SAHARA – A Clean Survivor Built to Explore
Lifestyle January 8, 2018 Phil Howell
For the past few years I searched for a TJ Wrangler to build as a backcountry exploring vehicle. The TJ has the dimensions of the CJ7, a strong frame, and a coil/link suspension that provides a good ride and articulation off-road. The only problem was finding a clean one, as most are clapped out, over used, and/or overbuilt and cut up. One evening, I was driving by a house a block from mine and saw this Desert Sand Pearlcoat TJ Sahara sitting in the driveway. I stopped, introduced myself, and took a look at one of the cleanest 1999 Wranglers on the planet that had been hiding in my neighbor’s garage. When asked if the Jeep was for sale, the owner said he’d think about it and took my number. The next day, he called and said he’d sell it.
With only 32800 miles on the clock, the TJ didn’t need to be restored before the build. Being afflicted with OCD, I flushed and changed all fluids and replaced the air filter, distributor cap, rotor, plug wires, and spark plugs. The Jeep was now ready to be built.
The first stop was Eminence Off-Road in Washington, Utah, where owner Jeremy Thompson would massage steering, suspension, and brakes. As 33” tires were planned, a Teraflex 3” short arm suspension with dual rate swaybar was installed. A rear disc brake kit replaced the drums on the OEM 44 rearend. Strong Moog 1998 Grand Cherokee V8 drag link and tie rod sourced from Amazon.com replaced the weak TJ components and bolted right in. Jeremy also installed a Teraflex short slip yoke eliminator and CV driveshafts from Tom Wood’s Custom Driveshafts. The Jeep now cleared the 33” tires easily and rode and handled great.
The next stop was Red Desert Off-Road Line-X of Southern Utah in St. George, Utah, so Trevor Sudweeks could work on the front and rearends. Up front, he installed Yukon 4.56 gears, an Eaton 4-pinion Dana 30 ELocker, RCV Performance CV axles and RCV axle tube seals. A Warn skidplate protects the 30’s front cover in the rocks. Trevor also installed Black Magic Brakes rotors, unit bearing hubs, and pads. In the Dana 44 rear, Yukon 4.56 gears and an Eaton 4-pinion ELocker were installed. As TJ automatic transmission pans can starve out and lose prime on steep climbs, a Skyjacker deep transmission pan was installed.
Once the shops had worked their magic, I brought “Sahara” (now named such) home and went to work in the garage.
The first order of business was installing a Warn M8-s winch on the Warn stubby rock crawler bumper. The bumper comes from Warn with winch plate/fairlead bracket, so the installation was quick and easy. Warn has been our winch choice for years and their reliability still can’t be beat in today’s marketplace. The M8 doesn’t cost much more than cheap Chinese knockoffs and it actually works when called on.
The OEM Sahara foglights were gone but the harness was still there. I wanted to keep the old school looks so found a pair of these Hella foglights on Amazon for $69.00 a pair. They’re essentially the same foglight as OEM although they look a bit different. LEDs have spoiled us. The performance of these Hellas were fine in 1999, but today have been dimmed (bad pun) by LED lights. Setting old school aside, LEDs may be gracing Sahara’s front in the near future. Daystar TJ/LJ Hood Wranglers replaced the OEM rubber band hood latch connectors and stop the freeway/high wind hood flutter.
MetalCloak’s TJ/LJ Jeep Wrangler 62″ Rear Bumper and Tire Carrier may be the best available for TJ/LJ Wranglers offered today. It can carry up to a 40” (37” recommended) tire rattle-free, as well as a number of accessories. Installation was easy. So was removing it, bolting in a MetalCloak Ditomic (aluminum and steel) gas tank skid plate that weighs only 48 pounds, then reinstalling the bumper. Tip: plan ahead before diving into projects.
The interior of the Jeep was so clean that I didn’t want the seats ruined, so Bestop seatcovers were first installed. These work well to protect the seats, but a set of Bestop TrailMax II Pro seats and matching Bestop fold-n-tumble rear seat work better and look great in the interior. I wanted to remove the hardtop, so a Bestop Supertop NX with Sailcloth fabric and tinted windows was procured. Before installation, it got cold here so the top is waiting for warmer days. Watch for the installation feature here in the future. Sahara had a Kenwood head unit that was impossible to navigate with its microscopic buttons and endless menu pages, so I went to ebay and found a refurbished OEM TJ head unit from 1 Factory Radio that even had an AUX jack installed. The radio arrived quickly, was an easy installation, and sounds great with the upgraded JBL and Infinity speakers with Kenwood under seat subwoofer I installed.
“Sahara” is an outstanding Jeep and works well exploring the outback. Check out the photos for more details.
