My $500 Two-Wheel Drive Postal Jeep Was a Beast Off-Road Until It Was Terrifying

David Tracy May 11, 2019. 22 comments

My $500 Postal Jeep doesn’t have four-wheel drive, and yet, on the off-road trails of Moab, Utah, it blew me away with its capability. That was right up until, when I was alone on a trail, it broke down and my joy turned to terror.

The morning after finally arriving in Moab after over a week traveling at mostly 45 MPH in my 1976 Jeep DJ-5D Dispatcher, I met up with members of a Hummer owner’s forum called Hummer 4x4 Off-Road, who agreed to babysit me on a trail called Fins and Things.

While an easier trail for hard-core off-roaders, it’s rocky, often steep terrain that can make many stock vehicles—like last year’s Jeep Grand Wagoneer—sweat. If that four-wheel drive Woody struggled on this route, then how could my two-wheel drive Postal Jeep possibly stand a chance?

The answer, I hoped, would be in the DJ-5's superior geometry.

The Postal Jeep Goes Off-Road

In the off-road world, geometry is king, especially when traversing “slick rock” that offers the traction of sand paper. Ground clearance, small overhangs, and small exterior vehicle dimensions are the most important factors when it comes to outright capability, dictating how large and how steep of obstacles a vehicle can traverse before metal-on-ground interference.

In this key area, the DJ-5 is solid, with a 43 degree approach angle and a 25 degree departure angle. The short 81-inch wheelbase means the breakover angle is also good, and the body sits fairly high above the ground. Exterior dimensions, even with those silly mirrors, are tiny, so the Jeep can go where larger off-roaders can’t.

It was this shape and size that gave me hope that even my rear-wheel drive postal Jeep could climb like a billygoat. And climb it did:

As you can see in the video above, the Jeep did great, though I did have a bit of a fuel delivery issue when I hit bumps. You may be surprised to hear there are quite a few of those off-road. Needless to say, my engine cut out often, but that wasn’t such a big deal compared to what happened to my transmission.

I only made it a few hundred yards up the trail when I arrived at a steep grade, and noticed that, even with the gas pedal pushed to the floor, the vehicle crawled extremely slowly. Eventually I reached the top of the hill, parked for a few moments, and then popped it into drive to get into position for a little photo shoot. I lightly pressed the gas, but the Jeep did not budge.

I pushed the shifter forward into reverse, but felt no jolt go through the drivetrain as it tends to when torque takes up backlash in the rear differential. I let off the brake and revved up the motor, but the Jeep remained stationary. At this point, I was confused.

The only other time I’d ever experienced this vehicle in gear and the engine revving, but no power whatsoever getting to the wheels was when the transmission was low on fluid. There was a chance that the Jeep had leaked a bit, and I hadn’t caught it, so I did some investigating:

At first, I couldn’t tell how much fluid I had: it seemed that the the oil was far too high on the dipstick. But after a few checks, I finally got a nice clean reading as shown in the video above, so Alex, who runs the Hummer forum, gave me a bottle of ATF, which I poured down the dipstick tube. I popped the Jeep into drive, and we were back in business!

I continued down the trail, and the Jeep’s aired-down 215-section winter tires clawed right over the rocks, rarely lifting thanks to the little machine’s thoroughly broken-in leaf springs bolted to a set of solid axles. Since it’s two-wheel drive, only the rear axle was live, but with both rear tires remaining on the rock at all times, the Jeep just kept moving.

Until it didn’t.

After tackling steeper slopes than I had ever expected this little DJ to climb, I got to a rocky downhill grade that would put my departure angle to the test. I slowly approached it, taking the right lines to keep my tires on tall rocks and my chassis well away from the terrain. Aside from perhaps a light scrape on my fuel tank, the Jeep made it down without issue. But once at the base, that was it.

The Jeep refused to move any farther, confirming my fear that the issue that killed my transmission before hadn’t simply been a case of insufficient fluid. It didn’t matter how many times I shifted into drive, neutral, or low gears—my Jeep was immobile, and I needed a tow.

