Project LJ Stage 1: Cheap improvements with big upside (items covered in detail below).
- $153 — JKS Quicker Swaybar Disconnects.
- $113 — Rocky Road Outfitters 2″ Budget Lift Kit.
- $45 — Auto Ventshade Bugflector II.
- $40 — Miscellaneous tools.
- $10 — Homemade window pouches.
- $5 — Homemade tool roll.
Total for stage 1: $366.
Quicker Swaybar Disconnects
If you do one thing to your LJ, do this.
Seriously, I don’t think there’s any better bang for your buck than getting swaybar disconnects. These simple little devices, which are a breeze to install at home, greatly increase the wheel travel of your front end when you’re off-road (do not leave them disconnected at high speeds), allowing the tires to move up and down farther and more independently than they can with the swaybar connected.
The JKS QDs, as they’re known in the biz, are short on price and long on performance. Unlike many QDs, they don’t rattle, and they don’t require the vehicle to be level before they are reinstalled. They’re also highly adjustable, and they come with some convenient pins to be quickly rotated out of the way.
An absolutely terrific buy.
2″ Budget Lift Kit
Folks always think of this first: a lift kit.
Something to remember when it comes to lift kits is that bigger is not always better. The taller the vehicle, the worse gas mileage it generally gets and the more unstable it is in any off-angle situations (which come up often on hard trails). To counter some of the instability one has to set the wheels increasingly farther out from the body, which makes the rig less able to squeeze through spaces (it doesn’t take long to get to the silliness of Hummer widths in a Jeep, sad to say) and a pain to park. Getting the wheels out also entails extra costs (in new off-set wheels or at least wheel-spacers) that add to the costs of a bigger lift kit. And all that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that big lift kits can void a great deal of the vehicle’s factory warranty. So the costs of “going high” get high really quick. That said, the advantages of a lift kit are two fold: higher clearance and looks. Higher clearance is truly achieved with the bigger tires that you can fit under the vehicle with a lift kit, and looks are, well, in the eye of the beholder.
For Project LJ, I opted for simple coil spacers. These are basically just thick chunks of high-density plasti-rubber that slip on top of the coil springs. This forces the body up or the wheels down (depending on your point of view). I opted for the Rocky Road kit because of its inexpensiveness and the fact that, unlike other so-called 2″ spacer lifts, theirs gives a full 2″ lift once installed.
My father and I installed the lift in the garage to save money. This was a bit of an ordeal to our lack of optimum tools and, in a couple of instances, our lack of forethought or brawn, but we ultimately got it done.
I’m not going to lie. This one is mostly cosmetic.
One of my concerns with the LJ is that it can look “long.” This is especially true if, like me, you’re coming from a life lived with CJs and the standard Wrangler-length fare. One solution to this length problem, it seems to me, is to promote some vertical elements to the vehicle. And, given that my LJ is silver, making these elements black also helps to break the streaking silver monotony of the beast.
Thus, a front-of-the-hood black (well, it’s technically “smoke”) bug deflector. It gets some vertical dimension, adds some black accent, and, not coincidentally, deflects some (but hardly all) bugs from getting juiced on the windshield.
Jeeps break. Jeeps have little room for tools.
It’s a bit of a rock-and-a-hard-place thing, in more ways than one. If you take your Jeep off-road — and, seriously, why would you buy one of these gas-guzzlers if you didn’t? — you’re going to need to fix things. But if you’re in a Jeep you don’t have a lot of room for the tools to fix things. What to do?
Well, some folks just forget about the need to carry things and load tool boxes into the limited cargo area. But that’s not a good solution to me. Even with the additional room of an LJ, one isn’t overwhelmed with cargo space, and I want to have room for luggage and tents and coolers and toys and all other goodies that a healthy family needs in the sticks.
My solution was to study the LJ very carefully — both the vehicle and service manual — in order to buy a very selective group of tools that would do the most jobs while taking up the smallest space (and, I’ll note, the smallest chunk of my pocket book). It’s tough to gauge how much money I spent on this, since some of the tools I already had in my possession, but I’m guessing about $40.
One little hint on putting together a mini-toolkit like this: once you get something like this try to only use these items whenever you work on the Jeep. It means you won’t always do things the fast or easy way, but if you can do them with these things at home you’ll be able to do it out on the trail. And if you can’t get a job done with your basic tools you might need to consider adding whatever you’re missing.
Anyway, a basic list of my ride-along tools follows (unless otherwise noted, these are all in the homemade tool roll mentioned below):
- A magnetic ratcheting screwdriver with interchangeable bit heads that store in the handle. I bought some additional heads and packed them in as tight as I could. I think I have 9 of them all told.
- Locking-jaw vice grips.
- Ratchet with a swivel knuckle, adapters, and 2″ and 4″ extensions.
- Gator-grip socket. It can’t get to everything because of its depth, but it sure beats an entire socket set! Also works great on “stripped” bolt heads.
- Basic continuity tester.
- Good-toothed pliers.
- Knock-off Leatherman.
- Sparkplug gauge.
- Sparkplug socket.
- Allenkey set.
- Tor-X set.
- Wire brush.
- Tire pressure gauge.
- Jumper cables — these are stored under the hood on the driver’s side near the firewall, along with an assortment of rags and a plastic oil funnel.
- Fire extinguisher — this is tucked behind the driver’s rollbar on the floor. The space is perfectly sized for a smallish extinguisher.
- Mini-Maglite flashlight (2-cell AA version) — I’ve actually got three of these at various places in the Jeep. One can’t have enough flashlights, I say.
Window Roll Pouches
The newer Jeep soft-tops are nice in that you can zip the windows out in a flash and run “safari” at a moment’s notice. The problem is what to do with the windows.
One thing you can do is buy a window roll, which allows you to protectively roll-up your windows so that they don’t get scuffed, scratched, kinked, or cracked when you toss them in back. These things will work, but I wasn’t satisfied with how big they are. Three windows (two sides, one back) rolled together gets pretty bulky. I also thought it was silly to spend money on something that is essentially just a few sheets of cloth.
My wife and I headed down to a local fabric store and found some cheap stuff that was fake black vinyl looking on one side and soft cushiony white on the other. We bought some strips of velcro. A few measurements later, my wife (she’s way better at the sewing machine than I am) stitched up three pouches that velcro shut. One for each window. The advantage (other than low-cost) of this set-up is that the windows can by stored separately. I usually put the back window in the cargo area and each side window goes across the top of the wheel well. Works like a champ.
Doesn’t everything come back to that? It’s one thing to reduce to a minimum the tools you carry on-board your LJ. But where are you going to put even those? And how will you organize them?
The answer to both questions, for me, was a tool roll. A cloth container is lighter than a hard plastic one or (lord help us) a metal one, and it is also far more malleable: you can shove it into places that a hard container could never go.
Again, you can buy these things, but give the custom tool selection we had, we decided to make one at home. A bit of durable cloth, some experimentation of where to put the tools to achieve the best “roll,” and a few bits of velcro later — a perfectly sized perfectly useful LJ tool roll. It fits right under my seat.