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Evolution of a ‘97 TJ Sport

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Chapter 1 - The Early Years

My TJ build story started decades ago, and very much continues through today...

Growing up, I had always wanted a Jeep, but the stars never aligned for me to get one. It wasn't until I was in my 20's that I got my first one when I had the means (i.e. $$$) and the need (i.e. I wanted to have a vehicle to take snowboarding).

I was living in Seattle at the time, and bought my Black Hardtop '97 TJ Sport 4.0L in 1999 with ~20,000 miles on it. It was totally stock, down to the original tires, and was in really good condition. I appreciated the simplicity and low tech nature of it. Power locks and windows? Heck no! Air conditioning? That's what taking the top off is for!

What I thought was a little unique was that is says "TJ" in big white letters on the side, not the typical "Wrangler" I usually saw (picture attached below). What I was told was that's how they make them for our Canadian friends up north. Apparently, they also pretty regularly make them with engine block heaters too because I have one of those too.

For the first few years, I kept things pretty stock. I drove it as my primary driver and really enjoyed it. I thought about doing some modifications to it, but really didn't know what I wanted, so I waited.

It wasn't until a few years later that I decided to make some tweaks to it. I still didn't really know where I ultimately wanted to go with it, so I did a few cosmetic things (e.g. new tube bumpers, rear light guards), a few engine tweaks to get some more HP and make it sound better (e.g. headers and exhaust), new shocks (but with no lift), and some practical things (e.g. new stereo, soft top). Ultimately, the changes made it look and sound a bit better so I was happy.

Chapter 2 - The Neglected Years

I drove my mostly stock Jeep for a few years more, and then I decided I needed a vehicle that could carry more people and stuff, and was a bit less rough around the edges, so I bought a GMC Yukon Denali. This became my daily driver for more than a decade. Some of the charm and simplicity of the Jeep gave way to the some of the nice features of my new car, and this put my Jeep in a very secondary position. It was paid for, and I still liked it, I just never drove it. Like for months at a time. And if I did, it would be a quick trip to the store or something just to keep it alive.

In hindsight, the two vehicles were very different and I should have used them differently. My loss. At least I wasn't foolish enough to go off roading in my Yukon. One other factor/excuse/rationalization was that I didn't really have other friends who had offroad vehicles so I just didn't do anything.

Chapter 3 - The Transition Years

In 2011 I moved to Colorado (near Denver), and that changed a number of things with my relationship with my Jeep. First off, it's way sunnier in Colorado than Seattle -- about as opposite end of the spectrum as you can get. And as we all know, sunshine and Jeeps are like PB & J. What was also a difference for me was the closeness to the mountains and trails. The third thing was that I started working with a group of people who also had offroad vehicles and actually did stuff with them.

Now don't get me wrong, that didn't immediately kick me into gear, but it got me thinking. And it got me starting to take the Jeep out much more regularly to enjoy what Colorado has to offer. And, it also got me thinking -- is it time to make some changes to my ~20 year old Jeep? To undo some of the past choices I made, and make some new improvements? Well, I wouldn't be writing this if the answer wasn't "Yes". I still consider myself to be an offroad newbie, but that's something time and effort can change. I also want to build fun memories for my kids and I, so I'm not looking for extreme danger. But I do want some fun, unique adventures. And I want my kids to really want to drive my TJ when they are old enough, because that means I did it cool enough for that tough crowd. :)

Chapter 4 - New Beginnings

The good news is that I am just at the beginning of these improvements. So I can record what I'm doing and how it's going as I evolve my TJ. I feel good to know there is an amazing community of folks online and IRL that can tell me "nice job" or "what were you thinking" or "here's how to do it".

The goals of my build is evolution, not revolution. I want to go back to basics a bit, including undoing some past style choices and return it closer to stock. Then I want to do some modest work to make it have some better offroad capabilities, but also be very civil on the road. I see how easy it is to drain your wallet on making changes. I want to be thoughtful and get good value and create good balance.

Ok, that's all to start. Future posts will give you insights into what I'm doing and how it's going. I'm relatively handy, but some of these things will be brand new to me. So if you see some panicked posts of "help!!", please give me a (virtual) pat on the back and help me along.

Stay tuned!

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Chris

Administrator
Staff Member
Sep 28, 2015
37,975
Salem, Oregon
That's a Canadian TJ for sure! Jeep wasn't allowed to use the Wrangler name in Canada (someone else owned the rights to it), so they called them TJs.

