We’ve been crazy busy catching up on household tasks after getting back to Florida from our summer in New Mexico. After three weeks back in FL, I finally got around to doing an initial survey of the Red Jeep.

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I haven’t touched a single bolt yet but, oh boy, the things I’m finding! Somehow the various “mechanics” in Mississippi that have been working on this thing for the last several years have turned a smooth running, 20mpg, quiet little Jeep into a obnoxiously loud, 5mpg, spitting and sputtering nightmare destined to be a derelict!
The check engine light was on so first I plugged the ODBII code reader in and got multiple codes including errors on both O2 sensors, hmm, let’s have a look. Why did they cut the front flange off the nice shiny new cat-back exhaust system I installed before we gave it to Bill? Why is that piece of  pipe welded to the front of the exhaust? Where is the catalytic converter?!?! WHERE ARE THE O2 SENSORS???!!!??? Yep, a straight pipe where the converter is supposed to be and just dangling wires in the vicinities of where the sensors used to be. Oh yeah, this going to be fun! Like I said this was an initial survey, I quit and walked away mumbling expletives and shaking my head. I’m actually scared of pulling it into the garage and tearing into it; who knows what hidden “Hack Mechanic” wonders I have yet to find! Since Bill does not have the mechanical skills to diagnose and repair the problems with the Jeep, he was at the mercy of the automotive “professionals”.  To be fair there are good mechanics out there, but unfortunately they can be hard to find sometimes.  Ultimately, Bill tried several different mechanics before he finally, out of pure frustration, replaced the Jeep.
Besides the basic belts, hoses, brakes and fluids routine, (as well as a new exhaust system and O2 sensors!) I have figured out a few things that will be going on the Jeep. 235/85/r16 mud tires of yet undetermined brand, although I’m leaning towards either the Mastercraft Courser MXT like I put on the Dodge, or the Federal Couragia MT. The wheels will be late 90s era Ford, Crown Victoria, steel wheels . They will look very similar to the wheels that I put on the Dodge last Spring.  All in all, I’m going to “try” and keep this a fairly low budget build with at least one exception. After the success I had working with Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road  on the Dodge suspension, I’ll once again be tapping into his expertise on the Jeep suspension. His initial research indicates that a combination of Fox Performance Series shocks and Pro Comp 2″ lift springs will give a smooth controlled ride on the New Mexico back-roads without blowing the budget too badly.
As I dig deeper, I predict there will be more expletives and head shaking to come, but that’s how “projects” work…right? I’m sure The Red Jeep Project will not disappoint in that regard.

Grapes

We traveled to wine country recently. No, not Napa Valley, although I have been to that beautiful area, the wine country I am referring to is in the south central region of New Mexico. Even though California is renowned for producing wine, according to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, New Mexico is the oldest wine growing region in the United States. (Incidentally, another bit of trivia I picked up is that there are wineries located in each of the fifty states.) The first stop of the journey was in Deming, New Mexico at Luna Rossa Winery. The location of this winery was a surprise because this area is arid and appears to be too much of a desert to sustain grapevines. None the less, Luna Rossa Winery is the larger, multi-staff winery of the two we toured.  It has a large mail order enterprise, which bodes well for my future cravings. The other winery we visited is La Esperanza Vineyard and Winery, located in the beautiful Mimbres Valley. It is a small, family run business on the owner’s homestead. It is named after the daughter of the original landowners and is run by Esperanza and her husband David.

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Both wineries had wine to my liking and while I am no sommelier, the wine I sampled was just as good, if not better, than the wine I sampled in Napa Valley. In fact, I would have to say that I liked the wine I sampled at these wineries better than the wine I sampled in Napa Valley because I purchased bottles from each winery, while I did not sample any wine I felt compelled to purchase while touring in the Napa Valley region. My favorite of the purchased bottles was a blend called Born in Space, which was purchased from La Esperanza.

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JimJim yielding!

To my chagrin, La Esperanza does not sell by mail order and I did not have the foresight to purchase multiple bottles. More wine tours are definitely on the itinerary as we travel to various states. I definitely have to stock-pile bottles of wine that tantalize my palate due to my recently adopting the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas:“ Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine”.

food        The epicurean delight prepared by my sister Celeste to accompany the wine.

wine bottleThe weather was perfect for sipping our libations outside.

Celeste and JimMy sister Celeste supervising Jim’s wine portions.

