Project “Wild Woody”
By: Chris Gonzales
Have you ever just wanted to create something awesome; Make something original and that no one can deny is truly yours? As car guys and backyard mechanics, oftentimes we don’t really know why we do the things we do or what we can attribute as inspiration. We get nice and dirty, body aches from holding odd positions while working and often frustrated with something that should be so simple to do… but, it is never easy. So, why? Why do we put ourselves through it?! Because at the end of the day, the sense of accomplishment and pride in completing something that we have never done before is unlike any other feeling we may have.
As an 80’s kid growing up in Colorado, my father introduced me to off-road vehicles with an old, red International Scout. I remember my brother and I enjoying the wind as we sat in the backseat. Shifting gears led the way for a whining, revved engine since my dad had it geared so low for 4-wheeling. As much as my parents liked the Scout, they eventually needed a vehicle more suited for a growing family. They picked up a 1978 Jeep Cherokee, and perhaps not as economical as it should have been with that AMC 360, but it did spark an interest and infatuation in my life. As luck would have it, some time passed enjoying the FSJ (Full Size Jeep) before mechanical issues would force my parents to sell it. I was devastated… I loved that thing!
Now as an adult, I knew I wanted to have that vehicle in my life again. I was fortunate in finding a bone-stock 1990 Jeep Grand Wagoneer for $500 and named it, Project “Wild Woody”. Immediately after purchasing it, on went a 3” suspension lift and after some “persuasion” in trimming fenders, 33” tires gave it a great stance. However, as many know, AMC360 V-8s were never known for their power and with my initial, very moderate, modifications I could barely keep up with traffic or it’s thirsty, gas-guzzling reputation. I knew something had to change. I decided that enough was enough, and the years of planning for an engine swap began.
Now, I’m not a professional mechanic but I am pretty good with a wrench, as I have always done my own brake jobs, oil changes and repair work. However, the only experience I had swapping engines was when I helped my dad replace a blown motor in an old Datsun pickup. I was only 12/13 years old at the time and, let’s face it, I may have helped but the ‘ole man did most of the work. So now, here I am wanting to put a modern power-plant into an old Jeep and roughly NO experience with such a task. Needless to say, I was excited to do it but scared to hell at the same time. So, I broke it down into steps, did my research (which took almost 2 years) and went to work.
I bought a 2000 Chevy Silverado with a 5.3 Vortec. I drove it around for about 4 months discovering a solid platform source for my swap. Engine was an LM7 with a 4L60e overdrive transmission. This is where the planning phase became very important because I knew I wanted to run 35 inch tires on my final project. I did the math and knew I had to re-gear my differentials. So, before the swap even began I went to 4.56 Yukon gears front and rear then upgraded to 35” All Terrains. Also, the original transmission was a 3-speed and swapping to an overdrive meant I had to change the shiftgate (the piece that gives you P-N-R-OD-3-2-1) in the column. I discovered that old, Chevrolet shiftgates from vehicles with 700r4s are interchangeable into FSJ columns since they were made by the same manufacturer. Lastly, I knew I wanted to upgrade to electric gauges. This wasn’t necessary in the swap, but if I was going to do all that work, I wanted something new and cool to look at. So, I picked up a set of Autometer electric gauges and had to design and build an instrument panel to house them in. I consider ALL of this to be in the planning phase, even before ANY engine work was ever done.
Once all the prep was done, it was simply just time to jump in and start unbolting stuff. The removal of the engine and drivetrain from the Chevy was pretty straight forward. I was careful to salvage the original wiring harness and computer to have them sent out and reworked for my application. This saved me A LOT of money! I pulled the engine and transmission together, which was probably a lot harder than if I had just disconnected them in the beginning. Moving on, pulling the engine and drivetrain on the Wagoneer was much easier. In fact, it only took a couple of hours with the help from a friend. I had noticed that many people remove the front clip to make the swap easier, but it isn’t necessary. Using a lift and engine cradle, I was able to install the 5.3 and transmission together, changing the angle of the unit as I moved it into place. I had purchased a set of motor mounts and transmission crossmember made specifically for this swap from an acquaintance on a Facebook page. This page is dedicated to LS swapping FSJs and I gained most of the information I needed from others on this page. Everything about this swap was tight! The driver side coil pack cleared the brake booster by only 1/4 inch! I used a transfer case (NP241c) from a ’95 Chevy ½ ton for simplicity and reliability. I kept the original radiator from the jeep, but did use the 2-speed electric fan from a Volvo to assist with cooling. When doing this swap, it IS possible to use the original Jeep gas tank, with some fuel line mods and an external fuel pump. However, I decided to relocate the tank to the spare tire area and used a fuel tank and in-tank pump from a 1999 s10 Blazer, 2-door.
None of these things are hard to do… they are simply time consuming. I was able to complete this swap by myself, using regular mechanic’s hand tools. The Facebook page, “Full Size Jeep LS Engine Swap Group” was a Godsend and helped me out more times than I could count! I didn’t have a shop to work out of so this whole thing took place over 3-4 months in a couple of parking lots, one of which was the apartment complex I live at. Nothing was more rewarding than turning the key and starting up my Jeep that I had “breathed” new life into. Double the horsepower and torque, and the beautiful sound of the new exhaust system gave me the relieving satisfaction of what I had created. Since the swap, I have logged over 6,000 miles without any problems while getting 17-18 mpg using the gear and tire ratio I selected. The reliability of fuel injection and dramatic increase in power were well worth the time, and often, frustration that were invested in this project.