Two years ago, I used junkyard parts to turn a $600 Jeep Cherokee into an off-road beast. Then I rebuilt a dilapidated 1948 Willys CJ-2A farm Jeep, took it on a 1,300 mile road trip, and wheeled the crap out of it at Moab. Now it’s time to introduce this year’s project: an $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer for which I have plans. Big plans.
I spent months stressing out about how I was going to follow Project Swiss Cheese and Project Slow Devil. Leaves began changing colors, and the weather forecast started showing smaller numbers, and I still didn’t have a project vehicle. Desperation grew thick as I recalled just how much of my time last year’s project had demanded, so I started prowling Craigslist more thoroughly than any human should.
I was looking at some real crap-cans for a while. At one point, I nearly bought a two-wheel drive 1976 AM General DJ-5 postal Jeep with that huge 10-inch rust hole in the frame rail that you see in the photo above.
My boss Patrick George at one point suggested I buy an old AMC Eagle, and then go to the Jeep Easter Safari and ask the Fiat Chrysler reps about about AMC’s product plans for 2018 and 2019. If I had seen a decent one for cheap, I’d have snagged it. It didn’t pan out. I also considered a Jeep Jeepster Commando that Ron (yes, that Ron) had on his property.
All hope seemed lost until last week when I spotted this Craigslist ad for a 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, which the owner told me hadn’t run in more than 12 years.
The photo in the listing showed a sad old woody with giant holes in its rocker panels, faded vinyl trim, and a front end that looked pretty well buried in the dirt. With an asking price of $1,200 or “reasonable offer,” this thing looked perfect.
J.D., the owner, told me over the phone that the Jeep’s frame was solid, the title was clear, and the engine turned over by hand. As it passed my three only requirements (I have extremely low standards), I set up a visit last Friday.
My friend Eric agreed to drive me in his Grand Cherokee SRT three hours across the state to Holland, Michigan. By the time we arrived at the random Craigslister’s house out in Western Michigan, it was dark, and Eric and I were concerned about the possibility of our organs being harvested.
The good news is that J.D. kept his saws and scalpels in the shed, and actually ended up being the coolest guy I’ve ever met on Craigslist. The Jeep was exactly how he described it: the body was crusty, but the frame was decent, and the powertrain was all there. I offered $800, and without hesitation, he agreed. Eric and I then drove the three hours back to the Detroit area, where I arranged for a trailer to grab the Jeep the following day.
On Saturday, my friend Michael—the same guy who enabled my CJ-2A, J10 and Alero purchases—volunteered to tow the mammoth Grand Wagoneer back to Michigan with his giant 20 foot trailer pulled by his gorgeous Ram 2500 Mega Cab.
I don’t think he quite understood what he was volunteering for; I don’t think I did, either.
Getting that Jeep, which sat next to a garage in J.D.’s giant backyard backlit by a beautiful campfire, onto the trailer was true hell. The 4,500 pound iron giant wouldn’t budge an inch with three grown men pushing it, even after we inflated the tires. Michael didn’t have a winch, nobody had a vehicle they wanted to use as a pusher, and the Jeep definitely wasn’t going to start, so that left us with only one extremely questionable option: we’d yank the Grand Wagoneer up the ramp with a come-along. Well, actually three come-alongs tied in series.
This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that—if one of these come-alongs snaps (mine was from Harbor Freight, so I figured it’d be that one)—it could not only have sent a metal cable slicing through the air, but it could also have launched a heavy metal hook and a big steel ratcheting mechanism. I’ll admit that I was especially worried when J.D. straddled the cable:
But we didn’t have any other option, so J.D., his neighbor Ryan, his son Grayson, and his wife Lynn, took turns with Michael and me yanking on those three come-along levers. The Jeep put up a hell of a fight, in part, because one of the rear wheel cylinders was locked up, and also in part, because the Jeep had sunken into the earth.
For over an hour, the six of us took turns pulling come-along handles, as the Jeep slowly rolled (in the case of the rear driver’s side tire: slid) towards the trailer. When the locked rear tire hit the metal ramp, the added friction broke the drum brake loose—a godsend, since the steep ramp was making pulling those come-alongs a genuine nightmare.
