PART ROCK CRAWLER, PART SLEIGH
By Al Khoury
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Last month saw Oloi’s first off-road vehicle feature, a 2010 Toyota FJ Cruiser. There are more rugged adventures on the horizon for this holiday season. Nat Moody’s 1997 Jeep Wrangler combines iconic design, legendary capability, and a dash of Christmas cheer for all to enjoy.
The Jeep Wrangler owes its existence to the Willys MB and its successor the CJ (Civilian Jeep). The MB saw extensive action in World War II and it wasn’t long before the first civilian models were rolling off the assembly line. The Wrangler was introduced in 1986 as an evolution of these earlier vehicles. It used the same body-on-frame design as the CJ-7, complete with solid axles and leaf springs.
1997 was a big model year for the Wrangler as it entered its second generation. The most apparent change to the newly introduced Wrangler TJ was the return to round headlamps, replacing the rectangular ones found on the YJ. It borrowed the Grand Cherokee’s Jeep's Quadra-Coil suspension setup, which included live axles and coil springs. The TJ was produced from 1996 to 2006.
The base engine for the 1997 Wrangler SE was a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder producing 120 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. Upgrading to the Sport or Sahara trims got you a 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine with an output of 181 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices for either engine were a five-speed manual and three-speed automatic.
A removable hardtop with full-metal doors and roll-up windows was optional, replacing the standard canvas top with its zip-up windows and half-metal doors. A rear defroster was also optional. The compact truck lacked side airbags, power windows, mirrors, and door locks, as the doors were removable. And no Wrangler would be complete without a fold-down windshield.
Nat’s Flame Red Wrangler is a bare-bones Sport model with the 4.0 engine, 5-speed manual transmission, and hardtop. The Sport added a back seat, AM/FM radio, and wider tires over the SE. Nat is the first owner, having bought this TJ new in September of 1996. While he added a rear defroster, there is no air conditioner. The odometer reads 105,000 miles.
“I bought it as my daily driver,” Nat told Oloi. “But I started four-wheeling it soon thereafter. There are 23 years of evolution on that thing, mostly done by me. It’s set up as a pretty beefy rock crawler. It hasn’t been a daily driver for the last 15 years and it still has the original clutch.”
Nat’s TJ sits on 17x9.5 Spyderlock wheels with 36x12.5 Goodyear MTR tires. A Rubicon Express 6-inch lift and 1-inch body lift offer even more ground clearance. Out back is a Dana 60 rear axle while the front axles are custom-made from RVC Performance with Warn locking hubs. Nat also put in a TeraFlex 4:1 transfer case, ARB lockers in the front and rear, and Warn off-road lights up front with trail lights underneath.
You’ll find Fox shocks behind the front wheels and Rancho 9000s in the rear. The latter will be replaced with Fox shocks following the installation of custom-welded brackets.
The rear bumper tire carrier and rocker panels come from Poison Spyder. A Warn 9000-pound front winch with synthetic rope can pull this Wrangler out of the stickiest situations. Passengers ride secure in Twisted Stitch off-road bucket seats. Bazooka boat speakers are mounted to a customized roll cage.
“I’ve been through three rear axles,” Nat said. “I started with a Dana 35 then went to a 44, which I bent on Fordyce Creek. Then I broke an axle and then went to the 60, which has been solid ever since. We have broken down many times but I’ve always been able to stitch it back together.”
“The TJ is set up as a wheeler. It looks clean, but it is very beat up underneath,” Nat continued. “It makes annual trips to either Johnson Valley, Rubicon, or Fordyce. My most recent big trip was to Moab. It’s not just a jacked-up city Jeep. It’s built for purpose.”
Nat used to ride along in his grandmother’s bright red CJ-3. That’s what got him hooked on Jeeps and is the reason behind his choice of the red paint.
“She would slip and slide and we would tell her to put it in four-wheel drive and she’d say ‘Not until we’re stuck because it wastes gas!’”
Though he plans to keep his TJ, Nat has added a Jeep Gladiator to his off-road stable. This pickup version of the Wrangler was just introduced this year.
“My plans for the Rubicon next year is to tow my TJ up to my Gladiator and have the whole family do the Rubicon in both Jeeps,” Nat said. “All my energy is going into the Gladiator at this point. But I’m never getting rid of that TJ. It will stay with me. They can bury me in it and, like the Vikings, set me off and light it on fire.”
Beyond its adventures on the Jeep trails, Nat’s Wrangler has become an important part of his Bay Area neighborhood’s holiday tradition.
“I live on a block that is die-hard about decorating for Christmas,” Nat said. “My wife and I moved into our house there in 2001 and I started putting the Jeep up in 2005. I come from a long history of family that does extravagant Santa things for Christmas.”
Nat’s Jeep becomes immobile every December as it is transformed into Santa’s sleigh. It currently has six reindeer, presents on top, and Santa and Mrs. Claus in the front seats.
“We are known as the ‘Red Jeep House’ at Christmas,” Nat said.