Saturday, November 23, 2013

And then there was one

Today marks a bittersweet day for me.  My 1977 Jeep Wagoneer -- which has been in our family longer than any of my children -- left my driveway for a new home in Chicago, 500 miles away.  Selling her was voluntary, of course, but I still feel like I've just given one of my children up for adoption.  (That would be the child that has a great personality, but eats non-stop, has frequent medical bills, and never helps out around the house.)  I'm feeling the pain of losing a loved one right now, so I'm going to take this opportunity to share our story with you all.

I bought my 1995 Jeep Wrangler (YJ) brand new, while still dating my wife-to-be.  I quickly got bitten by the 4-wheeling bug, and started building my YJ up as a trail rig.  While it still worked well as a daily driver, it wasn't all that great on the highway.  We figured a tow rig would be really handy, allowing us to travel in comparative comfort on the off-roading trips that tended to make up our vacations.  We were also expecting our first child, so the extra interior room would be nice.  My wife's Honda Accord didn't make much of a tow rig, so after a little research, I decided to get a full-size Jeep (FSJ) to fill that role.

I eventually located a 1977 Wagoneer in a local newspaper classified ad, and on 30 October 1999, I paid $1800 for our new family truckster.  This truck was born to tow.  It had a 401 V8 (the largest ever offered by Jeep), 3.54 axle gears, a Mile Marker part-time conversion on the Quadra-Trac t-case (including a 16% overdrive and Warn locking hubs), a 2" lift kit, and the beefiest 2" receiver hitch I've ever seen.  It was a little rough, cosmetically, with rusty rocker panels, some minor wrinkles in the sheet metal, and very worn carpet.

A month or so after buying it, I ran a title search through the Nebraska DMV and found that this truck had changed hands 8 times in the last 4 years (I lost the trail when it was purchased from Colorado in 1995).  If I'd run that search before buying, I'd have run away.  Too late now, though.  Sure enough, within the first year or so of buying it, I had to have the TH400 transmission professionally rebuilt.  A couple months after that, I found that the engine was a basket case that also needed a complete rebuild.  The initial symptom was horribly low oil pressure at hot idle, but I uncovered all sorts of problems during the process.  Not wanting to flush the $3000 that I'd already invested in the Wag, I chose to rebuild the engine myself.  Besides, I'd always wanted to do that, and I figured this would be as good a test bed as any.

Painting the engine bay in POR-15
I pulled the engine and put it on a stand in my garage, where it then sat idle for the next two years before I finally got around to rebuilding it.  My impetus was the upcoming Full Size Jeep Invasion in Ouray, CO, in August 2002.  Another $3000 later, I had the old girl running again, but I wasn't confident enough with it yet to trust it on a 700-mile road trip with my family of four, so we took the YJ to Ouray.  The rebuild was quite an experience.  I learned what to do by reading books and online forums.  I farmed out the machine work, but I did all the tear down & assembly myself.  I even ported the heads myself using a Dremel tool.  For several months on end, I'd come home from work, spend the evening with my family, and then head out to the garage at 10pm after they'd gone to bed.  I'd wrench until 4am, and then start the whole thing over again a few hours later.  I tried to keep a running journal of the process on my web site, but some parts were left undocumented when the work got frantic.

Dropping in the fresh 401 V8
I eventually got the Wag running well enough that my wife took her mother & sisters to Kansas City (a 3-hour drive) in it in 2003.  That was the longest trip the Wag ever made with us, and it also resulted in the best gas mileage I've seen with it:  12 mpg.  (It typically gets 8-10 mpg around town.)  We also used it a couple times that year to flat tow my YJ to our favorite 4-wheeling spot (2 hours each direction).  It performed wonderfully in that role, which was nice.  There's something special about towing a little Jeep with a big Jeep.

The Wag and I were over the hump, but not nearly out of the woods yet.  Constant problems and my own inexperience continued to plague us, so in January 2004, I finally resigned that the Wag would never be a nice enough platform to act as my wife & family's daily driver.  We bought a 2001 Chevy Tahoe to serve in that role.  Stacy still drives that Tahoe ten years later, and we haven't regretted that decision one bit.

Delivering an old, dry Christmas tree to the recycler
Since the Tahoe and Wag are basically the same class of vehicle, the Wag got relegated to beater / project status.  I'd tinker with it when I had to, but would generally only drive it when I needed to transport something too dirty for the Tahoe or when the YJ was under the knife and I needed to run to the parts store. Those two situations actually happen a fair bit around our house, so I've been rather happy to have a third vehicle all these years.

Somewhere along the way, I acquired two FSJ parts trucks.  In 2002, I bought a '78 Wagoneer from a junk yard for $350 because it had a 401 V8 and I'd already been to the yard twice to strip parts from it.  In 2003, a friend and I shared an '87 Grand Wagoneer that we picked up for free in Kansas after it had been abandoned on the road side.  I stripped off many of their parts, used some of them on my '77, sold some others, and in 2009, finally sold both of the carcasses to a friend for $250.  For those not keeping score at home, this means that at one point, I owned four Jeeps, plus the Tahoe.

We eventually learned that the Nebraska DMV allows one "lifetime" registration for historic vehicles.  Just find a license plate of the same vintage as your truck, get a special sticker from the DMV, and you never have to register the truck again unless it changes owners.  I found some bicentennial plates at a garage sale (pictured at left) that fit the bill.

