MegaMan: My Zef ’89 YJ, from Pickup to Painted

In mid-March 2015, I bought a 1989 Jeep YJ (“Wrangler”) from a great guy named Ken. Built in Canada, the vehicle spent the first twenty years of its life taking on only 23,000 miles, mildly used on the island of Nantucket. In 2009, sold to its second-ever owner, Ken, the YJ lived another 32K in Georgia. When this vehicle came to my attention – or more accurately my brother’s attention, who brought it to mine – it had 55,000 original miles on it, and was up for auction on eBay.

A shot from Ken’s eBay listing

I put in my bid at my “no higher” rate, and was having dinner in Pittsburgh when the moment rolled around, and amid some nervousness and a feeling of panic, I was amazed: I bought a Jeep.

I was on a plane not long after that, a one-way ticket down to Atlanta.

Arlington National Cemetery just after takeoff from DCA
A lot of alone time to think

I was nervous on the flight. I kept thinking, “am I mad? What have I done… There are so many reasons why should be obviously stupid to me…” I’d never done anything like this, and I certainly didn’t know what to expect.

We landed in driving rain. Atlanta looked bleak, and it was surprisingly cold.

Touchdown, but is it a score?

I had Ken’s number, and texted to locate him. We had had a couple of conversations, and it all seemed to be going just fine. I followed his instructions, and there, off at the end of the pickup area… I saw it.

The first moment I saw the Jeep. I had to snap it. It was going to be the beginning of a great thing or a major disaster, I knew.

I got in, and Ken and I circled around and chatted for several minutes, trying to find a place to inspect the vehicle. We couldn’t find the cell phone waiting area (because it was closed), and so we kept hopping out, taking a peek, and getting chased off by the police. I got a glance under the hood. I kept looking around on the interior, smelling unfamiliar fuel fumes, and it was really setting in that this was an old vehicle. I mean, this was a 27-year-old workhorse of a sport utility vehicle that put the utility first. I was frightened, apprehensive, and uncomfortable, but there was something really special about this thing. I don’t know why, but getting the hood up, and seeing the bones chugging away, looking at the gray primer and bleak sky hardly reflected in the windshield, I just felt like I had to take him home. Not out of pressure: I was prepared to say “I’ll eat the deposit and take the one-star buyer rating, but I can’t do this.” I knew I could walk away if I had to, but I’ve been around cars for a long time, growing up in an automotive family, and I’d done my homework. I was prepared, knew what to look for, and was at least confident enough to know this was what I’d paid for.

Although the oil cap was missing. Ken was obviously mortified; he’d just checked the oil back at home before coming out, and had left the cap in his garage. Well, at least I knew my first order of business in the project!

A handshake, a check handed over, Ken left at the airport to be picked up… and off I went. I GPSed to the nearest AutoZone… Miles and miles away. Far too far. So I GPSed to the nearest Advanced Auto. Right around the corner! This, more than anything else, began a string of very positive experiences with Advance; it’s nothing against AutoZone. It’s just that Advance always seems to be where I need ’em, and to have what I need. I spend $2.99 on a new oil cap, my first Jeep part, buttoned him up, and off I went.

In all rainy glory, ready to get on the road

Quirky didn’t begin to describe this thing as I got on the road. Firstly, what is up with the plastic nautical flag placards? Those aren’t stickers; they’re big honking plastic things adhered to the left side of the cowl. For the record, they spell “VYM.” Perhaps having been on Nantucket for 20 years, it’s “(Something) Yacht Marina?” Iono, but quirky quirk quirk.

No paint on the hood, showing body work on the sides, a caved in back right corner, I started to learn the quirks right away. The left turn signal didn’t work. The horn didn’t work. The engine had vacuum leaks for days, giving a very loud “TUK TUK TUK” chugging sound as you accelerated, and the big old 4.2L inline six dogged something awful. 55 MPH was a stretch, and that made the drive home from Atlanta to Arlington quite a journey.