- Vehicle: 1999 Jeep TJ Wrangler Sahara
- Engine: 4.0 Liter Jeep inline six
- Induction: MPFI
- Transmission: 32RH 3-speed automatic
- Transfer case/low range ratio: NP231/2.72:1
- Front end: OEM Dana 30 with RCV Performance CV axle shafts
- Rear end: OEM Dana 44
- Ring and Pinion: Yukon 4.56
- Front Differential: 4-pinion Eaton ELocker
- Rear Differential: 4-pinion Eaton ELocker
- Suspension: Teraflex 3”
- Tires: LT285/70R17 Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac; 33×10.50R15 Interco SS-M16
- Wheels/Backspacing: 17×8.5” Level 8 Alloy/4.5”; OEM 15×8” Gambler alloy/5.25” with Spidertrax 1.25” wheel spacers
Sahara is one of the cleanest 1999 TJ Wranglers on the planet.
The interior looked brand new.
Jeremy Thompson, owner of Eminence Off-Road in Washington, Utah, installed the steering components, suspension, SYE, driveshafts, and rear disc brake kit.
The Teraflex 3″ suspension system came with 3″ single-rate coils, eight adjustable control arms, adjustable front track bar, and their 9550 shocks. A Teraflex adjustable rear track bar and front dual rate swaybar were also installed.
Tom Wood’s Custom Driveshafts built the front and rear CV driveshafts and supplied the short slip yoke eliminator (SYE).
A rear disc brake kit replaced the OEM drum brakes in back. The stock drum brake wheel studs were too short, so they were replaced with Dorman 610-379 studs.
Trevor Sudweeks at Red Desert Off-Road Line-X of Southern Utah went to work on the TJ’s OEM Dana 30. I originally wanted to use an aftermarket Dana 44 housing up front, then remembered I had driven on OEM regular-cut Dana 30 frontends with no failures except the pot metal locking hubs for 17 years before installing my first aftermarket front end. With parts available today, the OE 30 can be reliable, especially when running 33″ or smaller tires as we are.
RCV Performance Ultimate Dana 30 CV Axles for Jeep Wrangler TJ were installed in Sahara’s OEM Dana 30. Tests prove RCV axles are twice as strong as OEM axle shafts and their CV joints eliminate U-joint binding. At full lock, these CVs turn smoothly and are just as strong at extreme angles where standard U-joints are the weakest as they are at straight angles. All axles benefit from RCV Performance axle shafts, but the Dana 30, with its small axle shafts, absolutely needs these when being built for off-road applications.
The axle set includes right and left CV axle shafts, SST seals and installation tool, installation instructions, synthetic moly grease, and installation hardware. RCV Performance backs them with a “No Questions Asked” limited lifetime warranty.
The frontend has 4.56 Yukon gears, an Eaton 4-pinion ELocker, RCV Performance CV axle shafts, RCV Performance axle tube seals, and a Warn Dana 30 diff cover skidplate. While the frontend was already apart, we decided to make everything better than new with Spicer upper and lower ball joints and a front brake upgrade. Black Magic Brakes sent us new late-1999+ cast rotors, unit bearings, and their excellent Black Magic brake pads. New unit bearings were required as the earlier TJ rotors are composite and the rotor hats are thin. The later model cast rotors require shorter unit bearings to accommodate the thicker rotor hats. After breaking in per their instructions, the Black Magic brake pads afford braking performance that has to be experienced to be believed!
The OEM Dana 44 rearend features disc brakes with Black Magic pads, Yukon 4.56 gears and an Eaton 4-pinion ELocker.
The TJ Wrangler’s OEM 32RH automatic transmission oil pan is too shallow. When climbing a steep obstacle, the tranny can lose prime and the Jeep will fall backwards like a rock. To fix this issue, a Skyjacker Rock Ready extra capacity deep transmission pan was installed. The Skyjacker pan comes with a drain plug that makes future transmission fluid changes much easier. It also comes with a new filter, pickup extension, and gasket. We opted to use a reusable Lube Locker gasket this time.
Warn’s M8000-s (now called the M8-s) winch fits well on the Warn Stubby Rock Crawler bumper and it only weighs 55 pounds. The aluminum hawse fairlead from Factor 55 is CNC machined from 6000 series aluminum and comes in a durable MIL-A-8625F TYPE III gun metal gray hard anodized finish. The FlatLink E (Expert) foldable winch shackle mount nests tight against the fairlead when not in use and is also finished in the Mil-A-8625 F Type III hard anodized gray finish.