The amount of force we had to put into getting that Jeep to budge was absolutely staggering; it got to the point where I could literally only get the come-along to ratchet one tooth at a time. The Jeep was halfway up the ramp, and things were looking great. And then it happened:
SNAP! went the rear come-along whose handle I had just yanked with all my might. One of the ends of the rotating spindle fractured, and I nearly soiled my trousers, half-expecting the whole thing to explode like a grenade, and send the Jeep flying back down the ramp. I slowly backed away and looked around to see what the game plan was.
“We’ll just keep yanking the other two come-alongs,” someone said. So we continued on, as I prayed that rear ratcheting mechanism would hold on for another ten minutes.
We kept pulling the front two come-alongs until we ran out of cable. At that point, the Jeep was nearly on the trailer, but not quite.
We had to somehow slacken up the come-alongs so we could reset them to pull the Jeep up the rest of the way. When none of them would release, things got even sketchier; we broke out a crow bar and screwdriver, and wedged them into one of the ratcheting mechanisms to try to get the cable to unfurl.
Michael, a man who wasn’t keen on winning a Darwin award that night, remembered that he had ratchet straps in his truck. So we hooked those to the axle, and ratcheted the Jeep up a few inches so we could reset the come-alongs.
It ended up working beautifully; we positioned the Jeep in the center of the trailer, and Michael then went around the woody, tightening four straps to hold the big Jeep down for our three-hour ride back home.
Before we left, I snagged a photo of J.D., his wife Lynn, and his son Grayson. Normally when I buy a car from Craigslist, I don’t take photos of the previous owners in front of their vehicle. But this situation was a bit different, because this family was awesome (not only were they incredibly kind, but Lynn even fed Michael some amazing pot roast), and I could tell they just loved their woody.
Back in 2003, J.D. took a train to Minneapolis to buy his wife, Lynn, her dream car: a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, which she dreamed to someday use to tow an Airstream (a great dream, if you ask me). J.D. planned to fix up the Jeep, but because Lynn had breast cancer, priorities shifted.
When the Jeep broke down in 2005 as Lynn backed out of the driveway (J.D. says he suspects an electrical fault), the Grand Wagoneer was soon relegated to the garage, and from 2005 to 2016, that’s where it sat. For the past year, it’s been outside in the backyard, so J.D. figured he’d sell it to catch up on some bills.
I could sense the emotion in the family’s voice as they sold off Lynn’s dream Jeep. “We’ll get you another one,” J.D. told her, as we prepared to pull away. I promised them it was going to a good home, that I’d fix it up and take it on an adventure that would be nothing short of legendary.
But as sad as they were to see their beloved Jeep go, they also seemed thrilled that it was going to a good home, and that I was going to fix the thing up, and take it on an epic journey. They’re stoked about the project. “You better send us pictures,” they told me as Michael fired up his Ram’s 6.7-liter Cummins.
The ride home was uneventful, as the Ram beast-moded the giant, backwards-facing barn it was towing (even scoring double-digit fuel economy). He dropped me off at my house at about 2 a.m., and returned the next morning so we could get the Jeep off his trailer.
Of course, even that wasn’t easy, because that stupid rear drum brake seized again. I literally had to tow the Grand Wagoneer by its U-bolt with my XJ, fearing all the while that the SJ-platform Jeep would ram into my rear bumper. Here’s a look at our sketchy tow point:
But the Woody didn’t fly down the ramps, it just stopped halfway down when the strap came off. Look at this pathetic sight:
Eventually, we got the Jeep off the trailer, but not before that seized brake left a giant rubber mark on Michael’s new trailer:
And here it now sits in my backyard:
I haven’t really “gone over” the Grand Wagoneer yet, so I really don’t know what all is wrong with it. I’ll assess the Jeep tonight, and write up another article describing all of the Grand Wagoneer’s faults in the coming days.
Whatever issues it may have, though, I’m going to solve it. J.D. and his family have me more motivated than ever to make this Jeep into something special. And by that, I mean I don’t just plan on driving it 1,700 miles to Moab, and off-roading it like I have in previous years.
This year, I’ll be making that long journey with a trailer hooked up, and a Willys in tow.