And yes it poured rain the ENTIRE way home

The hard top was badly secured, with the windshield rail screws dropping out into my lap ever few miles unless I reached up and manually tightened them. The gauge clusters were almost entirely useless, including the non-functional fuel gauge. Fortunately from my motorcycle days, I could track mileage with an odometer, and I low-balled the fuel consumption rate (with the engine inefficiency I banked on 12 MPG to be super-safe)  and estimated accordingly, stopping for fuel every 120 miles, not being able to determine visually if the tank was the 10 or 15 gallon, as I’d researched that they looked the same.

My first order of business was to get the major mechanical work done, or so I thought. I did a little tinkering, but didn’t want to get too invested until I’d had a professional look at the beast down to the bones. I found who I thought was “my guy” as a mechanic, who did a new cap, rotor, and plugs, and did a complete fluid swap. It was apparent that the transfer cases and transmission had never been serviced. However, between geographic inconvenience, a lack of communication, and portents pointing toward a less-than-ideal match, I really needed somebody more on my page. I resolved to look for a new mechanic, but first, it was time to hit the beach.

Corolla Beach, North Carolina, in the Outer Banks

I had resolved to do a significant amount of work while at the beach. My brother was supportive; I suppose it showed that I was pretty apprehensive about diving into something so new. I was terrified I was going to screw this thing up, but I kept reminding myself of a phrase a colleague shared: “Jeeps are like big kid Legos. Don’t worry about it.”

And so, I dove in.

 

 

While at the beach, I tore down the entire windshield and dashboard. I did my own electrical work, and rewired the entire dashboard, including the tachometer and speedometer (including a new mechanical cable I had overnighted so I could finish the project), water temp gauge, fuel gauge (yay!), replacement clock to match the original cluster pattern, oil pressure gauge, and voltmeter, and replaced the headlamp and dimmer switch assemblies, along with LED replacement lights for all dash indicators (though I couldn’t get two of them to work; I later fixed those), a new steering wheel, new front dash speakers, repaired the courtesy lights, completely rewired and rebuilt the stereo and wiring harness, cleaned up the antenna connection, cleaned up the heat/air hardware, and got some of the work started on the new seatbelts, though the more I got into the tub, the more I realized how significantly-frozen some of the nuts and bolts had become from Georgia sweltering.

Dash: Done

There was a significant pause in my work on what my nephew had deemed “KeefaJeepa,” but who I called MegaMan. (MegaMan blue is my favorite color, because it’s my inner 12 year old’s favorite color. It was my favorite video game when I was a kid.) I’d really turned a corner at the beach, feeling very strong affinity toward this beast I was getting to know inside and out, but the drive home was an adventure.

I experienced, for the first time, what I now know is called “Death Wobble,” or DW. DW is the result of misalignment of the drivetrain and steering apparatus, and the Jeep “Wranglers” are especially prone to this phenomenon, so much so that this “shake the teeth out of your head” shimmying has its own name. I limped home from North Carolina at about 45 MPH, terrified of shaking Mega to pieces. It was time to find that new mechanic I’d dreamed of, someone trustworthy, someone responsive someone who knew carbureted machines, someone who would honestly tell me “no way, dude” if there was no hope, someone who would estimate honestly and not take advantage of me.

Someone like Mr. Kim.

Research, reference, and ridiculously shadily driving by the shop a couple of times led me to go in for an estimate over at Skyline in Arlington. Wow. I felt listened-to, I felt informed, and I felt I’d gotten an honest estimate of what it’d take. I told him I wanted it done right, not quickly and to keep it for as long as it took.

Almost three weeks later, the phone rang.

MegaMan was powered up! It had taken a massive amount of effort to drill out the engine bolts to get the exhaust manifold out, but once resolved, a new gasket, new lines, full brakes front and back, fixed the broken sway bar link, replaced the sway bar itself, got the failing pieces of suspension swapped out (getting parts took a little while, adding to the time), got the brake line leak resolved, buttoned up the distribution valve that I hadn’t been able to fix myself at the beach… Like a new machine! Finally, this hefty, torquey, strong-willed 4.2L was sounding, acting, and driving like the machine it was built to be.

