Home » I Have Three Months To Turn This Broken $350 Jeep Into An Off-Road Beast And The Truth Is: I’m Screwed

I Have Three Months To Turn This Broken $350 Jeep Into An Off-Road Beast And The Truth Is: I’m Screwed

350 Dollar Jeep Zj Ts2

Project Swiss Cheese, Project Slow Devil, Project Redwood, Project POStal — they are four legends that, against all odds, went from hopeless rustbuckets to road tripping kings and then beasts on the off-road trails of Moab, Utah. If I could pull those off, and if I could fix the unfixable Willys FC in Washington and Chrysler Valiant Ute in Australia and if I could get the $600 Chrysler minivan through Germany’s inspection, then surely this stripped-down Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ that has sat abandoned in a Van Nuys, California parking lot for a year (and that sat abandoned for many years before that) should be no problem, right? Wrong. Here’s why my 2024 Moab Easter Jeep Safari build could be my hardest one yet.


Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

I realize I’m the Boy Who Cried Wolf at this point when it comes to fixing cheap, dilapidated junkers given my history:


But trust me when I say: This time really is different.


Times Have Changed, And Wrenching Just Doesn’t Come Easy Anymore

It’s not about the project being the very hardest of any I’ve ever undertaken — I think that belongs to either the 1948 Willys Jeep (which needed significant engine and transmission work), the Postal Jeep (which needed a huge length of the frame welded back up, and also engine work), or Project Cactus (that Valiant Ute that needed pretty much everything). Still, this Jeep has never run under my ownership, it’s a complete mess inside, it has no driveshaft or exhaust, and frankly I know nothing about it, so it really is going to be tough even if I had time. But nowadays things have changed for me. I’m working hard to make this website, The Autopian, sustainable, and the precious time that I do have off I’m devoting to my girlfriend, whom I’ve somehow avoided scaring off for over 13 months now. I also find myself constantly sick — it’s a cold, it’s COVID, it’s the flu, it’s a sinus infection. It’s just a never ending illness shitstorm that really started when I got to California.

There just is no time for this Jeep project. And beyond that, my wrenching circumstances are far from ideal. No, I’m not living in a Toyota Land Cruiser down by the river and getting literal Trenchfoot, but I also don’t have a garage to work in, and that’s gonna be a first for any of my projects. Mind you, the arrangement isn’t bad: I’ve recently been granted this little space at the back of a parking lot — a space for which I am deeply grateful:

Screen Shot 2024 01 03 At 2.00.49 Pm

It’s covered, and reasonably flat, and I should be able to do some high-quality wrenching out there. I need to figure out how to store my tools in a secure way, and I’ll need to figure out what to do about lighting, but this is a solid arrangement — a little tougher than my usual setup, but solid. I’ve done tons of driveway wrenching in my day (often at below-zero temperatures) so I’m not too worried about this.

I’ll be able to make the space work, but whether I’ll have the time to fix this Jeep, especially given that I don’t have the Jeep contacts / friends I used to have in Michigan, I’m unsure. This project is one I’ll likely have to do entirely on my own. The last project I did the vast majority of work on was Project POStal, and that was nearly the death of me. And that was when I was single and didn’t have a site to keep afloat.


So this is going to be impossible even if it were a medium-difficulty build, but I suspect this will be more than that.


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The video above shows when I bought this Jeep back in 2021 for $350 out of a lumberyard in Virginia. The previous owner had snatched the manual transmission out of it, the exhaust was missing, the headliner was gone, and frankly — it had been stripped for parts. But the body looked decent, the rare manual transmission-ECU was there, and it was a factory-original manual ZJ that deserved to be saved from the crusher, especially since I knew of a second factory-original five-speed ZJ that had a transmission but was completely rotted out. Here you can see my friend Dustin and I wrenching on that rusty Jeep, removing parts:


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So I paid $350 for the 100% complete-but-rusty Jeep, and after Dustin and I pulled a bunch of parts off of it and jammed those parts into this red ZJ, I hauled the dead red machine from Michigan to California when I moved last year.


