Photo: Michael Tracy. Art: Jason Torchinsky

Back in April, I concluded a 3,800 mile road trip from Michigan to Utah and back in a 1976 Postal Jeep that I had purchased for $500 eight months prior. To accomplish this feat, I wrenched a lot and bought loads of new parts whose costs I just added up for the first time. Turns out, Project POStal wasn’t quite as cheap as I’d hoped.

I’ll admit that, going into this project, I knew I was destined to lose money. Even if I managed to fix the Jeep’s copious flaws—which included a rotted out body and frame, a cracked cylinder head, a loose suspension, a bad ignition system, a sloppy steering box, and much, much more—the reality is that Postal Jeeps just aren’t worth much, so I couldn’t expect to sell this thing for much more than I’d bought it for. In other words, all the money I was going to have to spend on repairs was money would be gone.

But I trudged on anyway, eyes wide in wonder as I marveled at this incredible little rusty right-hand drive cube sitting on the side of a dead-end road in Indianapolis. That’s where I first laid eyes on Project POStal, and it’s where I fell in love.

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That love has remained, even after I’ve added up the rather substantial expenses associated with fixing the Jeep. I’m smitten, I guess you could say. Anyway, let’s get into some numbers.

Initial Expenses

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To get the Jeep from where its prior owner had it stored, I borrowed a Ram 2500 press vehicle from Fiat Chrysler, rented a U-Haul auto transport trailer, and drove with a friend down to Indianapolis. First, we stopped by Toledo and dropped off my 1948 Willys CJ-2A, as I had planned to attend the Toledo Jeep Fest there.

Then my friend Jamie and I snagged the lovely little DJ-5D Dispatcher from Indy, Jamie dropped me off at my Willys in Toledo, and he drove back to the metro Detroit area, Postal Jeep in tow.

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The Jeep itself cost $500, the state of Michigan snagged $74 from me to register the machine (a cost I was more than willing to pay, since they allowed me to register something that shitty to drive on public roads), and U-Haul and various fuel stations on the side of the interstates between Troy, Michigan and Indianapolis used up another $130 worth of funds.

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All in, my initial expenses to just get the Jeep to my house and register it totaled $821.

Engine, Transmission and Driveline Parts

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The engine ran when I bought it, but it smoked, and I had a suspicion that the cylinder head might have been cracked, as is often the case with these inline-six motors after they’ve been overheated.

Indeed, upon removing the 232 cubic-inch AMC engine’s head and sending it to a machine shop to be magnafluxed and checked for cracks, the technician told me that the head had a crack, and would cost hundreds to fix.

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Instead of repairing the giant rectangular piece of iron, I dropped $80 on a used head that was just sitting on a retired Chrysler engineer’s garage floor. He even threw in a spare distributor, which came in clutch a bit later when I had ignition troubles.

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The head was rusty, but the machine shop said it was devoid of cracks, and luckily, after a Hail Mary repair job taking an entire weekend, I was able to get all the valves to seal despite the corrosion.

Still, between having the two heads checked for cracks and the second of the two milled (it was heavily warped), that whole head operation ended up costing me quite a bit. And so did my pushrod woes of trying to figure out how to quiet my loud engine, since the rocker arms seemed extremely loose (I bought two sets of pushrods; the second set fit perfectly, and the engine now runs quietly).

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I ended up getting the motor all fixed and sounding great, but not before spending about $573 on the engine, transmission, and drivetrain alone.

Ignition and Other Electrical Parts

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Though the Jeep ran when I first bought it, it wasn’t long before it shut off and no longer produced spark. But of course, this was after I bought a new ignition module, distributor cap, and distributor rotor, only to learn that my issue was with my distributor.

Luckily, a Duraspark-style distributor had been thrown in with the cylinder head I’d purchased from the former Chrysler engineer, and I was able to make it work by wiring it up a General Motors High Energy Ignition module.