What a transformation!

With the major mechanicals done, I turned to my friend George, who has rapidly become my “shadetree mechanic,” a phrase I’d never heard before this year, but as apt a coinage as ever there was! George, an engineer by trade, has automotive skill and mechanical expertise that just blows my mind. He knows tools and how to use them like nobody I’ve ever seen. (Just the other day, he had the entire front of his wife’s car apart in the driveway in a way that looked to me like it’d never go back together, but in 20 minutes, he had the thing back together and purring. Amazing.)

George has helped me immeasurably; there’s just no way to describe how far away from “done” I’d be without him. Our first major project together was helping to get the old hardware for the tumble-forward flip-up back seat out. There was no back seat when I bought it, and I knew I wanted to be able to take my nieces and nephew out on the beach the next time we were there together, so properly, safely securing the kiddos was a must-do.

I learned more about how to deal with screwed up bolts than I ever thought I would!

Take that, bolt! The Shadetree Angle Grinder of Doom has +3 to decapitation.

I went with Corbeau for the back seat, and I anticipate swapping the front ones out someday for matching stuff. I also went with black vinyl, to match the current interior. I really want a classic, OEM-for-the-most-part look, without sacrificing modern conveniences or logical upgrades.

You’ll notice the outdoor speakers just sort of sitting there. Yeah, as a former professional musician, that isn’t gonna work. But don’t you fret, sports fans.

After George helped me with a few more things, it was time to bite the bullet and get MegaMan repainted. I’d done as much as I felt comfortable doing before paint, but to get the big stuff done next, including swapping the hard top for a soft top, I needed to have the paint done.

I went with Colm out at Maaco-Fairfax, and this guy is awesome. He was fun, conversational, straight forward, and heck, he even helps local schools by painting their electric cars and such! He gave me a totally fair estimate, did spectacular work, and even let me use his garage to re-trim and re-outfit the vehicle, as I did a bunch of the prep work myself. His garage guys were kind as well.

I wanted the paint back to OEM, keeping that Spinnaker Blue Metallic HQ6/BJ it came in, and Colm came through with flying… well, color!

It is at this point that MegaMan really came to life, I think.

 

 

With fresh paint and enthusiasm in my heart, I tackled the rest of the major project work, including the soft top. Again, without Shadetree George, no way would I have been able to get the windshield brackets un-messed-up or the mirrors installed. He made remarkably quick work of it, and helped me correct some geometry problems with the top mounting hardware with skill I totally lack, as well as helping me get the speaker bar installed.

An actual shadetree!

The windshield is a LOT easier to take down once you’ve already fought the bolts in the Battle of the Beach.
I really hope never to take this dashboard apart again.
Mirror relocation brackets, in place, and looking spectacular. OEM chrome mirrors from the half doors with aftermarket relocation brackets to put them on the windshield frame allow me to take the full doors off, and still have legal mirrors, a function I really wanted from the start of my dream experience.

Ho! Ho! and up she rises! (MegaMan is Spinnaker Blue. He lived on Nantucket. C’mon, no nautical theme humor?)

I give Rampage a lot of credit: this is a very well designed full door soft top kit.
Six speaker sound bar, OEM style but with modern electronics and hardware, will see those outdoor speaker pods forever banished from the back seat.

And that, my friends, brings us to today. From pickup to paintjob to peachy person, I’m ecstatic to be “done” with the major parts of this project.

I’ve added 1/4″ plastic cap plugs to the OEM interior holes, and am leaving the upper part of the door exposed and Spinnaker Blue lovely, having replaced the interior latch and lock, adding a custom-fit interior sweep to the inside of the door panel, completely restoring the original interior panel, adding an OEM replacement crank, and a brand new pull handle. The other side matches exactly.
You’ve come a long way, MegaMan, and I love that we can communicate now using top-notch gauges. You feel responsive and happy!
Original unrestored eBay listing on the left, finished on the right.
Beach work week on the left, Shadetree restored on the right.