A little back story: back in 2000 I bought “The Red Jeep” for Pamala, used, with 14,000 miles. She drove it regularly until 2004 when she got a new Liberty, but prior to this, we trailered it to New Mexico and she drove it home to Florida visiting friends and relatives on the way. While visiting my father-in-law Bill, he fell in love with the Jeep and said he wanted to buy it if we ever wanted to sell it. After Pamala got the Liberty in 2004, “The Red Jeep” saw very little use for the next two years.  My father-in-law visited us in 2006 and we ended up giving it to him, with the stipulation that we would purchase it back from him if he ever decided to get rid of it. Fast forward nine years and a total of 90,000 miles, the Jeep was starting to show it’s age mechanically. Unfortunately the mechanics he was using in Mississippi, including a Jeep dealership no less, couldn’t seem to keep it running properly. In frustration he ended buying a car and the Jeep was destined to sit most of the time. Rather than let it sit, and since we needed a second vehicle in New Mexico, he returned it to us. So now I have another project. I needed that like a hole in my head! We are grateful for the gift, however and with a little TLC it will be back in service and better than ever.

So why “The Red Jeep” moniker? This was our driveway in 2005. With three Jeeps to choose from, it needed a name.

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In NM in 2003.

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As it was in 2006 when Bill got it.

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All loaded up and ready to come home.

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Bill having second thoughts about giving up his “baby”.

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As it sits now.

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This will be a mild build for use as a short range, dirt road/mud, run around vehicle. No crazy stuff here. I’ll “base line” it and get it running right first, then mild lift, mud tires, basic heavy duty bumpers, winch, and auxiliary lighting.

 

 

Spending time with my sister Ingrid is always a good reason to visit Memphis. Ingrid is one of the those rare people who always has a smile on her face and a pleasant disposition. She is also my biggest fitness motivator. A visit with her is not complete without our three-mile run at Shelby Farm.

To compensate for getting me out of bed at dawn for the run (she said that we had to beat the Memphis heat), Ingrid presented me with a ticket to Motown The Musical for my “early” birthday present. I enjoy live theater and don’t go as often as I would like so this was the perfect gift. Having Ingrid and my best friend Karen accompany me to the show made for a perfect girls’ day out!

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I have to say hearing all those songs from my youth caused the body to rock and sway. I wish I could deny recognizing each and every song performed, but I can not. During my childhood, my mother played the early Motown songs until the lines wore off the vinyl. The later Motown releases were during my adolescence, a time when Karen and I were co-conspirators. Yes, the phase of my life has arrived where I reminisce about the mischief Karen and I were up to “back in the day” (as my daughters are fond of saying when referring to my youth) when any given Motown song was popular. They are memories that I will cherish for life. Thanks Ingrid and Karen for being a part of my birthday celebration and helping me create more cherished memories.

These are the images I captured of the super blood moon as it manifested in the mountains of New Mexico. Jim said I missed the best images when I was asleep.

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Below is the last remnants of the blood moon at dawn.

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For many years I have wanted to explore more of New Mexico, but various obligations, until now, have prevented me from doing so. There are mountains, plains, deserts, ghost towns, lakes and almost everthing associated with New Mexico all within hours of the cabin.  When we first arrived this year, it was still at the tail end of monsoon season and thunderstorms can make traveling off the beaten-path difficult.  Even though the truck is built to tackle most anything, it is far too easy to get into the back-country of New Mexico during inclement weather and find yourself really stuck! So, we tried to pick a day when the thunderstorms were more spotty than widespread to embark on a day trip to the Slaughter Mesa.  Slaughter Mesa has a mountain peak that is 8763 feet and despite the fact it is  less than two hours from our cabin, we had never been there.

First stop off the pavement was Quemado Lake. It is definitely on the “return to list” with kayaks or paddle boards.

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Although there was a very large forest fire in this area several years ago, it still has some of the biggest Ponderosa Pines I have seen in a while. They absolutely dwarfed Pamala! Unfortunately, this one was blocking our path up the canyon.  Note to self: pack chain saw for next trip into the wilderness!

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Making our way up to higher ground, beautiful grasslands surrounded us.

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The thunderstorms laughed at our efforts at planning around them and seemed to stalk us all day but we remained dry except for a little sprinkle here and there and fortunately, although we heard alot of distant thunder we didn’see any lightening.

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As we worked our way up over a rocky ridge, we were treated to this view of the valley that we would descend into.