I look forward to following your build thread and seeing more photos of your TJ. I think you're definitely on the right path, and living in Colorado certainly helps. Any time I see these guys like @jjvw or @tworley post photos of the wheeling in Colorado, I'm very envious!
 

tworley

TJ Addict
Supporting Member
Ride of the Month Winner
May 23, 2018
2,257
Morrison, CO
Looks clean from the one photo! Plus everyone knows 97 is the best. Looking forward to the build! Seattle is an awesome area, but like you said the 300 plus days of sunshine CO has is great. There are plenty of places around here to wheel, from mild to wild. We'll take you out on a trail soon!
 
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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Attached to this thread are a few pictures before I started. I took a few shots of some of the details of the car that I tweaked a bit (e.g. bumpers, etc).

What you can also see is that some of the parts have started to rust a bit after being on there since 2001. So, in some cases, I'll go back to some stock parts I had kept (yes, I kept things like factory bumpers in my garage for ~17 years...) And then I'll update with different things as I see fit.

One bit of trivia about the back tire. I think it may be the original tire from when it was new. As far as I can recall, I only replaced the tires once, many years ago, and, I foolishly didn't replace the spare.

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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Build Day 1

I had modest goals today: removing the rear light guards, and work on the rear bumper. I had some help from my son (he's 11 years old), who helped on a few things that needed more than 2 hands.

I originally put the light guards on in 2001. I never had any issue with them in terms of shorting out or anything like that. However, as you can see from the pictures, one was pretty rusted, and one was pretty faded. I was a little nervous that things might have rusted underneath them. Fortunately, there was no rust at all. I removed the guards, cleaned it up a bit, and put them back on. One of the screw holes on the left light was a little stripped, so I'll replace that when I get a chance. The rest was fine.

After that, I tackled removing the rear bumper. First order of business was going to the auto parts store to get some additional wrenches and bolt loosening spray. Bumper had been on since 2001 too and the bolts were a bit stuck too. With new tools and spray, it all went pretty smoothly. Once again, I was happy to see that I had really no rust to speak of. I cleaned it up, and it's ready for the "new" bumper.

I mentioned I have kept some of the old parts including the OEM front and rear bumpers. I plan on putting back on the stock ones for the foreseeable future. Ironically, those bumpers were only used for 4 years, so they are actually in pretty good shape. I also need a hitch on the back--not really for towing, but so I can use our bike rack. I bought a Curt Manufacturing Class 3 hitch. Price was right. I know folks have different views on integrated hitches, but I'm not really worried about angles for what I intend to do. Plus, I can always change my mind later.

One other gem I found packed away is the original radio. Yep, that's a cassette deck. I don't think I'll be re-using that one. :)

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Mike_H

Rust Belt Heavyweight
Supporting Member
Feb 28, 2017
4,424
Grand Rapids, MI, United States
Very Nice...It always amazes me to see vehicles from out west...21 years old, and very little rust. 300 days of sunlight too! I'm a little Jealous. Whole different ballgame here in the midwest!
 
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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
I've made a little progress since last time. Slow and steady since I have to squeeze working on it with the rest of my life. And, I had a bit of a setback which slowed me down.

First order of business was to replace the bumpers (front and rear) and put on a tow hitch. The setback that I encountered was when I was tightening one of the bolts, it snapped flush with the frame. I tried removing it, but to no avail. See this thread for details if you're interested and want to commiserate. :)

Then I moved onto the front bumper. No issues. No broken bolts. Put the factory bumper back on, plus installed some Mopar stubby end caps on the end so I didn't have to re-use the milk jugs. The stubby caps go on with only 2 screws each side, so I'm curious if they are going to last. But we'll see. It's clean and simple, and it works for now. Looks a little bland, so I'm open to ideas on what I might want to add there.

I did yet not re-install the fog lights yet since i had some rust on the brackets that I need to clean up. Even if I clean them up, I'm not sure I'm going to put them back on. They work fine, so I might reinstall them just for looks. I would love opinions there. I am going to get some LED headlights (yes, I still run stock headlights), so brightness won't be the issue.

Attached are some pictures with the "new" front bumper.

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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
A bit more progress. I've had tire rubbing issues when at the extreme ends of turning for >10 years--basically since I put on 31 x 10.5 tires. Until reading a bunch of posts on here, I didn't know what to do about it. I've since learned a few options. In my case, I opted for wheel spacers. Long term I may want to get new rims with the offset I'd want built in, but for now, for the $$$, I went the wheel spacer route.

I opted for Spidertrax 1.5" spacers. I had looked at a number of different kinds, but these seemed to be the ones most recommended.

They solved the tire rubbing issue, and I do say I like the wider stance and how they look overall. I opted for blue locktite on the inner studs. Tightened to 90 ft/lb per the instructions. Haven't driven it too far yet, but so far, so good.