Alex hooked his strap to my front bumper, and to his Hummer H3's rear tow ring. It was a sad, sad sight to behold:

Getting yanked by a tow strap on a road is tough enough, but when you’re climbing up a 45 degree slope while the tow rope is loose, only to have the rope go taut while you’re on the middle of the grade... that’s not what you want to be doing.

Alex did a great job recovering me, but I could have done a better job managing my brakes, because my front bumper was experiencing abrupt yanks through pretty much the whole trail.

Luckily, I noticed that the transmission wasn’t completely dead, so on the steepest grades, my Postal Jeep was able to provide some assistance. Here’s a short clip of the towing experience:

Once Alex, Steve (another forum member in his Colorado ZR2), and I made it to the trailhead, we unhooked the strap, and found that my Jeep seemed to drive just fine on the level road. But this left me with a dilemma: Do I just drive back to Michigan now, or do I risk breaking my ride home and stranding myself and my tools in Moab by trying to go off-road again?

“I didn’t drive 1,800 miles to drive only a few hundred yards off-road,” I told myself. I had to try again, but first, I had to do something about the transmission.

Late-Night Repairs in a Dirt Lot With New Friends

I wasn’t completely sure what was going on with my transmission. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure today. Still, the fact that it seemed to function better after I let it sit for a while indicated to me that this was a thermal issue, a problem that I had actually anticipated.

The Jeep is equipped with a fairly tall 2.45:1 first gear ratio and a 3.07:1 rear axle ratio. What this means is that, in order for those tires to impart enough tractive force on the rock to climb a hill, the engine has to rev quite a bit to build torque. A fluid coupling called the torque converter is what allows the engine to rev while the tires remain stationary (on a manual vehicle, the clutch fulfills this function). Unfortunately, while this happens, much the engine’s power gets turned to heat as fluid in the torque converter shears, and too much heat is the number one killer of transmissions.

It’s for this reason that I had planned to install an auxiliary transmission oil cooler on this lil’ Jeep, but I ran out of time doing more menial jobs, like making sure the frame didn’t break apart, or that the engine didn’t explode.

Luckily I brought a trans cooler with me to Moab, along with a transmission oil filter and new pan gasket. I was convinced that this cooler—snagged from a V8 first-generation Grand Cherokee “ZJ”—would solve my overheating problem and turn my Postal Jeep into an off-road beast.

Steve, the ZR2 driver who joined Alex and me on Fins and Things, was kind enough to offer to let me install my cooler near his property, which was mostly a plot of dirt and grass.

Unfortunately, he and much of his neighborhood had suffered a devastating human-caused fire last summer, and though some of his neighbors were able to have new homes erected since, Steve was still wading through insurance minutiae. His house had burned down, as had his Hummer H1.

Steve was staying in one of his neighbor’s basements for the time being, and though Steve barely knew me at all, he showed me a kindness that I’ll never forget. He hung out with me for hours in that dirt lot, helping me toil to install my transmission cooler, drop my oil pan, replace the filter and gasket, and pour in new oil.

At one point, I found that I didn’t have enough hose to connect my transmission cooler (you can see it in the photo above; it’s zip-tied behind my grille in front of my radiator), so Steve knocked on a neighbor’s door, who also came out to introduce himself to me, handed me the hose, and refused any sort of payment.

It wasn’t long before darkness fell, and rain started to fall. Visibility was poor, and I was laying on my back under my Jeep covered in automatic transmission fluid—a situation that should have been unpleasant, especially after finding this in my oil pan:

You’re seeing that right. That’s a three-inch section of broken-off dipstick, surrounded by clearly contaminated fluid, metal shavings, and a dent in the pan that appears to have come from the inside. The previous owner had apparently tried brazing some brass to fill the dent, though it’s not the dent that worried me, it was the fact that something in the transmission must have failed and shot into that pan. That had me wondering how long this transmission would hold up.

It didn’t help that the filter side of things didn’t look much better:

The pink color to the fluid indicates to me that water might have made its way into this transmission. But worse were the apparent metal shavings in the filter:

While Steve and I were working on my postal Jeep in the dirt lot, a man named Bill stopped by and asked us if we needed any lights. In short order, he brought out a lamp connected to an extension cord running to his house.

