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1997 Jeep Wrangler: The Retirement Plan TJ

As we age, we’ve learned that the concept of getting older is far more of a physical than mental toll. Looking around our eclectic wheeling community, it’s easy to see that the off-road hobby attracts enthusiasts from all backgrounds and age groups. Sure, climbing in and out of a lifted rig may take a little more effort as father time places more gray onto your scalp, but it doesn’t stop many from leaving the 4x4 world for a tamer pastime.

Take Ronnie “Dusty” Rhodes and his 1997 Jeep Wrangler TJ for example. Nearing retirement age, Rhodes could have easily written off the wheeling hobby a few years back when he sent his last Jeep project careening onto its lid. Instead, Rhodes decided to cut out a few steps of the build process and find a platform that was nearly turnkey, so he could get back on the trail quickly. Thus, he arrived at the heavily modified Jeep Wrangler you see here today.


While a significant portion of the TJ was already complete when Rhodes purchased the Jeep, he has still made sizeable contributions to the platform to get it where it is today. Equipped with a healthy V8 engine, 40-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers, coilovers at all four corners, and an assortment of heavy-duty armor plating, there isn’t much that this TJ needs. This fact is what has allowed Rhodes to pilot the TJ over some of the country’s toughest trails, spanning from coast to coast.

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Virtually every portion of the Jeep’s original tub has been modified in some way. The front fenders are a high-line set from Poison Spyder Customs, which flow into the high-clearance EVO Manufacturing boatsides. Providing more room in the rear fenderwells are a set of EVO MFG stretch fenders, which like all of the powder-coated parts, are comprised of 3/16-inch steel.

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Moving the 40x13.50 Trail Grapplers wasn’t a job fit for a four-cylinder. In its place, is a 5.9L Magnum V8 that was sourced from a ’99 Dodge Durango. The 360ci fuel-injected setup is backed by a built 46RE transmission, which feeds a NP231 transfer case. To allow everything to communicate correctly, a Hot Wire harness was used, which gets juice from an Optima RedTop battery. The custom coilover tower was fabricated by Off Road Evolution. The engine mounts, along with the brass radiator, are from Advance Adapters.

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One of the most significant performance modifications to the TJ has come by way of the suspension. Up front, massive 2.5-inch, 12-inch-travel King coilovers dropped in place and fit with a coil spring rate of 150 over 300. A custom four-link with track bar controls the high-pinion East Coast Gear Supply Dana 60 and provides plenty of free-flowing articulation.

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Out back, a Superlift long-arm stretch kit was modified to offer a longer wheelbase, while retaining the high clearance lower arms. This four-link with track bar rear setup works with a set of Bilstein 2.0 rock crawler series 12-inch-travel coilovers. The East Coast Gear Supply 60 rear axle used is a custom semi-float axle that utilizes a low-pinion Dana 60 differential housing. The 35-spline, 1.5-inch chromoly axleshafts get help from a Detroit Locker and Yukon 5.13:1 differential gears. An aluminum G2 rear differential cover adds extra fluid capacity, which helps keep the diff fluid cool on the trail and off. Fuel carrying duties come thanks to a GenRight tank.

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Providing the massive footprint for the Jeep is a set of 40x13.50R17 Nitto Trail Grapplers. As you can see from the metal mauling on the 17x9 ATX Slab wheels, the package sees plenty of abuse. Since the Slab wheels are a true beadlock, Rhodes is able to run single-digit air pressure on the trail. This helps bring out even more performance and ride quality benefits of the ultra-tough mud terrains.

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Since a front bumper is non-existent, Rhodes installed a Poison Spyder Customs steering gearbox skid. Holding the 9.5ti Warn winch in place is a Smittybilt winch tray, while stock tow hooks provide extra recovery points on either side. Adding some extra nighttime visibility are Truck-Lite LED headlights.

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A set of Corbeau Baja XRS suspension seats are tied into the Poison Spyder Customs 'cage. To make sure the occupants stay put, a each seat is equipped with five-point Crow Enterprises belts.

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Since steering with a full-time Detroit Locker and 40-inch treads can be difficult off-road, a PSC Motorsports hydraulic assist kit was installed. This fluid-assist setup works great with the ECGS custom crossover steering.

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While some may think of slowing down as they get older, seeing Rhodes enthusiasm and passion for wheeling keeps him focused ahead. We just hope our retirement plan looks as cool as his one day.

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Take a look at another 5.9L TJ that proves everything's better with a V8.

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