a bad fuel pump, useless electronics and—well, you can read the rest here. Suffice it to say, this thing’s terrible and the fact that I bought it has my family members concerned about my mental marble count.
In any case, I’ve done a little bit of wrenching on the thing since signing that title last summer. Let’s start with swapping the bad fuel pump. Here’s my friend Adrian unbolting the old one so he won’t have to keep drenching himself in gasoline holding a jerry can to gravity-feed my carburetor:
And here’s the shiny new camshaft-driven pump, which cost me less than $20:
With the pump on, and the hose to the carb and from the fuel tank all hooked up, the engine idled on its own with only a few drops of starting fluid to get it going. Update: A prior version of this story was missing footage of the lovely inline six idling:
So I drove the Jeep a few yards onto some ramps on the pavement, and Adrian—kind man that he is—changed my oil:
The fluid, I was thrilled to see, looked like, well, oil, and didn’t seem to have any water in it:
There were some metal shavings on the magnetic drain plug, but who knows how long those have been there. I’m not worried about it:
But of course, just because an engine runs doesn’t mean it’s healthy enough for a 1,700 mile (one way) trip, so I did a quick compression test on the AMC 232 inline-six, and it passed with flying colors: 120 psi across all six cylinders:
With a motor that could idle, I was feeling antsy—I really wanted to take this sucker on the road. But first, I needed new tires:
I scoured Craigslist for a set of winter tires, and found a set of four 215-75-R15 Hankooks for sale for only $20 apiece. I picked them up, unbolted the wheels from the Jeep, and drove the steel and rubber to Discount Tire. I quickly thereafter received a call from the technician who told me that two of my wheels were so rusty, they’d no longer hold air.
Luckily, I basically live in a junkyard, so I had a pair of wheels that fit on my front lawn. I took those to the shop, and now I’ve got these sweet, relatively new (manufactured in 2017) Hankook winter tires on my postal Jeep. They look really nice, and I hope they’ll prevent me from crashing into a guardrail (again) when I inevitably encounter snow climbing over the rockies:
Still, even with new tires, the Jeep wasn’t ready for primetime. Even though it ran okay, when I drove it from the backyard into my garage, I basically had to put my foot deep on the throttle to get the thing to move at all. I’d experienced this before on the $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer project last year, which shares this postal Jeep’s 727 transmission. Then, the problem was a lack of trans fluid, so I grabbed a gallon of Dexron Mercon III, and poured a bit in, checked the level. Then poured more in, and checked the level again.
By the time the dipstick indicated the trans was full, I’d dumped the entire gallon of ATF inside. Suffice it to say, I think there’s a leak somewhere (see below). Yanking the trans lever into reverse and drive yielded solid thuds as the vehicle was much more eager to move with fluid now in the trans.
The final thing missing before I could drive this Jeep was proper lighting. My right-side (driver’s side, in this case) turn signal, for example, wasn’t held down thanks to a broken bracket, so it flopped all over the place:
Fortunately, during my Thanksgiving road trip last year in my 255,000 mile XJ, I had snagged a new bracket, which I later had to bend with a hammer and a torch, but ultimately was able to bolt into place to hold the turn signal:
So at this point, I had a vehicle with a running, idling engine, good tires, and headlights and turn signals that worked. Brake lights still weren’t working, though, so I invited my friend over to look at the wiring diagram in my sweet, incredibly thorough AM General Corporation service manual, which I had purchased on eBay. Look at this awesome binder:
And here’s the relevant part of the electrical diagram:
Eventually, he and I tracked the issue to two brake switches that thread into a valve just on the other side of the frame from the master cylinder:
I hooked a few wires together, and the brake lights were working well. With that fixed, we swapped a few bulbs, and then attached some mirrors that I’d purchased at a junkyard along with the aforementioned turn signal bracket because—let’s be honest—a postal carrier without these mirrors just isn’t as cool:
Now that I could see my surroundings extremely well with these awesome mirrors, I headed to Jalopnik’s reader meetup at a go-karting spot called Kart2Kart, which was 6.6 miles from my house. Unfortunately, it was dark outside and I had to use my headlights.
