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For some folks the fascination with all things automotive starts very early on. “After ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’ I think the next word I learned to say as a baby was ‘Car,’” Nick Oxender of Shipshewana, Indiana, says with a laugh. “My dad cursed me with this obsession from day one. But the thing that really kicked it into high gear for me was when he bought a ’98 Viper GTS back when I was in elementary school.”
Oxender says that while his tastes tend to lean toward the Mopar stuff, he’s into just about anything with on wheels. “RC cars, go karts – there was a little bit of everything when I was growing up. And we had a 6x6 ATV that we took trail riding all over the Midwest at least once a month.”
He purchased his first project vehicle – a Willys Jeep – back in 2014 while he was still in high school. “I had a Chrysler Crossfire as my daily driver at the time, but I wanted to keep it stock for reliability’s sake,” he explains. “I just wanted something to bash around on the trails in. The Willys really appealed to me because we’d always had ATVs, but never a Jeep or any 4x4 like that.” Working with a limited budget, Oxender says that first Jeep was pretty rough when he acquired it, but the condition turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise. “I learned so much about working Jeeps, and cars in general from that project. I’d never worked on a transmission, or axles, or anything of that nature before I started on that one.”
What started as a two-week project to get the Jeep road-worthy over winter break soon spiraled into a full-blown restoration that took up most of his junior year in high school. He soon started adding to the collection, too. “Because I’d been spending so much time looking around for parts online, I ended up buying a couple more Willys Jeeps. I’d fix them up and get them running, then resell them just for something to do. It became kind of a game for me – like how rough of an example I could find and still get it running. Some of them were definitely ridiculous, but I never lost money doing it.”
Along the way he scored some unusual examples from the post WWII era, including a 1947 CJ 2A with a purportedly waterproof drivetrain. “It was out of an M151 Mutt,” he recalls. “That’s basically the light duty vehicle that was used in the armed services after the Willys but before the Humvee. It was a pretty basic four cylinder engine, but the distributor, plugs, starter, and everything else was set up to be water tight.”
He set to work getting the Jeep trail-worthy, but as with his first build, the project quickly snowballed into something much more comprehensive than he had anticipated. “I’d go fix one issue and find three other problems,” he tells us. “And suddenly it’s a full-blown thing.” The first iteration of the CJ 2A was completed in 2018, roughly two years after he had started on it.
Shortly after graduating from Indiana University, Oxender and some of his friends decided to go on one last epic off-roading adventure out in Colorado before real-world obligations set in. The team bought a school bus and gutted the interior to create room for two Jeeps inside – one to bring along his CJ for the trip and another to haul home a purchase he planned to make along the way so they could finance the trip with the proceeds from reselling it back in Indiana. But once the team hit the trails in Colorado, some of the CJ’s shortcomings soon made themselves known.
“I never really had that engine running right,” he admits. “It had a side draft carburetor, and it was just really finicky – it really didn’t like the high altitude. I spent more time working on it than driving it.” The Willys’ lack of a low range gear proved problematic on the next leg of the trip, too. “In Moab we went on a rock crawling trail and it just didn’t have enough horsepower to overcome the gearing in some places, so I ended up just shredding the clutch.”
Not long after returning from the trip he replaced the clutch and took the Jeep out for a test run in some deep water. That’s where he discovered that while the engine was waterproof, nothing else was. “The water destroyed the transmission,” he recalls. “So it sat for a while until I decided where I was going to go with the project from that point.”
In 2021 a group of friends started planning a trip to the Rubicon Trail near Lake Tahoe, California, so Oxender decided to swap in a four-speed transmission and a transfer case with a proper low-range gear. While the new gearbox substantially improved the Jeep’s rock crawling capability, Oxender still struggled with its carb setup. “It was never really running the way I wanted it to, and I kept having an issue where the linkages would come off of the carb while off-roading. And I had a huge problem with vapor lock when I took it on the Rubicon Trail. That definitely hindered the experience a bit.”
Determined to resolve the fueling issues once and for all, Oxender decided to snag a Sniper Autolite 1100 EFI system and see if he could adapt it to the Jeep’s four cylinder mill – a process that he documented in detail on his YouTube channel. “I wanted something where I could always count on being able to just get in, turn the key, and go,” he says. “So when I saw the Sniper system I thought this might really fit the bill. I like technology and I like having all of the information in front of me, and the cool thing about the Sniper is that you have all the data about what’s going on with your engine right there.”
Although the self-learning Sniper system was designed for a different application, it didn’t take long for him to sort out what he needed to do to make it work for his project. “The bolt pattern on my intake was narrower than the flange on the Sniper, and I had to raise the throttle linkage to clear intake and change the direction of the pull.” He’s since started designing an adapter kit for other folks that are looking to do the same retrofit on their own Jeeps. “It’s basically two flanges with a tube in between them and the throttle linkage mounts to that tube.”
While the retrofit required some engineering legwork on Oxender’s part, he says it was well worth the trouble. “Not only does the engine idle and run perfectly, I saw a 14% increase in fuel economy,” he notes. “Initially there were some concerns about how the EFI system would do off-road, but since I did this retrofit I’ve taken the Jeep on trails that were extreme enough to scrape the roll bar and the Sniper ran perfectly the whole time. At the end of the day I need this Jeep to be reliable – it’s crucial when you’re out in the middle of nowhere.”
Not content to rest on his laurels, he’s already planning out another batch of upgrades and another potential adventure. “Next up is an in-tank fuel pump and Holley HydraMat, and I’m also going to retrofit the Jeep with electric power steering and take care of a few odds and ends. Nothing’s set in stone yet, but I’d really like to bring it out to Moab again for Easter Jeep Safari, and I’d love to do another trip out to the Rubicon. We’ll have to see how it all shakes out.”