Mighty Sherpa: CJ-8 Scrambler Turned Overland Adventurer
Once in a while, you find a project that ends up being the perfect distraction—a project that pulls you away from the comforts of the familiar and opens you up to new and exciting adventures. It allows you to focus on making new experiences and exploring the unknown. Taking on an unexpected project is something that is always welcomed by Steve Wilson of Wilson & Steely Kustom Coachworks.
In the fall of 2014, Steve was looking for another vehicle to flip, after selling a recently acquired 1970 Chevy Chevelle. Scrolling through Craigslist, he came upon a 1983 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler for sale in Connecticut, listed due to a recent divorce. Having owned numerous Jeeps over the years, especially during high school, the Scrambler quickly gained his interest.
High School Crush
Knowing Scramblers were desirable on the secondary market, Steve thought it would be an easy flip. However, the idea to quickly sell the CJ-8 quickly changed once Steve started driving and working its kinks out. Like with all great teenage automotive memories, Steve became sentimental about it, and the Scrambler was here to stay.
Once the decision was made to keep the Scrambler, a plan was put in place to build a mild rig that he could use to take his wife and kids camping and on weekend adventures. All the mechanical systems were examined and rebuilt as necessary to make the Jeep as reliable as possible to start out with.
The First Time Around
Its AMC 360 V8 got a basic tune-up, and the Howell EFI stayed atop the motor because it proved to be reliable. The T18A transmission, along with the Dana 20 transfer case, however, had to be rebuilt. The rig got a new set of 20-inch-diameter Moto Metal wheels, wrapped in 37-inch Nitto Trail Grappler tires.
The front and rear axles were re-geared with G2 Axel & Gear’s 4.88 gears and mechanical lockers to keep things simple. The Scrambler was then armored with a set of Poison Spyder Customs Crusher Corners steel corner guards and tubular flares, Poison Spyder Ricochet Rockers rock sliders, and a pair of Smittybilt tube fenders. After the armor was installed, attention was paid to the front and rear bumpers. The front bumper was fabricated from a Trail Tubes kit, and houses a Smittybilt X20 12K winch. The rear bumper was also fabricated using a Trail Tubes kit, and it was modified to a swing-out configuration for spare tire access. The whole Jeep was then sprayed with a fresh coat of Monstaliner Apocalypse Orange polymer ceramic coating for a super durable—and eye-catching finish.
While building the Scrambler, Steve looked for events and places to enjoy with his newly acquired and revamped Jeep—also known as, The Sherpa. He stumbled upon a group called Vermont Overland, which was about to hold an event, the Vermont Overland Trophy, right in his neck of the woods.
“The two headed out for a journey that would forever change the way they perceived overlanding…”
The Vermont Overland Trophy (VOT) was described as “a point-to-point overlanding odyssey challenging man and machine, while showcasing the best the Green Mountain State has to offer.” Taking place over four days in August, the overlanding event is designed to challenge not only a vehicle’s capabilities, but also the navigational skills, driving skills, camping efficiency and physical stamina of the participants themselves. From that description, Steve knew he had to take part in this event. However, that meant modifying the truck to make it more overland-adventure-friendly. He knew his rig, as outfitted, could take on the mechanical demands of the challenge, but he realized that he had to incorporate a few more features to allow him to live out of it for a few days at a time.
Son and Father
A secondhand roof rack Steve obtained from his father was put into place along with an ARB awning. The awning, with the addition of an ARB Touring awning room, helped create sleeping quarters for the pair. A rear slide-out storage box was used for all the tools and recovery equipment that would be needed for the endeavor. Once the changes were implemented, Steve set about to convince his father to be his co-pilot on the VOT.
It didn’t take much on his part, the two headed out for a journey that would forever change the way they perceived overlanding. Once they returned home from VOT, and the dust had settled, Steve had a realization: He’d been bitten by the overland bug. If the Scrambler was going to be used as an overlanding vehicle, some major changes needed to be made.
The Reinvented Sherpa
Round two started with an overhaul of the drivetrain for more reliability and ability to travel at highway speeds. The tired AMC 360 was replaced with a newly-built unit. Steve started with a Mabbco short block; in it, he installed a Comp Xtreme Energy camshaft, for more efficient power. He then installed a set of Edelbrock aluminum cylinder heads, Bulltear HRC oil-pump gears and an aluminum, remote filter housing.
“If the Scrambler was going to be used as an overlanding vehicle, some major changes needed to be made.”
The motor was topped with an Edelbrock intake, with an MSD atomic EFI throttle body supplying the fuel. The motor is fired by an MSD Pro-Billet Ready-To-Run distributor, and all its accessories are driven by a Bulltear billet serpentine conversion. The motor was held in place by a set of bombproof motor mounts from M.O.R.E.
