I have under two months to get my $500 Jeep DJ-5D Dispatcher ready for a 3,500 mile road trip from Michigan to Utah and back, so yesterday I wrenched until I dropped. Not from fatigue, though, but from horror. Because my frame is toast.

Yesterday was a fine day of wrenching in The Home for Misfit Jeeps, in large part, because I had such good access to my engine bay. That’s the beauty of old CJ-based Jeeps and even pre-JK Jeep Wranglers—just a few bolts on the firewall, and a couple on the grille, and voila, the whole front end is off.

Actually, it wasn’t quite that easy, because of course, every one of the 20-ish bolts I had to remove to pull the front end off was totally rotted out. And in some cases, particularly those that threaded into the firewall, I was not willing to snap the fasteners, so I had to go through my rusty bolt extraction ritual, which I won’t get into here, but basically involves candles, maybe some incense, a bit of Cleveland’s finest penetrating lubricant, and a lot of Alan Jackson to set the mood.

What should have taken 30 minutes took me two hours, but in the end, I didn’t break a single fastener that wasn’t a through-bolt, so I was happy. Here’s a look at how the fenders are held in place:

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Here’s a closer shot of the four firewall bolts:

Here’s where the fenders attach to the grille:

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And then here’s one of the two spring-loaded studs holding the grille—which has the radiator fastened to it—to the frame:

My fenders are now in the back of my Jeep:

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And my grille and radiator are sitting on the floor of my garage:

From there, I set about removing the Carter YF single-barrel carburetor and my valve cover, neither of which posed a problem, and then I went to take off my exhaust and intake manifold.

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The two bolts holding the exhaust manifold to the exhaust pipe ruined me. I don’t want to make this article entirely about the struggles I went through removing bolts, because that’s boring, but if this story were to describe accurately what I’ve been doing over the past few days, then 95 percent of the text would read “Struggled to remove rusty bolt; cried a little.”

The issue with the exhaust manifold-to-exhaust pipe nuts is that they thread onto a stud that threads into the manifold. So if I break that stud, I’ve probably got to drill out my exhaust manifold, which, if that sounds like hell to you, it’s because it is.

You can see that I stripped the very end of one of the two studs. This isn’t a big deal, though.

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Anyway, with generous amounts of heat from a MAPP torch, lots of PB Blaster lubricant, and a wrenching technique that I’ve refined over hundreds of hours of rusty shitbox toiling, I got the nuts off and with an electric impact, I zipped the manifolds off the head. From there, I undid the rocker arms and pushrods, and placed them on some cardboard boxes so I’ll remember their order when it’s time to reassemble.

Then, after undoing a few bolts holding the ignition coil and alternator to the head, and taking off my thermostat housing, I banged out the head bolts, and removed the cylinder head, exposing the cylinders below:

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The cylinders actually look really nice, with no unusual wear, and only a small lip between where the piston rings ride and the untouched cylinder.

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I’ll be removing the lifters soon to see if I can identify what’s causing this thing to “tick,” and I’ll also be taking the cylinder head—shown below—to the machine shop to have it magnafluxed to checked for cracks, and also checked for warpage.

I don’t think the head is cracked, but I’ve dealt with some in my lifetime, and I did notice a bit of milky oil in the head after I removed the valve cover. Maybe this was condensation or a bad head gasket, but I’m not taking any chances. Speaking of not taking chances, removing the old water pump revealed a fairly nice impeller and nice, smooth bearing action. Still, I’ll be swapping it for a new one.

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The water pump on the right, hanging out with its good friend, Carburetor.

Anyway, enough stalling. I’ve got to talk about the frame. I mean, just look at it:

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You can see a few round holes on the side of the frame rail above—those are there to hold a bracket for the front bumper, and after heating the bolts up and removing them, the bracket came off, revealing that there’s a good chance it was playing a key role in holding the frame together. Because there’s not much structure underneath.

The whole outer side of the frame rail is wrecked. The bottom seems to be okay, and the top is okay up to the grille mount, after which it turns to nothingness. As for the inside, it’s not terrible aft of the grille mount:

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The issue is that I need structure in front of that grille mount—specifically, I need it from the leaf spring shackle attachment point rearward, as there will be considerable loads transmitted up through that bracket.

I haven’t decided exactly how I’m going to fix this, but I have decided that getting a new frame is unlikely, since my budget won’t allow it, and more importantly, I like a challenge. I could weld in a new frame rail or some box tubing, or I could just graft on some metal plates around what metal I do have to weld to.

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That weldable metal, at this moment, appears to be the bottom of the rail (I find this odd—you’d think this is where moisture and crud would build up to catalyze rust), much of the inside of the rail, much of the top of the rail, and essentially none of the outer rail section on the front 18 inches of the frame. We’ll see how much I have to work with as I start cutting the rust out.

This is all going to take some time, which is a bummer, because the steering, suspension, brakes, electrical system, and body are also in desperate need of attention. Why I waited this long to start this is beyond me, but I’m feeling the repercussions. My body aches.