After sitting abandoned for 12 years, my $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer began its 1,700 mile journey to Moab with a few new parts, some thorough safety checking, a prayer, but almost no pre-trip testing. And yet, yesterday, Project Redwood somehow drove 700 miles from Michigan to Missouri with zero problems. Zero.
Two days ago, I was legitimately worried that my annual Michigan To Moab In A Rustbucket journey was doomed thanks to numerous mechanical troubles, and the fact that I’d only ever driven this Woodie about five miles in total after it had hibernated for so long. I wasn’t sure I’d ever hit the road, and if I did, I was convinced I wouldn’t get far, even without the Willys in tow.
Yet the 4,500 pound behemoth amazed both me and my coworker Andrew Collins by flawlessly cruising from Michigan to Ohio to Indiana to Illinois to Missouri, where I’m writing this in a cheap roadside motel.
The thing just cruises. The engine doesn’t make a lot of power, but it’s incredibly smooth, almost feeling more like a severely underpowered fuel-injected engine than something as coarse as a carbureted motor.
The transmission shifts as seamlessly as any modern gearbox, the seats are so damn comfortable I struggle to stay awake, and the heater spits fire through the vents (thanks the AMC 360's thermal inefficiency, for which I was, oddly, thankful.)
Actually, the motor wasn’t that thirsty, with Andrew and me scoring 14.5 MPG on our first tank of gas—way better than either of us could possibly have expected from this 173,000 mile clunker, even if we were only doing about 55 mph.
Of course, the Jeep is far from perfect. The amount of play in that steering box is just ridiculous, and the brakes are also not impressive by modern standards. The truck stops nice and straight, but it doesn’t do it in a hurry.
After leaving Michigan and driving through a bit of Ohio, Andrew and I arrived in Indiana, where we planned to pick up a fuel tank skid-plate for the Grand Wagoneer.
A reader named Alex, who lives near Indianapolis, had graciously offered up the armor, and since my skid-plate was rusted it made sense to accept the donation. You know, because a fuel tank puncture on the trails of Moab wouldn’t exactly be fun.
Unfortunately, we arrived to an Indianapolis that was getting hammered by snow, and even more unfortunately, we had no front driveshaft (I had removed it to replace a U-joint, and didn’t bother reinstalling since the four-wheel drive actuation didn’t work).
But somehow, the big Jeep sitting on lightly-used junkyard tires kicked major ass, thanks, in part, to a very capable driver behind the wheel:
We arrived at our destination in Indianapolis—a regular gas station at the intersection of 465 and 65—about an hour late thanks to the traffic from the snow storm, so Alex just left the skid plate near an ice box, texted me this picture, and went on his way.
Was it a bit sketchy picking up a human body-sized black trashbag from a random reader from the corner of a random fuel stop? Sure it was, but at this point, Project Redwood has already reached a sketchiness asymptote.
Here I am loading the “skidplate” into the back of the Woodie, which had more than enough space even loaded with most of my tools, and a bunch of spare parts:
While at that gas station, Andrew and I met a reader named John, who had reached out to me via Twitter. After a quick chat, John actually trailed us for a few miles in his beautiful yellow Jeep Wrangler Unlimited “LJ”:
Andrew was a pro driving that heavy, rear-drive Jeep through the muck, though he and I were both worried about the same thing. It was damn cold, and the thought of having to step outside was a scary one.
“I was concerned about having to get out of the truck for any reason, because the weather was so shit,” Andrew told me. “The Jeep was remarkably well-behaved. It’s the definition of slow and steady progress.”
We cruised in the Woodie late into the night—maybe a bit too late, if we’re honest. It was a genuine struggle.
But eventually, we arrived in a small town between St. Louis, Missouri and Columbia, Missouri called High Hill, where we stopped in a roadside motel, and crashed. Hard.
Today, we’re hoping to get this dilapidated old Jeep 800 miles to Denver, Colorado, because we need to get to Moab by Monday afternoon. If you’d like to follow along as we try to get this old Jeep over the Rocky Mountains, follow Jalopnik, Andrew and Me on social media.