The OEM Sahara foglights were gone but the harness was still there. I wanted to keep the old school looks so found a pair of these Hella foglights on Amazon for $69.00 a pair. They’re essentially the same foglight as OEM although they look a bit different. LEDs have spoiled us. The performance of these Hellas were fine in 1999, but today have been dimmed (bad pun) by LED lights.
Daystar TJ/LJ Hood Wranglers replaced the OEM rubber band hood latch connectors and stop the freeway/high wind hood flutter.
The Teraflex Dual Rate Swaybar works with the Warn stubby bumper. The on-road stability and off road articulation it allows is outstanding.
MetalCloak’s Ditomic (aluminum and steel) Gas Tank Skid Plate weighs only 48 lbs, making it the perfect combination of ultimate strength and weight savings. The gas tank skid kit includes a steel skid plate with OEM-style fuel pump assembly relief, aluminum shielding, and all hardware to install.
The MetalCloak swing away tire carrier is mounted to the bumper via dual steel plates and a high carbon steel shaft that works with two tapered needle roller bearings for smooth and shake-free operation. The locking mechanism is secure and noiseless and the carrier includes a pin on the passenger side that locks it open and keeps it from flopping further open or shut when on a sidehill, etc. The wheel mount bracket is fully adjustable for height and backspacing.
MetalCloak’s TJ/LJ Jeep Wrangler Rear Bumper and Tire Carrier is a complete bumper system that can carry up to a 40″ (37” recommended) spare rattle-free. The MetalCloak Universal Accessory Mount is designed to easily mount Can-Cams, Roto-Pax, jerry cans, or Powertanks. I use it to carry one or two Daystar Cam Cans. MetalCloak’s Billet Aluminum 3rd Brake Light Pod is a simple, effective solution to replace the factory third brake light when adding a larger spare tire. The kit comes with everything needed for a quick and easy installation.
Finding an OEM radio for Sahara’s dash proved to be difficult until I checked on ebay and found 1factoryradio.com. They sell electronics for almost all makes going back decades. 1factoryradio refurbishes the units, making sure everything is as good as or better than factory spec, even modernizing some of them with auxiliary input jacks such as you see here, or adding bluetooth connectivity. The radios come with a warranty and look new in most cases. I also installed JBL and Infinity speakers as well as a Kenwood KSC-SW11 subwoofer under the driver’s seat for good sound.
HealTech Electronics’ SpeedoHealer distributed by Blue Monkey Motorsports, Inc., allows for quick and easy speedometer correction when changing tire size and/or gear ratio in TJ or LJ Wranglers. It comes with a harness that’s plug-and-play using factory connectors. I bought this one from Poly Performance.
For all-around use, LT285/70R17 Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires are mounted on the Level 8 17×8.5” alloy wheels that were on the Jeep when I bought it. The DuraTracs work great on-and off-road.
Sahara also came with its OEM 15×8” Gambler wheels. Hurricane Tire pros in Hurricane, Utah, mounted 33×10.50R15 Interco SS-M16 tires on these wheels to use when tough, rocky, or muddy off-roading is anticipated.
Spidertrax 1.25″ spacers are needed when the OEM 15″ Gambler wheels are being used.
I found these lighted, 25-amp switches at Auto Zone. They’re much smaller than the Eaton ELocker switches and look OEM in the console with Trevor’s installation. There is plenty of room for the switch bodies on the back side of the console.
Bestop TrailMax II Pro seats replaced the Sahara seats after they were put into storage. These are spice models with fabric inserts that won’t be hot when the sun’s beating on them in an open Jeep. The seats feature a strong Atlas frame that gives shape and support to the entire seat, have a 20-position ratcheting lever recline, four-way adjustable headrests and enhanced seat bolsters, V-ROR variable-resistance springs that respond to increasing pressure with increased support, Bolster-Boosters reinforcement, Ultimate Foam closed-cell seat material that is treated for water-resistance and flame retardance, and have map pockets on the seat backs.
To install, I used Bestop supplied 1999 TJ adapter brackets that bolt to the top of the factory seat risers. The fold and tumble mechanism still works by pressing on the lever under the seats.
Sahara’s mirrors had seen better days, so a pair of Bestop Highrock 4×4 mirrors replaced them. The mirrors are the later, better 2003-2006 Wrangler design and mount in the factory mounting holes.
We’ll soon be installing a Bestop sailcloth Supertop soft top and using the Bestop HOSS Hardtop Storage System when the weather warms up.
Phil Howell Contributing Editor
As past Editor-n-Chief of 4Wheel Drive & Sport Utility and Off-Road Magazines, and co-host of the Outdoor Channel's Four Wheeler TV, Phil's been participating and bringing four-wheeling action to the world for decades.