The 2018 Easter Jeep Safari—a big off-road fest in Moab, Utah—isn’t far away, and I’ve still got tons to do to get my $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer ready to tow another Jeep 1,700 miles, and then go rock-crawling on some of America’s most arduous trails. The good news: after 12 years, the Jeep finally lives!

Last month, I wrote about how I had finally gotten my Jeep Grand Wagoneer running decently for the first time in 12 years, only to then remove and rebuild the carb after an unfortunate engine fire. The resulting rebuilt carb, sadly, did not help the big AMC 360 V8 run any better; in fact, it actually ran worse than before. I was worried I might be doomed.

My friend Taylor and I were hoping that my carb rebuild and the meticulous vacuum hose routing—which followed the diagram found on the car’s radiator support—was fine, and that the issue was just an EGR valve that seemed to be flopping around at the back of the engine. Maybe the backfire that caused the carburetor to go up in flames was what blew the valve’s bolts off, we reasoned.

Well, it turns out we were right, because I just bolted up the shiny Ebay EGR block-off plate shown above, and now just listen to this magnificent machine

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It makes sense. Dumping too much exhaust gas into the combustion chamber will make any car run like crap. Now that that’s solved, and I’ve got my idle settings dialed in reasonably well, the motor sounds fantastic. It’s remarkably quiet. Here’s another listen:

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I mention in the clip above that Taylor and I replaced the cooling system. What I mean is that we swapped out the thermostat, water pump and radiator cap, and flushed out the radiator as well as we could with a garden hose.

Cooling system maintenance is something I focus on every time I prepare a car for a long journey, because nothing kills an engine faster than heat (OK, maybe water).

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Changing the water pump was a pain in the ass, but now that I know how to do it, it will be a cake walk when something inevitably fails on the long journey out west. Taking out the old pump required removing the cooling fan, unbolting the alternator and water pump brackets (to slide the pump out from under them and to loosen the accessory belts), undoing a bunch of caked-on hoses, and then breaking loose all 11 bolts holding the heavy, cast iron pump to the engine.

The cooling system looked great. The fluid had a nice, green color to it, the pump’s impeller didn’t have any major rust or pitting from cavitation, and the thermostat (shown below) looked decent as well. Yes, the radiator had a bunch of little white “crystals” in it (even after we tried flushing it), but it wasn’t too bad.

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By about 1 a.m.., the cooling system was all buttoned back up, the EGR block-off plate was bolted in place, the rear brake drum was back in position and not seized, and the carb seemed to be dialed in; it was time to take this Jeep on its first drive in over a decade:

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I hopped into the driver’s seat, and, after eventually getting the ignition switch into the “on” position (I’m going to have to fix why that’s giving me so much grief), the Jeep fired up. I yanked the column shifter into reverse, and slowly the Jeep moved. I backed out of the garage and into my driveway.

Taylor hopped in, and I drove into my muddy backyard to see if all systems were go. Everything seemed great. More than great. The engine was quiet, but responded instantly to pedal inputs—no popping or surging or anything like that. The power steering—whose reservoir had been completely empty before Taylor dumped in some fluid I had sitting around—actually worked, and the brakes also seemed to be doing their jobs.

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After a minute in my backyard, I drove onto the road. Would I probably have gotten pulled over if a police officer had seen me cruising around without a hood? In Troy, Michigan, the answer is definitely.

But I didn’t care. This was a glorious moment. That big V8 made a beautiful, if a bit muted, noise. The steering was nice and soft, and the suspension, combined with the overstuffed front seats, made for a great ride. Even though I had bought this thing for only $800, and even though it hadn’t driven in 12 years, in some ways, Project Redwood still felt like a legitimate luxury vehicle. Driving it, even for only about a mile, was a magical experience that changed me.

From here on, all the other vehicles in my collection will just feel harsh and downright plebeian. Their seats won’t be wide enough or filled with enough foam. Their engines won’t be quiet enough. Their suspensions won’t be soft enough. I still love my other junkers, but ten minutes behind the wheel of this Grand Wagoneer showed me what they’re missing: swagger.

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That said, something’s definitely wrong with the tie rod ends and perhaps ball joints up front. The steering is horribly vague, and the big boxy SJ Jeep seems to just wander all over the place. What’s worse is that the transmission doesn’t want to shift into third. Part of this was because it was low on fluid, but even after filling it up, third gear just wasn’t having it. There was no slipping at all, so I’m hopeful that some adjustments, and a fluid/filter change will get this thing shifting reliably.

I’ll also have to find a new transmission cooler, because the old one is toast:

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I’m also in the process of draining the transfer case and the differentials, which look to be in great shape.

There’s still plenty of work to do, clearly. Between figuring out the trans issue, replacing all the fluids, changing out the brakes (shoes, pads, master cylinder, wheel cylinders, calipers, rear brake hardware) and swapping in new ball joints and tie rod ends, I’ve got plenty of work to keep me busy in my cold garage.

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I can’t afford to screw this up, because not only will this trip add the element of towing to previous Moab trips, but there also will be no support vehicle. If something fails out in the middle of Podunk, Kansas, my friends and I will be fixing it right there on the side of the road. Gulp.