Taking A Gamble At The 2020 Detroit Autorama With A 1976 Jeep DJ

Recently, as we perused all manner of rides at the 2020 Detroit Autorama, one jumped out almost immediately. It was a 1976 Jeep DJ-5D. In case you aren’t aware, DJ stands for delivery jeep. This particular one is owned by Hannah and Gage VanEckoute of Belleville, Michigan.

The couple has been to every Detroit Gambler 500, with the exception of 2019 due to Gage’s military deployment. This awesome couple loves to work on projects together, and they pick a new vehicle every year to have fun with. Their Jeep DJ certainly stood out in a sea of high-dollar builds and rods. We had to stop on over and get the lowdown on how this little DJ ended up at Autorama.

The Find

Gage said, “I was on Facebook, just kind of burning some time while I was in Afghanistan. I came across the lady selling it and sent her an email. It took almost 12 hours for her to respond. She responded and said that she still had the Jeep but that there were about 200 other people interested in it. ‘So do you want it?’ I said yes. Then I got a hold of my brother and told him to go get it. On the way home, he came across a guy at a gas station that was waiting to hear if we bought it or not!”

Hannah and Gage VanEckoute picked up this Jeep DJ for $500 to run in the Detroit Gambler 500 this spring.

With that kind of intro, we just had to know more. Gage shared that; “When I first met Hannah, we realized we both grew up going to car shows. It’s a great place to go out and meet a bunch of cool people. Normally, you go out and meet people that are really nice, down to earth, and are good to know. If you can’t come out to a place like Autorama and have fun, then I guess you’re just not my kind of people! She’s great because she gets right out there and gets her hands dirty, too. When we first got together, I taught her how to weld and she’s always out in the garage.”

Hannah added that, “I just think it’s fun you know. It’s different and not a lot of people do these types of things. I like the reactions that we get from people. It’s a great way to spend your time. You can spend your money a lot of different ways in life. This is just our way.”

The Process

Once they dragged the Jeep home, it sat for a couple of months until Gage returned from deployment. After that, he and Hannah started working on it in their spare time. Gage explained that, “We did a lot of frame repair. It was a rusty old Jeep that had sat in a field in Adrian, Michigan. We patched the frame up, ripped the floor out, and got some seats for it. That’s when we found a Jeep CJ donor vehicle. It was out in a field too, and we stripped it down and sold everything we didn’t need to offset our cost.”

Aside from the strap holding the battery in place, most of what is under the hood of this little Jeep is original.

The original 258ci inline six from AMC still resides under the hood, while an MSD ignition system handles spark. The 4×4 conversion consists of a Dana 30 front axle from a CJ-7. A Torqflite 727 transmission backs up the AMC power plant and it is connected to a Dana 300 transfer case. The power is distributed to the axles via homemade driveshafts.

Gage said, “I like to build wacky things that people don’t see every day. This was never made to be four-wheel-drive, so the driveshaft is only about 12 inches long! Honestly, it drives really well on the freeway. The only thing is that with it being right hand drive, I have accidentally put Hannah in the wrong side of traffic! That’s a little bit of a learning curve, but it’s been a lot of fun so far.”

The couple has about $470 into the DJ. They bought the DJ for $500 and then bought the CJ for $525. They then offset their costs by selling unneeded parts from the CJ. They are also quick to point out that the little Jeep DJ was built specifically for the 2020 Detroit Gambler 500. Fans of any gambler will surely notice the boat gas tank in the back of the rig. Sharp eyes will also catch the seats from a 1992 Honda Accord wagon.

Gage explained, “We went to the parts yard looking for seats. All of the Jeep seats were trashed. We then happened to come across a Honda Accord Wagon of all things. We were like, oh yeah, that’s it! They’re comfortable, cheap, and nice and cushy.”

Hand-me-down four-point harnesses were sourced to provide a safe environment in the most cost conscious way possible. The couple prefers to stay true to the unofficial rules of the Gambler 500 by staying around $500 for their gambler builds. Sometimes, that leads to interesting challenges, but they are always up to the task.

Old seats from a Honda Accord make the ride much more comfortable on or off road.

Conquering Challenges

Being a military service member, Gage is no stranger to challenges. Cost was just one of the big considerations throughout the build. Another consideration was how to transform the original two-wheel-drive Jeep into a gambler-worthy four-wheel-drive. After some initial research, they figured out that the suspension components from a comparable model CJ swap to the DJ fairly easily. For example, the leaf springs and U-bolts are the same. However, the steering is different, because the DJ is right hand drive.

Gage admitted that, “The steering was a little bit of a challenge, because everything in America is left hand drive. I took the good parts from both the CJ and DJ systems and combined them. Steering and brakes are both important for safety and I don’t scrimp on those. I’ll scrimp on a lot of stuff, but on those things I won’t, because they keep us safe.” Safety was also on the couple’s mind as they sourced materials to build a small roll cage in the rear of the Jeep.

Gage continued, “I’m not a Jeep guy. If you asked me what interchanges on a Ford, I could talk all day. This is all a mystery for me. The nice thing about these is that they are very simple. I didn’t know it at the time, but AMC was the main company that owned AM General. That is the company that built the DJ. AMC uses parts from Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler. It’s like a mismatch of all kinds of parts. It doesn’t matter who you like. There are all different parts on here. Hannah came up with the snail mail idea. Our mail carrier actually loves it!”

The Jeep is right hand drive, which can be a bit of a challenge to learn.

“This One Will Be Hard To Let Go”

The couple added a lot of fun details to the Jeep that help it stand out in a crowd.

The overall plan for the Jeep DJ has always been to gamble it as part of the Gambler 500 event in Detroit. On Memorial Day weekend, the two will take the little Jeep up to the Silver Lake Sand Dunes for some fun, and then sell it shortly after.

Gage stated, “We like to do a new project every year. This one will be hard to let go. We only have about an acre of property though and I could easily fill it.” We are sure they won’t have any problems finding a buyer for the unique little Jeep.

Before we went our separate ways, Gage took a moment to add, “People need to get out in their garages and build stuff. Teach your kids how to do this stuff and spend time with your families. I grew up wrenching on stuff and I just feel like it’s important to know. Passing on the kind of knowledge that comes from working on your own things is important. We need to be passing on those kinds of things to the next generation. Build something crazy. Build something cool that people want to see. When you do, you meet people that you otherwise never would have.”

About the author

Christie Materni

As a photographer, and self-proclaimed "magic maker" for over 12 years, Christie loves to create anything from amazing images to great chocolate chip cookies. Traveling the country with her camera, husband, and sometimes a dog, in search of fast cars and tough trucks is her favorite way to spend the day.
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