Art by Jason Torchinsky

Earlier this week, I wrote about my $500 postal Jeep’s rotted-out frame, concerned that it may doom the project. Now, to add to that setback, I’ve just discovered that the engine’s cylinder head has a major crack, and will need to be replaced. This and other new discoveries have made it clear that my postal Jeep has no desire to live on.

Over the last four years, I’ve dealt with some real shipwrecks—vehicles with no floors, gearboxes filled with water, bad gaskets that leak quarts of oil in only a few hours, engines with bad compression and toasted bearings, and just heavy quantities of concentrated dilapidation.

But in those years, the only time I’ve ever felt truly over my head was with my 1948 Willys CJ-2A, the neglected old farm vehicle whose engine crankshaft I found myself polishing on my drier just three weeks before my 1,300 mile road trip to Utah, and whose transmission wasn’t working properly just days before my scheduled departure.

I bring this up because I have that same feeling right now deep in my gut: I really don’t know if I can pull this off.

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My latest struggle is a cracked cylinder head, which really hurts, even though I sort of expected it, as I did take the head to the shop specifically to check for cracks after noticing steam coming from my exhaust and a slight milkiness to my oil. This is now the fifth cracked Jeep inline six cylinder head that I’ve dealt with. Diehard AMC fans will call it user error because of poor cooling system maintenance, but the reality is that it’s not uncommon for old vehicles to overheat for one reason or another, and these heads just aren’t forgiving.

Here’s a look at the crack in the bridge between cylinders three and four:

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The machine shop says it would cost me over $500 to repair the head (they insist upon doing a full head refresh if they mend it), but of course, I’d never consider that, as it’s cheaper to just snag a refurbished or used one, or to modify the 4.0-liter head I have sitting in my living room to make it fit (but this would require new manifolds).

In any case, it’s a significant setback in terms of time and resources on a vehicle that—no matter how much money I sink into its mechanicals—will not be worth a single penny more than I paid for it. The body is too far gone, and also, two-wheel drive, right-hand drive postal Jeeps not meant to go faster than about 30 mph are about as niche as niche gets.

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This is all in addition to my structurally compromised frame, which I began cutting the rust out of last night. I still have lots more hacking to do, but even as it sits, there’s not much left. Here’s the outside:

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Here’s the top:

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Here’s the inside:

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Also last night, I removed my front bumper, which required far more effort than I could possibly have expected, since extracting the rivets wasn’t as simple as cutting the heads off and banging the rivets through. No, they were seized into the frame, so I had to break out the drill, the hammer, and the pry bar.

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With the bumper off, and after hammering on a pickle fork to detach the drag link from the steering pitman arm, I unbolted the shocks and leaf springs, finding that the left side rear spring eye bolt was loose, just spinning around in its frame hole.

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After unbolting the leaf springs and cutting the brake hoses, I rolled the entire axle from under my Jeep, and found this:

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That’s what’s left of the leaf spring bushing on the frame side of the left spring. I’m pretty sure that’s a spiderweb in there. Here’s what’s left of the right rear spring eye:

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I’m fairly sure there was supposed to be a metal sleeve going through the center of the rubber bushings; not sure what happened to that or to the rest of the rubber. Did it all just disintegrate?

Not that this matters, as I’m not sure that these leaf springs are worth saving, as they seemed pretty flat when under the load of the Jeep.

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I recall telling myself when I was working on my CJ-2A, Project Slow Devil, that I’d never put myself through a project that hopeless ever again. The toll to my psyche was too great. And when I bought this Jeep DJ-5D Dispatcher, I was convinced it wouldn’t be that bad. Its lovely inline six ran, and sure, it had a little rust hole, but that could be patched?

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But now I’m in the thick of it, and even though it’s clear that this DJ wants to die, I’m not one to give up on a classic example of American Iron (oxide). No, no, I’m going for it. I’m going to pick up some steel, invite some friends over, and this weekend, we’re going to weld this frame until it’s stronger than the barriers IIHS uses for crash tests.

But if by the end of the weekend, we decide we can’t do anything with these crusty bones, then I’ll have to reevaluate.

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It may drive me to the brink, but I’m not sure I have the heart to give up on this tired old DJ.