This morning, I celebrated by adding the vinyl Jeep emblem, commemorating the end of the major part of this journey. MegaMan has his namesaske on the side, what my mother called “a touch of whimsy,” and a very happy inner 12 year old’s bearhug of happiness.

All things told, the list of work to date roughly includes:

  • replaced oil cap
  • all new dash panels
  • tachometer
  • speedometer
  • oil gauge
  • fuel gauge
  • clock
  • water temp gauge
  • voltmeter
  • all leds in dash indicator
  • completely repaired and rewired stereo
  • replaced courtesy lights with leds
  • repaired parking brake indicator
  • restored shift boot
  • restored shifter knobs, transfer case knobs to OEM
  • pulled down windshield, cleaned out
  • replaced hard top connection hardware with modern screw-on fasteners
  • replaced lift glass pistons
  • replaced lift glass T-handle and spring mechanisms
  • removed and replaced all original weatherstripping
  • removed original steel door mounted mirrors
  • installed chrome mirror relocation brackets on windshield hinges
  • installed OEM chrome tall mirrors
  • replaced interior door locks / latches
  • restored interior door panels
  • replaced interior door pulls
  • added custom-fit quadratec floor mats
  • drilled out and replaced flip-forward seat hardware
  • installed new Corbeau flip-forward seat
  • replaced 3/8” vacuum hoses
  • drilled out engine bolts for exhaust manifold
  • new manifold gasket
  • complete tune up include plugs, rotor, cap
  • replaced all fluids including trans, both transfer cases, etc with top-of-the-line stuff
  • full brake job front and back
  • pulled dash and replaced front dash speakers in original locations with modern hardware
  • installed overhead sound bar
  • all led signals, indicators, brake and backup with load resistors
  • complete repaint to OEM spinnaker blue metallic
  • replaced OEM standard hardware with OEM chrome hardware on hood
  • replaced chrome headlight bezels
  • replaced OEM antenna mast and antenna cable
  • replaced OEM trim (“Wrangler,” “Jeep,” “4.2L”)
  • added OEM AMC 258 air cleaner decal
  • replaced windshield brackets with chrome upgrade, hex bolts instead of torx
  • new complete soft top replacement kit
  • spare tire cover

But by “done,” I guess I don’t mean “done,” because there are a few things left to do, not the least of which is get quicker at putting the soft top down… and back up in case of rain! But my to-do list still includes:

  • Wire up the overhead sound bar, which I’ll probably do soon
  • Finish the tail tonneau cover install to achieve a full rear window seal on lift gate
  • Finish swapping out the old seatbelts with the new replacement, which will probably involve drilling out the old bolts and adding new reinforcement steel to the tub
  • Getting a professional to get the body bolts off (and probably replaced as I expect them to break) so I can add sturdy and permanent  nerf bars
  • Swap the lower T50 bolts for hex bolts on windshield brackets so I don’t have to screw around with a Torx-50 bit
  • Swap out or repaint the glove box gloss black to match the angled gauge cluster panels
  • Restore the sun visors, which I have, reinstall with non-Torx hardware (I swear, I hate those things)
  • Replace the windshield (bullseye crack)

Down the line, I can see driving lights, the headlight relay hack to get max power to the lamps and an HID conversion kit. I’d also like to get OEM style wheels, put a 2″ lift on it, and get up to 32 or 33 inch tires for a little more capability. I’m not going to rock climb the thing, and once inspected and properly licensed, he’ll be my daily driver, but I do like the idea of having just a bit more height and footing.

All in all, for a now-56,000 original mile 1989 YJ 4.2L as pretty as he is, I’m really, really happy, and have done it all under budget. I cannot thank enough the loved ones, friends, and service providers who have helped me through so far.

Welcome back, MegaMan. You’re better than ever.