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On our last stretch of dirt road before reaching pavement, we came upon a few of the last remaining buildings of Mangas ghost town.

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After working on the truck since January until literally 2 hours before we left, we finally started our annual Westbound migration in mid-July. A little later than we wanted to avoid the building heat and humidity of Southwest Florida, but migrating we were. For some reason the trip West, although we did things and visited people, seemed to pass in mostly a blur with few pictures taken.

Our first stop was in Orlando to visit our friends Rob, his wife Meghan and their two sons, who recently moved from Fort Myers. (regular readers may remember we visited Rob’s parents in Alaska during our travels last year) They had dinner waiting for us when we arrived (late) and we spent the evening and next morning over breakfast catching up. When it was time to leave the boys were trying to leave with us. Future adventure travelers perhaps? Still hot and humid.

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From there we paid a visit to our older daughter and son-in-law in Jacksonville. While there Andre, our son-in-law, and I did the Crocodile Crossing zip line tour at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. Unfortunately cameras were not allowed on the course. We had a blast but man was it hot and humid in the tree canopy! Did I mention we were leaving Florida to escape that?

The next few days found us wandering around Georgia and North Carolina. We visited Tallulah Falls in North Georgia. Still hot and humid with a nasty late evening thunderstorm thrown in for good measure. Glad we weren’t in a tent!

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Being novices to whitewater rafting, we went on our first “self-guided” whitewater trip with Rolling Thunder River Company on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. Of course it was my job to keep our Funyak upright and pointed in the right direction while under various threats to my well-being from Pamala. It didn’t help that the rental company refers to the two person boats as “divorce boats”!

Here we are deciding (I’m deciding, Pamala is reiterating previous threats) how to approach an upcoming class 3 rapid notorious for flipping rafts.

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Me doing my best to avoid said threats.

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And a happy, mostly dry, Pamala after my successful navigation.

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Still hot and humid, although the forty-something degree water helped. From there we were headed to a friends cabin in the boonies of North Carolina to spend the night. We were following hand written directions, so after passing a few gravel roads, when they said “go about a mile and a half and turn left on rough gravel road”, this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting! At least we knew it was the right gravel road. Still hot and humid.

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We made a few more stops along the way which were mostly uneventful…except one.

Beware of the town of Calhoun Tennessee, it is a SPEEDTRAP! 

And yes we were trapped! A $215 lesson learned!

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In retrospect, it is hard to believe that we have been traveling to Albuquerque annually for over 15 years and never once booked a hot air balloon ride. Albuquerque is the home of the largest balloon festival in the world. No where else have I visited and awakened to see the sky littered with colorful balloons of various sizes drifting over the city. Sooooo, finally, on our 21st wedding anniversary, we climbed into a hot air balloon basket and trusted our pilot, Dar of Rainbow Ryders, to dip us into the Rio Grande, clip the top of cottonwood trees and eventually ascend 4000 feet above ground level, giving us spectacular views of the world below us. The experience did not disappoint and was worthy of the 15 year wait. The two-hour flight could only have been enhanced by an in-flight gourmet meal with a three-person band serenading us. None the less, the entire experience, with the exception of an initial problem with the booking process, was enjoyable.  We especially appreciated the celebratory mimosas that awaited us once we were on the landing pad.

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The Dodge has been through so many changes over the years, I’ve lost track. From now on any big mods are going to be cataloged by year and occurrence. So I give you “Dodge Ram version 15.1”!

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After many years of ownership, countless “patch jobs”, an incalculable amount of parts and money, as well as endless hours of exhaustive research; I finally figured out how to fix the factory Dodge steering and suspension woes…

Step 1:

Remove the stock Dodge axle along with all associated steering and suspension components down to the bare frame rails and discard!

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Seriously, there are so many things wrong with the 2nd gen Dodge front end this may seem drastic but it’s where I ended up. Here’s a list of some of the problems and possible repercussions:

