Troubled Child

Troubled Child at the entry to Grizzly Lake, in Colorado
My Jeep, Troubled Child, is a 1986 Grand Wagoneer I purchased used in August 1997 to take me down dirt roads in search of lakes for fishing and landscapes for photography. Driving backroads turned into a passion for four-wheeling.

Over the years, I've built and tweaked it to become my vision of an ideal exploration vehicle for camping, fishing, and four-wheeling on up to 7/10-rated trails, while still being nice to drive on the road. And I recently turned it into a robot, too.

First fishing trip, August 1997

DIY Forever

After my first fishing trip, the alternator went bad. Feeling the sting of parting with a giant pile of money to have a shop fix my alternator, I vowed never to do that again.

Since then, I've done nearly all the work myself since and turned what seems like every bolt on the rig, and learned loads along the way.

I've replaced engine, transmission, transfer case, axles, suspension, steering; rebuilt alternators, power steering; replaced u-joints, belts, hoses, most brake parts; added and fixed electrical components, door mechanisms, and more.

The name? 

On one of my early Moab trips the truck kept breaking down unexpectedly and was named by the folks I wheeled with.

TC has lived up to its name experiencing lots of failures and exhibiting many quirks. Over time it's gotten better but you never know what TC has in store next.

Meanwhile, driving on dirt roads quickly turned into a passion for four-wheeling that led to a number of vehicle upgrades.


Stock, 360, installed in 2007
  • Unusually strong, stock AMC 360 V8
  • GM TBI fuel injection system, '7747 ECM
  • High performance TFI cap and rotor
  • 8mm Borg-Warner plug wires, GM HEI coil 
  • Autolite spark plugs
  • 3" custom single exhaust
  • Magnaflow muffler and high-flow catalytic converter
  • B&M 14,000-19,000 GVW auxiliary transmission cooler
I've been through several engines. I rebuilt the stock motor but it was always weak. Had a '76 360 that leaked like a sieve. The current 360 from a low-miles, well-maintained 1984 GW, is the best of them all.

I've also gone through carbs: Motorcraft 2150 and 4350, Edelbrock Performer, Carter AFB, QuadraJet. The 'Jet was the best for throttle response, emissions, and power and is tied with the 2150 for off-road. But the GM TBI has more power, drives better, and runs cleaner.

Gold Bar Rim, 1999


  • Rebuilt Jeep A727 with TransGo reprogramming kit
  • Custom-built 1100 rpm low-stall torque converter
  • Widetrack Dana 44 Front; ARB Air Locker
  • Widetrack AMC 20 rear, stitch-welded tube, cast-iron cover, Powertrax Lock-Right
  • Differential house Precision Gear 3.73:1 R&Ps
  • New Process 208 transfer case
I love the fast, positive shifts of the reprogrammed 727 and engine braking is better with the torque converter. The wider axles improve highway corners, the rear locker gets me just about anywhere if I have the clearance. The NP208 is simple, shift-on-the-fly, locked in 4wd, so switching out the 228 was a no-brainer.
TC scores around 500 on a 28° ramp


  • 4" Skyjacker all-spring lift
  • Rancho RS9000 shocks
  • Warrior anti-sway bar quick disconnects
  • 33x12.50" BF Goodrich Mud Terrain Tires
  • GM extended length brake hose
  • Valvoline synthetic brake fluid
The one thing FSJs lack from the factory is clearance. While the drivetrain is tucked up above the bottom frame rails, you can't get around the low suspension. But at 4" and up, you get some crazy breakover clearance. The Skyjacker setup I got flexes good enough and rides great. The 33's are considered puny but they don't push the brakes or axles too hard.

Electronics and Electrical

  • Uniden Pro 520 CB radio, with (for now) K30 magmount CB antenna
  • Alinco DR-605TQ 2m/70cm amateur radio, Larsen NMO2/70SH antenna
  • Alinco DR-M06TH 6m amateur radio, Larsen 6m NMO mount antenna
  • Dell Lattitude E6410 ATG semi-rugged laptop on custom mount
  • Overland Navigator topo mapping software
  • Hemisphere Crescent R120 GPS (10-60cm with SBAS), A21, L1 antenna
  • Pioneer CD/CDR/CDRW/AUX, Boston Acoustics FX5 5" 2-way speakers (4)
  • Infinity Reference 1032W dual voice coil 10" subwoofer, Alpine MRP-M200 200W amp
  • Painless Wiring 7 circuit auxiliary fuse block custom mounted in glovebox
New shoes in prep for 2002 FSJ Invasion
I picked the Uniden 520 because RF Gain effectively ignores radios outside your immediate four-wheeling convoy and because lack of chrome means no sun glinting off CB bling and searing your retinas while wheeling.