Here are a few pics. Gotta love those old rear drum brakes. :)

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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
I've driven with the wheel spacers for about 80 miles so far and they seem fine. The slightly wider track felt a little different (e.g. a little more stable, turned a bit differently) to me when driving it. I thought it must be in my head since I knew that it was different, but then when my wife rode in it she also commented that it felt a little different too.

I installed some new LED headlights. After reading a few threads on here, I opted to get some knockoff versions, and bought the WHDZ headlights. $100 vs $300+ for the Truck-Lites worked for me $$$-wise. Everything people said about LED lights is right on--those suckers are way brighter than the original ones. I still need to adjust them a bit so I'm not totally blinding people, but so far, I'm very happy with that upgrade. Even less reason to put back on my old stock fog lights (other than looks). A few pictures of how they came out are below.

I also took my TJ on a little trail ride (~5 miles on a pretty mellow dirt/rock trail) over the weekend. I wanted to give it one last run on the old suspension so I could really appreciate the new one once it's installed. Well, I now have a benchmark since the overall ride was certainly showing it's age - bumpy, creaky, harsh. I'm really looking forward to comparing against the new setup in the very near future.

One thing that also really came to light is how dumb I've been about my tires. As I stated earlier in this thread, I said I hadn't driven the Jeep much in past years, so the tires have low miles (likely less than 15k miles), and have lots of tread still, but they are old. Well after my trail ride, I got home and looked at my tires and saw that on the edges in a few places, a few pieces of rubber had broken off the tires! I have attached a picture below. Not good.

So I did a little research to see how long go I had gotten those tires. If my photo records are correct (see picture below), I got them in June of....2003! Yeah, 15 years old. I've been living on borrowed time on those tires. Definitely a high priority to get new ones now. I'm thinking of getting the BFG All Terrain T/A KO2's. Right now, I'm leaning towards the same size as I have now (31/10.5/R15) to avoid other fun (yet expensive) upgrades. But that's a discussion for another day.

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Chris

Administrator
Staff Member
Sep 28, 2015
37,975
Salem, Oregon
OH WOW! 15 year old tires, that's crazy! Time to replace those things for sure. Be careful on them in the meantime. You should be fine, but just don't do anything stupid you know.

I'm running spacers on mine as well with 35s and I like it. I didn't think I'd like the wider stance look at first, but now I really actually dig it!
 
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tworley

TJ Addict
Supporting Member
Ride of the Month Winner
May 23, 2018
2,257
Morrison, CO
Definitely get them replaced. IIRC tires have a life of 6-7 years. If you are open to options on tires the duratracs are a great one. Very quite, very aggressive looking, and perform incredibly well in the snow and ice. Mine held up to the rocks great too.
 
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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Progress! Here are the details.

My plan has been to install a Savvy 1.25" body lift and a Brown Dog 1" MML (rubber bushings). While I was at it, I figured I would also replace the 21 year body mounts, so I got a set of Crown Automotive body mounts (picture attached).

Before I started I took a few measurements to see how high the fenders were prior to the lift. I had nearly a 2" difference between front and back. Front was 32.5" from floor to fender. Back was 34.25" from floor to fender. This is with the soft top on. Might be different if the hard top was on.

One other joy I had to do was to rinse out the engine bay. One of my in-laws had borrowed my TJ and gone offroading and left it in a pretty bad spot. I know, it's a Jeep and it's supposed to get dirty, but it was bad form to return it to me that trashed. (Before and after pics attached.)

Loosening the old body mounts was no problem - was careful and didn't break any bolts. Those original body mounts were like bricks. So, looking forward to a better ride from the new ones.

I followed the instructions in the posts on here, and the Rokmen video for doing the body lift. Some very helpful instructions there for sure. So, I removed fan shroud, took out filler bolts, loosened all bolts, jacked up one side.

I removed the old body mounts, put the new ones in, then put in the Savvy aluminum pucks. Since my TJ is black, it all blended in pretty well. I got the passenger side done, then I ran into a problem--Savvy had only sent me 10 pucks instead of 11 pucks (picture attached). I contacted support, and they replied the next day and 2-day airmailed me the missing puck. Thumbs up for customer service.

Once I had all the requisite parts, I put anti-seize on all the bolts, got everything aligned (had to jack up and align a few of the pucks), and tightened it all down. I did 50 ft/lb for the 6 side mounts, and 35 ft/lb for the 4 in the back and the 1 in the front.

One pain was doing those front bumper extensions. I was able to get it done with just taking off the headlight shroud (and not the headlight), but there were a few contortionist moves to make it happen.