  1. flimsy stamped control arms with eccentric bolts for caster adjustment (adjustment bolts are prone to seizing)
  2. two piece driver’s side axle shaft with vacuum operated sliding collar instead of locking hubs(axle failure and vacuum leaks preventing 4×4 engagement, also increased drag and reduced mpg due to constant drag of rotating internal axle components while in 2 wheel drive)
  3. unit bearing hubs (expensive to replace and have been known to fail catastrophically while driving, also almost impossible to replace roadside as the center nut is torqued to 240+ ft lbs)
  4. under sized track bar with ball joint end (premature wear causing “death wobble”)
  5. undersized y-link configuration tie rods (vague steering feel and premature failure)
  6. un-braced steering box (vague steering and premature steering box failure)
  7. undersized ball joints (huge problem on these trucks: premature wear causing a myriad of problems, big repair bills and possible catastrophic failure)
  8. inadequate bushing assembly in bottom of steering column (premature wear causing vague steering feel)
  9. undersized steering shaft (premature wear causing vague steering feel)
  10. seriously low quality undersized shocks considering the weight of the Cummins diesel engine and the weight these trucks are designed to carry (premature failure and inadequate size cause poor ride and vehicle control characteristics as well as increased tire wear)
  11. I’ve also heard of the two piece, Dodge Dana 60 axle housings bending under severe use but I have not experienced this

I’m sure I’m missing something but those are the basics. This probably makes the Dodge engineering sound really bad, and it is, but truthfully most American made trucks are no better and if you actually use your truck, repairs/upgrades are inevitable.

The biggest piece of the puzzle was a custom front axle assembly built by John at Hillbilly Wizard. John answers his own phone and is more than willing to think outside the box and build you what you need. John and I agreed the stock housing was adequate for my needs and proceeded from there. In addition to the “fixes” a gearing change was needed along with a traction aiding device. What John built for me is a hybrid of Dodge, aftermarket, and 80s era Chevy K30 parts. I warn anyone trying to duplicate this axle build that John had a lot of parts incompatibility issues and machine work to do to put this axle together. This was not a bolt together project for him! Luckily for me however, the finished product did bolt in place. The two biggest drawbacks to this approach were a loss of ABS and a little less powerful front brakes, neither of which have posed a problem and the gains in strength and reliability far outweigh the disadvantages.

The axle build:

  1. stock Dodge Dana 60 housing
  2. 4.10 gears and ARB air locker
  3. 35 spline, 4340 chrome moly inner and outer axle shafts with a 1 piece passenger side shaft
  4. tube-end axle shaft seals
  5. Chevy kingpin inner C’s, kingpins, steering knuckles, roller bearings, brakes, hubs, etc
  6. bronze upper kingpin bushings
  7. Yukon locking hubs
  8. 1.5″ x .25″ DOM tie rods with Chevy 1 ton tie rod ends
  9. the high steer arm in the picture ended up not working out with my steering geometry, but that was due to my bad calculations

 

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Other parts in the front end rebuild include:

  1. Great Lake Off Road diff cover
  2. Ruff Stuff Specialties y-link steering kit
  3. custom made upper shock towers from Extreme Articulation (I had to modify these a bit but that was due to a miscalculation on my part)
  4. Borgeson steering box, pump, hoses, and billet steering shaft along with a Mr Gasket power steering cooler
  5. heavy duty replacement ends for existing DT ProFab track bar
  6. custom made PMT Fabrication adjustable control arms set 1″ longer than stock (ask for the “Dalton Highway spec”)
  7. Rock Solid Ram Truck Steering column bushing
  8. Sway-A-Way 2.5″ reservoir shocks with custom tuning from Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road (more on the shock tuning coming in another blog entry, short version: awesome!)
  9. slightly modified existing DT ProFab steering brace
  10. Buckstop front bumper that I’ve been running for several years had to be modified to clear the new 37″ tires and longer control arms
  11. Daystar bump stops

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That pretty much wraps it up for the front end. No small feat!

A lot of other things got done on version 15.1 also:

  1. rear axle received new 4.10 gearset, ARB air locker, and Great Lake Off Road cover
  2. Sway-A-Way 2.5″ reservoir rear shocks
  3. transmission was overhauled with billet torque converter and shift kit added
  4. transfer case was rebuilt
  5. 37×12.5×17 Mastercraft Courser MXT tires
  6. stock 3rd gen Dodge 17″ steel wheels
  7. LED backup and driving lights
  8. air tank and ARB compressor to activate lockers and inflate tires
  9. re-installation of camper box that I built a few years ago
  10. new windshield
  11. unplanned was a radiator, hoses, thermostat, and oil pan gasket replacement
  12. I’m sure there’s something I missed after almost 6 months of work

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So good for another 16 years and 180,000 miles right? We’ll see, I was actually still working on the truck 2 hours before we left! Reports on whether or not this round of modifications worked are coming soon.

Many thanks to John at Hillbilly Wizard and Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road for listening to what I needed and delivering awesome custom work!