“Have you eaten yet?” he asked me in his kind, relaxed, almost southern accent. I said I was totally fine, but Bill returned a few minutes later with three delicious hot enchiladas, a bottle of water, and a can of juice. Bill hung out with Steve and me in the dirt lot; I was on my back under the car cranking ratchets as I listened to them talk about everything from politics to local news to the devastating fire that ravaged the land around us. It should have been miserable, but it was kind of nice.

These two men had lost everything they’d ever owned, and though they barely even knew me, their generosity was what I’d expect from close friends or even family.

“Do you have a place to sleep tonight?” Bill yelled from his front yard. “I’m just going to camp by the river,” I responded. Bill disappeared into his house, and returned two minutes later. “You see that camper there in my driveway? You can sleep in it tonight.” And as you can see in the image above, that’s what I did.

Bill even hooked power up to it so I could charge my electronics, and he brought me breakfast the next morning. I can’t thank him enough.

Off-Road Terror

With a transmission cooler, new fluid, and a fresh filter in place, the Jeep drove beautifully, and Bill’s trailer gradually grew smaller in my side mirror as I headed toward Fins and Things. I knew I had to try this trail again, but this time, with that heat exchanger strapped to my radiator, I was convinced I’d be able to kick its butt, and perhaps even navigate its entire length.

When I got there, the Jeep did indeed prove itself to be the total beast I dreamt it’d be.

My inclination that its excellent proportions would, on this particular trail, give it an off-road edge over even the four-wheel drive Wagoneer I had driven the year prior was totally correct.

The Postal Jeep’s flexible suspension flowed over the rocks, and the Hankook winter tires gripped beautifully as the torquey 232 AMC inline-six grunted under hood, sending power through the Chrysler 727 slushbox to the beefy Dana 44 rear axle in the back, and ultimately to the tires that grabbed their way up the slopes. The front bumper and the leaf spring shackles remained well away from the obstacles, and the rear bumper only scraped a few times as the little cube Jeep dropped down from ledges.

The fuel tank took a few scrapes, and the license plate, which I had mounted below the rear bumper, took a thorough beating but hung on by a thread.

But moments later, the tremendous joy of piloting a vehicle that my friends and I had resurrected from the dead—of watching as the suspension that I fixed flexed beautifully, the frame that I welded up held strong, and the engine that I repaired kept chugging along—came to an abrupt halt.

I arrived at one of the steepest downhill grades on the whole trail, and had a decision to make: Do I try it, or do I turn back, give thanks for the luck I’ve had thus far, and begin my 1,800 mile journey to Michigan? As you can watch in the video above, I went for it, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was a terrible decision.

As the Jeep crawled down the grade, its sliding doors creaked and rattled as the softly-sprung, tall body rocked back and forth. The brakes squealed bit as they held the Jeep from accelerating down the rock face, but at no point did any part of the body touch the surface. The descent may not have been graceful, but it was downright easy for the DJ.

But at the base of this obstacle was another steep uphill grade. I pulled up to the spot shown above, and placed my foot on the gas pedal to make a charge up the slope. Nothing. I shifted the Jeep into reverse: zero.

The giant smile that had been welded to my face for the previous hour disappeared instantly, and I felt a deep, sinking feeling of regret in my gut. “I’m such an idiot,” I gasped, placing my right hand over my forehead. I had broken the cardinal rule of off-roading: I had gone on a trail by myself, and now I was stuck with a 2,600 pound immobile cube of iron oxide and no way to get out.

A few ATVs drove by, but their occupants were tourists with very little off-road experience, and no straps to tow me out. Most of the hard-core off-road Jeepers had left since the Easter Jeep Safari was over. Even if they hadn’t, getting me up that steep grade I’d just driven down would have required a winch.

It was about 11 A.M. at this point, and the Hummer group that had babysat me the prior day was on a trail ride that wasn’t set to end until the evening. They weren’t going to save me. Nobody was going to save me. I was on my own, tasked with solving not only the problem of getting the Jeep off the trail, but also getting myself and all my tools halfway across the country back to Michigan in the case that the Jeep’s trans was permanently destroyed. I felt a deep sense of helplessness and dread as I pensively sat in my blisteringly hot Jeep.