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The resulting ignition system is lovely. Check it out:

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I also had to buy a new alternator from a junkyard, since the one in my Postal Jeep was broken, but luckily I found a nice remanufactured alternator under the hood of a Pontiac Parisienne:

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I had to fix a few other odds and ends in my electrical system, and I had to snag a battery from another one of my vehicles (I’ve got that as a $30 expense, since that’s how much I can get one for at a local junkyard), but luckily, with lots of help from friends, I didn’t have any issues once the trip was underway. In total, I dropped around $221 on electrical parts.

Suspension, Steering, Tires

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When I initially bought this $500 Postal Jeep, it drove like crap. All the suspension parts were toast (there were literally no bushings in the leaf springs), the rear shocks weren’t even attached because someone had installed a crappy homemade lift kit, and the steering had disturbing amounts of slop.

My coworker Jason wrote about what it was like to drive the Postal Jeep prior to my repairs. It was a borderline deathtrap:

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.

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Anyway, mending this took a lot of work. I ditched the lift kit, replaced all the shocks, installed new bushings, repaired and adjusted the steering box, and threw on a set of lightly-used (the date code read 2017) Hankook winter tires. Now the Jeep drives like a dream—well, relatively.

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Getting the Jeep to drive and steer smoothly wasn’t cheap though, as I had to drop $430 in parts plus $143 in tire installation costs for a total of $573 in steering, suspension, and tire-related expenses.

Brakes

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In Jason’s review I pasted above, you’ll notice his criticism of the brakes. The brakes really did suck at first, but not nearly as much as they did after I fixed them.

Yes, I fixed the brakes, and then they ended up worse thanks to what was apparently a bad remanufactured master cylinder from the parts store—an issue that left my brothers and me stranded in Colorado for days.

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But after swapping the master cylinder out under warranty, and bending some new hardline in a hotel room for the front brakes just for good measure, we got the stoppers working beautifully. Between the new wheel cylinders, brake shoes, hoses, and master cylinder, the Jeep stops with confidence. It was totally worth $269 worth of brake parts.

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Cooling System

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As a general rule, it’s a good idea when starting a project with an unknown service history to swap out the main cooling system components. Those are: the water pump, thermostat, accessory belt(s), radiator cap, and radiator hoses.

I was unwise and didn’t swap my lower radiator hose, but it was in decent shape and didn’t end up biting me in the ass, thank goodness. Otherwise, I diligently went through my system and made sure it was bulletproof, because overheating your engine can cause lots of problems, and when these cooling system parts are as cheap as they are, there’s no reason to skimp.

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Not only did I replace the parts that make sure my engine stays cool, but I also made sure I had a surefire way to monitor my engine temperature by installing a coolant temperature sensor and gauge. Plus, after having some issues out on the off-road trails of Moab, I installed a junkyard transmission cooler right behind my grille—an installation that I admittedly should have done prior to starting the trip.

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I was able to get the cooling system in tip-top shape for only $92.

Filters, Gaskets, Fluids, Hardware, Other Misc. Items

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Due to a major oil leak, I had to make quite a few pitstops at Tractor Supply Co. to buy oil in 2.5 gallon containers. Luckily, I fixed that issue, as it was draining not just by sump, but also my wallet.

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I also had to spend quite a bit on steel, since I had to patch the frame and floors. And my god did I buy lots of hardware. Most of the figures on this list are based on receipts, but that $100 figure is an estimate; Still, I bet it’s right, because I had to build so many body mounts and replace so many rusty bolts, including many important suspension-related ones, that I found myself dropping heavy coin at Ace Hardware and Lowes.

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I did spent quite a bit at a junkyard in Virginia on a turn signal bracket and some mirrors, but those were pretty important, though I wish I’d installed the parcel tray that I’d bought with them, because it’s just awesome. Though, instead of that, it would have been nice to have had bolted that cool red passenger seat in place so one of my brother’s could have joined me in the white and brown cube.

All in, I estimate that filters, fasteners, gaskets, and other miscellaneous items ran me $435.

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All in, Project POStal cost me $2,984. Add in the fuel and motel expenses—which, luckily, Jalopnik footed—of that two-week journey, and we’re talking five large. The journey itself was worth every penny, but let’s be honest: Nobody’s going to buy this Postal Jeep for three grand.