All photos credit: David Tracy/Jalopnik

For months, my $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer has sat pathetically in my backyard, wondering if someday its 5.9-liter AMC V8—which hadn’t seen combustion in 12 years—might some day live again. Now it no longer has to wonder: the engine runs. But the Easter Jeep Safari is two months away, and I have a crap-ton of work to do. I may be doomed.

Today’s update to Project Redwood—the 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer that I bought for $800 with the intent of driving it 1,700 miles to Moab, Utah to go off-roading—brings good news and bad. We’ll start with the good, because half you folks only read the first few paragraphs of my articles, and I don’t want to ruin your Friday.

The Motor Runs!

When I bought Project Redwood back in October, all I knew was that it ran 12 years ago. The previous owners seemed like great folks, so I believed them when they told me the Jeep just shut off one day without warning. That, to me, meant only one thing: there was an electrical problem somewhere. Probably ignition-related.

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Because I’m completely incompetent with electrical systems, I didn’t bother testing each ignition component with a multimeter. Instead, I just bought a bunch of new parts, and popped them in.

The first part that I knew was bad was the starter relay, because when I bypassed it with a battery cable, the AMC 360 V8 engine cranked over (but did not start; I had no spark). So I swapped the relay out, and also took care of a corroded battery cable for good measure.

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From there, I popped in a new distributor cap and rotor, as well as spark plugs and plug wires—this is something I do on all new projects, as these are parts that tend to degrade over time, and they’re cheap enough.

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Helping me with all this was my friend Brian, an aerospace engineer who designs spacecraft for a living, and for whom all of this work was probably completely trivial. In the image above, he’s swapping out my ignition coil—either that, or it’s some sort of cold fusion reactor that looks like an ignition coil; with Brian, I’m never sure.

The last thing I changed out was the ignition module, which I bought off Amazon for $25. The ignition modules on these Grand Wagoneers are notorious for going bad and killing spark, so this is what I think probably killed the Jeep 12 years ago.

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Anyway, that was all fairly simple, and by the time I was done, I finally had spark! As for the fuel system? Well, I swapped out the pump, because it’s cheap, and I’ve been burned before for relying on old fuel pumps. The carburetor was a bit of a mystery; I had no clue what shape it was in, but I figured I’d crank the motor just to see what would happen. So after an oil change, and after propping up a five gallon jerry-can on some bricks under the engine bay (my fuel pump hose was too short, and I feared my fuel tank was filled with bad gas), that’s what I did, though you may want to lower your volume a bit:

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Firing up any old motor after it’s been sitting for a long time gets me very excited, as you can tell by the video above. But how could I not be thrilled? All I did was swap a fuel pump and some ignition components, and that V8 sounded that good.

The rest of the Jeep looks like a giant piece of crap, but the motor runs like a top! How’s that possible?

But that was all in October. I’ve since had a rotten bit of luck.


I Screwed It All Up

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Now for the bad news. Subsequent to that glorious moment of getting the Jeep running for the first time, my friend Santiago and I managed to catch my motor on fire. Luckily, the wiring seemed OK, but the bad news was that my carburetor was filled with dry powder extinguishing agent. As I didn’t want any of that in my engine, I decided to yank the carb and rebuild it.

Since I planned on driving this Jeep thousands of miles, a carb rebuild sounded like a smart thing to do, anyway. Plus, I had a small leak coming from the power valve, so I unbolted the Motorcraft 2150 carburetor and bought a rebuild kit.

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To get all the nastiness out, I dismantled the carb, and dipped components into some carburetor parts cleaner for a few hours. Some parts didn’t fit in the can I bought, so I now no longer have a trashcan in my bathroom:

My friend Brandon and I had a few issues with the carb rebuild, mostly because we broke the throttle plate bolts into the throttle shaft. But after extracting those bolts, and swapping the small carb parts, the carb looked nice, and was ready for an install.

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With the freshly rebuilt carb sitting atop the glorious V8's intake manifold, I was ready to take this old Jeep for its first test drive. But first, I had to figure out where to plug in all the vacuum lines. This Jeep is from the 1980s, an era when automakers were trying to clean up their emissions through rather cumbersome means that involved many, many vacuum lines. If you don’t believe me, here’s a look at the vacuum hose routing diagram found under the hood of my Jeep:

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To make sure I understood the routing, I took a trip to my local junkyard, found a 1988 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, and took lots of photos and videos of its vacuum routing. I even bought its carburetor, because at $16, why not?

I later found out that the 1988 Grand Wagoneer’s vacuum routing looked nothing like what’s shown on my Jeep’s underhood sticker. I also learned that some components, including the air pump (which shoots clean air into the exhaust to ensure complete combustion), were missing from my Jeep.

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So my friend Taylor and I just did our best at getting as close to the proper vacuum line routing as possible.

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Taylor and I stood in three inches of mud in my backyard wrenching on this Jeep, figuring out the vacuum system, and trying to get the Jeep up and running with its newly-cleaned and rebuilt carb. The good news is that we were able to get the Jeep running, and it even pulled fuel from the gas tank (which we filled with 10 gallons of gas, hopefully diluting whatever nastiness was in there).

The bad news is that it won’t idle like it seemed to before the rebuild, and it sounds like the RPMs are surging. Also, the EGR valve in the back of the engine looks like it wants to fly off.

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I don’t know if we screwed up something with the bundle-of-snakes connecting various components to the intake vacuum, or if I managed to mess up the carb rebuild. Or maybe the carb just needs a tune? I’m not sure. It does sound pretty smooth, I just need to figure out how to get the thing to idle properly.

Another concern I have is that I tried putting the Jeep into reverse, and it didn’t move an inch. The engine revved and revved, but the wheels didn’t spin. Yes, I have a seized drum brake in the rear, but since I have an open differential, the engine should have spun the other rear tire. Is my transmission toast? Perhaps it just needs fluid?

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I did tow the Jeep onto my driveway (with Project Swiss Cheese), so it’s at least closer to my warm garage.

Clearly, I’ve still got lots of questions to answer, and only two months to get this Jeep ready to tow a 1948 Willys Jeep 1,700 miles to Utah, and then go off-roading. It’s a tall order, and completely my fault for dragging this out until the end.

One day I’ll learn.

Maybe.