Square Peg, Round Hole: Grand Wagoneer restomod as unwilling tow rig
There comes a moment in any automotive project where expectations butt up against reality. Sometimes this occurs early on, when the sheer, terrifying scope of what has to be done stretches out in front of you like an endless sea, floating bonfires of cash glinting like beacons of despair in the distance. More often, I find, that reckoning hits hardest just after reaching a major checkpoint in the build process; it might be the initial turn of the key after an engine has been put back together, that first pass down the quarter-mile, or maybe even the reaction of your family when you finally escape the shop and park your reconstructed ride in the driveway at home.
For the past few years, I’ve been chronicling the transformation of my 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer here at Hagerty Media. In that time, I have guided from hidden survivor to restomod daily driver. Each step I’ve taken in that build process—from swapping in an LS engine, to replacing the gearing in the front and rear differentials, to overbuilding the cooling system, installing a hydroboost braking system, and even refurbishing the tape deck—has been with one overarching goal in mind: a cool classic SUV that would both ooze old-school charm and start every single time I needed it to.
There was also, I must admit, a practical application: towing my 1978 Datsun 280Z. I was no longer comfortable driving hundreds of miles to and from the track in my Datsun, especially while enduring the merciless summer heat. Hence the need for a tow rig, which meant adding a list of upgrades to the Grand Wagoneer that went above and beyond what might have been “strictly necessary” for a simple LS swap. All so I could hitch up and drive off into the sunset hauling ancient J-tin on a trailer behind me.
When it came time to do exactly that, I found myself face-to-face with a startling, unexpected situation—one that unveiled something about myself more than it did about the vehicle I was driving.
An Inauspicious Start
In the fall of 2022 I attempted towing with my Jeep Grand Wagoneer. I quickly discovered that the Jeep’s ancient, sagging OEM springs had trouble safely handling an unladen U-Haul trailer, let alone one transporting 2500 pounds of Datsun. By the time I had installed a full set of replacement leafs (and load-leveling airbags at the rear), track season was finished for the year, postponing a true test of the new setup until spring’s thaw.
Once April 2023 rolled around, I was raring to go. I’d spent the winter months fantasizing about how much I’d enjoy rolling down I-91, aiming at my first time trial event of the season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. I could practically hear the Jeep’s 5.3-liter V-8 bellowing out a joyous bass note through the White Mountains, my Z securely locked into place on an affordable rental trailer of dubious quality.
Before I could even hit the highway on-ramp, the whole trip was nearly cut short. At U-Haul, the clerk wouldn’t let me leave the lot with the trailer due to a malfunctioning right-side blinker on the trailer harness. It took about three hours of detective work with the help of nearby AGM Performance (the shop that had installed the LS under the hood of my Jeep), a burned-out signal box, and several return visits to U-Haul for parts. In the end, a new harness installed under the back bumper satisfied U-Haul’s scrupulous safety mavens.
Trailer in place, I was now significantly late to met my father just on the other side of the Quebec/Vermont border, so I hurried home to load up the car. Because I live in the heart of Montreal and don’t have a long driveway, this task had to be completed street-side. Fortunately there is a school zone right out front, which is almost always free of parked cars for the seven or so Jeep-lengths I needed to line up the Z in front of the ramps.
We began to load up. Then came the second insult of the morning: the sound of screeching metal. A curled lip at the very end of the trailer gouged a valley along the Datsun’s decades-old undercoating and left a tidy pile of sadness just behind the back wheel.
A Shaky Foundation
Leaving aside the Z’s unrelated underbody gouge, there are several reasons why an ’80s Jeep Grand Wagoneer makes for a poor towing platform. Although I had taken care of most of them—the lack of power from the original AMC boat anchor engine, the somewhat sketchy nature of its factory brakes, and the tendency for its hindquarters to “wag-sag” under load—there was little I could do about its most limiting characteristic: short wheelbase.
The wheelbase of the original Grand Wagoneer checks in at 110 inches, or three feet less than what you’d find on a current-model-year pickup truck. As a result, it’s particularly sensitive to tongue weight and to the side-to-side sway of a trailer when traveling at highway speeds. Normally I would be able to make use of a load-distributing hitch to help push some of that tongue mass onto the front axles, but U-Haul trailers do not allow for that option due to the design of their surge brake system, which requires that the neck move freely. The trailers also have the propensity to pile on tongue weight via a loading strap system that requires parking the carried vehicle as close to the front of the deck as possible. Finally, there’s the pesky fact that the trailer, Datsun, and assorted gear on board combined to weigh awfully close to the Grand Wagoneer’s 5000-pound tow rating.
As soon as my fiancée and I cleared the city, it became clear to us that the Jeep was highly sensitive to any trailer movements, which might be caused by rough pavement, changes in speed, or even the lateral gravitational pull of ordinary bends in the road. Each steering input and every tap of the brake pedal invited bad behavior from the train I was conducting; I carefully policed my movements so as not to instigate any more wiggle than I could comfortably control with the Grand Wagoneer’s already nautically vague steering setup.