Steve decided the transmission and transfer case had to change if he wanted to put any real miles on the Jeep. A NV4500 transmission was sourced and backed by a Dana 300 transfer case. The transfer case had a Teralow 4:1 gear set installed, along with a Novak ultra-short, heavy-duty output assembly. The transfer case was then further modified to accept a JB Custom Fabrication twin-stick cable shifter. The transfer case was clocked flat using a Novak clocking ring, and the whole assembly was held in place with a custom tubular cross member.
The transmission and transfer case were then protected by a Barnes 4WD skid plate. Once the drivetrain was complete, the front and rear axles were addressed. The front Dana 44 was treated to a set of G2 chromoly axle shafts and an ARB Air Locker. A Poison Spyder differential cover was chosen to seal things up. The axle is held in place by a set of Rubicon Express extreme-duty, axle-over leaf springs with modified spring hangers. Dampening is handled by a set of Fox 2.0 shocks, and a set of Daystar Stinger bump stops. The rear axle is a shaved 14-bolt unit with an ARB Air Locker and Riddler Manufacturing diff cover. Similar to up front, the rear axle is also held in place with a set of Rubicon Express leaf springs, with Fox shocks and Daystar bumpstops. To keep body roll in check, a Currie Antirock sway bar was installed on both ends of the Jeep. The fore and aft axles are both spun by Tom Woods drive shafts, and steering is handled by a PSC big-bore steering box with PSC high-volume pump.
Steve liked the performance of the Nitto Trail Grapplers, but he wanted to improve upon the lack of sidewall the tires had, due to his 20-inch rims. After making a call to Wheel Pros, a set of 17-inch KMC Machete Crawl beadlock wheels and appropriately-sized 37-inch Nitto Trail grapplers where put in place. To shed weight and increase visibility, Steve then swapped out the nearly-700-pound custom top for a rare, lighter aftermarket version he happened to score. The interior compartment had a new cage built, utilizing a set of Genright A-Pillar assemblies. Seats consist of a pair of Corbeau Baja RS front seats and a stock rear seat. A custom tubular console houses the transfer-case shifter, and to further update this ’83 beast, the dash was filled with Intelletronix digital gauges.
To increase the overall comfort of the interior, Dynamat sound-dampening material was laid down throughout the floor, also insolating the cabin from road noise. The Dynamat was then covered by a BedRug carpet kit for a durable, yet plush look and feel. Because access to the right tune is an important element for any road-faring adventure, a Wet Sounds Stealth 6 Ultra HD soundbar was installed for playing tunes while on the trail. The amplified speaker is Bluetooth-ready and is readily controlled by Steve’s iPhone.
This Jeep Scrambler, like many other project vehicles, is constantly evolving. Taking it out on the trail, and finding out what works and what doesn’t, will continue to shape it for years to come. For Steve, the Sherpa began as a quick flip for some extra cash, but it quickly ended up becoming a beloved project vehicle that helped him discover the joys of overland.
In its current form, this CJ-8 aims to bridge the gap between being a capable trail Jeep and a multi-day overland adventure rig. Regardless of what you call it, the most important feature is that it’s the perfect rig to hop into to step away from the grind of daily life. Anything that gets you to spend more time with your family and friends, making new adventures, is a good thing in our book.
Platform: 1983 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler
- AMC 360 5.9l v8
- Edelbrock valve covers
- Edelbrock intake with MSD Atomic EFI Ignition
- MSD Pro-Billet Ready-to-Run Distributor
- Modified Hedman Full-Length Headers
- Magnaflo exhaust
- Harland Sharp Roller-rocker Arms
Suspension & Drivetrain:
- Rubicon Express Extreme-Duty leaf springs,
- FOX 2.0 shocks
- Daystar Stinger bumpstops
- Currie Anti-Rock sway bar
- NV4500 GM Case with Dodge cast-iron output housing
- Rear-end shaved 14 Bolt with G2 4.88 gears and ARB locker
- NV4500 Shifter
- Dana 300
- Teralow 4:1 gear set
- Novak Ultra Short 32 Spline output with 1350 CV Flange
- JB Custom fabrication twin-stick cable shifter
- 109:1 Crawl Ratio
- Wheels & Tires:
- Nitto Trail Grappler 37×12.5×17
- KMC Machete Crawl beadlock 17-inch
- Front and Rear spring hangers modified to full-width conversion
- RuffStuff Disc-brake conversion
- PSC Big Bore Extreme Steering Box
- PSC Extreme-Duty pump
- Bulltear Serpentine setup
- Bulltear HRC Oil-pump gears, with oil-filter relocation setup with dual filters
- Poison Spyder Hood Louver
- HMF Light-bar mount
- Unknown hardtop with handmade back window
- Unknown roof rack
- Apocalypse Orange Monstaliner by Wilson & Steely Kustom Coachworks
- Trucklite LED headlights
- Jeep TJ mirrors
- Intelletronix digital gauges
- Wet Sounds Stealth 6 Ultra soundbar
- Grant steering wheel
- Corbeau Baja RS
- BedRug Jeep Kit
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2016 print issue of Tread Magazine.