It’s been sitting in my work parking lot ever since. Here are some pictures from earlier last year:

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.01.02 Am

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.02.44 Am

Here’s how it sits today:


Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.02.08 Am

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.04.10 Am Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.04.47 Am

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.05.45 Am

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.06.21 Am

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.07.29 Am


At least the body remains reasonably rust-free:

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.07.54 Am Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.08.31 Am


So, what all do I need to do to this thing? Well, everything. Here’s a basic list off the top of my head.

PHASE 1: Essential Repairs

  • Install shifter
  • Install custom brake pedal that my friend made. Install new (longer) brake hoses that can handle a lift kit when I install one; bleed brakes.
  • Replace the radiator, shroud, and coolant overflow bottle (I have spares of each in the Jeep). While the rad is out:
    • Do the water pump and thermostat for good measure
    • Find a power steering pump (there may be one in the Jeep, if not, it’s junkyard time) and install that
    • Install serpentine belt
    • Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.30.22 Am
    • Replace engine mounts (they’re cracked; I have new ones in the back of the Jeep)
    • Install airbox and air intake tubing (install new air filter)
  • Install new header panel, grille, headlights

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.29.41 Am

  • Hook up starter motor
  • Change engine oil
  • Install new 12-volt battery and try to crank the motor over with the spark plugs out. Reinstall new spark plugs, along with distributor and rotor. Maybe coil.
  • Drop fuel tank and clean it out (I’m told the fuel system is bad; the Jeep hasn’t run in years). Replace fuel filter/hoses as necessary
  • Try to fire up the engine
  • If the engine runs well, good. Install new exhaust.
  • Now it’s time to rummage among my driveshafts and try to find two that fit. If I have none, I’ll have a shop modify my shafts. Install those.
  • Replace fluids in drivetrain. Then I’ll start driving the Jeep around, checking various systems.

PHASE 2: Lift, Skids, And More Off-Road Mods

  • Install custom junkyard lift kit (about 3.5″). Maybe it makes sense to make the driveshafts AFTER installing the lift. We’ll see.
  • Install all-terrain tires (31×10.50)
  • Strip interior, disinfect, get rid of cat feces smell.


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  • Install new seats and carpet and headliner from rusty Jeep. This will require me to weld a nut to a broken seat bolt and extract it (damn rust).

Screen Shot 2024 01 04 At 9.05.05 Am

  • Install skid plates for fuel tank, transfer case. Install rare rear tire carrier as part of the fuel tank skidplate installation process.


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PHASE 3: Underwater Breathing & Axle Beef

  • Install snorkel
  • Install new 3.73 axles, replacing the weak Dana 35 rear axle with a Dana 44 and swapping the Dana 30 up front for one with the right gears. (I have the Dana 44 (see above); I need to find a 3.73 Dana 30 at a junkyard)
  • Find steel Jeep Liberty KJ steel 16″ wheels. Install 265 75R16 tires (these are 32s; they look better than 31s on the ZJ).
  • Bolt up sway bar disconnects for improved articulation

There are probably a million things I’ve forgotten about. All I know is: This is daunting, and the only way to get through it is to follow a plan. Phase one is to just get the thing on the road. From there, I can worry about making it off-road worthy.

But the Easter Jeep Safari is at the end of March. Is three months enough time? I fear not. Especially since I’m doing this alone. Gulp.


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3 months ago

If the ultimate story in this series isn’t Dead Red Redemption, I’ll be disappointed

3 months ago

I can clone the manual ZJ ecu for you, David. I’m local.

3 months ago

David you need a mental health evaluation.

Jake Baldridge
Jake Baldridge
3 months ago

It’s just a never ending illness shitstorm that really started when I got to California.

It’s just that you’re missing that constant infusion of aerosolized Fe203.

3 months ago

Tought love time….
What is the literal least you can do? Just focus on that. Make it a three part wrenching adventure. Also, find a wrenching buddy. No one planned on Jason’s medical issues and you need to adapt.

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