Once across the border, I stopped to fuel up and add air to the rear bags, increasing pressure from 60 psi to 80 psi (but still leaving 20 pounds of leeway below their theoretical maximum rating). This seemed to help somewhat with the rig’s lapsed adherence to tracking straight, and it allowed me to slightly relax the hyper-vigilant state I had assumed. Still, I watched my side mirrors and tuned in to the twist transmitted to my tuchus for any indication of impending trailer chaos.
With that issue settled to my relative satisfaction, a new, more viscous one emerged.
The 4L60E transmission yoked to my Jeep’s LS-series V-8 contains three forward speeds plus overdrive. To safely tow any appreciable load (especially over mountainous roads) it’s necessary to lock-out OD and stick with third gear, thus avoiding heat build-up and possible damage to the transmission.
The consequence of this situation was a near-constant engine drone from 2700 to 3000 rpm, depending on steepness of the road. While I could suffer the extra-loud engine noise, the seals on my motor weren’t quite as willing to. After one particularly cacophonous downshift to second gear to maintain 70 mph up a long and steep grade, the revs briefly rose past 4000 rpm. After that, I began to notice a strange speckling on the rear window. Figuring it was just accumulated dust from the road surface, I ignored it … until it began to blot out my view through the back glass.
It wasn’t until I had pulled into the entrance at the track in New Hampshire I ran a finger over the window. The dot matrix printed across the back glass was, in fact, engine oil.
Not only was the back of the Jeep covered in the stuff, but my gleaming white Datsun had also become a sullied grey-cream, coated by a slick of lubricant that would no doubt impress the officials at tech inspection the following morning.
According to the dipstick, the Jeep’s engine was down a full quart of oil, which for just a two-hour drive is quite considerable. Most of the missing 10w30 was noticeable all along the underside of the Grand Wagoneer. I was, however, unable to pinpoint the exact source; the top of the engine was completely dry, and there were no hoses, seals, or breather valves in obvious distress.
I’d like to be able to tell you that the trip back home was better. That once I knew what to expect from the Jeep’s sketchy towing dynamics and frightening thirst for oil, I could better deal with the stress of the entire experience. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Instead, I compounded the tension of the previous day’s difficulties by berating myself for landing in this position in the first place.
I felt stupid. Stupid for having invested so much time, effort, and cash into a project that could not complete a task for which I intended it. Yes, I could deal with the engine oil leak once I had time to put the Jeep on a dyno. No, nothing catastrophic happened. But the Grand Wagoneer’s ultra-sketchy towing behavior with that U-Haul trailer was not something I’d repeat in the future. And without a distributing-hitch-friendly trailer of my own, nor space to store it, this pressed pause on any upcoming Jeep towing adventures.
Worst was the feeling that my poor decisions impacted the people I care for the most. It’s one thing to subject myself to the consequences of my contrarian ambitions (which often pushes me drive something I consider “different” or “interesting,” regardless of the pitfalls or risks). But it was quite another to I could see it in the worry lines on my father’s face when I met him at the border, hours behind schedule. Then, the evening we left to head home, he voiced his concern about whether I’d make it back safely without jackknifing, imploding, or perhaps both. I could hear it my fiancée’s voice as she tried to talk to me over the din of the near-freezing rain on a 20-mile stretch of construction work on the evening of our return. Half the trailer’s wheels were on smooth asphalt, the other half skittered crazily over a latticed surface. I gave short, terse answers to questions, leading to uncomfortable, brooding silences. I did not like surrendering control of the situation to what felt like providence.
Learning To Let Go
After some thought, I realized I’d crossed a line not just in terms of practicality and utility, but also safety and reason. I had built a square peg and tried to fit it into a round hole, only to then insist on rounding off the edges until I could push it through half-assed and sideways, taking my family with me for the ride.
Despite all of my preparations, tasking my Grand Wagoneer to pinch hit as an occasional tow rig is simply outside the scope of what its platform can comfortably handle. Yes, with the proper trailer and a more appropriate hitch, I’d likely have a better overall experience hauling my race car. But at the same time, I’m still asking a short-wheelbase SUV with a fairly low towing capacity to negotiate significant elevation changes and highway speeds that an a full-size truck wouldn’t sweat.
In nearly every other circumstance, I really enjoy the Jeep that I’ve built. It’s a fantastic long-range mile-eater, it brings smiles to the faces of everyone I meet driving it through Montreal’s city streets, it’s quite comfortable, and its generous cargo area makes it remarkably practical. By every non-towing measure, the Grand Wagoneer project has been a rousing success. After all, it looks great and it always starts.
I’m letting go of the tow-rig dream as a yardstick for this project’s success. The true failure here would be for me to ignore this lesson and double-down on trying, squeaking through another towing adventure with little to no margin for error. I didn’t expect a 40-year-old truck to teach me how to be at peace with my personal character flaws, but I’m grateful to have made it out of the experience with a better understanding of myself.
What else do I now understand? That a lightly-used, 21st-century pickup would find in my stable a welcome new home. Stay tuned!