I'm an amateur radio operator, KØFSJ, which is on TC's license plate, too. Few wheelers are hams, but the radios will help in emergencies. As for antennas, I highly recommend Larsen; my first lasted 15+ years. The second has held up since 2002.

The Overland Explorer software really helped me navigate the maze of county and forest service roads on my Ouray 2015 trip. It's nice to have a laptop mounted for navigation and TBI tuning.


  • Grant custom steering wheel
  • BestTop sport seats with manual seat brackets
  • Steel Horse center console
  • Rear map light conversion
  • Steel cable and carabiner cargo tie-down system
TC on Engineer Pass, 2002 Ouray FSJ Invasion
My back never liked the stock front seats but loves the BestTop seats. And I don't have to worry about getting them muddy. The center console isn't for security but my elbow loves the padding. I've yet to have anyone actually need the rear map light but it sounded great in theory.

Off-Road Goodies

  • On-Board Air, York compressor, 4WD Products air tank, and ARB solenoid / locker
  • Valley Industries swing-away spare tire carrier / jerry can holder
  • Wilderness safari rack, dual gas can carriers, hi-lift, and shovel mounts
  • Killer32 front and rear dual-tube steel bumpers
  • Warn 2" receiver shackle, rear; tow hooks, front
  • Warn XD9000i 4.6hp winch and winch kit
  • Delco Remy 12SI, 94A HD alternator
  • General Electric "High Output" halogen headlamps
  • Warn 610 spot lights and 620 flood lights, front; Warn 520 flood lights, rear
  • Hi-lift jack and an ancient, free junkyard shovel
Holy Cross, 2004
I've really only needed the winch very few times. It's the High-Lift or the strap that gets me and others out of trouble 99% of the time. The winch easily rescued dad-in-law's pickup from a blizzard snow bank one time.

The safari rack is great for storing tents and sleeping bags. I put them in rafting dry-bags. I also stick spare axles and driveshafts up there on the big trips to Moab and Ouray. Extra gas or water up top is nice to have. A second 33x9.50 fits up top, too. 

The Valley spare tire carrier was popular, and mine has held up well and so has the body, all things considered. The spare tire came in handy once. The gas can came to my rescue (way too) many times.

Jeep Robot

Troubled Child can now steer all by itself using a GPS, a couple tiny computers, and a big motor to turn the steering wheel. My team converted the Jeep to autonomous steering to enter--and then win--the 2014 Sparkfun Autonomous Vehicle Competition, a sort of mini-DARPA Grand Challenge for self-driving R/C cars. It also won crowd favorite :) It was the first full size vehicle to enter. I wrote up the details on my robotics blog.

An industrial-grade Hemisphere Crescent R120 GPS provides 10-60 cm position accuracy and accurate heading. This tells the computer where the Jeep is and where it's going. The computer is a tiny mbed 96MHz microcontroller running software I designed and wrote, originally for my 1:10 R/C truck (it placed 3rd in the 2012 AVC). I only changed the code to use the GPS, then updated parameters for wheelbase, track width, and steering--and it just worked!

The steering wheel is chain-driven by a large DC motor mounted below the steering column at the dash. The motor is coupled to a shaft with a small sprocket that chain-drives a huge sprocket bolted to the column behind the steering wheel. I designed an Arduino-compatible board running software that emulates a hobby RC servo. A potentiometer, coupled to the steering box shaft, provides wheel position feedback and the 'duino decodes the RC signal then runs the DC motor (through a Jaguar motor controller) until the wheels are pointed as commanded.

The main computer takes a list of waypoints, determines where the Jeep is, and how to steer to follow a path to the next waypoint. It does this until it runs out of waypoints.

Safety was a huge concern and we went all out with me behind the wheel controlling throttle and brake plus a failsafe brake, copilot monitoring the computer, a person watching from outside and in CB contact, and a big red button to disable everything.

It's easy to convert back to normal use for driving. In fact, I went four-wheeling several days after the competition.

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