During the mid-to-late 2000's, I found that I mostly just drove the Wag once every couple weeks to keep things lubricated so the hoses wouldn't dry rot.  After racking up only 1000 miles on the Wag in four years and putting nearly that many miles on my dad's borrowed pickup, I finally decided in 2010 that I really ought to replace the Wag with either a pickup or a hefty trailer.  With great reservation, I put it up for sale with an asking price of $3500 (less than half of the $7000-8000 that I've probably invested in the Jeep).  I wrote up a detailed "for sale" web page and posted it to various local and international Jeep forums, but I never went so far as to take out an ad in the newspaper or even Craig's List.  I got some interest, but no buyers.  In 2011, I created some window signs with a QR code for the web site.  Those generated a steady stream of tire kickers, but most of them saw the body rust and were just looking for a cheap beater.  My $3000 price tag scared them all off.

In the summer of 2013, my parents finally moved away from their family farm to a smaller acreage down the road.  The Wagoneer was indispensable during that process, hauling countless loads of stuff away from the farm both inside the Jeep and on a borrowed trailer.  By this time, I'd finally gotten the engine dialed in to where it was really running well -- certainly the best since I'd owned it.  The 401 V8 with a 4-bbl carb and manual choke started up faster than my '95 Wrangler's fuel-injected 2.5L 4-cyl.  I was growing increasingly fond of having a big truck with ample cargo space that I could drive without interfering with my wife's errands.

Final drive to school, three across in the front seats
I was finally starting to convince myself to take the Wag off the market and fix it up a little more when I got an email in November 2013 from Bobby Cardoso.  He'd fallen in love with FSJ's when his grandfather owned one.  After a little research, he decided that '77 was the year he wanted.  He found my "for sale" web page shortly after I first posted it in 2011, but his wife couldn't see past the cosmetic deficiencies.  When his marriage dissolved two years later, he jumped at the chance to fulfill his long-time desire to own a '77 Wagoneer and contacted me.  He was serious enough about buying it to drive from Chicago to Lincoln and back (a 1000-mile round trip) in 24 hours to pick up his new baby.  The more I conversed with Bobby, the more I feel like he'll be able to give my Wag a good home where she'll be loved and cared for.  His specialty is body work, so he's better equipped than I am to fix the remaining issues.  It sounds like he has the enthusiasm to repair the remaining issues.  Although I love that truck, I lost my enthusiasm for restoring it years ago.

His first drive was our last in the Wagoneer.
This is the same boy riding the Power Wheels Jeep
in the lead-off photo.
In the days leading up to Bobby's visit, I drove the Wag as much as possible.  The kids have always enjoyed riding to school in it because it has a lot more elbow room than my YJ.  The ride is much smoother and more comfortable than my YJ.  My kids have never known a time when I didn't own that Wag, so they're perhaps even sadder than I am about seeing it leave.  My two younger kids have enjoyed riding in the front center seat under the arm rest.  My oldest son, who's 13, got to drive it around an empty parking lot for the first time on the last day we owned it.  I've taken more than a few photos of it this week, too.

Traveling in style to her new home in Chicago
Bobby and a friend drove in from Chicago late Friday night and arrived at my house around 10:45 Saturday morning.  We spent the next two hours looking it over while I tried to tell him all the little idiosyncrasies that he'll want to know as time goes by.  The whole time he was here, his giant grin never left his face.  He was obviously overjoyed to be taking home this truck.  He even had his friend take a photo of him lying on the hood and hugging the Wag.  We squeezed the Wag into his enclosed trailer, which was tight enough that Bobby had to crawl out through the rear window before we filled the Wag with all the spare parts that I'd piled in the center of my garage.  We thanked each other repeatedly for me giving him his dream truck and for him providing a great new home for my baby.

The old girl's old (right) and new (left) owners
I'm more than a little bit sad to see it go.  I've always adored the style of these old FSJ's.  My wife's Tahoe is comfy, but it has no soul.  Wagoneers ooze soul.  Any time a vehicle is produced with an unchanged body style for 40 years, you know you've got something special.  I poured so much of my heart & soul into restoring the Wag from the basket case I bought into a reliable (though ugly) ride.  I've spent many thousands of dollars on it, not to mention countless hours of work, and recovered very little of it with this sale.  The last time I put away my tools and closed the hood after making a repair, I actually shed a tear knowing that I wouldn't be doing that ever again.

All that's left is the oil spot on the driveway
Nevertheless, it still has many issues that need attention, and more keep popping up all the time.  I've become keenly aware recently of which of my time commitments are really important in the long run, and restoring vehicles didn't make the list.  I need to eliminate distractions, and that means passing the torch of the Wagoneer restoration to a new owner.

So now I'm down to just one Jeep (from a peak of four from 2003-2009).  I'd still love to get another FSJ someday.  I've kept my factory service manual, just in case.  Until then, I'll just have to look at pictures and remember the good times I had with my '77 Wagoneer.

What was your favorite vehicle of those you've owned?  I'd love to hear your story in the comments below.


  1. I'd like to welcome all the readers that found this page after it was highlighted by AW on their web site in "one lap of the web." That's kinda cool.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I may have cried a little... We have a '77 Waggy that my parents bought new. I went to school in it most of the time. Learned to drive in it, eventually it became mine to drive. I had to leave it behind when I went to college, but mom and dad still have it. Absolutely my favorite car ever, but as dad says "8 miles per gallon uphill, downhill, and coasting". I'm looking for a new ride now and have no doubt it'll be a Wrangler. :)

  3. I too am in love with my waggy. An '84 Grand model. It is my daily driver and I can't how much I enjoy driving it. I am retired and do handyman jobs around town. I get comments almost every day. People flash their lights at me as we meet. At a light the next lane over may be a shinny new 4x4 but the driver can't keep from staring. It's like I was Pamela Anderson with no top. I love it. We were in Eureka Springs Ar a few months ago and guys would literately step in front of us as we were driving down the street to stop me and take a picture or ask about my ride.


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