However, the biggest pain was extending the filler tube hose. Lifting it had created a 1" gap (picture attached). That hose and filler had been joined for 2 decades, and there was no budging it while still attached. So, I ended up taking the whole filler tube out so I could pull on it with a bit more force. Ultimately, I extended it about 1/2" from the metal filler tube to hose connection, and another 1/2" from, the hose to tank connection (picture attached). I was able to make up all the distance needed on the smaller tube from the mid connection, not at the tank.

After the body lift was done, I then installed the MML. Again, the Rokmen video was very helpful, as were other posts on this thread (e.g. loosen transfer case bolts, jack position for raising engine, etc). All in all, it went in fairly easily (picture attached). I followed some of the instructions for how much to tighten the main bolt to the mount. I may have it a little tight, but I'll keep an eye on it. For the bolts that went to the frame, I torqued them to 45 ft/lbs.

After the body lift, my front ground to fender was 33.5" and back was 35.5" - as expected for the 1.25" lift.

All in all, I'm happy with the look so far. I've attached a few pics. I, of course, have included a rear bumper pick for all of those folks who just LOVE that angle. :)

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Chris

Administrator
Staff Member
Sep 28, 2015
37,975
Salem, Oregon
Looks great!

Those front grille bump stops for the body lift are indeed a pain. I gave up on trying to be a contortionist and finally just removed each headlight, then it was easy as can be.

I need to buy a set of those Crown replacement body mounts too!
 
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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Suspension Lift Installation - Part 1

I had purchased an OME 2" lift kit with heavy duty springs (OMETJHKS), and finally tackled it one sunny Saturday. I had read through some instructions from OME, which were only partly accurate for my kit, and had read many posts on here, and, of course, seen my fair share of YouTube videos.

I decided to do the rear shocks and springs since I had heard they were a bit easier to get off than the front. After I took the tires off, I checked the torque on my wheel spacers - still nice and tight (picture attached). My old shocks and springs looked a bit worn down--especially the shocks. However, for the springs, they still had the original Mopar yellow sticker with the part number (picture attached). While the tires were off, I also snapped a shot of the DOT stamp on the tires. I had not been exaggerating about their age, the tag says they were made the 11th week of 2003 (picture attached).

I was making progress getting all set up for removing the rear springs (picture attached). I disconnected the sway bar links from both sides, disconnected the bottom bolts on the shocks. I ran into a logistical challenge removing the track bar on the axle side. The Torx 55 bit I had was long, and didn't have much clearance against the gas tank (picture attached). I ultimately lowered the whole axle to clear the bottom of the gas tank, and got it out. I ended up taking off the entire track bar to get it out of the way.

Spring removal was fairly straightforward, and they came out quite easily (picture attached). I kept a close eye on the brake lines to make sure I wasn't stressing them too much. I installed the provided bump stop extensions from OME. They were a little under 1" tall (picture attached).

Side by side, you can see how much the 2" difference on the OME springs were (picture attached).

Next step was the trackbar relocation bracket. This part actually took me the longest of anything. In part, this was a tools issue. I didn't have the right drill bits to do the job. First round of buying the bits yielded a result where I didn't have enough clearance for the drill and the bit. After another trip to the store, I got the right bit (picture attached), and drilled the requisite holes for the bracket (picture attached). I ultimately had to drill them a bit bigger in order to get everything centered properly (picture attached).

Putting on the springs was a bit of a wrestling match, but I was able to get the axle low enough one one side (I jacked up the opposite side to help) and got the springs in (picture attached). Tightening down the shocks on the top mount was a little tricky because the shock had very little room between the shock and the frame (picture attached). I managed to find some thin, short ratchet combo to make it work.

It took a little wrestling to get the track bar back on. I installed the axle side first (since I had the gas tank clearance problem), then worked the track bar and axle a bit (tried different lift heights and angles) and ultimately got the frame side track bar bolt to line up.

Here's a few shots of the rear side once it was done (pictures attached). I did a quick measure and got a bit over 2.5" lift on it. That's with the soft top on. Will have to measure some other time with the hard top on to see if that stays there, or lowers a bit.

Initial reaction to it is that it's higher than I expected. And that those 31" tires look pretty small. :) I took a quick test drive around the block and with the 2"+ rake I had before + the 2.5" additional bump from the new lift, I definitely felt a big lean forward.

Next up: front end.

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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Suspension Lift Installation - Part 2

On to the front end... (fewer pictures because I was trying to cruise through a bit faster)

I had previously measured the front end heights on each side, and found one side to be 1/2" lower than the other--presumably due to the age and sagging of one of the front springs.

