Last weekend we went to our favorite playground, a little OHV area just off the 87 called Sycamore Creek. It's a wonderful proving ground with deep sand, rocky river beds, hill climbs and easy-to-moderate obstacles to practice your 4x4 skills. There are open-range shooting areas as well if you want to dust the rust off your shooting arm. But this wasn't a leisure visit. We were here to get some glamour shots of a particular CJ-7, and maybe get a test drive while we were at it. Before the review though, some background.
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a wheeling novice, you’ve heard of Jeep. Now owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), Jeep produces some of the best 4x4 vehicles in the world. Their flagship model, the Wrangler Unlimited is the undisputed king of rugged off-road performance. Some trim levels of the vehicle are even rated for the rigors of The Rubicon Trail straight from the factory. You’ve no doubt heard of their other models as well: the endearing Cherokee, the much-maligned Liberty, and the newest kid on the block, the Renegade. While nearly all models have a degree of off-road capability, none can match the king for off-road prowess. But Wrangler wasn't born into greatness. Before its introduction there was a humble war machine that started the legend.
The Willys Jeep was a vehicle designed quickly and out of necessity thanks to World War II. Many companies bid for the contract to produce an inexpensive, rugged, and 4x4 capable general-purpose vehicle that could carry men, supplies, and light arms through the hellish conditions of war. In the end, the contract was awarded to Willys-Overland, with Ford entering as a co-producer to meet the military's production requirements. The Jeep performed admirably, winning admiration and praise from the GIs who relied on it. In 1945, Willys created a full-production civilian version of the wartime jeep, designated the Civilian Jeep, Model 2-A (CJ-2A). It closely resembled the military version and shared its spartan characteristics. Throughout its production each iteration of the CJ brought improvements in performance and creature comforts.
CJ-7 was the last model produced in significant numbers that shared its DNA with the original legendary 4x4 of World War II. By 1983, the model had been improved with wider axles and a longer wheelbase for added stability, a fully boxed frame for added strength, and creature comforts such as power steering and factory air conditioning. The Laredo trim added high-back leather seats, chrome grill and accents, a 4.10:1 axle ratio, and an optional trac-lok differential.
"I was jeep-obsessed as a child, never shut up about them."
The CJ series was also easy to work on by the home mechanic. The ease of repair and modification led to the birth of a vast market of upgrades and OEM replacement parts. The aftermarket support for jeeps is without peer. If you need a part, you can find it, no matter the model year. Want to restore an old Jeep to like-new factory condition? Easy. Want to upgrade to a beefy V8, full-sized truck axles and massive 38” tires? Well, a company does that, too.
Many of the older models are targeted by collectors due to their their increasing rarity and rich history. Unlike collectors of classic cars, owners of these early model jeeps make good use of their capabilities. A late model CJ-7 is what you want if you are looking for a classic jeep, which brings us to Alex's rig. “Lightly” modified to keep pace with its modern brethren, Alex has created a true resto-mod done up in a tasteful manner that we think is in keeping with jeep traditions.
At first glance, you can tell this particular CJ means business. Alex generously allowed me to pilot the rig around the riverbed. Sitting in the driver's seat you get the sense that you could climb over anything nature has to throw at you. Even with the oversized tires, straight axles and leaf spring suspension, the vehicle handles itself fairly well in the rockys. The engine bogs somewhat in the soft sand when starting out but it gets the tires up to float with little more than a disinterested grunt.
When I asked how he came to own this brute of a vehicle and what the it meant to him, he had this to say:
"I was jeep-obsessed as a child, never shut up about them. When I was 7 my dad took me with him to when he purchased this CJ. It ended up being the first car I ever drove and it was referred to as 'my jeep' my whole life. In middle school I got a 1955 CJ-5 with a 400HP 4-bolt-main SBC (small block chevy), and toyed with it for a few years before selling it and returning to the CJ-7. After a complete engine and trans rebuild in 2008, the jeep sat untouched until I started making money in college to tinker with it. Since then nearly everything has been replaced and a lot of miles added to the odometer."
When he said nearly everything had been replaced, he wasn't kidding. Since taking ownership, Alex has fitted his CJ with: a B&M Megashifter, Nates 4X4 custom bumper with a rear tire carrier, Jerrycan and Hi-Lift mount, Autometer Classic Chrome gauges, a 2.5" lift, a Warn 9000lb winch, dual AGM batteries, a custom 3 row aluminum radiator, 33x10.50x15 BFGoodrich TA KO tires, Hella Daylighters off-road lights, an R134A AC conversion, Skyjacker Softride shocks, Alcoa aluminum wheels, a Cobra CB radio with a 4' Firestik antenna, and a completely rewired electrical system. Oh, and a true dual exhaust system with Flowmaster 40’s to really make that 350 SBC sing.
And what an engine.
This model had an option for a 304 AMC V8 that produced a meager 125HP. The CJ has since undergone heart surgery and had the legendary 350 SBC (small block chevy, for you youngins) V8 bolted to its steel frame. The previous owner had claimed a little over 300HP, but Alex intends to take it to a dyno shop to be professionally tested and tuned. The SBC has a fanatical following. With little effort or money It can be made to produce gobs of horsepower and torque as the owner requires. Its reliability is equally impressive, with some modestly-tuned specimens reaching 300k miles or more. And it can be fixed with a hammer. Many (this author included) consider it to be the best engine ever made. A fitting heart to be paired to what some say is the best jeep ever made.
Of course, all these modifications don’t come without their own unique flavor of complications. Alex is forced (or given a convenient excuse) to do most of his own wrenching. Many a mechanic has scratched their head trying to diagnose various minor quarks inherent in a resto-mod. A sporadic stalling issue was caused by the misplacement of the fuel lines after the previous owner swapped the motor. Putting combustible lines next to an exhaust system wasn't the hottest of ideas.
Then there was the brakes (again sitting on the exhaust pipes), and the old rotted wiring; the kinds of loving pains owners of any older vehicles will know well. For classic car owners, such problems are simply a call to have a date night in the garage with the sounds of ratchets and curses flying in the evening air.
Most of those wrinkles have been worked out however, and Alex takes his beloved jeep out wheeling every chance he gets. With luck he will be joining us on our yearly pilgrimage to Moab to play among the rocks and streams of Utah.