Every rig has a story. Whether a project has a million miles on it or has been a one-owner mall crawler, there’s always a story. This particular story starts out with a desire for a new project and ends in the triumphant completion of a seemingly impossible list of repairs in order to participate in the 2018 Tennessee Gambler 500.
The Jeepster Commando was made from 1966-1972 and was intended to compete with vehicles like the Ford Bronco and International Scout of the same time period. Due to its relatively short production run, the Commando has a loyal cult-like following and finding one in a backyard in Tennessee is a bit rare. Owner Jim Haynes has a pretty interesting story as to how he came across his 1970 Jeepster.
For those that may not know, Gambler 500 events have taken place in many states across both the United States and Canada. The off-road Rally Style event was originally started in 2014 by Tate Morgan in his home state of Oregon as a challenge to see how far $500 cars could go. This isn’t just an event to smash up some cheap cars either. The hallmark of the event is stewardship of the land. A prize is handed down to the participant that collects the most trash on the trails during the event, and at the 2018 Chemult event there was enough trash collected to fill three large dumpsters.
Jim Haynes and his co-driver Tyler Adams were just as intrigued by the event as you may be. It also just so happened that Jim was looking for a new project prior to the event. As Jim admitted, “I had never even heard of a Gambler 500 until I got together with Tyler to do this. I was telling Tyler that I was ready for a new project and we were talking about it for about two months. I knew that I wanted to get a Jeep because that’s something that I’ve never had before. Tyler sent me a Facebook ad for this thing and it was in this guy’s backyard with no leaf springs or axles and it was just a total pile.” Even Tyler readily admits with a laugh that, “I sent it to him as a joke. He said he was looking for a project and I just thought, yup, that’s a big project!” Jim was all in and the next morning, they had paid for the little Jeepster and loaded it up.
Once the Commando was acquired, the work began. Jim and Tyler teamed up and put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in to get the Commando Gambler-ready. They had two months to get a vehicle with no suspension, a non-running motor, and quite a bit of rust ready to go up to 500 miles of rally-style exploring. They didn’t waste any time, and first started by installing springs from a YJ of the same year to suspend the body. At the same time, a spring-over-axle conversion was completed. A Dana 44 rear axle was located and acquired as well as a Dana 27 front axle. Both are located under the YJ springs with new shocks on all four corners and new mud terrain tires were added. Open differentials and 3.73:1 gearing round out the drivetrain specs for this gambler.
Next, a completely new fuel system was installed, including the tank, sending unit, filter, and fuel lines. A new carburetor was also on the list, but was unable to be installed prior to the event. “It’s all a gamble,” admitted Jim with a smile. A new brake system was also installed because when the engine gets this rig going, you have to be able to stop. To that end, a new proportioning valve, brake lines, master cylinder, pads, rotors, and calipers were added for safety and security while bombing down the Gambler routes.
The original Buick 225ci engine, T-86 three-speed transmission, and Dana 20 transfer case remain as well. A new point set, condenser, and radiator were added to get the motor running. Jim laughed as he explained, “This thing is the ultimate gambler. We used the radiator and hoses out of Tyler’s Jeep to get it going, and it’s honestly just kind of cobbled together to get it here. The last time it ran was in 2003 according to the guy I bought it from, but after just some basic stuff, it fired right up. I couldn’t believe it and it’s performed just awesome the whole time out here. I’m really surprised and impressed.”
Now that the Jeepster has made it through the event, the next phase of life includes a pretty cool overhaul. Jim smiled as he explained, “We just wanted to get it out here and see what it could do. I figured that it would either break in half and we would have a good laugh about it, or it would perform like it has. Now, I’ll take it home and really build it like I want. I’m going to redo the floors right away since right now it has a wooden block holding it up.” A full cage, five-point harnesses, new seats, and Dana 44 front axle will be added to keep the Jeepster reliable. “I want to be able to drive it to work some days and also be able to wheel it on the weekends. By the time I’m done, it’ll be reliable on the road and super reliable on the trail,” Jim said.
Not only did the duo overcome the usual challenges of time management in the midst of life, work, and family, but Jim also had the additional challenge of having a three-months-premature daughter being born during this time. Due to the time and care needed for his daughter, Jim would finish work for the week and then spend as much time as possible with his family.
During that time, co-driver Tyler would continue work on the Jeepster in the evenings or on weekends when Jim couldn’t be there. “It’s actually amazing how much Tyler has been able to help, and in the end, working on the Jeepster together has been a real stress reliever,” Jim admitted. “It’s been a tough three months and now that she’s doing better, I feel better. Coming to the Gambler 500 is kind of part of that, too. Being able to run it out here and just relax feels good.”
When you go to an event like the Gambler 500, you never know what kind of cool rigs you’re going to see. While that is pretty awesome, we also love spending time talking with people. You never know what kind of story they have, the challenges they may have overcome to get there, or the inspiration they may provide you with after hearing their story. The same is true for every rig’s story. Sometimes they are down and out for a period of time. Maybe they are in some person’s backyard with no axles and no hope of running. Then the right owner comes along and they’re back in the game. We should all take time to learn the story.