I followed a similar pattern as I did with the rear: disconnect both sway bars, disconnect lower shock mounts, disconnect axle side of the trackbar. I had to really lower the axle to get those original springs out, but I was able to do it with a reasonable amount of wrestling and jacking up of the other side of the axle.

Getting the top bolt of the springs was a bit of a challenge too since the top of the shock would spin when trying to loosen it. I use a pair of clamps to grab a thin metal part on top of the shock and that worked ok.

One thing I discovered when taking out the front shocks was that one of the lower shock bushings had wiggled nearly out so the shock could bump against the frame. This definitely explains why I was hearing a clicking noise from that corner when I was going over bumps.

I had debated about whether I should do anything with the front bump stops at this point. I ultimately left the original ones. I don't have immediate plans to go wheeling with the sway bars disconnected. Plus, I don't have the final tires on, so I wouldn't even have an accurate way to measure it anyways. Plus, with the 1" body lift, that gives me some room overall. Perhaps in the future I will have to do something about that, but for now, I left it as is.

Putting the new springs in was definitely a challenge. Getting the originals out was a bit tough, but trying to get 2" taller springs in there was extra fun. I REALLY had to jack up the other side, and push down on the near side and wiggle things in there. I tried to leverage the pattern of the coil to get it over the bump, then rotate it. Here's a shot of when I was close on one side right before I got it in (picture attached).

Tightening the upper bolts of the shock proved an interesting game as well. The instructions cautioned against over-tightening them, so I did my best to get them in there to decent tightness--as much as I could before the top of the shock spun around. If there are additional tricks on how to grasp the top of the shocks better, I'm all ears. With the OME shocks, there was a black plastic boot on top, so I didn't have anything to really clamp too.

Ultimately I got both sides in (picture attached) without too much more drama. Getting the track bar to line up was a bit of a challenge, since it was up on jack stands, I couldn't bounce on it. Like the back, I tried different lift points on the axle to get it lined up.

Here's a picture I took the next day with the completed job (picture attached). I'll take more pictures in the near future.

I took it for a short test drive, and it definitely felt different and better than it had in years.

I still need to do some work to measure to see how balanced it is side to side - both height wise, as well as how off center it is since I didn't put in an adjustable trackbar. I didn't use any spring spacers, and I'd like to keep it that way, so fingers crossed it's level enough. And, I should take it in soon for a full alignment.

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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Post-suspension lift learnings

This was the first time I had ever tackled anything like this. So it was definitely a bit challenging, and I definitely learned a lot mechanically in general, and a ton about Jeep suspension overall.

Some observations:
  • I feel fortunate that I didn't have to contend with any rust on anything. I can only imagine that makes work like this 10x harder.
  • No broken bolts! One was enough for me, and still on the list to get sorted out.
  • No hacks! I was fortunate that I didn't have to do any hacks to get things together.
  • Jeep TJ's are pretty easy to work on overall. Even for a relative novice, I felt I could find my way around with reasonable confidence.
  • Jeep suspensions are amazingly flexible. When I was working on the front end, it was amazing to see how much it could move.
  • Having the body lift and suspension lift definitely allows for more space to work on things underneath.
  • It definitely feels taller than before. Perhaps an obvious observation, but I didn't totally know what to expect.
  • I feel I put the right investments in replacing some aged parts (e.g. body mounts) which help the overall quality.
  • Overall, it still drives like a Jeep, but everything feels tighter overall. Though I didn't take it very far, and I didn't get up to very high speeds, I didn't feel any vibrations.
Still more to do with tires and other adjustments, as well as some engine maintenance, but this phase of my build is shaping up nicely. Definitely looking forward when I can really try it out on the road, and off the road.
 
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Creakydoor

Creakydoor

TJ Enthusiast
Supporting Member
Jul 17, 2018
185
Arvada, Colorado
Steering Stabilizer Installation

My OME kit came with a steering stabilizer. I watched a few YouTube videos on this, and it was pretty straightforward. It's definitely beefier than the stock one.

I had my 11-year old son help me out on this part. Hardest part was getting the press-fit tapered bolt out. The videos had said to use a CV joint spreader, so I did that instead of hammering on it. That ultimately worked well, and when it popped, it startled us both.

Installation was easy overall. Now I have a bright yellow steering stabilizer up front. Not sure about that quite yet because the rest of my jeep is pretty blacked out. But I'll leave it that way for now. Plus, are those things even possible to paint without impacting its functionality?

After having done the other suspension work, this one was a breeze. Test drive and it seemed, well, kinda the same for the short distance I had driven.

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