Project Green Monkey...a.k.a. Project Empty Pockets - '97 TJ Sport build thread
Hey there fellow JFers, I spend way too much time reading these forums and checking out all of your sweet rigs and I figure it’s finally time to quit being a voyeur and contribute a bit myself. I wish I had taken more pictures along the way…but it just never occurred to me – and we didn’t have digital cameras to make life easy until recent years.
I’ve been driving Jeep Wranglers for 17+ years now – I bought my first one (91 YJ Sport – with the rare metallic Navy blue) when I graduated college (to replace my “Chinook” pop-top camper but that is a story for another day) – it was my “Ensign-mobile” (those in the military know what I’m talking about – newly commissioned and on my way to flight school). Got it from Don-A-Vee Jeep and it had a 2” shackle lift and 31X10.5’s on brand new (that dealership was into offroading and did lifts, etc) and thought it was the bomb! Hehe They didn’t have all the lift kit options that they do today. I had that Jeep for just over 6 years – in Southern California, Florida, Northern California, Hawaii, and finally Sicily, Italy – drove it back and forth across the country 4 times. God I loved that thing (except for those stupid square headlights!).
Here is a picture of me as a young’un getting out of the Chinook…good times, good times! Classic. Wish I was in that kind of shape today!
Some great memories in that first Jeep - threw a rod in Florida trying to imitate a submarine offroading through a large puddle that just kept getting deeper and deeper…and getting pulled out of there by some serious redneck honeymooners in a monster truck (the whole wedding party was out in the sticks offroading - straight from the wedding chapel). My buddy had followed me in his new 91 YJ as well – and when they pulled our motors at the stealership, they had identical holes in the blocks where the rod has shot through. I shouldn’t call the Pensacola dealer a stealership – those guys loved Jeeps and were awesome. They were cool about letting me crawl underneath with them and taught me all sorts of stuff.
The Hawaii one on the other hand…whew, they were outright thieves. One time, when the stealership on Oahu couldn’t find anything wrong with my Jeep (turned out to be a U-joint issue) – they took a bunch of broken parts and swapped them with my parts and told me I had $2K worth of problems. I made them show me…told them to get their manager….then told the manager I knew my Jeep inside and out and was going to take a walk for 30 minutes and he better replace every one of my parts back in there if they didn’t want to go to jail. Told him to shut his mouth and get to work when he started protesting…he did. Good times! Ended up buying a book with lots of pictures and changing the U-joint myself. Jeep was the perfect vehicle to have in Hawaii – loved being out there. Hell, the Jeep is the perfect vehicle to have everywhere and anywhere really.
Prior to Hawaii I was stationed in Sacramento for some navigation training – and took the Jeep up to the High Lakes all the time – up above Paradise, Chico, Oroville, etc… That area. A good buddy of mine lives (still does) up in Paradise and we used to take off on the weekends exploring everything we could. It’s gorgeous up there in the mountains. I remember climbing the “Steps” once – we were losing daylight and there was a line of big modded trucks waiting their turn…and 3 more at various stages on the Steps stuck and trying to make their way up. I spotted a line that I could take in my Jeep and go right by them…so I had all my buddies hang off the Jeep on the passenger side for balance and squirted past the line and right up to the top without any issue. That freaked all those people out – they had never seen a YJ do anything but cruise the freeways (this was 1992) – and they all crowded around and asked what kind of vehicle it was….hehe. We made it to the lake we were shooting for in plenty of time to get our tents up, find some firewood, etc before we lost daylight. That was a good day.
Shipped out to Italy and took the Jeep with me. The Jeep was great to have out there – they drive like maniacs but they all have clown cars and Vespas and usually gave me my space. I did end up getting forced off the road by a crazy local driver while driving at a good pace and flipped it a couple of times – landed in an orange field out of sight of the road. Not a single car stopped for me, and at least ten cars saw it happen. Nice. I was dazed and had to climb a tree to get my uniform shirt (I had taken it off and laid it on the seat) and hat before hiking a couple of miles to a phone (we didn’t have cell phones yet) so I could call base security. Luckily, I walked away without a scratch…and the insurance company called it a total because it would be so expensive to send parts over from the states (they didn’t have Wranglers over there) and gave me back the Jeep as well because it costs them to scrap a car over there (they have so much metal leftover from WWII still apparently) along with a fat check. I had a body shop do some work on it and I did some work on it and sold it for $6K – and that with my $12K insurance check…bought my ’97 TJ Sport through the overseas military sales - $300 over cost! I thought I would have that ’91 until the day I died, but in a way, I am glad it happened – I finally got my round headlights! They flew me up to Hamburg, Germany to pick the new TJ up and I drove it down through Germany, Austria (the Alps), and Italy all the way down to Sicily. What a great trip that was in my new Jeep – I hooked up with a buddy that was picking up a new BMW from the factory in Munich and some friends met us and we road tripped down together!
