How I ended up with the 2004 Wrangler Unlimited

A rare photo of my old ZJ with the front bumper still intact.
It did in fact fall off later that day.

My old Jeep was a 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It had a 2″ lift kit and 31″ all terrain tires.  I used to hit up the local off road park on a monthly basis for days of trail riding and rock crawling.  Although fun, the cycle had seemed to lose some of it’s luster for me.  I missed camping, hiking, and climbing.  I missed floating down a river in a canoe or kayak.  I missed doing more than just Jeeping.  That didn’t mean I was ready, willing, or planning on giving up on Jeeping.  I just wanted to do a different kind of Jeeping.

Before I got the ’04 Unlimited I had a vision in mind.  I wanted to build a mobile basecamp that would serve as my transportation between sites as well as my home away from home.  I knew it would need to be rugged since I planned on traveling down more than main street or the highway.  I also knew it had to be something I could customize to fit my needs.
Type “used Jeep” into any search engine and you’ll get hit with 1,000s of responses.  Craig’s List, Auto Trader, your local Dodge/Jeep/Chrysler Dealership, your local used dealer… they all have used Jeeps.  If you’re not a Jeeper and you want a 4×4, be prepared to 10’s of 1,000’s of responses.
The reason I went with another Jeep was I knew there were a few things I wanted.
  1. I wanted something easy to work on.
  2. I wanted something I could drop the top and remove the doors.
  3. I wanted something with a good selection of easy to find parts. 
  4. I wanted something with good aftermarket support.
  5. I wanted something somewhat unique.
Looking at this list, and already being a Jeeper, another Jeep was a logical choice.  Although I was very tempted by a Toyota Tacoma I found.  It was a brief moment of weakness but in the end #2 won out over my hunger for a good Taco.
For a long time I was considering a Wrangler for my next Jeep.  The problem I was having is making the jump from something as big as a Grand Cherokee to something as small as a Wrangler.  I had gotten spoiled by having four doors and more than enough cargo room.
“Well Dean, what about the 4-door JK,” you suggest.  “Best of both worlds,” you continue, “four removable doors and a removable top.”
Here’s the thing.  I’m an old school guy.  I’ve owned two CJ’s and a ’60’s vintage Jeep Army truck.  I’m nostalgic.  I’m also a sucker for the straight six.  Sure the 3.6L in the newer JK’s are slick, but those are out of my price range.  Even an older “early JK” with the 3.8L would be stretching my budget.
That left me digging some more.  Back in 2004 that Jeep had come out with an extended wheel-base model of the Wrangler.  They are kind of rare since they didn’t make that many.  In fact, they only made them for three years.  With 10″ more wheelbase and 15″ more cargo room I felt like the first-gen Wrangler Unlimited (a.k.a. ‘TJL’ or ‘LJ’) would be a great choice for me.  Plus it was a nostalgic throwback to the old CJ-8 Scrambler which I still have a soft spot for.
So I started digging.  I searched high and low; far and wide; inside and out.  I eventually found a virgin 2004 Wrangler Unlimited with full-doors and a hard top sitting at Honda dealership of all places.  They were pretty clueless as to what they were sitting on and I was able to get the thing for a steal of a price – talking $3k under book (not to brag).

The ’04 Wrangler Unlimited (LJ) the day papers were signed.
One of the things I liked about it was that it was a clean-slate.

Well, there you have it.  That’s how I ended up with a 2004 Wrangler Unlimited (LJ) as a replacement for my ’97 Grand Cherokee.  I came up with a vision, I outlined some criteria for what I wanted, and then I searched for something to fit that list.  It should be noted that I searched for a LJ for a long time; I mean years.  I looked at more than a few online, test-drove a few, and even made a few serious offers.  Finding the right ride meant dedication to the process.
My next write-up will be about what to look for when buying a used 4×4.  While not overland specific it might be useful for those of you who are looking at buying their next 4×4, or even their first 4×4 and have the overland lifestyle in mind.  Might also help some of you stand back and look at your current 4×4 with a critical eye as you get it ready for your next adventure.

In future posts I will use the LJ as a jumping off point to explain things like, ‘what to look for in a used 4×4,’ and ‘early modifications to a 4×4’, and ‘planning an overlanding themed build.’  These topics will hopefully help educate and inspire the next cohort of overlanders and maybe even serve as a refresher for a few experienced ones.