I no longer saw beauty in the endless redrock or the snow-capped mountains in the background. The gorgeous place that, for years, had represented a place of pure bliss for me now turned gray and meant nothing to me; I cared only about fixing the predicament I was in.

I had no choice, really: I had to get the Jeep back up the grade. To do this, I let the Jeep cool down for 20 minutes, and—with the transmission now seemingly working to some degree—attempted to crawl right up the center, but to no avail. As shown in the video above, I didn’t even make it to the steep part of the obstacle before the trans failed.

I waited another 10 minutes, and tried again. The transmission failed again. Then I tried for a third time, and, just as the transmission started to cut out, I hit a bump, and the engine shut off. I immediately started rolling backwards, so I quickly shifted my foot off the gas and stomped the left pedal. The brakes locked, and the Jeep slid on the rock down the steep grade. I couldn’t see what was behind me, I just held on for dear life as the Jeep squealed downhill at an angle (since some tires had more grip than others). Sliding backwards at an oblique angle down a steep rocky slope was absolutely terrifying.

After coming to a halt at the base of the grade, I tried fixing my fuel delivery issue by shoving a jerry can underhood, and feeding it the fuel pump inlet hose. This didn’t solve my engine cutout issue (I bet the carburetor is the culprit), but the good news is that, after playing with my fuel system and letting the car cool down for 20 minutes, I managed to climb the Jeep up a less steep “bypass.”

I’m not sure if it was officially a part of the trail, but it was just a rock face with no vegetation, and it was my only choice. I had to get off Fins and Things.

The feeling of accomplishment when I finally made it up that seemingly impossibly steep slope was tremendous.

But the terror wasn’t over.

After climbing each grade, I had to make sure to let the Jeep sit before attempting another incline. With at least a 10 minute cool-down needed, and the trail filled with grades, I limped the Jeep down the trail for hours.

Eventually, I grew impatient and concerned about my transmission’s health, so I used momentum from the declines to aid me on the inclines. This, in the off-road world, is a terrible idea. High-speed rock crawling is something best left to purpose-built Ultra4 machines, not $500 shitboxes with old, narrow leaf springs and frames patched with a Harbor Freight welder .

But I went for it. I let off the brake on the downhills, and tried to avoid any jagged rocks as I climbed the uphills. Despite me carefully choosing the lines up these slopes, I beat the ever-living shit out of this junkyard-grade postal delivery vehicle.

Project POStal banged and jumped down the grades, lunged over rocks on the flats, and bucked its nose sky-high on the inclines. The Jeep seemingly yelled for mercy as its rusty metal structure squealed with each impact. For what felt like an eternity, I forced the Jeep through the trail as guilt ate at me. I felt terrible about what I was doing to a vehicle that had graciously taken me all the way to Utah from Michigan.

But then we made it out.

I walked around the Jeep looking for damage, but all I found were some scrapes on the fuel tank, and a bent license plate. Amazed, I hopped back into the Jeep and drove east.

With my nerves now quelled, I no longer saw the landscape in greyscale. The buttes, mesas, and arches along the empty roads of rural Utah mesmerized me with their bright orange color, and as I drove by, I couldn’t help but realize how lucky I had been.

I had ventured off-road by myself in a vehicle that had never been design for off-road use, and one that had suffered from transmission and fuel delivery troubles the prior day. But I had just fixed it, and I was feeling confident. Overconfident. It was foolish, especially since I understood the risks. This was my fourth of these adventures to Moab, and I’ve spent many more years wrenching and off-roading. I was prepared to find a way to get the Jeep off the trail and either fixed or to a junkyard, and I was prepared to find a new way to get back to Michigan.

This would have been a huge hassle, and I had no clue how I would have done it. That’s why I felt that sense of dread when the transmission failed at the base of the steep decline. I never felt unsafe, I just felt deeply, deeply screwed. Take it as a lesson from me not to do something like this yourself, to yourself. Luckily, I made it out, but it’s not something I’d want to do again. I lost too many years of life expectancy from the stress alone.


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