From Beater to Beauty

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The TJ Wrangler model is 13 years old now, leaving plenty of options for the potential buyer. It also means that there are more “well-seasoned,” high mileage Jeeps looking for a second lease on life.

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This article details one such transformation. The ’97 Wrangler shown here had been severely abused by its previous owner. While this created a long list of necessary repairs, the purchase price reflected the neglect. A savvy buyer with more time and skill than cash will view this as an opportunity.

The TJ benefits from a dizzying array of aftermarket support, more than any Jeep in history. The price and quality offered is as broad as the options themselves. On this project we wanted to find the best value, not necessarily the least expensive product. When wading through the options one name stood out above the rest: Gen-Right. Gen-Right is best known for their fuel tanks, but they make a variety of other innovative products as well. For our TJ makeover we used Gen-Right’s stretched corner guards and rocker guards. Before we could install the new rocker guards, we had to remove the crude angle iron that the previous owner had welded on to the tub. In contrast to the crude sliders that we removed, the Gen-Right rocker guards bolted in place with perfect fitment. The 3/16” thick steel means that it is unlikely that we will ever need to remove them, but if we do, it is nice to know it is possible with minimal effort thanks to their bolt-on installation.

The rocker guards were ordered in a 4”extended length to match the stretched TJ corner guards. Gen-Right offers a variety of parts to stretch the wheelbase on your Jeep, resulting in greater stability and improved departure angle. Like the rocker guards, the corner guards bolted in place with little difficultly and are constructed of 3/16” steel.

The corners accept the stock taillights, but we elected to run flush mounted LED taillights instead. The only issue we had with the rockers and corners is that they use aluminum rivnuts in some locations where the tub is double walled and you can’t get to the back of a normal bolt. After installing and removing the rockers and corners a few times to get the proper fitment, the aluminum rivnuts would strip out. We replaced them with steel rivnuts that did not suffer from this problem.

To compliment the Gen-Right parts, a Campbell Enterprises fiberglass hood was installed. The TJ was already missing the front fenders, and replacing them and the dented stock hood would cost more than the Campbell hood and result in less tire clearance. The Campbell hood features integrated fenders and larger wheel wells that accommodate larger tires with no additional lift. The hood bolted on with the stock hinges, but we used hood pins instead of the stock latching mechanism.

Unlike the hood, all of the stock hardware was used with the Rampage replacement top. This top is a great value, as it uses the stock soft top mounting hardware. The top hardware on this Wrangler was one of the few things actually complete and functioning properly. The same could not be said about the top itself. Numerous tears meant that the top was no longer water or wind resistant, and the windows were so discolored that they posed a safety hazard on the road. The Rampage replacement top cured all of these problems and installed easily in under an hour. The top includes clever storage pockets above the sun visors and is considerably quieter than the factory top that it replaced. Our only recommendation is to get help from a friend when installing the top; although the task is not difficult, another set of hands can be useful.

After the body modifications were completed, it was time to spray some new paint. The factory blue paint was retained purely for simplicity’s sake. Switching colors would mean that the door jambs, firewall, and interior would have to be addressed. This would add time and money to the paint job.

The end result accomplished our goal and definitely helps the Jeep stand out from the crowd. Of course it already stood out from the crowd beforehand, but now the Wrangler does not look like it belongs in a junkyard. The entire process cost less than $2500, which is money well-spent considering how inexpensive this former basket case was to buy. And like adopting a dog from the pound, we also feel good about giving this Jeep a second lease on life instead of seeing it hauled away to the junkyard.

– Special thanks to Harry Wagner for his write-up on this build, as well as Gen-Right Off-Road, Campbell Enterprises, and Rampage Products for their contributions to the build vehicle.

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