I say this is unfortunate, because during that short drive—which took probably 30 minutes—I noticed my headlights quickly dimming. Never mind that I had no dash lights, I was concerned about making sure that other cars on the road could see me, so I started shutting off my lights at well-lit traffic signals to preserve my battery, which a faulty alternator was failing to charge.
The drive was pretty dicey, if I’m honest. Even though I was on a wide suburban road, there weren’t many cars near me and I was being tailed closely by friend as I drove about 25 mph, somehow I had to give the machine 100 percent of my attention just to keep it going perfectly straight in the lane.
With no rear shocks attached, and a terribly sketchy lift kit, even small bumps made the Jeep feel like it wanted to go in a direction other than where my steering wheel was pointed. Speaking of which, the steering—my god is it bad. There’s an absurd amount of play in it.
Acceleration was limited by the fact that, if I pressed the gas harder than about 50 percent, the engine would backfire with a loud pop! I thought the brakes were strong enough compared to my Willys CJ-2A, but compared to any modern car with power brakes, they were horrid.
Also horrid was my turn signal relay (the silver thing shown below), which was under the dash just flopping around. The connection kept screwing up, so I had to reach underneath and try to re-attach it as I approached turns.
Anyway, after a slow but incredibly stressful drive, with my headlights ending up not much brighter than candles, I eventually did make it to Kart2Kart, and was even able to park the Jeep inside, where the machine was an absolute hit with readers:
Except for with this guy in the pink pants—I can feel the insults he’s spewing toward my beloved postal Jeep:
Unsurprisingly, after the event, the Jeep wouldn’t start, because the headlights had drained the battery too far for the starter to crank the engine. So I ditched the Jeep at the karting facility, and returned the next morning to pick it up.
Luckily, my coworker Jason accompanied me, and agreed to drive the postal carrier as I drove my $600 XJ just ahead of him, leading the way. Here he is, sitting in the driver’s seat with a big smile on his face that would—once he got the Jeep up to about 10 mph—quickly wipe away into whatever facial expression one makes in a moment of terror:
Here’s his review of the driving experience:
One of the things I think I actually take real pride in is the fact that I’m willing and able to drive some really, really terrible cars. It’s one of those perverse things I actually love, and the worse it is, the better it feels. I don’t think it’s a sex thing, but let’s be honest, who the hell knows?
Anyway, David’s Postal Jeep really delivered here. It’s terrible. And I mean that by my own Torch standards of terrible. It’s barely drivable, and, I’m pretty sure it’s dangerous as hell, too. It’s stubbornly slow, which may be the only reason David or myself or anyone behind the wheel of that thing is still alive. It’s also impressive that the performance of it with a real-car inline-six is as bad or worse than things I’ve driven with a single, wheezy two-stroke cylinder.
The Postal Jeep is baffling in how bad it drives. Nothing makes sense. Why is it so hard to keep in a straight line at 35 mph? How does it require so much steering input? Why does it want to start fishtailing at the slightest provocation, like driving by a sign with colors that are just a bit too vivid? Nothing about it makes any sense.
Except the brakes. They make sense when you understand that they have no interest in stopping you.
I don’t throw the word “deathtrap” around much, but I could be tempted to make an exception here.
Obviously, I’ve still got to do some body work to ensure the tub stays on the frame while off-road, and I have to weld the hole in the frame, which—on flat roads like the ones Jason and I drove—didn’t concern me, since only one side of the fully-boxed frame is compromised, but out on off-road trails, this could be a problem.
I’ve also got to get rid of the lift kit, and install a set of good shocks, do a proper alignment, completely rebuild the brakes, swap all the ball joints and tie rod ends (which I checked before driving, and seemed okay, but I’ll swap just in case), and at that point, the ride should be much better, and I should be able to drive more than the maximum 35 mph Jason and I were willing to attempt.
Basically, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.