After I got back to the states and got out of the Navy, I spent some winter time with it in Rhode Island, then made my way down to Florida and then back to the west coast. Lived in Arizona for a few years for grad school, then Seattle for another 4 or 5, and finally got back down to Southern California. Didn’t do a lot of modifications to my Jeep through most of that time…little tweaks here and there, but I was more concerned with saving money and didn’t get out for much off-roading. Told myself I would start when I made it through the first set of tires…but that took years longer than I thought because I either lived right next to school or work, or I worked from home - so I didn’t put much mileage on my Jeep other than my cross-country trips. Heck, I think I just cracked 70K last month – and that is over 11 years later as my only vehicle that whole time I know this was a lot of reading but I wanted to tell the story and set the stage. . If I can find some pictures of the Jeep later from Italy or Hawaii, I will add them – but I was never much of a camera bug...
I’m not sure I can call this a build thread. I haven’t wrenched all that much myself…and these days I am so dang busy with work, travel, and life in general that I just don’t have the time nor inclination…not to mention I don’t have the space. Remember, this is my daily driver – so minimal downtime is important. I figure I make pretty good coin these days so I get more value working at my job and paying someone else for those hours to work on the Jeep for me. For the most part I have had ORW do the heavy lifting for me – and they haven’t disappointed. I will say that I have researched the hell out of everything I’ve purchased and upgraded on the Jeep – and it is definitely shaping up just as I have wanted it to be. A LOT of thanks goes to all of you here at JF as well as the Pirate boards, among others (like Stu’s). So – since I didn’t do the work myself (I did some minor things here and there of course), and didn’t document my build at each stage, I am just going to post a bunch of pictures to show some progression and how it has turned out so far. Jeep definitely stands for Just Empty Every Pocket – but I guess that is why we go to work! I won’t talk through standard service or repairs like replacing a serpentine belt or spark plug wires, etc…just the fun stuff.
First thing I did was to get one of the Tuffy expandable trunks (needed a place to toss the laptop, etc. when the top is off)…and while I was at it – I put on the mirror relocation brackets so that I can’t see my passenger mirror anymore. Next came the Teraflex 4” short arm lift kit and 33’s. 33’s were supposed to work on the stock wheels, but when push came to shove I ended up getting a great deal on some American Racing Chamber Teflons – wasn’t sure how good they would be for off-roading, but now I see them in all the 4x4 catalogs… Tossed in a K&N Air filter (yes I know how some people here feel) so my engine can whistle when it accelerates. I’ll throw in some under-the-hood pictures later – I haven’t taken any yet.
Speaking of acceleration – I sure lost a lot of power – so next up was a re-gear to 4.56. Much better – felt like stock again in the power department. Watched Craig’s List for a while…picked up a spare tire extension, light bar with some lights, and some Bestop fenders for the larger wheels. The spare tire bounced around like crazy – especially on the freeway stretches with the segmented concrete. I kept it pretty much in this state for about a year and enjoyed the changes. I hit some trails here and there when I had time – started to get comfortable off-road again.
Next up was the Body Armor rear bumper – tossed the extender – along with some fuel cans, Hi-lift Jack, and some offroading lights on windshield brackets and front bumper (had to relocate the bumper ones when I got a new bumper later). Never did use the light bar – realized I probably wouldn’t fit in the garage and it’s better to get the weight lower anyway. Night runs out in the desert have been a lot of fun with the lights. Future project will be to add some rock lights – that will really be helpful from time to time. Also had the speedometer fixed finally to match the gearing and tires.
I had to do some replacement work – had the dealer replace the clutch (learned later I could have gotten a performance clutch installed at ORW for 1/3 of the price – but I thought I had a hook-up at the stealership through a neighbor…nice guy but he didn’t hook me up with anything as I was led to believe). Catalytic converter had some ceramic rattling around so I had to replace it.
I have been a big fan of the Wet Okole seat covers for years now and always wanted a set. My girlfriend hooked me up for Christmas last year. (again, I know how many feel about the neoprene seat covers, but I love them and that’s all that matters <shrug>).
I started looking for an off-road club to hit the trails with and found JustRuns. Good group of people – huge club – they do a ton of runs all the time – you just show up when you feel like it – which fit my packed schedule. No dues, no meetings, no politics, no BS. Just Runs. I’ve done a bunch of cool runs with them so far – Ocotillo, Big Bear, Joshua Tree, Bronco Peak, etc. Had to grab the required equipment so I picked up a CB and Firestik antenna. Got the Cobra handheld – 75WXST – installed behind the glove box like I read that so many of you had done. Works great. Put a speaker box down by the passenger’s right foot on the side of the tub below the glove box. Might want to move that up behind my ear one day, but for now it works alright. Installed fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and the rest of the required gear as well. One day I was on the JustRuns website and noticed they had used a picture of my Jeep in their new banner – that was pretty cool.
Got some ocean kayaks over Christmas as well to do a little fishing, etc. – so now I needed some racks to haul them around. I realize the hard top doesn’t seem to be the strongest…and what do you do when you take it off?....but I just don’t like the looks of most of the racks that attach to the body, etc. So I went with the Yakima system – I saw it in the Quadratec catalog but had a friend that is a Yakima dealer order it all up for me. Installed the rails on the hard top and picked up the sport cage attachments as well. I’m pretty happy with the decision – and believe it or not, the hard top handles two of these huge kayaks…so far.
