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Here's What Happens When Project Cars Go Completely Wrong

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author photo by Justin Hughes November 2018

There are times when our enthusiasm for cool project cars transforms into frustration, anger and sadness. This happens to our Tyler Hoover on a regular basis, between his Russian mafia Bentley and Apollo 911 that acts more like Apollo 13. But I'm not here to pick on Hoovie. Rather, I'm here to commiserate with him and tell you the story of my own biggest disappointment in a project car -- or, in this case, a truck.

jeep commanche project

This was the 1988 Jeep Comanche that my wife and I bought from a friend in the local rally racing community. It had already undergone extensive rust repair in the floorboards and frame rails, the most vulnerable parts of the Comanche. It had the pinnacle of Jeep engines, the 4.0-liter straight six, an automatic transmission and true four-wheel-drive. This particular truck also had the "Big Ton" package, which beefed it up enough to handle over a ton of cargo, as well as a 5,000-lb towing capacity. That's more than my wife's Ford Flex. It was an unfinished project, but it came with all the parts needed for completion.

parts for project

Best of all, my wife and I were in the process of buying our first house together -- and a truck is always useful for hauling big things for the house. As rally enthusiasts, we had volunteered to drive sweep at rallies in the past, and this would be the perfect vehicle for that job -- or maybe even towing our own rally car someday.

commanche project

The first goal was to make the Jeep roadworthy after it had been sitting for a couple of years. I started with the obvious jobs, like bolting the bench seat (not buckets like the Cherokee) and the seat belts back in. The non-matching passenger door had already been replaced due to rust, and the same condition existed on the driver's door. It was late November, too cold for proper bodywork. In hopes of getting it to pass the letter of state inspection law, I slapped a bunch of bondo over the damaged area, then spray painted it black. I did similar repairs on other small rusty areas around the truck.

custom back bumper

The Comanche's standard back bumper is made of foil and rusts away instantly, so a beefy replacement had been custom built. This bumper was strong -- so strong that I eventually planned to mount a receiver directly to it for towing and rally car recovery purposes. But first, it needed a place to put the license plate, so I made one. I added some lighting as well.

commanche in driveway

Drawing from the extensive parts collection, I installed a brand new front bumper, complete with its plastic trim pieces. Since sealed beam headlights suck, I installed some cheap Euro-spec H4 replacements instead. It wasn't perfect, but it was together enough to hit the road.

I registered it just as soon as we were able to get into our new place. Massachusetts law states that you have seven days to get a newly registered vehicle inspected, so I would use that time to move as much out of my old apartment as I could, including my tools. The house has a large garage, which would let me continue working on the Jeep until it would actually pass inspection and could be used to move my wife out of her apartment.

I put the Jeep to work and worked it hard. I'd start the day at the new house, then drive the Jeep to work. After work, I'd drive to my apartment and load the back up with as much as I could fit. Then I'd drive back to the house and unload the Jeep's contents into the garage, to be sorted later. Lather, rinse and repeat for the week, and I got just about everything except my large furniture moved.

damaged engine

Then, disaster struck. The engine started making extremely loud clanking noises. They appeared to be coming from the top, so I pulled the valve cover and found some of the rocker arms had come loose. One of them had even completely twisted off the valve it was supposed to be operating. Research led me to believe that I'd dropped some lifters, which lived deep in the bowels of the engine block. I'd have to pull the head to fix them. This is much easier in the Jeep 4.0 than in many engines, but it was definitely not the roadblock I needed in the middle of moving two apartments into one house. The Jeep remained parked while my wife's Flex did the rest of the moving work.

removing broken parts

After moving, I considered the Comanche. I even bought the parts I thought I would need to repair the engine. But I'd never pulled a head before. I'd killed this engine once, and I was paranoid that I'd go through all this work only to mess it up and still have a useless Jeep. We had high hopes for this project, but after many sleepless nights thinking about it, we decided to punt. I put it up for sale, all parts included, for someone who knows these Jeeps better than I do to turn it into what we had hoped it would be. A guy from the next town over, who had a dead XJ Cherokee that could also donate parts, ended up buying it and having it towed home.

I should make abundantly clear that I in no way blame the person who sold the Comanche to us. I'm experienced with project cars like this, and the Jeep ran rough but fine when we got it. It was something we did to it after we took ownership that fragged the engine, not an undisclosed problem from the previous owner.

Many months later I was out for a motorcycle ride, and there I saw our old Comanche parked at a house. It had lost its cap (the new owner hated that look), but it was registered. Even better, the new owner was actually there, taking stuff out of the back of the truck. I pulled in and told him how glad I was to see that he had finished what I couldn't. He gave me the grand tour -- the rebuilt and fully functioning engine, the Cherokee bucket seats he installed instead of the original bench seat ... I knew it could be fixed, but I just wasn't in a time or place where I was able to do it myself. The cloud's silver lining was that at least someone else had.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Here's What Happens When Project Cars Go Completely Wrong - Autotrader