Got the itch again a few months later and started my next few upgrades. I finally got the Tuffy Center Console and Glove Box (this damn thing rattles like crazy – still working with Tuffy to fix it…they are shipping me some rubber stops next…we’ll see how that works)…but I love the center console. I also added a hood lock. I had been thinking a lot about security for the Jeep – and the more money I put into it, the more I worried about it – so after a lot of research, I went with the Ravelco and now I don’t worry so much – I have done what I can to protect my investment, no use losing sleep over it.
I also threw in an Optima Yellow Top, Body Armor Front Triple Hoop bumper, Winch plate, and the Smittybilt XRC winch. I also hated having to ask everyone for air at the end of a long day of trails and for a deflator at the beginning so I picked up some Staun deflators and had a Vaiar Heavy Duty Onboard Air kit installed with hook-ups in front and back.
A few months later my header cracked so I replaced it with a JBA. Like someone on this board said, “if you have a TJ and your header hasn’t cracked, it’s about to...” Funny they never recalled them…but usually it happens around 70K or so I think so they can get away with it I guess.
It wasn’t long after that the Heep developed the infamous Death Wobble. At about 45mph if I hit a bump or turned the wheel with just a little uneven pavement…well you know… Did the usual alignment, balance tires, etc..and while it all helped a little…it was still there. Ended up using this as an excuse to upgrade to a Teraflex Long Arm upgrade kit, a belly up skid plate, new steering bar, heavy duty tie rod, track bar, swaybar, and a 1” body lift. No more DW.
I finally ditched the stock steps and got my coveted Poison Spyder Ricochet Rockers from Oconee Offroad – they had a good deal and customer service was great! Found out that the body lift I just had done wouldn’t work with the new rockers so I had to have it pulled and replaced with a Daystar 1” body lift. Wish I had known that ahead of time.
I went on a run with Justruns up Bronco Peak and there were two Jeeps without lockers – mine and another one…and he was a few ahead of me. After watching him get stuck hard and hold up the entire group for hours, I decided to take the bypass out and come again when I have some lockers. I was pretty sure I could have driven a better line than he did but I wasn’t going to chance ruining everyone’s day. I didn’t want to be in that position again…so I started thinking harder about lockers (I’d been thinking through this upgrade for a long time). I had decided it wasn’t worth it to add lockers to my D35 and D30…that if I was going to upgrade axles, now would be the time. I researched the D44, 8.8, etc…and kept my eyes open for a deal. Ended up finding some D44’s with lockers off of a 2003 Rubicon. Only problem was that the rear axle had the brakes stripped off, but I was told my drum brakes would work fine. Found out later that this wasn’t the case – and it cost me a lot of money that I wasn’t expecting to pay out. Ended up buying the NP241 transfer case (4:1) from the same 2003 Rubicon and the drive shaft as well. Paid a guy to do all of the work – and found out later I probably shouldn’t have “gone off the reservation.” I had to have ORW redo half of the work and install disc brakes on the rear, etc. They do good work – after driving away from the first guy’s shop I had horrible screeching noises, loose steering (white knuckle – big time!) and terrible drive shaft vibrations, and tire rubbing, etc…but ORW got everything smoothed out and in place where it should be and reinforced – and after a bit of a shakedown, I am confident in my Jeep again. Put the locker compressors up under the hood and the switches are on the dash to the right of my steering column. Basically I have all of the benefits of the Rubicon now, plus everything else I’ve done. I’m pretty happy about that. Time to hit some more trails!
That’s pretty much where I am at today. I’m sure I left some stuff out…but I think I hit all of the important points. What’s next? I need to slow down on my Jeep spending for a bit…but eventually I need some rear corner guards, maybe a dual battery setup, a mean green alternator, perhaps a snorkel – though I haven’t found a lot of water crossings around here like I used to in Northern California and Florida. I’ve already ordered a Kilby gas tank skid plate…and I will probably get some differential armor – bombshell covers or something. I also want to add one of those pull-out awnings like ARB or Hannibal make to attach to the side of my Megawarrior roof rack. One day I may end up re-gearing back to 4.56 (Rubicon axles were 4.10) or going up to 4.88….perhaps when I wear these tires out and contemplate 35’s…hehe. Maybe a new cage or even just a sport cage kit. This is my daily driver and I take clients in it occasionally and the GF already has trouble climbing up…so I can’t take it much higher. I’ve tried to strike a good balance between building a very capable machine off-road in the rocks, sand, and trails and not going too over the top and maintaining it as a great daily driver and good looking vehicle.
Now I need to sell off some parts….that light bar with the old lights, the teraflex short arms, D30 axle geared 4.56, D35 rear axle geared 4.56 without the brakes, stock transfer case, bumpers, side steps, spare tire extender, spice colored center console, and spice colored stock glove box. That’s off the top of my head – might be a few more goodies in there…feel free to make me an offer! If you want pictures of any of the items, I can add them.
I’m happy as heck with what I’ve done so far and I hope you enjoyed my project thread – am interested to hear your thoughts and see your comments - see you on the trails!